Alpha Protocol is one of those games that manages to eloquently teach you not to look forward to games too much. Video after trailer after dev-diary got sent down the pipe, and despite the game getting a significant delay from its original launch date, and despite the subtle shift in the flavour of those trailers (seriously, at one portion the game was all Jason Bourne and James Bond having some weird love-child, and then the next it was all about comedic yet buxom German arms dealers), we still couldn't wait to get into the game.
Even our short, PR-led preview of the game got us all excited, and ready to rush home and play.
So what in the name of Jack Bauer happened to make us literally rage-quit in the middle of the game?
Harder boiled than thou
Alpha Protocol is, ostensibly, a spy RPG. Think Mass Effect crossed with the Bourne films, and you've got a good idea.
You take the role of Michael Thorton, and like ME, there's a lot of early choices in Thorton's background that lets you really build an interesting character. You can be a field agent, a tech guy, or a soldier, and each choice affects your spread of skills, and some of your early interactions. You can also choose to be a Freelancer, someone who does odd jobs from merc to sniper to whatever - with this choice you get to choose your initial skill-spread. It's an interesting addition, though it was also our first feeling that some of the layers of choice in the game were a touch... artificial.
Interestingly, you can also choose what part of your career you're in - you might be a rookie, and then get certain choices and dialogue lines in the early game, or you can be a veteran, and get a slightly different feel. It's a nice touch, this story-based character-building, and it really helps you get start getting a feel for your take on Thorton even before the game begins.
Which is good, because the game begins very hard and fast, as you wake up from a drugged stupor and have to fight your way past armed guards out of a mysterious facility.
Even from the outset, red herrings, in true spy story style, abound, and it takes a little while for you to work out what's what. But eventually you learn you've been recruited into Alpha Protocol, a clandestine group so secret that it is the ultimate in deniable operations - the kind of group that can do what other clandestine groups cannot.
It's pretty standard fare, truth be told, and from the outset the game's voice-acting - or more accurately, voice-recording - isn't doing the AP any favours. No matter the environment, everyone sounds like they're talking inside a big empty room. That said, while some characters are cookie-cutter standard ("Ah, the smarmy tech guy! And here's the stern African American who'd be played by Morgan Freeman!"), others, like the analyst you meet early on, seem a lot more well drawn and voiced.
For what it's worth, there's hundreds of hours of dialogue in the game, so that counts for something. And the dialogue comes with a lot of interesting choices. AP runs on what the devs called the three JBs, based off of the three iconic spies I've mentioned already in this article - typically you'll have a professional option, a suave option, or an aggressive one to choose from, as well as the occasionally funny one or something else. Different characters respond to different stimuli, very similar to Mass Effect, but instead of your choices affecting your own overall moral stance, your relationship with that character is tracked.