Role-playing games, by and large, aren’t really known for toying with their own foundations, largely because the traits of the genre are so rigidly designed that experimentation often puts a boot into the game’s credibility within that genre. There are definitely a few notable exceptions (Mass Effect 2 being the best, and most recent example) but for the most part RPGs are most warmly welcomed by the devotees when they play by the same old rules. It’s a rather unfortunate situation because as videogames continue to progress technically, RPGs are able to become more and more involved and obsessed with the genre-specific details, and the likelihood of newcomers having their interests piqued seems to be on the wane. Minor tweaks and refinements are all good, but the RPG is clearly on a waiting list for a full-scale renovation.
Alpha Protocol may or may not fit that bill, but at this late stage the signs are extremely promising. Despite having an absurdly cool, why-the-hell-didn’t-I-think-of-that premise, the game also features an abundance of robust and satisfying gunplay and if you really want to, you are fully able to play through the entire thing as if you were John Rambo. You can upset every character you meet, kick every door open instead of quietly opening it, and ignore stealth completely in favour of gunning down each and every villain that you come across. The gunplay is extremely slick and enjoyable, and if you favour this style of play (or more importantly, if you aren’t massively into RPGs) you can completely alter your skillset in order to accommodate it. The ability to play through the game in this completely gung-ho fashion is likely to broaden its commercial appeal, and may act as a gateway drug to the main event.
Because although Alpha Protocol works superbly well as a meat-and-potatoes shooter, it would be something of a shame to play it in that fashion unless you’re planning on going through it more than once; there is so much meat on these bones that RPG fans are truly going to have a field day with it. There are allegedly more than 32 (vastly) different potential endings to the story, and the degree to which every single choice that you make – both in the field and in major and minor conversations alike – is pretty mind boggling. Whilst taking part in an extended play test at SEGA’s HQ recently, we were given the opportunity to see exactly how a flippant wisecrack is occasionally capable of making things very difficult for you, and how the game boldly offers up a handful of missions that most gamers are potentially never going to experience.
In one sequence that we were able to play through twice, Alpha Protocol’s hero Michael Thornton heads into a sleazy nightspot to question a sinister Russian character named Grigori. In our first playthrough we were professional and direct, and earned Thornton not only the information that we were seeking, but extra intel on a few minor characters. Above all though we earned Grigori’s respect, which (we were assured) will completely alter some significant parts of the story’s latter stages. On our second run through we play as an unruly and intolerant badass. Threats and aggressive demands are made, and the scene climaxes with Thornton beating Grigori halfway into a coma. As a result, the Russian gives up only the information that we asked for, and in the subsequent mission (a silent raid on a remote manor house) the property is guarded by heavily armed soldiers instead of bodyguards.
Alpha Protocol’s cynical, hyper-contemporary universe makes an extremely pleasant change from outer space or Medieval England, and it’s a world that borrows equally from three sources in particular – 24, and the James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the game’s development team Obsidian Entertainment have revealed that they shaped many of the dialogue options around close adherence to “the three J.B.’s”. During conversations you’re often asked to choose from one of three options in particular: “Suave” (James Bond) “Professional” (Jason Bourne) and “Aggressive” (Jack Bauer). Depending on which tack you take the outcome is surprisingly different, and every conversation potentially has repercussions. Crack a joke with a impatient superior and you’ll play through the following mission without valuable intel. Act unpleasantly towards the colleague of yours who supplies your gadgets, and he’ll conveniently forget to give you a tool that enables simplified hacks for the next mission.
There is a commendable realism to proceedings – if you shoot out a CCTV camera an alarm will sound – and the three mini-games (circuit board, hacking and lock picking) and are all fresh and challenging. The dialogue is hardboiled and profanity-strewn, and the old-school boss battles are an absolute blast. Alpha Protocol definitely represents a huge gamble on Obsidian’s part, but the hard work appears to have been channelled into exactly the right places, and the result is looking like a true original. It’s a stealth game, an action game and a seriously deep RPG all rolled into one, and it looks like it may just have the chops to please fans of all of the above.
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Watch the Alpha Protocol trailer here…