Bourne, Bauer, or Bond – It’s up to You
April 6, 2010 – In a lot of ways, Alpha Protocol is what games were made to be. If you asked some of the earliest video game designers what they would do if they could make any game they wanted (without technology restrictions, obviously), you’d probably get a game that sounds an awful lot like Alpha Protocol.
You’re a super-spy who travels around the world, caught up in a vast conspiracy, and you can choose exactly what he says to everyone he encounters. Don’t trust the far-too-attractive-to-be-flirting-with-me femme who just met you five minutes ago? You don’t have to sit idly by and trust her like James Bond so often does. It’s a nerdy dream come true, and if our sneak peak of the game at PAX East is any indication it should be just as good as we imagined when it releases this summer.
It’s true that Alpha Protocol bears a large resemblance to Mass Effect, but who ever said that was a bad thing? That would be like complaining to your waiter that your spinach tastes like lobster. Just pipe down and enjoy it.
The conversation system is the first similarity that people will notice, but there are some differences. First of all, there seem to be wide-ranging consequences for the choices you make. In one scene we were shown how the same scene can produce drastically different results. In this particular scene, one branch ended with the lights going dim and our male and female leads going into the bedroom for some quiet time, and the other ended with the female character inducing blunt force trauma on our hero.
The other dissimilarity is that you don’t pick the words that your character speaks. You merely pick an emotion and the character responds with that emotional angle. It’s very self-explanatory: anger, happy, and tender all produce logical results. The other difference is that there is a time limit on responses. In games like Mass Effect, you’ve got all the time in the world to mull over your decision and dream up the potential consequences and rewards. In Alpha Protocol the developers want you to constantly be on edge and to think on your feet like you would if it was actually you in these situations.
However, there is a lot to differentiate Alpha Protocol from the pack. For starters, the combat system is far more varied than Mass Effect 2 could ever hope to be. In any given mission the strategy you take is your own choice. If you want to build a stealth character that can sneak through the level and snipe his enemies one by one, there is certainly enough customization to make that happen. And, if you want to march through the level blasting fools into the next world in a macho display of power, you are also afforded that opportunity.
This seems to be Alpha Protocol’s main strength. You have many different categories that you can customize your character in as you level up, but there are also other aspects that provide differentiation as well.
You can customize your load-out similarly to a Rainbow Six-style game. It doesn’t stop at just letting you pick your grenades and armor color, though. You’re also given the option to choose your armor thickness, ammo type, gun accessories, and many other categories. It’s not just meaningless customization, either. The character that was played in our sneak peek had acquired silent rounds for his assault rifle, making the stealthy approach much more viable.
The problem with most action games with “choice” is that the choice only affects which cutscenes you see; with few exceptions, the gameplay remains practically identical. With Alpha Protocol’s new take it looks like you’ll be able to have a larger impact on the path of your gameplay not only in terms of the levels you end up in, but also in terms of having a very real impact on how those levels are played.
After four long years of development, Obsidian is finally ready to release Alpha Protocol. The team is adamant that the game was ready for release last fall when it was originally scheduled to hit store shelves, but that SEGA decided it follow the exodus of 2009 games into 2010 (hoping to avoid competing with Modern Warfare 2). Now it’s releasing in June with practically no discernible triple-A competition. With a little bit of luck and some favorable review scores, this expensive venture from SEGA could pay off in the end.
Let’s go Undercover!
July 22, 2009 – The world of spies has been visited many times by Hollywood. From James Bond to Jason Bourne, the covert world of espionage seems to be a bankable one. Spies have also had quite a presence in games, and numerous stealth titles have been created over the years to try and emulate the action, danger, and intrigue associated with the spy world.
The latest game to employ the spy motif is Alpha Protocol, a new IP from the folks at Obsidian Entertainment. The premise of the game is simple. You play as Michael Thornton, a new spy who has been forced to go rogue after a normal mission ends up going terribly awry. After the mission, he must employ the “Alpha Protocol” and go undercover after the fallout from the failed mission has made him a target not only for other covert operatives, but the US government as well. The storyline seems interesting enough and resembles a hybrid between Burn Notice and James Bond, which seems about right.
However, the interesting thing about the story will be that it, like many other RPGs, will have a branching storyline. Your reaction to situations will largely define not only the plot but your own character’s development and how others react to you. We were able to watch a live demo where two screens were shown going through the same situation – talking to a female Russian operative. When our character issued an aggressive response to her queries, she joined up with the character and decided to help him complete his mission. However, if you choose a more passive response for your character, then she gets angry and you will trigger a mini-boss fight.
Another highly-customizable aspect of Alpha Protocol will be the combat. There are plenty of different kinds of spies out there, and the game really lets you take control of your character’s development. For instance, during the demo we saw two completely different versions of Michael Thornton. One was a black-clad, bearded fellow that looked a lot like the 1.0 version of Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell: Conviction. This version of the main character had plenty of stealth moves, and he was able to sneak around different areas undetected and could even use a very temporary invisibility gadget to run behind foes.
