Invent

The Art Of Invisiflage


“He’s the norm for Western Intelligence. Lots of guts, less finesse.”
“Yeah, but he definitely has talent…”


In true Obsidian fashion, Alpha Protocol was a game brimming with ideas and originality that was hamstrung by over ambition, publisher deadlines and questionable core gameplay mechanics. The game saw agent Michael Thornton sneaking around the globe, gathering intelligence and seducing business associates while taking out an army of hapless bad dudes that evidently had no idea how easily their skulls could be broken. Though the stealth gameplay contained within seemed interesting at first, it quickly became irrelevant.

The tutorial level sets up the basic premise. All Thornton needs to do is crouch, sneak up behind enemies and press a hotkey to take them out silently. He can hide behind cover to avoid visual detection, and can avoid making noise by creeping with a hilarious duck-walk, and must occasionally dodge the world’s most useless security cameras. Sounds standard enough, right? Eventually, Thornton unlocks a couple of abilities, depending on some opening character choices, and it’s at this moment any stealth players emit a groan that would fill the halls of the Shalebridge Cradle.

The abilities and perks earned over the course of Alpha Protocol do not engage the game mechanics or enrich the stealth; rather, they serve only to encourage players to disregard them. One of the first abilities Thornton learns is “Awareness”, which represents the location and direction of all enemies within a moderate distance for a short time with icons on the heads-up display. Already, before completion of the tutorial, players are able to rely on an ability that skips arguably the most important and demanding task when sneaking: moving forward whilst observing patrol routes and avoiding detection within enemy territory.

Instead, what players are able to do is activate this ability and plan a route before putting themselves in any danger. While attempting to get a better view, they could have very well bumped into an enemy taking a quick smoko – instead, for little cost other than a short cooldown, his and everyone else’s location are immediately made clear. Another ability, “Shadow Operative”, essentially makes Thornton invisible for a while. Is it explained away in the form of some advanced gadget or technology? Nope.

"You should see the look in their eyes… the primal horror… the surprise barely registering as invisible hands choke them to death, their friends not metres away. No man should have this power."

The most effective use of this ability is to take down as many enemies in melee as possible before it wears off, as even if Thornton drops a guy right under another’s nose, they won’t notice it. Incredibly, you’re actually able to upgrade these abilities, primarily giving them longer durations and shorter cooldowns. Obviously, this ability is in no small part an abstraction of the Thornton’s covert operative training; a representation of being able to dance on the edge of his target’s eyesight. But the abstraction of instant, unconditional invisibility is at odds with the game’s far more literal gunplay. Consistency has been knocked unconscious and stuffed in a cupboard.

This becomes the critical issue with Alpha Protocol’s stealth. In a roleplaying game, enemies and encounters traditionally become more difficult as players earn new skills, stats and so on. One would imagine, then, that as an espionage-RPG Alpha Protocol would provide progressively more difficult and complex stealth challenges to compensate for Thornton’s growth, if not player skill. It doesn’t. While the player is rewarded with new abilities and perks, the AI doesn’t evolve beyond a standard neutral/suspicious/alerted routine, and only much later in the game is it given enhanced perception. By this point, players are able to activate abilities that enable them to clear multiple rooms full of guards offhandedly, leaving little reason for any actual subterfuge.

Poor level design further removes stealth-related skill from the game. Early levels are open and large, allowing players to be creative in their plan of attack. Before long, every level becomes a binary choice of marching right through the middle or sneaking around via the conveniently empty side path. Much as the perks and abilities ensure you’re never too concerned about actually learning how to stay hidden, these helpful pathways will always give you the upper hand.

If shooting and stealth required a thoughtful approach, such flaws might unnecessarily assist the player. As it is, Thornton’s special abilities ensure there is rarely any need to even make use of this favourable approach.  If Thornton happened to have missed the context-sensitive wall jump that diverts him around a bunch of guards, he can still decide to run right in front of them and bang their heads together.

