Alpha Protocol breaks my heart. Play it and you’ll see, lurking there just beneath the surface, a genuinely fresh new take on the spy genre. The parts of Alpha Protocol that work are so enjoyable they make the parts that are broken – which is to say everything else – all the more painful to endure. Alpha Protocol‘s subtitle is “The Espionage RPG,” but it really should be “The Game That Could Have Been Amazing, But Isn’t.”

You play as Mike Thorton, who’s recruited to the black ops organization Alpha Protocol and sent into the field to track down a lost consignment of missiles. No sooner has he begun his investigation than he finds himself cut off, alone, and declared rogue, forced to make his way as best he can. A wiser man would perhaps walk away and try to save his own skin, but Mike’s too much of a patriot to put such petty concerns ahead of his duty. Or maybe he just wants revenge on whoever betrayed him. Why he doesn’t take off for Ibiza the second everything hits the fan is pretty much up to you to decide.

Making good on its promise of being an RPG, Alpha Protocol lets you shape Mike into the manner of spy that you prefer. Your customization begins with his backstory, which determines your starting stats in skills like Pistol, Sabotage, Martial Arts, or Stealth. You earn experience points by playing through the game and performing activities like hacking computers, eventually leveling up and gaining Advancement Points to increase your skills. You can try to be well-rounded or mix and match, whatever you prefer. None of the skills are truly worthless, but deciding what to upgrade isn’t as hard as it probably should be. You’ll discover pretty quickly that the guns don’t really play all that differently, so you can dump all of your AP into just one, leaving you plenty of points to devote to other skills.

Alpha Protocol‘s dialog continues the character customization, by letting you can fashion Mike into a super-suave ladykiller (James Bond), a no-nonsense aggressive agent (Jack Bauer), or a coolly professional spy (Jason Bourne). As you’re talking with someone, you’ll be presented with different options based on those personalities, and a timer. Choose one before the time runs out, or it will simply default to the last personality type you selected. You might be inclined to just stick with one approach, but you’ll quickly find that not everyone responds to it the same way. One girl might like your flirtatious nature while another thinks less of you for it. A superior might respond well to your professional demeanor, or might think you lack the balls to get the job done. Discovering the nuances of each character is immensely satisfying; you’ll even enjoy responding to your in-game emails.

You have plenty of options available to you when it comes to the combat, as well. You can trick out your guns of choice with new barrels, magazines, and grips, buy yourself some fancy armor or stock up on gadgets like EMP grenades and shock traps. The fact that you have to get by on whatever money you can find provides nice incentive for playing the safe-cracking and computer-hacking minigames, but ultimately, none of it really matters. Whatever approach you use to tackle a combat scenario – stealthy, tech-oriented, or head on – will be ruined by the game’s AI, which is not only incredibly stupid, but also apparently deaf and blind.

You’ll walk right up to gun-toting guards without them batting an eyelash; in fact, it’s possible to do a stealth takedown while standing – sorry, crouching, you must crouch to be stealthy – directly in front of your target. Your adversaries won’t deign to notice you killing their buddies a few feet away, are apparently incapable of looking up to see you hovering over their heads, and generally won’t bother you unless you walk up to them and smack them square in the face.

The shoddy AI is, believe it or not, the least of Alpha Protocol‘s problems. It also has an alarming tendency to think you’re kidding when you use the controls; rather than obeying you, it’ll simply send Mike off in a different direction, the one it presumably thinks you should be heading. At times, the controls are merely laggy, but at others, they stop responding completely, which is particularly not awesome when you’re racing the clock to hack a computer or bypass an alarm. The fact that the Alpha Protocol‘s graphics are pretty damn ugly is not helped by the numerous visual glitches that pop up and make them even uglier. Occasionally, the game just completely gives up on itself and freezes.

Any enjoyment you get from indulging in the RPG aspects of Alpha Protocol is utterly ruined by the pointlessness of its action. You can customize your weaponry all day long, but it doesn’t really matter what you actually bring with you into a fight. The entire point of playing a spy game is to feel like you’re overcoming insurmountable odds by being smarter, better equipped, or just plain more skilled than those opposing you, but you never really get that chance in Alpha Protocol. Assuming you don’t run face-first into a glitch, you’ll still be bored and frustrated by combat that should be exciting and challenging.

Bottom Line: The RPG elements work well and are loads of fun to explore, but they only add up to half a game. What’s left over is a brainless, broken mess.

Recommendation: A rental is likely all you’ll need to squeeze whatever fun you might possibly have out of Alpha Protocol, but there are far, far better spy games out there.

[rating=2]

Susan Arendt would make a terrible spy, but would enjoy having a shoe phone.

This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.

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