GC09: Alpha Protocol Impressions
With so many big games running to avoid the end of year crush, original IP now has a much better chance of commercial success. It may have little to do with any pre-planned strategy, but both Sega and Obsidian will be more than happy with the way Alpha Protocol's major competition – Heavy Rain, Mass Effect 2 – have stepped aside at the last moment. Indeed, we can't help but crack a smile, too, because based on the evidence we were offered at gamescom, this could be one of the defining releases of this year.
Games that offer the player a choice in their character's destiny are so abundant the very idea has become a cliche. However, few have fulfilled that promise the way Alpha Protocol seems to. "You're looking at a 30-hour game," says Andy Almano, the game's associate producer at Sega, "and well over 100 hours if you want to see every story arc and meet every character." Think about that. If you take in every twist, turn and plot point in Alpha Protocol's branching narrative, it will make the already multi-layered experience three times more substantial. And we're not talking about hidden orbs and pointless collectables.
Indeed, in many instances, the content you miss is just as improtant as that which you don't. For an experience that is predicted to take 30 hours to play through once, Obsidian recorded more than 120 hours of dialogue.
We saw a mission where Michael Thorton, the main character, had to infiltrate a yacht, find a key player from an enemy faction, and extract key information. The choice starts with how you approach each mission, and Obsidian decided on stealth. Apparently, Alpha Protocol can be played from beginning to end without ever firing a shot, and sure enough, we saw a procession of lethal and non-lethal takedown moves that never once gave away Thorton's position.
Your ability to stay hidden can be strengthened by developing your character's perks and abilities. In this case, the screen was marked by coloured arrows that indicated the positions of all the enemies in the vicinity and which way they were facing. Another skill allowed Thorton to become invisible for a short period of time, and suggested that Alpha Protocol will indulge in some flights of fancy to alleviate the gritty realism. Indeed, a brief skirmish with Sis – the enemy faction's key female operative – at the end of the mission seemed like it belonged in a run-’n’-gun shooter rather than a forward-thinking RPG. However, once Sis had been pacified Alpha Protocol retruned to its key strengths: character interactions and moment-to-moment decision making.
By leaving Sis alive, Thorton earned a new contact and unlocked a perk called 'I Don't Hit Girls', but the opposite action would have revealed its own unique consequences. In the minutes immediately following the culmination of the mission, Thorton received a call from Sis's boss offering to meet. The subsequent three-minute cut-scene contained no less than six points where Thorton had to make snap decisions before a timer ran out, each subtly influencing the direction of the conversation and his relationship with Sis's boss. By the time the demo ended Thorton had two new partners and a host of unknowable consequences to deal with, and we left with an insatiable desire to see more. The exciting thing about Alpha Protocol is that, even after completing the game, there will almost certainly be more to see.