Free will and moral choice with consequence has been the Holy Grail of game mechanics since someone decided there should be more than one way to end a game. Since then it’s become the marketing mantra for every new sandbox or open-world, except no-one has really done it properly. Everyone back-slapped Irrational for the precarious grey moral choices of BioShock, but ultimately all you were doing was releasing girls from their bondage or pulling slugs from their still-warm corpses for two different endings. Mass Effect also springs to mind; both deserve handprints on the Hollywood Boulevard of gaming, but neither made the step from a dozen or so transparent options to something more seamless.
Alpha Protocol is more than just another game that prides itself on placing the storytelling in your hands, according to Obsidian. The renowned RPG developer has been pushing the idea that Alpha Protocol is a bona fide RPG with the ‘your weapon is choice’ subtitle, despite the medley of action-orientated media we’ve see so far.
“If you just look at the game from a screenshot or something then it’ll look good,” programming producer Nathan Davis told us, “but you’ll be missing out on that RPG mechanic. So we’re trying to get the message out that this is an RPG and that everything is dependant on the RPG stuff.” That ‘RPG stuff’ Nathan refers to evidently isn’t of the Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment variety, “We’re not like The Nameless One, right, where there’s this huge backstory that we’re finding out,” Nathan admits, but if you think Knights Of The Old Republic II you’ll be much nearer the mark.
Alpha Protocol combines frenetic first-person action that has more in common with Splinter Cell in regards to character customisation and advancement. As much as Obsidian would like to remove itself from the shadow of the biggest game to emerge from BioWare in recent years, parallels can still be drawn between the character creation systems. Your choice is a little more varied in Alpha Protocol however, with four base classes that specialise in certain fields. The soldier has a brute force approach with heavy weapons and martial arts, the field agent prefers to stealth his way around Solid Snake style, while the tech specialist is the gadgeteer. Each has a pool of ten skills (pistol proficiency and technical aptitude, for example) into which 30 advancement points are poured into areas relevant to the class, while a fourth Freelancer class allows you to put those 30 points anywhere you like. At a minimum rate of ten advancement points per level, this starts you at level three – though there is a more difficult fifth option for those that like an additional challenge: “Recruit is an additional challenge because you start out with no advancement points at all,” Obsidian’s Wouter van Vugt told us. “However, this opens up an additional Recruit dialogue option, so if you’ve already finished this once as a field agent and then you try it as a recruit, the extra dialogue options will alter the gameplay.”
Agent Michael Thorton begins his mission waking from a drug-induced nap, strapped onto a hospital bed in a bunker complex. It’s actually the base of operations for Alpha Protocol, the government’s top secret covert operations division and a veritable Operation Treadstone in its execution. Thorton has no idea where he is and isn’t happy with his predicament, but can’t do very much about it until intelligence expert Mina Tang lends him a hand. Your introduction to Alpha Protocol begins in this room with nothing but your wits and a sliver of information from Mina on how to escape your incarceration. It is, of course, all part of a test of your suitability for Alpha Protocol by the shadowy figureheads that hide behind video conferences, emails and phone calls, but the challenges Thorton faces through the next few rooms are very real.
Your first obstacle is to open a locked door – the only way out of your erstwhile cell. Generally it’s a job for the tech specialists, but at this level soldier types can simply kick the bugger open (though this tends to alert guards to your presence). Putting our boot through the door, we were immediately accosted by an armed guard… who took all of three swift blows to reduce into a pile of twitching limbs. They get a lot tougher than that, but even a rudimentary level in martial arts at this stage turns Thorton into a devastating blur of decisive strikes. Higher levels in the skill yields more combos, damage and active ability unlocks – including one which, if your martial arts ability is high enough, allows you to pull your gun in a fist fight and shoot your opponent in the face.
Obviously you can’t axe-kick your way through every locked door and some will be impenetrable to all but the best technically gifted agents, so we had to take a subtler approach for the next locked door. There are three main lock-picking mechanisms with corresponding mini games; mechanical locks require manual dexterity like that of the lockpicking game in the Thief series, with slight movements of the mouse used to adjust the pins and left mouse button to set it in place. Bypassing electronic locks is a simpler version of the BioShock hacking mini game, and hacking computers is simply a matter of matching two static blocks of digits on a screen full of changing numbers (which is more difficult than it sounds).
