Spy…RPG? That's the promise of Obsidian Entertainment and Sega's Alpha Protocol. Obsidian is one of the industry's premiere underdog developers. Everyone wants to believe in them, but almost every time they've been poised to succeed -- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Aliens RPG -- something's gone awry. With Star Wars, there were technical issues. With Aliens, the project just disappeared. So long as Alpha Protocol avoids the former issue, we could be in for something special.
Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol is a game of choices. In my 30-minute developer-driven demo, Obsidian tried to curb the cynical voice in my head that would otherwise assume the choices in Alpha Protocol don't really matter. Obsidian's smartest move, however, is the way they handle dialogue decisions. Games typically give you plenty of time to plot your next move -- Alpha Protocol does not. You have only moments to choose your next dialogue action, whether it's playing it cool, becoming aggressive or shooting someone in the head. A meter counts down, forcing your first choice, if you don't change it. Choose fast, choose wisely.
The way choice functions is ultimately dependent on the motivations of Obsidian's overall plot, though players seem to be in control of some major moves. In the E3 demo, Obsidian introduced us to a bad-ass Russian operative who walked around a hazardously cold environment in little more than a tank top and bra. You can kill her, claimed Obsidian….except you can't kill her when you want. At a crucial moment where players can decide to remain on her side or not, Obsidian chose to fight. After inhaling a couple dozen bullets, she didn't die -- in fact, the fight increased her respect for the main character. Then, with a bruised eye, she was whisked off in a helicopter. The ability to influence the fate of major characters is appreciated, but players are not completely in control of when that happens.
Even though it's been positioned as an action RPG, it's not an action RPG in the same way that, say, Fallout 3 is an action RPG. Whereas a behind-the-scenes dice roll ultimately determined every player action in Fallout 3, no such traditional RPG trappings exist in Alpha Protocol. You can upgrade stats, weapons and gear, but if you shoot someone in the head, you shoot someone in the head. You won't magically miss just because there was an unfortunate, invisible dice roll.
There is one aspect that worries me, however. While checking out Mass Effect 2 yesterday, I applauded BioWare addressing one of the more annoying issues of the original Mass Effect: a boring conversational camera. In Mass Effect 2, the camera is constantly moving, evoking a sense of cinema. Alpha Protocol, unfortunately, suffers from the same problem Mass Effect did. The camera moves around more than it did in Mass Effect, but not to the same degree as Mass Effect 2, and after seeing Mass Effect 2's impressive strides forward, it's hard to go back.
Alpha Protocol does keep conversations interesting by letting players unlock perks based on their actions. In one example, the main character is speaking with a Russian criminal with a connection to an underground arms dealer. Show him respect and the perk "Friends in Low Places" is unlocked (noted in real-time in the corner of the screen to give you a heads-up), giving you 10% off weapons.
More than ever before, Obsidian is poised to hit the mark with Alpha Protocol. Combat looks solid, there's an absurd amount of customization options and the setting is novel. I haven't seen much of the actual story, but there's time for that. For now, I'm cautiously optimistic Alpha Protocol can deliver on its concept.