GamesCom 2009: Alpha Protocol Preview - Shades of Grey
Written Friday, August 28, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
With the popularity of modern day espionage films like the James Bond franchise, The Bourne trilogy and of course who can forget TV’s compelling 24, it really is a surprise that the espionage genre in video games is relatively untouched. Usually, when a popular genre booms in the traditional mainstream media, we see games crop up all over the shop looking to mimic its success. That’s not the case here though and that is obviously one of Alpha Protocol’s initial hooks – the fact that it’s fresh – but you can’t measure success on the strength of a fresh idea, right? Thankfully Obsidian and SEGA’s upcoming espionage RPG is more than just that, and they’re looking to bring a rich, detailed RPG to the table with a few innovations of its own.
Alpha Protocol throws you into the shoes of Michael Thorton (that’s Thorton and not Thornton, which is a common mistake) who has been forced into operating under “Alpha Protocol” –essentially meaning that he has had to go dark and operate undercover and off the books. Whilst under Alpha Protocol Thorton must unravel the conspiracy that forced him to go under the radar and recover a set of stolen missiles along the way. That means making difficult decisions, taking sides with various factions, and generally doing whatever the hell you want in order to achieve your goals. As Associate Producer Andy Alamano puts it, “in Alpha Protocol, there is no wrong way to do it,” and every decision you make is likely upset somebody along the way. What decisions you make though are entirely up to you. Just remember though, there is no good or bad in Alpha Protocol, there is just “you” and plenty of shades of grey, which very few RPGs – if any – have ever pulled off.
The story will take you around 30 hours, but if you want to see everything, expect multiple playthroughs and over 100 hours of gameplay. Your first port of call before, and after, every mission will be your safe house; of which you’ll have 4 – Taipei, Moscow, Rome and somewhere in Saudi Arabia. You can literally do everything here from customising your look, buying gadgets & weapons, buying information, choosing your load out for the upcoming mission; and generally preparing yourself for what’s ahead. Ahead for us was a trip out to Moscow to visit a Russian Mob boss, Lazo, aboard his fancy yacht.
You can essentially choose how you tackle a mission, so if you want to go in guns blazing, feel free, but Obsidian and SEGA were keen to show off their stealth elements of the title, so we went in quietly. There are various ways that Obsidian managed to infiltrate boat without raising the alarms or disturbing the guards. They ranged from disabling the alarms with an EMP grenade – or you can choose to complete a short, simple mini game if you like – and making use of a few handy perks. I kid you not, Thorton has more gadgets and abilities than any super spy I know, even that Bond fella. In the demo, we got to see the Shadow Op ability (which made Thorton invisible for a short time), the Awareness perk (whereby Thorton knew were enemies were), the Chain Shot (a Splinter Cell Mark & Execute-esque perk), the Overlock (which super powers grenades), Iron Will (which improves damage resistance), the Sound Generator (which allows you to project sounds) and a Shock Trap (which is like a proximity stun mine). As you can see, the stealth element is a theme that runs throughout the gadgets/perks/abilities I previously mentioned, and that was down to how Obsidian chose to load themselves up for that particular mission.
Halfway through the mission, and a few stealth takedowns later, we got chance to see Thorton level up his abilities – a la the RPG aspect which is intrinsic to how your character develops. The level up & character progression mechanics remind me a lot of how Mass Effect does theirs – whereby allocating a certain amount of points to one discipline unlocks abilities for Thorton to use. We’re huge fans of this system and it fits perfectly with what Obsidian are trying to achieve – the mantra that you shape Thorton taking into account how you want him to handle. As a result, you’ll get rewards/abilities/perks that will aid your cause and fit in with your play style.
After silently taking down a small army, the mission concludes with a rather clumsy boss fight against Sis, who is part of an organisation called G22. After forcing the young girl into submission, you’ll enter into a DDS cut scene with her. DDS for all those not familiar with the system is the Dynamic Dialogue System which is a conversational mechanic that offers the player choices to make in certain conversational situations, but against the clock – thereby heightening the tension. It’s definitely one of Alpha Protocol’s major selling points and we can’t wait to test it out this October. Where was I? Ah, DDS cut scene. At the end of the cut scene you have the chance to either a.) Kill Sis which will anger the G22, or b.) Show some compassion and let her live. It’s a good example of how you won’t be able to see every bit of content on the first playthrough. Kill Sis and you won’t open up the G22 story arch missions. Choose to spare her life, and you’ll anger someone else down the road who has a particular agenda against the G22. In this instance, we chose to spare Sis, and the story opened up further.
By choosing not to terminate the teenage, we opened up a DDS mission involving the leader of the G22 organisation who sees your act of mercy and offers a token of appreciation. He tries to tell you a few home truths about what’s going on and ultimately tries to secure your services in exchange for information. Whether you trust him though is entirely up to you. In fact, who you align with throughout Alpha Protocol is entirely up to you, so there is plenty of replayability in that respect.
Sure, Alpha Protocol doesn’t look like it’s going to win any awards from a visual standpoint and it certainly isn’t pushing the Unreal Engine in that respect, but it doesn’t look bad... maybe a bit bland in places and lifeless at times. The pull of Alpha Protocol though is its fundamental RPG elements – its customisation, its character growth and progression mechanics, and of course, how the DDS will react throughout the story. It’s these three aspects of the title that really excite us, and it’s clear already that they’ve been well implemented and crafted. We’re just praying now that the delivery in the story and the combat are up to the same level, and if they are, we could be saying hello to a mighty fine RPG title. Fingers crossed.
Alpha Protocol is out in North America October 6th, and currently undated (other than October 2009) in Europe.