Early arenas show promise. This particular level provides plenty of opportunities to avoid detection and deploy distraction

Alpha Protocol needed a captain at the helm. It needed someone intimately familiar with the stealth genre. Given more time and money, I’m not sure the game would have fared much better than it did. Certainly the gunplay, graphics and duck-walk would have been of higher quality. But to offer players the chance to avoid engaging its stealth mechanics so consistently, in such a ham-fisted way, speaks of a development team unfamiliar with the subject material – and a game that, for all the uncertainty in its narrative-based choice and consequence, makes the “best” way to approach its gameplay very clear.

Sean Gabriel

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5 Responses to The Art Of Invisiflage

  1. By DDL, January 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Hilariously, it’s actually “Thorton”, though he’s referred to as thornton by almost everyone (even, at one or two points, in the game itself).

    Regarding the stealth, however…I’m not entirely sure what you’d expect from the skill system: increasing the _character’s_ stealth skill should make stealth easier for the _player_, to reflect the fact that the character is more stealthy. Similarly to how putting points into a weapon skill makes use of that weapon easier and more adaptable, putting points into stealth makes stealth easier and more adaptable. That’s kind of the point, after all.
    If you’re good enough as a player to get through it stealthily without resorting to increasing the stealth skill, then yay for you: you can get more entertaining shotgun skillz, or hacking (to make the godawful PC port of the minigame more tolerable).

    Plus, if you don’t want to have increased ‘see through walls’-style awareness and cloaking, you’re not really left with much that can be altered/improved in a manner easily communicated to the player: it’s basically “footstep noise” and “enemy sight radius”, and even that latter one is questionable from a ‘realism’ standpoint. Yes, cloaking makes no sense, and the way it was implemented was hamfisted, but really…if you’re expecting the game to play like Thief, but you’re _also_ upgrading the stealth skill to make things easier: what did you expect?

    Remember, this is not a game that even really makes any great noise about its stealth system: it’s THERE, yes, but it’s A)one of many options, and B)not the focus of the game at all. The hugely branching plotlines and the conversation system are more what AP is known for.

    I realise this is a stealth-focused site, but it seems a tad disingeneous to lay into a game quite so vehemently, when that game offers so much in other (non-stealth) respects. You might as well say “hey, stealth fans: Planescape has rubbish stealth”..a statement that while technically true, also misses the point spectacularly.

    • By tetracycloide, January 23, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      I don’t know why you brought up Thief as if it supported your point when it’s actually a great example of a stealth system where you get upgrades the improve the player’s ability to remain undetected but they don’t necessarily make the game any easier or, as with Alpha Protocol, trivial.

  2. By Justin Keverne, January 11, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    @DDL

    To clarify, this is a “Stealth Review” of Alpha Protocol. The intent is to review, or more accurately critique, the stealth elements within a given game and not necessarily the game as a whole.

    To say “Planescape has rubbish stealth…” would be missing the point of Planescape: Torment as a game, and would be a meaningless comment in a traditional review, however on a site specifically dealing with stealth play it would at least be justifiable.

    When it comes to new releases our approach will obviously be modified somewhat, though stealth systems will remain our focus.

  3. By Daniel Hindes, January 12, 2012 at 1:20 am

    DDL, I think what Alpha Protocol should have done is maintain an equilibrium between the stealth upgrades and the difficulty of obstacles thrown at the stealthy player. It shouldn’t be about making stealth gradually easier, but about making a stealth approach gradually more difficult for players who haven’t opted to invest points in stealth. That way, a stealth player is rewarded for their approach with evolving gameplay that they, through their character choices, are better equipped to handle. As it is, that equilibrium does not exist.

  4. By Sean Gabriel, January 12, 2012 at 7:41 am

    “Plus, if you don’t want to have increased ‘see through walls’-style awareness and cloaking, you’re not really left with much that can be altered/improved in a manner easily communicated to the player:”

    My imagination runs wild thinking of ways to do it.

    And, I suppose if Planescape was called “Planescape: Torment – The Espionage RPG” I’d be equally as critical of it’s stealth.

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