Alpha Protocol Is The Great RPG Of The Last Generation

Alpha Protocol Is The Great RPG Of The Last Generation

In the “objective video game review” sense, Alpha Protocol is pretty much the worst. It’s super irritating to play, and every time I speak with somebody from Obsidian, the studio that made it, they just shake their head. But on the Phil Owen “Was This A Big Waste Of Time?” Scale, however, Alpha Protocol comes out on the good end every time I go back to it.

When it was released five years ago, everybody hated it. Like, it was so widely disliked that whenever I tweet about it being the best game ever people think I’m making a joke. But I’m not. I’m serious. Deadly serious. Let’s talk about why I like the janky, buggy mess so much.

-It’s very short. If you look at HowLongToBeat, you’ll see the average completion time is like 13 hours. And people on the forums and in Steam reviews often claim it’s upwards of 20. Those estimates are largely incorrect, though I suppose if you go full stealth it will lengthen the game. My normal playthroughs of Alpha Protocol, though, are under eight hours. The key there is to always always always play on easy, because that minimises the irritation of the brokenness of the “game stuff.”

What makes Alpha Protocol great isn’t stealth karate chopping or shooting bad guys anyway. Like all the great Bioware RPGs, the “gameplay” is what you suffer through to get to the good stuff.

The ways the game changes based on how to treat people and the tactics you use during missions are super interesting, and make the game feel worth playing multiple times. There are major characters you might never even meet if you play the missions in a certain order. This is why it’s good that the game is so short — the longer a game is, the more prohibitive it is to play more than once, which is clearly a bad thing for games which have “branching story = replay value” as a marketing hook (coughMass Effectcough). When I played Alpha Protocol for review at FileFront back in the day, I played it through three times. That’s the only time I’ve done that in my career writing about games.

It has the most hilarious RPG protagonist ever. Alpha Protocol‘s dialogue wheel is tone-based, and player character Mike Thorton has three tones: super dull and matter of fact, humongous impatient arsehole and smarmy piece of shit. It’s incredible. You can play it like “this is just what Mike is like” by picking the same one every time or you can use the different tones as affected spy personas, but either way this system which at first comes off as limiting turns out to be far more fun than more robust or straightforward dialogue systems in other games.

Much to my surprise, Alpha Protocol has seen a pretty remarkable public perception turnaround lately. It was widely maligned upon release, but on Steam right now the user review consensus is “very positive” and if you type “alpha protocol is” into Google you’ll get some surprising suggestions.

It’s so good people still want to pirate it!

And before you tell me about how you’ll never have time to play Alpha Protocol with that backlog you’ve got, remember this: it’s way shorter than that Witcher game you still haven’t finished.


  • Completely disagree. I keep trying to get into this game since it’s the only type of this RPG I have yet to finish, but everytime the boring gameplay and wooden dialogue keep making me quit.

  • This is a fantastic game & like Nier around the same time, I couldn’t understand the hate at all.

    Such fun!

  • I remember playing this when it first came out and played it through once. I really didn’t have a problem with it, sure it wasn’t fantastic but I did have fun with it. Going full stealth until you messed up then blazing through is about as good as those sort of games get.

    I’ve put down the controller on games that were much better received critically, so I’d say that’s a plus for it.

  • I agree it was a brilliant game. The concept of the game and the execution of the story deserves more recognition.

    If only it had a bigger budget and more development time so it would have had more solid gameplay and been the game it was supposed to be.

  • Alpha Protocol is just downright bloody fantastic. I bought into the hype when it was announced, and have never been disappointed during any play through.

    It filled the gaping spy-game hole that Syphon Filter has left behind and Splinter Cell never quite managed to plug.

  • I absoultely loved Alpha Protocol. It’s one of my favourite games from the last generation.

    And also one of a very small list of games that I immediately started a new game upon finishing it.

  • It’s not THE great RPG of last gen *cough-lost-odyssey-xenoblade-vesperia-cough* but it had a lot going for it.

  • I guess i must have been playing a different Alpha Protocol to you guys above. It was a fantastic “physically disabled, palsied, smarmy asshole in a repititious, broken reality simulator”, i guess… If you could recommend a good combination of drugs that fools my brain into thinking this 3rd rate trash isnt a waste of time and $, plz do so.

