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.

I finished playing Dragon Age Origins a little while ago. It’s a great game, squarely set in a Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy world - a sprawling RPG adventure with dozens of subplots, villainous Darkspawn baddies (picture Chaos Orcs) and entertaining sidekicks with top comedy banter.

My one disappointment with the game was that I didn’t get to hit stuff with a sword. To be clear, my characters were hitting plenty of stuff, just not as a result of me pressing the controls – rather they got on with fighting all on their own in an automatic system reminiscent of the ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ Star Wars game. You get to pause the action to trigger special abilities, but the hacking and slashing just carries on with the game making virtual dice rolls to see how successful you are. It left me feeling somewhat removed from the fighting, playing on an abstract level rather than being in the thick of the action. 

This is what led me to play a Mage character. To be fair, I tend to play a magic-user in any fantasy game because, well, they just get to do all the coolest effects. But usually, it’s a difficult choice swayed by personal preference – in this game there was really no contest. The fighty characters use up their handful of special abilities in the first few seconds of the fight, leaving you little to do but watch them swing away. The wizardly types, meanwhile, build up to having a massive array of magical pyrotechnics, and with the aid of a few potions, you can carry on zapping, burning and freezing right through the fight.

All of which brings me on to the hats. As with practically all RPGs, the armour and other gear you wear improves your abilities. Now of course, with a traditional dice-and-paper roleplaying game, these items make your character look just as cool, dashing and stylish as your imagination allows. However, in a computer game, you’re in the hands of the designers. In Dragon Age, the armour and weapons for the heavy hitters are a bit over-sized (World of Warcraft style), but decent enough to be seen in down the local dungeon. Unfortunately the design of all the wizarding kit is quite frankly a bit embarrassing. Especially the hats. I was left with the irritating feeling that I really had to wear the tassel-covered outfits and lampshade headgear because of the hefty in-game bonuses, but was cringing the whole time because it looked like I belonged in the front room of a fashion-challenged old age pensioner.

Rule vs cool

Good games design should reward you for doing something cool, not punish you by making the rules more favourable if you do something less cool. In many cases this comes down to making all the choices of equal value, so the player can genuinely make his own decision. Now this kind of game balance is not easy, and is rarely perfect. Many of us have played first person shooters where a sniper rifle is the best way to win despite being the most boring way to play. And many will have witnessed Warhammer Daemon armies, carefully themed to Khorne, Slaanesh or Nurgle, except for the  units of Flamers (because they’re such a bargain, you’d be silly not to field them). In the case of Dragon Age the imbalance is not with the rules but the cool factor – something like the choice of whether or not to field historical miniatures painted with the wrong uniforms.

Now I’ve spent some time pointing out faults with this game, but I played it and enjoyed it to the end – and it’s a really long game. I strongly recommend it if you can, as I did, put up with a few silly hats. It’s just that I’m sure those Darkspawn were sniggering at me behind their shields before I fried them alive.

Leave a comment and let me know your own experiences of rule vs cool.

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