Quite fittingly for the shadowy world of espionage that it is set in, Alpha Protocol has rather slipped under the radar in gaming circles. Developed for Sega by Obsidian Entertainment, the game puts forward the interesting proposition of an RPG based around modern-day spying. In this, players will be thrust into a truly interactive world in which every choice they make really does mean life or death, for someone at least. So Digital Spy entered the special briefing room with Obsidian's programming producer Nathan Davis to have a sneak peak at a pre-beta build of this intriguing new title.
Our demo starts as Thornton reaches Moscow to interrogate a hardened Ruski named Grigori, who is the source for intel on some heavy weapons. Interrogating non-playable characters (NPCs) involves using the game's conversation mechanic. Rather than choosing between specific phrases, the conversation system involves adopting different approaches which are based on the three JBs - James Bond (suave), Jack Bauer (aggressive) and Jason Bourne (professional). When playing the game for real, players will only have one stab at each NPC conversation, but for the demo it was useful to see how these different approaches lead to different outcomes.
Taking the Bond-style suave approach brings a much different reaction from Grigori. After playing nicey-nicey with the Russian, Thornton gets the same name as before, but he is also asked to "accidentally" divert a cargo of munitions from Leningradski station into Grigori's hands. Therefore, this flags up a side mission that was not offered under the aggressive approach. In a nice touch, before finishing the conversation Grigori thanks Thornton for not being an "asshole like other agents", before adding that he came to him as a human being which should be "rewarded".
After each mission and dialogue section, Thornton returns to the safehouse, which is basically a plush pad replete with espionage accoutrement. This includes a computer terminal giving access to the email system, which reacts to events/actions in the game as with everything else. Replying to emails involves choosing from three main options - brief, cordial or snarky - with players able to read the responses before sending them. For example, one message from Thornton's handler/fixer Mina asks whether he knows the password to a locked server. After selecting the snarky response, Thornton replies that the password is M1LFLuv3r. However, Mina fails to see the funny side, leading to one lost reputation point.
Advancement points are earned after each mission to be spent on different ranks in whatever area the player wants. These individual upgrades are designed to give the player something "very cool" which makes a noticeable difference in subsequent missions. Whether it may be using sniper rifles or hacking into computer terminals, everything Thornton does is linked to an RPG mechanic. The game also has a perks system in which little bonuses are earned for completing missions under certain parameters, such as without raising a single alarm.
The action sequences in Alpha Protocol will feel familiar to anyone who has played the Metal Gear Solid series. Thornton has a fixed reticule which can be focused from orange to red for a kill shot. The major aspect here, though, is that everything the player does is connected to an RPG skill. For example, upgrading stealth enables a mechanic called shadow operative which makes the player invisible for a period of time. However, active skills such as this all have a cool down period before they can be used again. A really fun mechanic is the chain shot, which involves stopping time and lining up multiple head shots (up to six if fully upgraded) which Thornton then quickly executes when time restarts.
If the player had been aggressive to Grigori, then there would be heavily armed marines outside the building waiting for him (which is not necessarily a bad thing as he could potentially persuade the marines to ally with him following some nifty dialogue). But also, when Thornton comes to apprehend Surkov, then the other man may be wary and could even respond with force, as opposed to simply acquiescing to the move if the player had taken the suave approach. It is with these multiple options and seriously weighty decisions that Alpha Protocol will really be able to excel. So far, the signs look positive for some seriously good spying later in the year.
Alpha Protocol will be released in Europe on PS3, PC and Xbox 360 in October.