  • broken in parts.. ie pistols are so unbalanced they break the game but still i whole heartedly agree its the best game for demonstrating choice in a rpg and one of my fave games ever that i now have to reinstall because of you

  • Don’t get me wrong, it had it’s problems, but as a story driven adventure – every choice matters kind of game, it’s great.

    Finished the game, then when back 18 months later and replayed it. Still awesome.

  • “Let’s talk about why I like the janky, buggy mess so much.”

    The mere fact you can admit its a buggy mess made me want to stop reading right there. What are wrong with people these days, they serve you a broken mess and all you do is look past it… no wonder games come out broken as hell.

    I did stop reading after, “The key there is to always always always play on easy, because that minimizes the irritation of the brokenness of the “game stuff.”

    what the hell, I cannot be the only one who still only buys a game if its in working condition? the conditioning that is already going on for the younger gamers with day one DLC, microtransactions etc and now we have bloggers/writers posting how good X game is if you look past the buggy mess. Really disappointing to see this posted, as Kotaku obviously condones this article.

    • Can’t it be an interesting failure though? The author’s not saying “go out and spend all of your money on this,” he’s saying “Despite it’s flaws, it does some really interesting stuff.”

      Which, from the 2 hours or so I played of Alpha protocol, is a fair assessment.

      • got and interesting topic going…And yes you make a solid point, and so do the others, with some “classics” being janky messes also. prime examples being fallout and skyrim… which I do not own, but cannot deny that they have fantastic aspects.

        Also Your comment got me thinking about the whole video game is art, art can be flawed… While a game like assassins creed unity is unacceptable in its buggyness games like the Witcher 1/2 and to a lesser degree 3 seem to get a free pass. Metro 2033 had its problems and was referred to as a flawed masterpiece by many.

        On another note should a company like Obsidian be held to the same standard as a massive company like EA or Ubi, and is does doing something new and different like Alpha Protocol give you more room for error i.e. buggyness compared to Cod 6 or assassins creed 7 etc. Much like movies, the quality and leeway you give a film depends on what it is, you expect a certain quality from a mainstream blockbuster compared to a independent film.

        I also agree with the comment below pointing out ports as a bigger issue, as an example the xbox version might play fine but the PC version plays like crap…

        And with all of this information should we still actively support these games?… Does that give devs the impression its fine to release this type of quality?

    • You know all those “CLASSIC” games that everyone remembers fondly from years ago? Yeah, they were all janky, buggy messes as well. But it doesn’t stop people from declaring how great they are.

      I think the real issues are with the PC port. Playing the 360 version, there weren’t really any major issues that I encountered at all. The only actual “bug” I recall running into was when I did the American embassy mission, in the wash-up afterwards they were convinced that I’d killed a bunch of Americans when I’d made damn sure I didn’t kill a single one – although I may have rendered a few of them unconscious and hid them in a safe place. Oh, wait, there was another mission where I stealthed all the way through the mansion yet my handler (and the end cutscene) were convinced that I’d been running through firing from the hip and tossing grenades willy nilly. These are hardly gamebreaking bugs.

      There were game *design* issues, that’s for sure. Some of the bosses suck, some of the combat sequences are gimmicky and somewhat annoying, but hell, I could point to the same kind of issues (if not worse) in games that are universally praised as ZOMG BEST GAEM EVAR.

      Owen is right. Alpha Protocol was a genuinely great game. I rarely go back and replay games, but Alpha Protocol actually delivers on its playthroughs feeling different because of the choices the player makes.

    • you do realise that fallout 3, New Vegas, Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind and S.T.A.l.K.E.R. SoC are also complete buggy messes as well right, and yet despite the bugs and “jankiness” they are all great games. Hell ill go even further and state that Saints Row 2 PC port was worse than the Dark Souls PC Port and yet they were infinately fun great games

      • This is true.

        This is also why we get all these buggy games coming out perhaps on the hope that it will be the next ‘classic, so buggy its cool/unique fallout game’

        We should be letting them know as a consumer, this is unacceptable. Instead of embracing it.

        • Doesn’t this happen anyway?

