I’ve just finished playing through Alpha Protocol ‘the espionage RPG’. Straight away I have to wonder why they chose such a meaningless title that a sub-header was needed before anyone would know what the game was about. I suppose they were going for an ‘Ipcress File’/‘Bourne Identity’ kind of vibe, but it just ended up sounding bland. A bad day in the marketing department, and not the only one on this game…

The game has a second subtitle: ‘your weapon is choice’ which in my head can only be followed by “Tea or coffee, sir?” “Ow, no, that hurts!” “Sugar?” “Aaaaaaah!” Fortunately the trailer makes this idea a lot more exciting. It shows the lead character, a standard spy/action hero type named Michael Thorton, interrogating a bad guy by dangling him upside-down off the roof of a tower block, only to spot henchman reinforcements arriving in the road below, followed quickly by the appearance of a helicopter gunship. The trailer runs through the various options available to Thorton: 1. Charge down the stairs and kick the goons in the head. 2. Throw smoke grenades into the air vents, triggering a fire alarm and escaping in the crowd of civilians. 3. Drop the original bad guy to his death, stuffed with grenades, onto the henchmen’s car below. Finally, we go with option 4: the helicopter lands on the roof so the co-pilot can get out and check Original Bad Guy, who is now tied to a chair. Then the gunship takes off – Thorton has his pistol to the pilot’s head, and forces him to fire missiles at the co-pilot and OBG.

It’s a cool trailer. The trouble is, the only one of these choices you actually get to do in the game is kicking people in the head. There’s no dangling people off rooftops, no stealing helicopters, and no civilians anywhere to blend into. Your choices in the main content of the game really boil down to shooting or sneaking. Now don’t get me wrong, it was certainly entertaining enough making these decisions. On the whole I ended up skulking around, taking down guards with my silenced pistol until I got spotted and had to finish off the rest in a fire-fight. There were frequently different routes possible, but this felt like a token effort to give an impression of freedom – they were always small detours to the same chokepoint, keeping you on a fundamentally linear path through each mission. I felt all the more restricted by the fact that there is no way to jump up onto anything, so my elite super-agent was regularly fenced in on the ‘correct’ path by a knee-high cardboard box that a 3 year-old could have got over.

Conversation with other characters is likewise no more full of choice than most RPGs these days, with your options pretty much being nice, nasty or smug. Your interactions lead to gaining different handlers talking in your ear during missions, occasionally different enemies to kill and allies to lend a hand (well, their clothes had changed). However, the missions themselves are never substantially different, and while there is some choice about the order you complete things, it doesn’t seem to have much effect – you play through all the missions eventually.

I wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t like Alpha Protocol. It’s an entertaining spy-thriller romp, with good action and a suitably twisty-turny plot, and I’d recommend it on that basis. No, my gripe is with the marketing that made me expect so much more – a game where you had some genuinely inventive freedom. When the product doesn’t live up to the hype, you are just left feeling a bit disappointed.

Oh, one other little peeve: why, when the main character is sneaking, does he have to look like he desperately needs to urinate? Play it and you’ll see what I mean.

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