Skip to main content

Cult-classic Alpha Protocol is back from the dead – here are 5 lessons it can teach modern action games

Obsidian Entertainment's legendary (and infamous) espionage thriller, Alpha Protocol, has returned to digital storefronts, but is it still worth playing?

A header image for Alpha Protocol, stating the game's name with a blurred background featuring a spy holding a gun to someone's head, with monitors all around him.
Image credit: VG247/GoG

After spending years trapped in the gaming purgatory of expired licences, cult-classic espionage-thriller Alpha Protocol is back from the dead, once again available for purchase on GOG.

It might be bruised and bearded like Pierce Brosnan at the start of Die Another Day, visually showing its age like most games from the 360/PS3 era, but underneath the muddy textures and outdated Unreal Engine jank lies the same sophistication that built both Obsidian Entertainment and Alpha Protocol’s legendary reputation.

Playing Alpha Protocol now, it’s immediately obvious why it’s simultaneously considered an unplayable flop by some and one the best games of all time by others (including many of the more elderly members of the VG247 team). It’s a unique mix of unabashed, unbelievably reactive roleplay and disconnected, incongruent gameplay mechanics.

Everything’s an RPG now, with inconsequential loot, magical trousers and damage numbers dripping off of enemies like sweat off a boxer in just about every game. But while it was ultimately unsuccessful both critically and commercially, Alpha Protocol laid a truly incredible blueprint for how to marry RPG mechanics and action in a way I wish was more influential on gaming as a whole.

We grit our teeth through janky old games for the vibes all the time - the recent Metal Gear Solid Master Collection comes to mind - but Alpha Protocol is one of the best of that genre, easily. With the distance of time (and without the investment of a full-price purchase), some of the more baffling aspects of the moment-to-moment become a lot funnier, while the warrenlike branches of its labyrinthine story are as impressive as they ever were.

If you’re an Obsidian fan, love Mass Effect, or can’t wait for IO’s upcoming James Bond game, then Alpha Protocol is an essential curio with a lot to teach modern games, both good and bad.

RPGs have more mechanics than numbers

Michael Thornton in Alpha Protocol and the various stats you can increase throughout the game.
Numbers, yes, but also mechanics. | Image credit: GoG

Crucially, on its original release Alpha Protocol was billed as “the espionage RPG”, bringing together Obsidian’s lauded narrative direction and the spectacle action of an Uncharted or Gears of War.

But if you contrast what makes Alpha Protocol an “RPG” compared to how that idea is used with current AAA live service games like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, you’d think it was something totally different.

With those games there’s a fixation on numbers over narrative, an endless appetite to give you +3.7% cold damage resistance but no drive to give you meaningful motivation or agency in the world you’re supposed to be roleplaying in.

Alpha Protocol is the antithesis of that. You can give your shotgun +2 accuracy if you want, but the focus is on characters, interpersonal relationships, and the boggling amount of permutations that can arise from any given conversation.

It’s not just as binary as choosing to kill or spare the baddie at the end of the mission though, with how much you’re liked by different factions and characters being governed not just by what you say, but also what you do as well.

The legacy of Alpha Protocol is that this level of detail is possible within the framework of an action game, even if it didn’t fare so well on this outing.

Simulation doesn’t always trump utility

The main character in Alpha Protocol dives backwards, firing his gun.
If it takes five seconds to aim your gun, headshots should kill. | Image credit: GoG

However, while Alpha Protocol’s effort to provide compelling and immersive simulation with narrative that bleeds into every part of the experience is commendable, there’s no defeating the fact that it feels maddeningly, hilariously terrible to play.

The first time you zoom in a pistol and the reticle shrinks less than the British economy, it beggars belief. It’s hard not to get giddy as the seconds tick by while the critical hit target fades into view slower than meaningful action on climate change.

I was very ready for this to be some cerebral creative decision to simulate the actual difficulty of using firearms in the real world, pushing back on the point-and-shoot perception we’ve absorbed from action flicks. But if that’s the case then why does wearing a balaclava mean a dude can tank a headshot?

