If Alpha Protocol were another Gears Of War clone or an Uncharted knockoff, its mediocrity would be less of a letdown. The disappointment of playing Protocol is proportional to its conceptual brilliance: It’s an epic espionage operation in which you dictate the spy’s style—trigger-happy or stoic, cocky or cordial—and your approach affects the story’s progression in powerful ways. In conversations and at critical crossroads, you make snap decisions from a menu that generally hews to a “suave/aggressive/all-business” framework. The ripple effects threaten to make Mass Effect look constrained by comparison—you’d have to finish the game a number of times to uncover all possible outcomes. But it only takes one play to see all the ways Protocol drops the ball.
The Alpha Protocol agency feels like a top-secret spy outfit the same way an after-school Model UN club feels like a crucible of diplomacy. There’s little urgency. Colleagues dick around on e-mail and whine about their jobs. Your character, the unpleasant smart-aleck Michael Thorton, is similarly nonchalant, never letting his mission—uncovering a corporate conspiracy to create a new world order—get in the way of a lame wisecrack.
The vaunted conversation tree offers some nice surprises, but doesn’t live up to its billing. Rather than letting players forge their own style, Protocol encourages you to make your conversation partner “like” you as indicated by pop-up graphics. So each encounter turns into a game of emotional whack-a-mole as you adjust your responses to the other guy’s whims. You can make people hate you, sure, but that yields scant advantage. It’s clear Thorton wants all the terrorists, crime bosses, and corrupt executives on earth to join his drum circle of friendship.
Protocol flops hardest in its action sequences. The convoluted controls never feel natural; even switching guns is a clumsy chore. The camera pushes in too close, limiting your vision. And the behavior of your bumbling enemies can hardly be called “artificial intelligence.” The game complements their Keystone Kops hijinks with hilarious graphical glitches, like Day-Glo madness glittering across the hero’s torso, or an entire mansion wing disappearing altogether. Moments like these—not the less-frequent flashes of ingenuity—define the tone of Alpha Protocol, a game daunted by its potential and resigned to falling short.