Sunday, 14 October 2012

Alpha Protocol: Game Design Review

Alpha Protocol is billed as a Spy RPG and was released to somewhat disappointing reviews averaging around 70%. I recently played (and replayed it) and thought I'd share my thoughts on this game.

What I liked:
Dialogue system- All dialogue in Alpha Protocol has a time limit in the game and generally revolves around three responses. In place of the usual good, neutral and evil responses in similar games you instead get a professional response, a suave response and an aggressive response each modelled around the spy/agent archetypes Bourne, Bond and Bauer respectively. New options will sometimes open up new actions depending on the overall personality you choose.

As a result, the dialogue systems feels much more realistic when compared to Bioware RPGs such as Mass Effect. with its standard Good response, Neutral response or the Evil response. Too often the Good response is just too unrealistically nice while the Evil response is just an angry rude response rather than evil.

The resulting effect is a dialogue system which is a mini-game in itself and like any good RPG certain responses can and do effect how the story unfolds, sometimes in unexpected ways!

Perks- Just about everything you do will earn you perks which either give you more points to spend on your character or other bonuses. What's awesome is just about every major or minor decision you make has a perk attached to it. For example, being suave in your initially responses in the game nets you a bonus while being aggressive nets you a different bonus. If you keep tossing grenades, you'll earn a perk that makes you better at using grenades. If you keep evading guards or knocking them out, you'll earn perks as well. Similarly, if you decide to talk your way through guards rather than fighting them, you'll get a different perk. This rewards different play styles and choices and emphasies that there is no "wrong" choice; just interesting choices to make.

Meaningful choices creating different story- Almost every single choice you make has a consequence of some sort from a change in dialogue to potentially opening up new dialogue. The characters in the game will remember your choices even something as simple as what mission order you accomplish the missions in is mentioned! Its little touches like this that make the game much more memoriable, personalised and 'yours'.

Intel system- There's an system where you can build up a profile of factions and individuals allowing you to undercover their background, how they work, secret facts and damage bonuses! I love this system because it rewards people who try to find every bit of information aside from just simply giving you more items. It isn't very complex unfortunately.

Game design problems
The overacrching issue is that desite using the Unreal engine, the action and RPG elements don't necessarily mesh very well.

2 weapons only- You can't even pick up weapons that enemies drop. Personally I thought they should have allowed you to at least swap weapons in a weapons locker or something mid-level.

Stealth- The problem with the stealth in the game is the fact that it's billed as 'spy' game. When most players think Secret agent/Spy RPG, the first thing you want to do is sneak around like all movie spies do. This is in fact the wrong thing to do! The stealth isn't actually bad in the game but becuse of its RPG approach to the game, you have to sink points into it and wear stealthy clothing/equipment. Otherwise opponents will hear you. If you choose to improve your character's stealth, you'll get activatable stealth abilities such as going invisible and running silently. However the stealth ability is the most expensive out of all the abilities regardless of what class you choose! As a result I consider the stealth portion of the game imbalanced.

Killing everyone with the alarming going off as opposed to sneaking past them is a completely legitimate choice in the game and it won't really affect the overall outcome too much. In fact I found that charging in shooting everyone with loud guns and lots of grenades before they could trigger the alarm an extremely effective tactic.

Furthermore, you actually have to spend points in the stealth ability before you can get the 'enemy detection status' ability which tells you where the enemies are and if they've spotted you! And it's initially an activated special ability lasting only for 30 second before having to be recharged!

Initial missions can be a bit off-putting for players which was one reason why I stopped playing initially before recently picking it back up again.

Personally I think there are several ways to solve this problem with stealth:
1) Introduce better gameplay mechanics or abilities to assist stealth in the game such as making stealth cheaper and give the player a standard 'enemy detection' ability at the start of the game!
2) Remind the player that experimentation is fine and that there are no bad choice: Stealth is okay but equally running and taking out enemies before they sound the alarm is also an okay tactic
3) Create levels are larger and make stealth easier.
4) Reward stealthy approaches more through more story and experience points.

Console controls feel way more natural- Tried playing with a keyboard and mouse but they felt a bit stiff. Fortunately I do own a Xbox 360 gamepad which I plugged in and it felt more natural that way.

Ability selection needs tweaking- To change special abilities you enter the ability menu, select the ability and then return back to the game and activate it making it difficult to actually chain abilities together. Most RPG would allow to assign hot buttons/keys and considering how small the actual pool of abilities, this interface is way too clunky. This needs to be fixed.

Needs more variety and missions- Unfortunately despite your choices change the way the story is told, the majority of most missions are exactly the same regardless and you play the exact same missions. For example, in one mission I sided with one faction and got one introduction, in the same mission when I replayed it I chose another faction and got a different introduction. The actual mission played out the same except my supporting friendlies were different. Yes there were some minor differences but the amount of different content but it wasn't different enough for me especially on your third playthrough.

As far as I can tell there is only one different mission you can unlock in the game otherwise its pretty much the same.

Undistinct- I like the idea of this being set in modern times but it looks like a poorer version of other shooters and you'd think from the screenshots you were playing a poor version of a generic FPS. I think setting it in a slightly more futuristic setting with some interesting or cool looking tech might go a long way to making it more interesting. I mean he is a secret agent, so why not have some interesting spy gadgets rather than just boring grenades and guns?

Larger playing fields- A consequence of being developed also as a console game like a lot of other games is that the environemnts are very small. This game could really benefit from larger environments.

Overall I played Alpha Protocol 3 times trying to see how my decisions affect the story which goes to show how much I enjoyed it despite its flaws. Don't expect metal gear solid or your standard action game. Approach instead as an RPG action game. I feel very disappointed that there won't be a sequel because I think there's lots to explore in the backstory as well as going forward. Considering how cheap it is now, there isn't really any reason not to play it if like story driven RPGs. Hopefully Obsidian will be able to take its innovations and continue them in other RPGs.

Non-Xbox 360 controllers- If you have more than one controller such as a non-xbox 360 controller, you may find that the controls don't quite work as planned. You'll need to unplug all non-Xbox 360 controllers.

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