On the other screen, there was a clean-shaven, James Bond-esque main character, who relied on shooting to blast his way past enemies. Not only was the look of each character completely different, but the combat style was so distinct it was hard to believe that we were looking at two demos of the exact same game. In addition to stealth combat and gunplay, we were also told that you can focus on hand to hand combat as well.
But of course, knowing your way in and out of a fight is only a piece of the ultra-spy puzzle. The team behind the game let us know that there would be plenty of side missions, chances to schmooze with the enemy, and even some juicy possibilities where Michael Thorton’s love life is concerned.
Alpha Protocol definitely looks like it will stick to RPG conventions with its branching storyline and leveled combat, and it will even stay true to basically all conventions of the spy genre. However, what looks to set this title apart will be the scope of these elements. The story will take wildly different turns based on your actions in the game, and as we were able to see in the demo, the way you play the game can also be greatly affected by your choices. The story even looks like it will be over the top. Spy enthusiasts should definitely check this one out, and it should be a safe bet for RPG fans when it releases this fall.
If Shenmue Was about Spy Gadgets Rather Than Forklifts…
December 16, 2008 – Perhaps it’s coincidental that SEGA will be publishing Obsidian’s upcoming Alpha Protocol, since – at a glance – you could mistake it for a North American Shenmue. If you don’t see it, we’ll help paint the picture.
Replace the Asian retro-romanticism with a summer blockbuster vibe, then lay everything out according to one developer’s big dream (not a marketing department’s). Define the youthful main character as an unstoppable man out to solve a mystery, even though they’re a rookie that’s marching into a lion’s den. Now, go even further – defy the FPS-loving masses, and adopt a third-person viewpoint. Before it’s all said and done, toss in a long-shot hope – that the fans of traditional RPGs and action romps alike will give it a spin.
It’s a familiar path that SEGA tread once before, and the underwhelming response led to the death of a first-party franchise. Given that, this budding action RPG is an interesting venture for SEGA, and its external development removes them from investing every penny themselves. Though they’re only the publisher on this go-’round, will the gamble prove worth their while?
What’s certain is that Obsidian’s universe doesn’t rival the size of Suzuki’s. Aside from completing Alpha Protocol’s missions, you can explore what they’re calling “safe houses” – there aren’t any cities to be found. Depending on how you perceive titles like Shenmue and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., this may come off as a plus. You’ll spend hardly any time running around – unless you’re running and gunning against your foes, that is.
Obsidian’s clearly emphasizing the “action” half of the title’s “action RPG” labeling, which befits its explosion-prone Hollywood-esque script: you’re a greenhorn super-spy out to make his mark, and you’ll have to make your own opportunities. Along the way, the title’s customization system will let you show how well-worn you’ve become, too. You can opt into a scruffy beard or an old military uniform, but in a very non spy-like manner, you’ll stick out — the environments you’ll explore won’t look nearly as lived-in.
You’d think that your seediest foes wouldn’t keep their walls well-scrubbed and their mustaches trimmed, but they’ve a pseudo-Bond to please. Another thing Shenmue had going for it was its lovingly-crafted environments; Alpha Protocol’s are practically as sanitary as a hospital’s walls. Between now and its slated 2009 release, there’s a chance Obsidian may breathe life into the ho-hum stages, but that can’t be guaranteed. This title will have to earn the RPG half of its categorizing somehow, which means their current focus could be script-related content.
They’re aiming to strike a balance between the linear storytelling of Japanese RPGs and the sandbox-like style of Western endeavors, and that’s going to be challenging. The advantage of Japanese RPG storytelling is in its writers’ opportunity to pen a very coherent tale (though whether they do or not is up to debate). Meanwhile, Western developers like to let the player’s actions speak louder than pre-written words. Thus, if Obsidian’s overarching plot isn’t strong, the main character – whose name is Michael Thorton – will have to compensate with his chit-chat.
A many-branched dialog tree, descended from the system used in Neverwinter Nights 2, should give players the freedom to experience multiple twists on Protocol’s storyline. It’ll also include several endings, and you may not even know the far-reaching consequences of your loose lips until you’ve finished the game. While you watch the finale unfold, you’ll likely wonder, “what if I’d said something else?”, and that’s where the replay value comes in. If you can immerse yourself in the script, you may enjoy Michael’s spying efforts despite his lackluster surroundings.
Maybe the music will help enhance the atmosphere, but hardly any of that has been heard yet. Since there isn’t a concrete release date in sight, Obsidian can do practically anything their budget allows with this one. Will it become Shenmue Lite and pull SEGA back into this genre, or will it fall flat alongside the likes of Dark Sector? Chances are, we’ll be waiting for months till we’ll get to find out, and no amount of spy toys – nor virtual gashapon – will let us peek into Alpha Protocol’s future.