As Thorton is from a covert ops background, you enter Alpha Protocol with an innate ability in all areas, though specialisation will depend on your initial choice of class and where you invest advancement points from there. So despite choosing the soldier class, Thorton was perfectly capable of sneaking in and getting the drop on the guards for the next section. Stealth is an active skill triggered whenever you crouch and whose effectiveness is governed mainly by your level in the skill. It’s coupled with two other skills, awareness and evasion, which are native to the field agent class. Awareness lets you know via coloured arrows where all the other characters are within a certain range, tells you friend from foe and their current alert level. Green arrows mean the enemy is unaware of your presence, yellow means they know you’re in the area and are looking for you, red means they know where you are and are coming to get you. At low levels, awareness needs to be activated and, like many other skills, is active for a limited time and has a cooldown period. But pour advancement points into it and eventually it will become a passive skill activated whenever you go into stealth mode. The evasion skill dictates how easily you can shake your pursuers off, though you’re going to have an easier time doing this in a cluttered warehouse with plenty of cover than on a courtyard in plain sight of the enemy.
Regardless of Thorton’s specialisations there will be times when you’ll have to rely on honest gunplay, and this is where Alpha Protocol takes another step away from Knights Of The Old Republic II. There’s no turn-based mechanic whatsoever and if you took any ballistic exchange out of context, you could easily mistake Alpha Protocol for a full-blooded shooter. Shooting revolves around one simple mechanic of the critical hit: your gun will strike anywhere in a large reticule that gradually shrinks the longer you hold it steady on your target, eventually becoming a critical hit and a kill. The rate at which the reticule shrinks depends on the weapon you’re using, your skill level in that area (soldiers tend to have a broad range of specific weapon proficiencies) and whether you’re targeting a torso, limbs or going for a headshot.
Coupled with a snap-to-cover system and a blind-fire mode that’s especially effective with sub-machine guns, you’ve got action that resembles Gears Of War more than Mass Effect. Nathan emphasises that though Obsidian is playing up the RPG side of Alpha Protocol, you can’t afford to neglect all the weapons’ skills – especially starting out as a soldier class, as the third level in each brings valuable abilities with it; “Put at least one into sub-machine guns or assault rifles, because that will give you an active skill. Bullet Storm for sub-machine guns will allow you to keep shooting without reloading for a certain amount of time. Focused Aim is like a souped-up version of the Snap Aim in COD4: it automatically locks on guys.”
Keen to push dialogue and consequences, Obisidian skipped forward to Thorton’s inevitable encounter with Sie – an unlikely buxom blonde Russian mercenary sporting a crop-top, Wonderbra and what looks like a GPMG across her athletic shoulders. Amid a firefight, you both discover that you have aligned objectives: Sie and her mercs have a contract on the terrorists you’re tackling, so naturally you’ll want to team up. Or will you? Thorton can take one of three stances at key points in dialogue with any one of the 30 significant NPCs and numerous minors in Alpha Protocol. Play the James Bond spy for a suave quip, Jason Bourne for the professional approach, or give a lesson in the Jack Bauer school of diplomacy by relaying the verbal equivalent of bamboo under the fingernails followed by a bullet to the head. There’s often a fourth option too – this is a physical response to the conversation and, as you can imagine, it’s usually something violent that you should use sparingly. Defying Sie’s offer of a truce can land you with twice the number of baddies to tackle in this scenario alone, but she’s a woman who likes her men dangerous, so if you side with her and treat her mean in conversation she’ll respect you for it. Sie is all about shooting first and talking later, so whether or not you’ll come to value her as an ally or fear her as an enemy, and the influence she can have on later missions, depends on how you want to play and who you’re willing to irk in the process.
Making the appropriate dialogue option first time around is pertinent because there’s no recourse once selected and no way of seeing where the other options would have taken you, short of playing the game through again or reloading an earlier save. You don’t have much time to consider your options either, as you’re on a dialogue timer that automatically selects the default stance if you give it a chance to expire. And as if a divergent plot wasn’t enough weight on your mind, ‘perks’ can be acquired if you treat a character in a certain way, “Because you picked the sarcastic dialogue option a few times, you’ve unlocked the suave perk,” Wouter explained as we proceeded to tease Sie. “This reduces the cooldown of the evasion skill, a passive skill. You don’t have evasion yet, but if you played as a stealth character you would have evasion already. Some of the perks might be completely useless for your play style, however. It depends on the choices you make. It’s 25-30 hours of gameplay but over 120 hours of dialogue,” Wouter told us in an effort to emphasise Alpha Protocol’s replayability. We personally wouldn’t be inclined to play through just to hear every spoken word (even though 90 per cent of it was written by Obsidian’s resident game superstar, Chris Avellone) though this, coupled with several different styles of play and an unlockable veteran mode in which you start with five levels in each skill and an additional dialogue option, does mean we’ll probably be playing through Alpha Protocol at least twice.
It’s a tall order to ask any developer to create an RPG that offers the player free will, but we’ll be more than happy with one that can effectively pull the wool over our eyes and give us the illusion of choice.