“A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever”. Shigeru Miyamoto’s statement on the relative worth of delaying a videogame undoubtedly contains some merit, but there is another, somewhat more ephemeral, element to this equation: perception.
Miyamoto’s gilded reputation ensures that delaying the next Mario or Zelda carries the association of the title in question being polished to perfection. For new properties, it is oftentimes more natural to conceive that the concept is flawed or even unworkable.
Thankfully, after spending over four hours with the latest build of the game, it’s clear to see that Alpha Protocol is anything but unworkable, and it is with a renewed sense of expectation – not trepidation – that we anticipate our next hands on time with the project.
As the subtitle ‘The Espionage RPG’ rather heavy-handedly intones, Alpha Protocol is an RPG with shooter elements, and not the other way around. It’s an important distinction, and one that permeates the entire project. Developer Obsidian Entertainment cut its teeth in RPGs, and is in no hurry to distance itself from its lineage (which includes respected PC titles such as Neverwinter Nights 2 and Knights Of The Old Republic II), at least in the fundamental mechanical sense.
What it is prepared to do, however, is extrapolate tried and true gameplay mechanics that inform classic fantasy role-playing games, and inject them with a heavy dose of the contemporary. Alpha Protocol’s spy fiction trappings may be heavily inspired by Bond, Bauer and Bourne, but along with assimilating their personalities, it is the wider elements of culture that influence this famous triumvirate that pervade Obsidian’s game.
As expected, Alpha Protocol’s story reflects the Hollywood-infused Machiavellian machinations du jour, with private military companies joining the staples of splinter cells and monolithic corporations driving a twisting and dynamic story that spans the globe.
But forget modern Bond and dour old Bourne, Alpha Protocol still likes to crib from the good old days when every single line in a Bond movie was a barely literate pun and all the females were sex objects with guns and a dislike of clothes.
It’s an interesting setup, and one that is made all the more compulsive due to the creation of your character, and how this character influences and defines the narrative. Although he has a back story, Michael Thorton is essentially a blank slate for players to mould as they see fit.
In the superficial, this means tailoring his appearance from clean cut and suave to wild and unkempt (these decisions, it should be pointed out, do not affect character interactions, so feel free to add that lumberjack beard at your leisure).
But, as much as you define your avatar’s image, it is also your mission to mould his logic and ethics in a manner of your choosing, and it is here that Alpha Protocol really shines. Standard RPG archetypes have been appropriated and given a modern twist, and at the start of the game you’ll make a choice of class that will have far-reaching implications.
We opted to choose a stealth operative, one versed in the dark arts of infiltration, hacking and hugging the shadows (which naturally can be upgraded by spending experience points to better tailor him to your style of play). Another journalist at the hands-on event chose to play as a straight-up soldier class, with door-kicking, one-liner-spewing bravado seemingly the de facto setup.
Side by side, the two playthroughs were night and day, but, crucially, not in a binary manner due to the polarised archetypes chosen at the outset – it was the wealth of player-controlled action and interaction, cause and effect that was truly impressive.
Each player can choose to level up their version of Thorton with active or passive abilities, each related to your chosen class. Using an active (user triggered) ability, our stealth class could place colour coded markers above the heads of enemy sentries, showing where they were looking and what alert phase they were in.
As we progressed, this became a passive (always on) ability, an encouraging reward for playing the way the classes dictates. There are many more of these skills, and the broad scope for differing playstyles they offer even within specific classes is promising. As ever, though, relationships can be manipulated to acquire more abilities: be nice to your handler, and maybe they’ll be nice to you.
Starting the game in a suitably secret and high-tech training facility, Thorton will endure various training regimens designed to give players a feel for their roles and the mechanics they espouse. It is in these tests (relating to espionage, weapons handling and gadgets) that players will meet their respective handlers, non-playable characters that will act as your rear on-mission support.
Like every other NPC in the game, it is up to the player to define their interactions with them, and this, along with the rewards or punishments mandated by your attitude and decisions, is Alpha Protocol’s greatest strength.
Akin to Mass Effect, players can choose their stance when talking to people, choosing the tone, manner and professionalism of their responses, and these choices will affect future interactions and even mission structure. On our initial meeting with our female handler, we chose the aggressive approach, prompting an utterly misogynist, over-confident set of responses.
