If Alpha Protocol's dialog system is to be believed, all super spies work by uncomfortably modelling their lives around DVD boxsets they've picked up with leftover Christmas money. Michael Thorton is our super spy of the moment, living the jet-set life of international espionage and wooing ladies with (in my case at least) a massive hobo beard, but every few minutes a dialog pops-up and poses Alpha Protocol's all-important question: do you want to be suave like Bond, professional like Bourne or aggressive like Bauer?
The logic is sound, and on paper Alpha Protocol reads like a rather tip-top action RPG; Mass Effect with spies instead of space. But all is not well in the world of video walls, plush hotel rooms and shady back-rooms, with the game having some of the limpest and counter-intuitive opening levels from any RPG in the last few years. It doesn't hesitate to kit you out with an arsenal potent enough to make a gun fanatic swoon, provided they're fond of a bog-standard weapon selection, but the problem comes from when you want to use those guns to actually shoot someone. Until you've funnelled hours of time and money into levelling up your skills you'll have better luck taking out your enemies by jumping up and shouting "bang".
Because of this, the game is radically different at the ten-hour mark than when you're two hours in. You can actually fire in a straight line by this point, provided you've not spent your points on levelling up the shotgun or SMG abilities which have been added as comedy joke options. Despite the awkward teething problems, and the initially overpowered enemies, by the time you've sunk some time into your character sheet each subsequent trip to the levelling up screen becomes a guilty pleasure, and unlocking the bounteous wealth of fancy bits and bobs becomes a bit of a guilty pleasure that nicely spurs you onwards.
Of particular joy is a skill that actually turns you invisible for a few seconds after being spotted, which is one of the many reasons a stealthy approach to situations is such an entertainingly broken way to experience the game.
But even some shiny skills and fancy abilities can't help save the combat engine from wearisome mediocrity, and the game trudges through frequent bouts of springy AI, wobbly cover systems and sub-par animations, along with a poorly mapped button layout, which combines to make a game that obstinately resists your attempts to play it. Put Michael Thorton into a shoot-out and he turns from super sleuth into super sloth, his professional flair coming second fiddle to the game's invisible dice rolls.
It also doesn't help that the many, many of the baddies Thorton encounters have a tendency of being a little bit on the super boring side. Alpha Protocol spices things up with some creative and entertaining boss fights - including one on a disco floor - but for the most part it's a homogenous blur of boring mooks dotted around the game's exotic locations.
That's a bit of a shame, especially when the primary cast are a decent band of characters and the game's humongous script unfolds in entertaining and creative ways. The plot might be a po-faced yarn about corruption and conspiracy, but the delivery is more than a little tongue-in-cheek: when replying to an e-mail half-way through the game, Thorton can instruct his recipient to send her harasser to Siberia. "While I can't promise you he'll be the victim of polar bear rape, it should keep him out of the office for a while."
Interactions are handled by an innovative timed response system, giving you a pop-up every now and then to choose the mood of your replies. Each character responds favourably to a particular stance, though the game rewards you just as much for a mixed approach as it does a fixed adherence to one of the dialog paths.
In fact, Alpha Protocol's finest touch comes from its lax restrictions on how you play. Many characters can just as easily become close allies as they can boss fights, and the game dishes out a system of character perks depending on how you play. It's a commendable touch: whereas, say, Fallout 3 makes you choose from a list and forces you to accommodate your play style to your choice, Alpha Protocol dishes out rewards based on how you're playing to begin with. There are plenty of upgrades dished out whether you're a complete rogue or a saintly agent, too, as the game doesn't make any attempts to instruct you on the best way to play it.
Thorton also racks up a few stamps on his passport, and his work with the super-secret deniable spy agency Alpha Protocol (which explains the silly title) has him recovering missiles in Saudi Arabia, stopping a terrorist attack in Rome, visiting Moscow to track illegal arms deals and nipping over to Taipei so he can save a political target from assassination. Obisidian do a splendid job giving each area a distinctive visual style, and also do their best (and sometimes succeed) at stopping the levels from falling into tedious stereotypes.
Touches of flourish don't do much to help the iffy gameplay, though, and despite my best attempts to forgive the errors I couldn't help but find myself ground down to a frustrated pulp by the poor controls, annoying mini-games, broken cover system and terrible shooting. The game succeeds as an RPG but fails miserably at being a shooter, which is a bit unforgivable in a game that spends most of its time in action mode.
Alpha Protocol isn't a bad game, it just often happens to feel like one when you're playing it. There's a distinct impression that whenever Obsidian rolled up to a design crossroads during development they ended up invariably choosing the wrong path. Some bits are so bad I'd find myself pausing and seriously questioning why I was still playing, before realising that for all its many faults I was compelled to see it through to the end. Alpha Protocol is poorly designed and rough around the edges but it's also engrossing, charming and inventive.