There are so many instances of this throughout Alpha Protocol. One I’m torn on is where conversation options whip past at such a rapid pace (making it feel more like you’re actually having an off the cuff conversation) that if you glance away to check the time on your phone you’ve already auto-selected the dialogue to tell your boss he’s a knob and don’t want any ice cream after dinner, thank you.

As much as modern games can learn from the great things that Alpha Protocol does, I also think there’s a huge amount to learn from what it does poorly, and that’s mostly in the gameplay that feels detached from both the moment-to-moment narrative and the worldbuilding more generally.

First impressions matter

Two characters in Alpha Protocol, framed like prestige television.
Is it me, or is this framed like prestige TV? | Image credit: GoG

Further on that, I think one of the main things that led to Alpha Protocol’s poor reception was that, because of the gameplay wonkiness, it makes such a terrible first impression.

The game opens with the classic action movie cliche of breaking out of a secure hospital only to find out it was a test all along. But ultimately it just ends up as a quite limited set of small rooms where you bump into all of Alpha Protocol’s shonkier parts all at once.

Later on, there are so many great missions where you’re infiltrating luxury hotels, bouncing off and trading quips with multiple sassy handlers and allies and getting a heck of a lot closer to the Bond and Bourne-esque vibe Obsidian was going for.

I feel like if some of this narrative flair could have been communicated more quickly, instead of going straight into a tutorial that shows off the worst aspects of the game, maybe that good will would’ve gotten it further. Perhaps you could’ve played through the assassination mission that got you invited to Alpha Protocol like the black and white part of Daniel Craig’s first Bond outing, Casino Royale?

But either way, Alpha Protocol has a very slow start, which is something we still see all the time.

Reactive roleplay can lead to reactive gameplay, not just story

A spy in Alpha Protocol makes a decision – choosing between Aggressive, Joking, Direct, and Draw Gun.
The choice is yours. | Image credit: GoG

But going back to what Alpha Protocol does well, I think that a lot of games are worried about implementing more narrative focused RPG mechanics because of spiralling ramifications that all need to be planned for. It doesn’t need to be like that though.

One of the quirkiest and most ingenious things Alpha Protocol does is to give your role-playing decisions practical consequences.

From your safehouse, you can purchase intel on upcoming missions, set up meetings with potential new allies and dish out bribes to alter the world state of the scenarios you end up playing through. This is done from an in-game computer where you can read and reply to emails from colleagues and buy weapons, clothing and ammo.

So, while you’re roleplaying an agent engaging in espionage, researching opposing factions and preparing for your next sortie, the maps you buy and guards you pay off have a tangible effect on the next level you play, adding an extra layer of immersion and a proper reason to fully engage with the narrative system.

Have a long memory for the small details

A man stands, wielding a knife, in Alpha Protocol.
This guy will remember that. | Image credit: GoG

Then finally, from a more overarching narrative sense, Alpha Protocol is nothing if not completely dedicated to what it does best. It’s littered with tiny callbacks to earlier dialogue choices, mission outcomes and even fashion choices.

So when I was playing Alpha Protocol for the first time now, I couldn’t help but contrast that with an experience I’d had recently with a game that in so many ways has the exact opposite problems to Alpha Protocol, Starfield.

In as spoiler-free terms as possible, at one point in Starfield’s main story a major character dies. But in-universe, I just so happened to be married to that character. In that situation you would think my character would be quite upset, right?

It didn’t come up once.

If there’s one way to yank a player out of an RPG’s immersion, it’s not honouring their character-shaping decisions. But, unlike some of its wilder diversions, Alpha Protocol shows that this doesn’t necessarily need to be some kind of sweeping thing. Even little tidbits say “I see you” and are a lot of fun.

I wish more games were cognisant of the choices they do let you make, because, even if they’re not vital to story progress or a branching narrative, they do so much to make a game’s world feel authentic and help its characters to break out of feeling like animatronics and get into a space where they feel more like someone with presence and real motivations.

Alpha Protocol is available now via GOG, after being unavailable to purchase for some time. This article was written based off code provided by GOG for the new release.

Read this next