Our handler didn’t really seem to warm this (we wonder why…) and plunged our personal relationship into the negative spectrum, so we changed tack, opting to respond to all future questions in a professional manner. The change in dialogue and mood was substantial, and with our reputation now restored we began the first mission.
Although Alpha Protocol is selling itself on its globetrotting gameplay, every single Michael Thorton out there will start in the same place: Saudi Arabia. Essentially a prologue to the game proper, our first objective was to become familiar with the mission structure. Conducting conversations from an opulent safe house (the first of many), we were essentially given carte blanche to approach this campaign via any means necessary.
Speaking to our handler again via email, we tried the ‘suave’ conversation arc, which saw Thorton’s attempt at subtle flirting gloriously rebuffed via a cutting put-down of our sexuality. With the embarrassment still simmering, we were pointed to gather intel, and it is here that the game expands exponentially.
With clandestine operations at the forefront of the game, missions are sourced via intel, with players buying dossiers that contain information that is ancillary to your main mission, but will impact the overall story thread should you choose to take them. We bought a dossier that enabled us to take on a mission that dropped us in to a mission to sabotage a munitions dump, unaware at the time of the global effect this sortie would induce.
Using the stealth class, we clung to the shadows, picking people off with a silenced pistol. Alpha Protocol wants you to play to your strengths, and even with an assault rifle for back up should things go loud, it’s quite difficult, at least initially, to go in all guns blazing. The targeting system belies the game’s RPG roots, meaning that the reticule must be placed over the enemy, and, dictated by your skill with respective weapons, the reticule will take a certain amount of time to zero in on your target.
In theory it sounds like a royal pain, but in practice it’s nowhere near as intrusive or staid as the mechanic suggests; in fact, it’s a fantastic method to keep in character and actually use your abilities. Stealth players should be lining up unseen critical headshots anyway, and soldier classes will also level up quickly to facilitate smoother combat. Despite the RPG underpinnings, Alpha Protocol’s combat never really feels anything other than fast-paced and compelling.
Battling through the level, we sabotaged the munitions dump and returned to the safe house. The ongoing effect of our actions was made explicitly clear, both in the micro and macro levels – sabotaging the munitions dump meant that our enemies wouldn’t be as well armed in the future, but these sorts of side missions are fast-paced windows of opportunity. Carrying out some missions will render others unavailable, so choose wisely.
Our playthrough, meanwhile, had saved the best until last. Focusing on the main story missions, we battled our way to the end of the Saudi Arabia section of the game. Killing the personal guard of a rogue Sheik apparently mostly responsible for the shooting down of an airliner, we cornered the Sheik, who had some revelatory news for us.
The missiles used in the attack were not, in fact, stolen – they were supplied by Thorton’s supposed allies, making them complicit and also guilty of forcing a cover up of everyone involved. This news, while somewhat predictable, defines the rest of the game, while showcasing the cause and effect of your decision-making.
As Thorton’s world starts to unravel, the Sheik brokers a deal: let him go, and he will disseminate information to you for the rest of the game, giving you access to otherwise unattainable intel. Killing him is also an option, but the middle way is to arrest him and let justice take its course.
Opting for the third alternative, we begin taking the Sheik in, hoping to serve the dual purpose of revealing more about his allegations while also apprehending a wanted criminal.
That was until Thorton and the Sheik were struck by a drone missile, killing the Sheik, and cutting off a whole potential plot arc, which obviously wouldn’t have happened had you let him go.
The consequences of your actions (and the unknowable permutations of them), no matter how well or ill intentioned, is something that Alpha Protocol hopes to hammer home the importance of, and seeing the same scene played out differently by another player just highlighted how robust and branching the decision-making and conversation processes seemed to be.
It’s these elements that will dictate whether Alpha Protocol will succeed or fail, but at the moment we’re quietly confident. We’ll have to see more of the later missions to truly judge how if Obsidian has pulled it off, and graphically it’s in dire need of a buffing, but so far Alpha Protocol is engaging, deep and addictive. Let’s hope it stays this way.