          Something comes out as a buggy broken mess, developers apologise and then work on patches to fix the issues and gamebreaking bugs that they couldn’t find during testing. Keep in mind that for a lot of the big publishers, a significant portion of the testing work is done by dedicated testing teams separate from the core developers.

          When things really go wrong, the backlash can be so severe that the game does poorly… or gets yanked from Steam like Arkham Knight.

          I don’t think anyone WANTS to release a buggy game.

        • More to the point, even with the bugs those games had, they were still genuinely awesome games. A few non-game-breaking glitches here and there doesn’t ruin a game.

          If the bugs are constant crashing or save corruption or the like – then sure, they’ve got something serious to answer for. If it’s merely superficial issues, then I care a lot less if the actual game itself is great.

          • yeah i appreciate what your saying.

            But for every Skyrim, there is 10 that don’t get fixed and people are getting ripped off.

  • In Alpha Protocol every single named character you meet is both a) trying to help you and b) completely screw you over. AT THE SAME TIME. There are perks for killing everyone you come across, and there are perks for killing as few people as possible. In a game where almost everyone could try to kill you based on how you play, it’s possible to gain the respect and friendship of people who started out as your enemies.

    You can even join forces with the antagonist of the story, and either doublecross him or play it straight. It’s glorious.

  • This is seriously one of my favourite games of last gen, played through it 4-5 times on the Xbox 360 and I still wanted to play more but other games came out.

    Seeing this I might install it on PC and go at it again while I wait for MGS. I’m surprised to see people defending it, I bought it at launch and people absolutely ripped it to pieces. Glad to see others enjoyed it, I wish they’d try for a sequel.

    • There was an interesting article that described vast differences between US and EU based reviews. Unfortunately it appears the site hosting it has shut down, but I remember it being an interesting read.

      Basically it boiled down to the US reviewers lampooning it as “a poor man’s Mass Effect”, while the EU reviewers treated it more as an unique RPG experience. Because the US reviewers thought it was “like Mass Effect”, they criticised it in every way that it was not the same as Mass Effect, or that the shooting game wasn’t as polished as CoD or Gears of War. EU reviewers just treated it as a game – while some made comparisons with Mass Effect, it was noted as being a different game with different aims.

      Without attempting to be, it was actually a fairly damning indictment and critical analysis of how many mainstream US review sites are actually pretty terrible and shallow in that many seemingly judge games on what they are expecting the game to be rather than actually being able to critically analyse a game on its own merits.

      I don’t think a direct sequel is likely, and to be honest, I don’t think I’d want one. It was a well crafted plot-tree, but I don’t want something to try and add on to the end of it. That said, if someone produced a game in a similar vein, I’d definitely buy it.

  • Alpha Protocol was an interesting game that’s for sure. I remember after Mass Effect, hearing about a Spy RPG sounded like so much fun. Then hearing from the makers of KOTOR 2, and I was pretty much sold. Which I think is why I was upset with the game. It was buggy as hell and prevented me from completing a mission. The concept and ideas behind it were amazing, but wasn’t executed well.

    I was always hoping for a sequel that would allow developers to polish the game and refine the ideas established. But poor sales ruined those chances I guess.

  • I also enjoyed it, played through a couple of times if i remember rightly. Wasn’t the best game, but still a lot of fun

  • I recall playing this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. The gameplay itself isn’t top notch but the story and way’s you could affect it certainly drew me in. Perhaps it’s time for another run…

  • I actually played this for the first time just two days ago. I have been seeing articles like this for years, and everything I have heard about the actual role playing elements of the games sound awesome.

    Unfortunatley, I could not get past how bad everything else was. “the irritation of the brokenness of the “game stuff.” ” was just too much for me, along with terrible dialogue and bad voice acting.

    So for me, great concepts, great ideas, terrible execution.

  • I played through this just recently after buying it for 0.99c from humble bundle at some point. I was surprised! I quite enjoyed it. Gameplay isn’t that great but the stealth works, the combat ain’t bad, it’s just different. This game is more about the narrative than the gameplay but I found the characters interesting and the choices and the fact they are timed is really cool. You really do make choices in ‘spur of the moment’ – like you would in real life. I completed all the side missions (I actually didn’t even know they were side missions.. I thought they were all required!). Each one was fun and had plenty of variety. Nothing felt repetitive. Took me 19 hours though.

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