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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Alpha Protocol.

Transcript Edit

There have been many RPGs that let you define your character's personality to a certain extent. Say you're given a quest to get a schoolgirl's cat down from a tree. On average, you'll be given three options: neutral, where you get the cat down and accept the schoolgirl's allowance as payment; good, where you waive the fee and fondly tousle the schoolgirl's hair as she scampers off; and asshole, where you set fire to the tree and jump up and down on the schoolgirl's face.

And speaking as an asshole, this offends me. There are so many wonderful ways to be a complete ponce that these games rarely cater for. Why can't I rescue the cat but hold it to ransom for her dad's porn collection? Or get the cat down by throwing rocks at it so it breaks all its legs on the concrete and then still expect to be paid, with the infuriatingly infallible logic of a complete tosser? Why can't there be an RPG that covers the entire dickhead spectrum? Well, good news, ponce fans: now there is!

Alpha Protocol follows Mike Thorton, a member of a covert U.S. government agency with strong ties to a private military company that might as well rename itself Kitten Stranglers PLC. He gets betrayed, goes rogue, has to work alone to build a case against them, blahdee blahdee blah. But what's important is that however you play him Mike Thorton is the ponciest ponce that ever ponced past a poncing parlour.

The dialogue system lets you switch between three attitudes: a professional, by the book sort of ponce who wouldn't emote if the angel Gabriel blow off in his face; an aggressive ponce who sounds like he's five seconds away from snarlingly flipping the global crisis onto its front and pounding away at its netherhole with a Franchi SPAS-12; and the suave ponce, who might as well just save time and mace himself every time he opens his fucking mouth. Best of all, even if he only ever talked about his favorite breakfast cereal, he'd still sound like a wanker, because the voice actor delivers every line in the level, smug tones of a highbrow film critic archly dismissing the latest superhero blockbuster as he spoons himself another helping of baby seal.

Let's get the good over with quickly. For once, this is a game that claims that "every action has consequences" and actually means a consequence more significant than a character maybe wearing a different hat. For example, although the hub-based mission system lets you do the operations in any order, during the one I chose to do last an informant mentioned the previous operations I'd completed in conversation. "Fuck," I said, "this game's just showing off now." So I immediately became an aggressive ponce and slammed his head into a desk. After which, there was more security in my next mission because the informant went crying to his big brother or something.

The RPG action stuff reminded me of Deus Ex - in a good way. It's nice to see a game where your character has to work on their gun skills and can't expect to draw their pistol and immediately hit the on button on a tumble dryer from nine hundred yards. And I was also impressed by the lockpicking and hacking minigames, which nicely balance skill and incremental difficulty, and I can't think of a joke for that sentence, so here's a picture of a dog in a hat.

The thing about Deus Ex, though, was that you could arguably specialize completely in combat or stealth or hacking or playing the cello and still beat the game. Even the final encounter had equal parts monsters, security systems, and incomplete string quartets to allow any approach. Alpha Protocol, on the other hand, is happy to let you sink all your points into learning to waltz only to find yourself stuck in an unavoidable freestyle disco competition. I was a stealth/close combat specialist, and there was this particularly obnoxious boss fight that I couldn't sneak out of and whose CQC attacks wrecked my shit. I had to inexpertly spray at him with an assault rifle I knew as much about as I did a fucking nuclear reactor, then whenever he got his knives out let him chase me around the room like Benny fucking Hill!

The skills you can upgrade are stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and then four kinds of guns, which I feel makes little sense. Why the fuck would anyone specialise in shotguns when a shotgun is a situational weapon? What are you gonna do if there's an enemy more than ten feet away, throw your shoes at him?

The dialogue system gives you about one second to pick a conversational attitude that is summed up in one word, and it's often hard to decipher. You might be talking to a sexy lady, for e.g., when suddenly an option comes up reading, say, "Trousers." And there's no way of knowing if this means the poncemaster general will change the conversation to the subject of trousers or draw attention to a specific pair of trousers sneaking up behind them or whatever. So you select it out of panic, whereupon El Ponco promptly pulls his trousers down and slaps his bum while mooing like a lost calf, spoiling your reputation with the character somewhat.

Dialogue seems a bit buggy at times, too, which I guess is inevitable with conversation trees as labyrinthine as this. There was a moment when I was gabbing away with another sexy lady when the option came up to initiate a quick knobbing, which went down reasonably well. Then afterwards she started repeating dialogue lines she'd been spouting beforehand. "Wow," I thought, "I literally fucked her brain out!"

There are a couple of other bugs here and there, like how the distinction between a wall you can take cover on and the ones with ponce-repellent wallpaper is known only to Mr. Thorton. But none of them got in the way too much, because after a while my stealth skill was so high I could literally turn invisible and run around insta-killing every possible threat with my bare hands. And nothing could pose a challenge after that, short of the invention of some kind of ponce-seeking missile.

All in all, Alpha Protocol is weak and poorly balanced, like a three-legged dog with an eating disorder. But I want to come back to the story for a bit. You know that extremely brief summary I gave about five paragraphs ago? That's literally the extent of the plot I understood. The rest was an incomprehensible miasma of factions, motivations, and betrayals, through which I was just dumbly acting with zero understanding. Towards the end, a line of dialogue got drowned out just before a boss encounter, and I honestly didn't know if I was supposed to be killing or protecting the guy. Maybe this would be helped through repeat playthroughs; oh, Sega, you crafty bitches!

But what I do know is that the overarching story is about a PMC that is secretly evil, a plot that I think has only been used about fifty or sixty times. What has the games industry got against PMCs? Is it the murder for profit thing? Oh, like you're perfect, games industry. At least war profiteers never put back the Australian release of Mario Galaxy 2 to early July!

AddendaEdit

The microfilm is in his pants: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

Glasses, flat cap and full beard? Are we doing covert operations in Yorkshire, now?

Remember the three JB's: James Bond, Jack Bauer and John Barrowman


ScreenshotsEdit

Alpha Protocol 1

Asshole, where you set fire to the tree

Alpha Protocol 2

Spoiling your reputation with the character somewhat

Alpha Protocol 3

Nothing could pose a challenge after that

External LinksEdit

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
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2008
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2009
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2010
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2011 - 2014
2011
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2012
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2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
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2014
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Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata

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