Missions themselves are diverse, both in terms of their environment and objective. As well as standard kill-everybody-in-the-level kind of stuff (of which there's a fair bit) there are stealth levels, sniper missions and escort sections, among others. Three mini-games based on lock picking, computer hacking and code breaking are scattered throughout most levels too, and vary in their difficulty based on Thorton's proficiencies in sabotage. The first couple of times these are entertaining, but the game relies on them with such frequency that they quickly lose their appeal. The hacking mini-game, which involves matching up static strings of characters located in a grid of ever-changing letters and numbers, is a particular chore. It's like trying to find a nonsensical word in a dynamic wordsearch. And you have to do it every five God-damn minutes.
It's at this point in the review I'm going to ditch the calm tone I've managed to maintain up until now, because my time with Alpha Protocol was frustrating as hell. The shooting mechanics are particularly annoying, made worse by a finicky cover system that never seems to want to let go of you. Even at a reasonable distance, with the reticule hovering perfectly over an enemy's head, it takes five or six shots (often more) to down him. Initially I assumed this was because I hadn't assigned many points to my weapon proficiencies, but even after reallocating some points I had the same problems. In the end, I resorted to playing the game entirely with my fists. Where it took ages to kill anybody with my guns, I could take down an enemy in a matter of seconds with a few well placed punches. Alpha Protocol teaches us that hands are more lethal than guns. Who knew?
Then there are the technical issues; the plethora of graphical mishaps, animation blunders and odd design choices. The frame rate is of particular concern, which drops into oblivion during pivotal moments of a mission. Textures pop in left, right and centre and portals frequently appear in doors and walls, revealing a glimpse at the strange world outside of the developer's jurisdiction. AI is disturbingly last-gen too, especially for a game that relies so heavily on stealth. Enemies often won't notice you're stood right in front of them, and are completely oblivious to the likes of grenades. I honestly think Metal Gear Solid did a better job of artificial intelligence back on the PSone.
Little things annoyed me too, like the awkward position of the camera, which follows Thorton around too closely and at too high an angle. It's a strange criticism to make, but I was always concerned that I couldn't see his feet, which for some reason made me feel uncomfortable. Thorton's sneak animation is comical too, and appears as if he's wandering around trying to conceal an erection. Alpha Protocol generally lacks the polish of a game that's been in development as long as it has. A few people have used the phrase 'rough around the edges' to describe the game in previews, but I'd argue that this is an understatement.
It's a shame, because amid all these problems there are some inspired design choices, like the Perk system. Through meeting certain requirements in conversation or combat, Thorton's handlers might see fit to award him a perk. There's an extensive list of these perks, which range from stat bonuses to reductions on the black market. More often than not these fit in with the way you choose to play the game, and compliment Thorton's personality traits. Dossiers can also be collected on all of the characters in the game, which might help influence how you decide to treat them in conversation. The fact that you can do your own research on contacts and handlers outside of missions adds further conviction to the player's role as a spy.
On paper, Alpha Protocol sounds incredibly alluring, combining the best elements of the role-playing and action genres with a refreshing concept. In executing that concept, however, the game falls apart at the seams. Ignoring the dialogue system, Obsidian's latest plays like a substandard third-person shooter. Despite its myriad of shortcomings there's a moderate amount of fun to be had with Alpha Protocol. It's a game that's more enjoyable than it probably should be, a game that's better than the sum of its parts. There's a lot of potential hiding under the flawed shell, and although Obsidian has failed to coax it out this time around, I hope somebody does the concept justice in the future.