PAX Impressions: Alpha Protocol
At PAX East, I got the chance to sit down and take a peek at the Xbox 360 version of Obsidian’s espionage RPG. As I emerged from the dark Sheraton meeting room, I was left with a feeling of concern for the universe that BioWare had created for me to explore and gallivant around. I felt concerned for Mass Effect 2, the Western RPG that has a special place in my heart and did such a good job of kicking off 2010. It’s kind of difficult to discuss Alpha Protocol without mentioning Mass Effect. So I won’t.
Alpha Protocol could very well be a better role-playing game than Mass Effect 2.
At first glance, Alpha Protocol seems like it could just be Mass Effect with different skin. It’s an espionage RPG. You can substitute the word “espionage” and replace it with “space,” and you get Mass Effect. However, this assessment would be shallow and irresponsible.
In fact, it has the potential to be a deeper RPG than Mass Effect if you can accept the trade-offs that were made.
Alpha Protocol promises to be a non-linear game that offers the player not just multiple endings but multiple “middles” as well. The first things I was shown were two scenes that take place at the same point in the game. The first scene involved a conversation with a potential love interest that led up to a romance scene. Then I got to see what could happen if one had made different decisions leading up to the event. This latter scene didn’t turn out so well for our protagonist as he immediately ended up getting bashed in the head with a lamp by the same woman. The main difference in leading up to both scenes? Reputation.
This mechanic is the main selling point of Alpha Protocol as a role-playing game. There are approximately fifteen core characters that you will end up interacting with as you play through Alpha Protocol. The way you interact with people will directly affect your reputation with these characters. There are some characters in the game that you want to have a poor reputation with, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to play the game.
There is no protocol for the way you conduct yourself in Alpha Protocol. There is no definite right and wrong way to play through the game. Since having a poor reputation with someone is not always a bad thing, we can piss off in-game characters without having to worry about our paragon character being tagged with renegade points. The missions that you will have available to you will depend on your reputation with different characters. Missions open up and close depending on the state of these relationships. The Obsidian developers said that there’s a lot of gray in the espionage world, and that’s what you will see in Alpha Protocol. There is no “good” option or “bad” option; there is no morality.
There are more than two paths to walk in Alpha Protocol. You’ll have to play through the game at least three times to see everything. Unlike Mass Effect, there aren’t two main paths to walk and things aren’t outlined in terms of red and blue. You’ll have to react since you’ll sometimes have a limited time to make choices. You’ll feel it out and go with your gut feeling on these decisions.
In Alpha Protocol, you’ll play as Agent Michael Thorton of the CIA (and this is one of the trade-offs I mentioned). You will have to role-play as Michael Thorton as opposed to being able to create your own character with the sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of your choosing. In terms of character customization, things are a little limited. You can change Thorton’s facial appearance and clothing. But due to budget restrictions, Obsidian was unable to provide the option of playing as a female.
In combat, the character customization shows a lot of promise, especially in the context of an espionage RPG. Some of the character attributes that were shown to us included sabotage, technical aptitude, toughness, and martial arts. These attributes, skills, and weapons could be leveled up as you go on in the game. For example, one skill that stood out caused arrows to pop up on the screen above the heads of enemies. This allowed you to see exactly where they were. You can also tell how aware of you they were based on the color of the arrow (a’la Assassin’s Creed II). A skill like this would be more suitable if you wanted to focus on your character’s stealth capabilities. And all this time, Mass Effect had been offering us skills that strengthened shields or our next sniper rifle shot.
Last Fall, many people were left scratching their heads when Sega decided to delay Alpha Protocol at the eleventh hour. When we spoke to Obsidian, they said they wanted to put more polish on it and refine its game mechanics. The graphics were fine, but they weren’t memorable. Besides, it’s the mechanics that makes this game interesting. They also cited having business reasons for the delay since Q4 2009 was already saturated with release dates of titles they would have had to compete with — which I think was a good move. It was two months before its current release date, and I liked what I saw.
Being compared to a game that is as good as Mass Effect 2 should only be considered as a compliment (and to be fair, Obsidian began working on Alpha Protocol in 2007 before Mass Effect was released). I’ve got high expectations for this title and could even see a 2010 where it tops Mass Effect 2 on my GOTY list. With that said, Alpha Protocol’s June 1st release date is nearing, and I’m looking forward to confirming this for myself. Come June, there will be a lot of sneaking around and skull-cracking to partake in, and I plan on getting involved.