This visual effect isn't cool--just a hindrance.
The shooting isn't great in Alpha Protocol, but you may have some fun with it, assuming you choose the game's most effective loadout. If you want to take the shoot-first, talk-later approach, you should almost certainly take an assault rifle with you. They are the game's most powerful weapons, and when used with the auto-targeting ability you unlock early on, they can make you almost unstoppable. Alpha Protocol is not a straight-up shooter, however. Under-the-hood calculations figure into your abilities in the field, so just because you aim directly at a bad guy's head and pull the trigger doesn't mean you're going to lodge a bullet in his skull. If you expect your shooting prowess to translate to battlefield superiority, you'll find that it's only part of the equation. It's too bad it isn't a bigger part of the equation where pistols are concerned. Pistols feel relatively weak, which is to be expected, though they would seem an attractive last-resort option if you pursue the stealth angle. But you are often put in situations that can only be solved with firearms and are clearly designed with long-range weaponry in mind. In these situations, a pistol/shotgun combo is often ineffective. If you focused on stealth and melee at the expense of ranged weapons, expect some frustrations in certain combat scenarios and boss encounters.
The combat challenges come primarily from such imbalances, not from the opposition's desire to stay alive. The AI is pretty dreadful. Security agents and mercenaries run about the levels in haphazard ways, may start climbing ladders as you fill them with lead, will kneel on top of exploding barrels, or might stare directly at you but fail to react unless you take a shot or give them a good punch. There's a weird sense of randomness to your enemies' behavior that diminishes the impact firefights may have had. Other flaws also conspire against the shooting--flaws so simple it's surprising they made it into the final product. For example, when you activate a power, the screen takes on a bright yellow tone, as if someone turned up the light bloom setting extraordinarily high. Unfortunately, your targeting reticle is a dull yellow and can become practically invisible when the effect occurs. The effect can even obscure your target. This is a big inconvenience when using the chain shot ability, which can also cause your screen to jitter uncontrollably. There are chances to get behind turrets and take aim, but the loosey-goosey controls keep these moments from being much fun--a drawback that also applies to a few sniping sections. We also ran into some bugs here as well. On several occasions, manning a turret caused the screen to become painfully blurry and moving the camera resulted in egregious screen tearing.
This mercenary never learned how to take a punch.
Not every section requires you to shoot, however. The stealth skill tree harbors some of the more helpful abilities, such as master awareness, which pinpoints nearby enemies automatically. The higher up the tree you go, the more viable stealth becomes. Yet Alpha Protocol is no more a proper stealth game than it is a shooter. As with the shooting, the inconsistent AI provides a major hindrance, and the typically close camera can get in the way of locating nearby enemies. Instead of offering typical stealth game tropes--a minimap with vision cones or the ability to hide in the shadows, for example--the game gives you superhuman moves, such as temporary invisibility. Sneaking up on an enemy and taking him down with a minimum of fuss is mildly rewarding, as it tends to be in most games. But the actions you take leading up to that point involve activating certain skills and scurrying around in your silly crouched position--not outsmarting sharp AI or using the environment in clever ways.
An espionage RPG wouldn't be complete without a bit of hacking and alarm disabling, and to that end, Alpha Protocol features three corresponding minigames. One of them is not so bad: You identify a sequence of mazelike lines in the correct order. It feels just right--not too easy, and not too challenging. It's just enough to keep you on your toes, but another minigame isn't quite as successful. Here, you must identify two lines of stationary code in the midst of a busy grid of moving characters. It can be a challenge to identify the code, which is great. But the still bits you need to identify will be repositioned after a few moments, and the cursor you must position over the matching code moves too slowly. It can be exasperating to isolate the code, only for it to be relocated while you're trying to move the overly sluggish cursor to the right spot. Lock-picking can be equally tense, at least in the console versions, but it's a much more sensible mechanic. Here, you need to position the depicted rods by finessing the left trigger into a specific spot. This takes some getting used to, but it's challenging in just the right way. Sadly, that's not the case in the PC version: You just move the rod into position with the mouse and click. It's super easy.
Don't turn around when you hear Mike tread. He's the invisible man.
Alpha Protocol utilizes the Unreal 3 graphics engine, though the only sign that this modern technology was used occurs with the engine's telltale texture pop-in. The pop-in is barely noticeable on the PC, but it's quite an eyesore in the console versions of the game. Sometimes, it takes up to 10 seconds or more for higher-resolution textures to appear, and at rare but noticeable times, they may never appear at all. The pop-in is a distraction, though it may have been more forgivable had the game compensated for it with great visuals. But Alpha Protocol is not a looker on any platform. Environments are plain and textures lack detail, and you won't encounter the quality lighting and shadows you might expect to see in modern games. Animations are stiff and occasionally buggy and often appear to be missing multiple frames, which contributes to the game's overall inelegance. Alpha Protocol is not ugly, however; it's just behind the times and artistically uninspired. Nevertheless, the safe houses Mike operates from between missions have some nice views, and some of the outdoor missions throw in some welcome flashes of color. Similarly, the sound design gets the job done, though without much style. The voice acting is at least solid, and the generic action-movie soundtrack ramps up at the right moments but otherwise stays out of the way.
Alpha Protocol's ambitions are commendable, and if you're a role-playing fanatic, you'll enjoy investigating its intricacies. It's unfortunate that its various ingredients are so undercooked. The flaky cover system, the mediocre production values, the fundamental blemishes gone unchecked--these elements add up quickly and drag the experience down. The elaborate storytelling and character progression are impressive. It's too bad that the gawky, glitchy gameplay can't rise to the same standard.