In a way, Alpha Protocol reminded me of fellow E3 sleeper hit Scribblenauts. See, both games stumped me – Scribblenauts through a clever, mind-bogglingly detailed word entry system, and Alpha Protocol because no matter where I tried to poke holes in its concept and execution, developer Obsidian Software was always one step ahead. Of all the games I saw at the show, Alpha Protocol was the only one that really had me silently mumbling, “They thought of everything.”
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect were separated at birth. After all, both are chock full of smooth-talking macho main characters, third-person gun-centric dead-making, and a cast of mouthy side characters who serve as a peanut gallery to your morally motivated actions. Thing is, Alpha Protocol takes many of those shared fundamentals and does them up in suave spy style, resulting in an RPG that’s both streamlined and familiar. The bottom line: if you generally like BioWare RPGs but think they could use a few tweaks here and there, keep reading.
After a quick look at the character customization screen, our presenter tossed main character Michael Thorton straight into a mission. The objective: infiltrate a Russian Mafia compound and make life difficult for the Russians primarily by shooting them. However, seconds into the mission, a gun-toting mercenary named Sie, whose tank top was wholly unsuited to the snowy weather, bounded onto the scene. Working with an organization called the VCI, she was also out to spill some Mafia blood. Thus, our silver-tongued spy did his thing.
Here, we saw the game’s conversation system in action. Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol presents you with a series of phrases that get at the gist of your character’s response without actually blabbing the whole thing. There’s a twist, though: chit-chat in Alpha Protocol is on a timer. Nope – students of the Captain Shepard “stare blankly ahead for fifteen minutes while trying to untie your tongue” school of conversation etiquette aren’t welcome here. As a result, conversation never skips a beat, making speech an involving, straight-to-the-point action – not unlike that of the spy movies that inspired the game.
As if you weren’t already under enough pressure, your choices in conversation also affect other characters’ opinions of you. In the demonstration I saw, the presenter chose to put up his verbal dukes and get a bit rough with Sie. Surprisingly, she actually liked this, and Thorton’s reputation with Sie increased. In the end, Sie agreed to let Thorton do his own thing, so long as he didn’t get in her way. That whole exchange seemed to indicate an element of unpredictability to the game’s reputation system, which – to me – would seem to make getting everyone to either hate your guts or lick your high tech Q-manufactured jet boots somewhat of a challenge. With any luck, this will make sticking to a single persona more appealing than trying to tailor your responses to what Character X obviously likes or Character Y obviously hates.
After parting ways with Sie, our presenter decided to forget stealth and instead barrel through the facility, guns blazing. The bloodbath began normally enough, but before long, our presenter broke out a couple skills, one that allowed him to quickly lock onto enemies’ vital points, and another that hulked up his melee damage to bone-shattering levels. We were also shown a bit of stealth – which, I imagine, terrified enemies allowed to be performed on them simply because they’d already seen their comrades’ barely recognizable husks and wanted their demises to be quick and clean. Stealth takedowns came in two flavors: lethal and non-lethal. Apparently, non-lethal takedowns are best used when infiltrating friendly territories. Beyond that, well, just remember, God is watching.
However, even He doesn’t seem to care too much, as evidenced by the next confrontation Thorton encountered. At the end of the mission, Sie approached once more, and this time, our presenter chose to betray her. I, of course, flinched in apprehension of the heavily portended “Evil Points Acquired” notification that’d surely result from such an action. But it never came. From what I could tell, Alpha Protocol has no good vs. evil morality system in place. You’re judged by other characters and that’s that. I might’ve written an entire editorial essentially about this topic, so I’m just a wee bit thrilled about this.
With Sie non-lethally defeated (and, I’m guessing, slightly confused), Thorton was given the choice to either send his big mission objective – some missiles – back to an arms dealer he was working with, or simply destroy them as ordered. So, do you lose some reputation with your bosses and get some new equipment, or do you make an honest living? Quality of the options given notwithstanding, the point here was that choices are everywhere in Alpha Protocol, which can apparently lead to all manner of diverging plotlines.
Color me impressed. After the presentation ended, though, I still had one ace up my sleeve. Jokingly, I asked if – like James Bond – your main character could potentially romantically “get with” all the main female characters in the game. “Yes,” said the presenter. “There’s even an achievement for that.”