Alpha Protocol Hands-On PreviewBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Apr 29, 2010
See? It’s not all just orcs and dragons or robots and spaceships…there is a place in the “real” world for the role-playing game, and Obsidian’s espionage thriller Alpha Protocol is determined to prove it.
Right, so it’s not entirely a traditional RPG. But aside from maybe Final Fantasy XIII and Pokémon, what is these days? Set in the present times, Alpha Protocol is a story of secret spy organizations, terrorist cells, government betrayal, the military-industrial complex, the eternal struggle over natural resources, and the muddy moral swamp in which everyone resides.
It is also a story about hitting on women. Well, actually, on-the-fly conversational choices are an important part of the game, and building trust with certain core characters will change how the story unfolds and give you (or deprive you of) special perks. But there are plenty of opportunities to hit on women.
I’ve been playing a beefy preview version of the game for the last few nights, and after not really having seen it since E3 two years ago, there was a lot to wrap my head around. If you must use a template for mental comparison, you’d be best off with using Mass Effect. Alpha Protocol is similarly mission-based, with an emphasis on investigating the threads of an overarching plot, and a combination of shooting things/sneaking around things/using tech and skills to disable things.
Our hero goes by the name of Mike Thorton, and he’s a new recruit to the highly classified Alpha Protocol organization, a spy agency so secret, its very existence is kept completely off the books to afford the US government plausible deniability if something goes awry. At the beginning of the game, you’ve got to make a choice about your character…is he a combat specialist? A field operative? Is he technically astute? Your decision will determine Thorton’s starting skill set, which is derived from three main trees: combat, stealth, and tech. As you level up through the game, you’ll be rewarded with AP points, which can be poured into various skills. These can range anywhere from improved weapon accuracy among the main gun types (pistol, submachine gun, assault rifle, shotgun), special abilities that let you run silently or increase gadget effectiveness, or upgrades to your overall health and hand-to-hand fighting ability.
At a certain point in the game, you’ll have to choose which of the three disciplines you want to commit to, which locks out the uppermost upgrades for all but three of the most appropriate skills for the “class” you choose. So if you go the combat route, you won’t be able to get the advanced stealth or tech skills. Or you could do something indecisive people like me do and choose the “Operative” designation, which lets you choose any 3 skills you want for a custom style.
Working hand-in-hand with Thorton’s abilities are the perks he earns during the game. These are usually the result of decisions made in conversations and during missions that grant you even more advantages, and puts further emphasis on the results of your decisions. For instance, during your Alpha Protocol training, a video from the terrorist group will be playing in the lobby area. Sit and watch the entire thing, and you get a “News Conscious” bonus that gives you a 5% discount when purchasing weapon/armor upgrades and items from the Middle East clearinghouse. Bigger, game-altering decisions will have an effect, too. Choose to execute a key character, and you’ll miss out on the recoil control bonus you’d get if you let him live. And if you’ve invested time into building a good relationship with your handlers, you’ll get a tiered-bonus perk for every mission they control (the better the relationship, the more effective the bonus). These perks accumulate and stack with each other, so it pays to be careful with how you deal with people.
What’s struck me about Alpha Protocol, based on the amount I’ve played thus far, is that despite the rather vanilla storyline (oil controls everything, corporations and PMCs are bad, can’t trust governments, nobody is who they seem, etc.), the mission structure and conversation system really create a good sense of actually playing as a spy. By that, I mean it’s not just running around shooting the terrorist bad guys…there are missions where you go to a suspected safehouse and attempt to say the right pass phrase, or sit down at an outdoor cafe and have a talk with a menacing adversary. And though there is ample opportunity to run around shooting terrorists, there are investigation elements to it that remind me of why I enjoyed Heavy Rain so much, as well as moments where I know that I have to make important but ambiguous decisions that I can’t go back and change.
Which is why I’m a little disappointed that the voice acting and characterization doesn’t seem able to support that framework. Delivery is inconsistent -- Mina, your #1 handler, sounds emotionally invested in what’s going on and is very well-acted, but Thorton himself bounces between passioned delivery and sounding like he’s just reciting what’s printed on the script. This is clearly evident within a single conversation that features a mix of “suave”, “aggressive,” or “curious” responses -- the delivery doesn’t always line up properly. The ambition behind branching conversations is admirable, and you’ve got to believe that trying to maintain consistency across so many variable outcomes is beyond challenging…but that doesn’t make it any less distracting for the player. But to its credit, it’s one of the very few games that actually does vocal interruptions correctly -- and there’s a lot of arguing going on.
Alpha Protocol is clearly doing a lot of things right in regards to making your gameplay decisions matter, and though I wasn’t completely invested into peeling away the layers of geo-political intrigue, I did feel compelled to keep attempting new missions, earning enough money to buy upgraded gear, and maxing out my stealth skills. We’ll have more on the game before its June release, and I will remain optimistic.