Welcome! (Alpha Protocol, Xbox 360)

What up, peoples, I am the Man Geek, and I'm here to help you sift through the Awesome and the Total Crap.  For my first entry, I chose something recent for me to see how detailed I be without being tedious.

Alpha Protocol, by Sega.  Released for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

"A civilian airline has been attacked and worldwide political tensions are rising.  As Secret Agent Michael Thorton your path is open and your options are unlimited.  Accomplish your mission with stealth, firepower, sabotage, and charisma.  Decide how the story plays out based on the choices that you make.  Entice, assassinate, and steal to solve your missions.  In the first modern day espionage RPG your greatest weapon will be choice."  -Taken from box copy.

TL;DR - Modern day spy story, with James Bond-ish on-the-spot decision making impacting storyline and gameplay.  One problem, many solutions.

Going In:
Everyone told me that this was a lot like Mass Effect, however, the open-ended mission flow, espionage, and RPG Specialization made me hope for something more like Deus Ex.  I wanted to drug some poor bastard, hack his PC, and rewire the security system to let me in, OR explore the ducts and find a weakness to blow up to get inside.

The Experience:
Well, they were right.  You gain XP and level just like Mass Effect.  There are a few areas where you have significant control over mission flow, but mostly it's between general stealth and brute force shoot-outs.  Where the game shines, however, is the story.  It unfolds well as you progress, and specific mission outcomes and choices really can change the story up a bit.  You still get to the general end of the story, but the way you get there is a little different.  Example: Get a ton of intel and evidence, and maybe you'll convince the big politician that there really is a plot to assassinate him.  Do a half-ass job and he'll 'keep it in mind.'  Fuck up royal, and you'll have to do double work in the next mission to keep him alive.

You play a new recruit to a covert government agency.  You're given a choice of starting skills between stealth, guns, and spy toys; but you're also allowed to either create your own package or get no starting skills.  That mode unlocks the closest thing to "Game+" mode: you start over with 3 talents in every skill.

When interacting with people, you generally get three reply routes: Suave, Aggressive, and Professional.  Essentially, it's James Bond, Smartass, and Lifeless Drone, respectively.  Now, before you get the idea that you can button mash replies, every NPC responds to different tones, and even then you'll need to try a different approach sometimes.  Case in point, when you first meet the "Mysterious Redhead," one or two Suave choices work well, but stay in Suave and she'll think you're some sort of horny stalker.  Their opinions of you affect the game by opening up new options...  or not.  If someone is indifferent, you'll get only the basic of the basic interactions required to progress the game.  If they really like you, you'll get discounts on gear, offers of backup, and new intel, stuff like that.  If someone really hates you, however, they'll interfere with you every chance they get, but that does give you an opportunity to get rid of them.  PROTIP: If you like someone, make them like you, but if they piss you off, piss THEM off.  Makes the story more rewarding. 

The action is pretty solid, but it still comes second to the story.  You walk around third person, aiming in first.  You can mount up against surfaces to shoot around cover, but the cover-moving mechanics are useless.  If you crouch down when you walk, you're in stealth mode, and if you can get next to someone while they don't notice you, you can either knock them out or kill them quietly with one shot.  And believe me, there's times when it does make a huge difference.  The stealth detection mechanics, however, are kind of lopsided.  From behind or on the flanks, enemies are almost blind/deaf.  From straight forward, they catch everything unless you're really spec'ed deep into stealth.  It took a whole game session to get the hang of stealth maneuvering due to this, I expecting more a system like Metal Gear Solid.  Luckily for the player, they're not that smart.  To stealth well, you should buy as much Intel as you can afford as soon as you can.  The more you know about your target, their stage, and their guards, the better you can exploit them.  I chose the stealth approach because I don't like leaving much to chance in these situations.  If I die, I like believing that it's because I specifically fucked up, not that the game decided to shit on me.

For all of you considering the "Shoot them all, let God sort them out" approach, it's commendable, but also realize that since this is an RPG. You level your skills, stats, and most importantly, accuracy.  Essentially, your eyes doth deceive you.  Your shot does NOT go exactly where the reticule points until you level up your skill in a specific gun-type.  However, if you are used to the basic weapons in the Gears of War series, this might be the way to go.  Unless you totally, absolutely suck, you will have enough ammunition to kill every enemy on every stage that gives you an option to shoot people.  If you go with this style, you need good guns and accessories that balance out whatever pisses you off about your specific gun.

XP, skill points, discounts on gear, or specific skill bonuses, the game does reward sticking with a specific style of play.  Since I went stealth, I got achievements for good pistol aim, lots of silent takedowns without killing, hacking everything, and doing mad research.  As a result, my pistol stats got bonuses, my melee strikes got harder, I got discounts on buying intel, and did extra damage against specific tough bosses.

Replay Value:
Action-wise, there is almost no immediate replay value.  Specific shootouts and boss fights change very little, if any, based on choices or missions.  For the story, however, there are several linchpins that can change how things play out.  If you kill someone or not, for example, can give you a very different choice of allies, gear, and intel for the future.  There are, from my judgment, 3 different story endings, all with different satisfactions.  If you're planning on seeing all three, then I'd recommend choosing the "Recruit" option at the beginning of the game (no starting skill points) so that you can choose "Veteran" (3 points in every skill) for your subsequent play throughs, as you're already a story-oriented player.

Final Thoughts:
This is definitely designed for story over gameplay.  When I played, I only found maybe three parts of the game that were actually hard.  Multiple deaths hard, but not put down the controller and come back tomorrow hard.  The interface of the game's menus is a little annoying to deal with, and not because of the "PDA" simulation.  You go though a lot of menus to get to the stuff you want, and too many parts of the windows are linked to stuff I don't care about.  I want to read my new dossiers, not choose my next mission.  I want to put on my new pistol silencer, I shouldn't always taken to my armor first.  The AI reactions are a little sloppy, but if you get into the story, this is easily forgiven.  If you couldn't already tell, I'm big on story, so that makes me rate the game on the higher side.  I beat this game in eight days total, with two all-day marathon sitdowns.  Short, but not Dark Sector ridiculous.  For everyone who heard of this game from Mass Effect comparisons, prepared to be a bit disappointed.  If I had to put it in raw numbers, Alpha Protocol is a 7 out of 10.  Solid, not Awesome, though.

Feel free to leave comments, don't be afraid to say I'm giving something a bum rap, or it looks like I'm dick riding.  People should hear a few opinions before laying down their hard earned cash.  Until next time, people.