Preview

Alpha Protocol

Stevie hopes for the best

On the whole, we feel the inaugural GamesCom trade fair in Koln has thus far been fruitful in terms of content coverage for upcoming titles likely to whet the appetites of our readership. Yet, after leaving today's 'behind closed doors' presentation of Obsidian's espionage role-playing game Alpha Protocol, we were left scratching our heads regarding one of the titles we had particularly high hopes for.

And here's the build-up to why: Alpha Protocol is a choice-led haven of in-depth RPG customisation that revolves around Agent Michael Thornton as he works to uncover a deeply woven conspiracy connected to the shock downing of a commercial airliner over Eastern Europe. As Thornton works to reveal the truth, he will hone a massive variety of skills, upgrade and evolve a fierce arsenal of weaponry and gadgetry, influence unfolding events and missions via an intuitive dialogue system, examine the underbelly of mysterious organisations, and battle rival spies. What's not to like about all that?

Suitably intrigued by the prospect of a genuinely compelling spy thriller helmed by RPG stalwarts Obsidian Entertainment (Neverwinter Nights 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II) our expectations were perhaps a little too elevated as we took our seats in publisher Sega's bustling business centre.

Now that's not to say Alpha Protocol won't arrive in October as one of the year's biggest hitters (it might), but with such a short window of time left before the game's retail release, we have to wonder whether our concerns can be addressed - if Obsidian happens to cast an eye over this preview.

Firstly, let's focus on the genuine points of appeal on display during the Alpha Protocol presentation, namely the depth of customisation and the ambitious choice-led narrative.

Regardless of how we slice it, the idea of spending far too long tweaking weapons, armour and support gadgets before heading out on a mission from, say, a safehouse in Taipei, gives us a thrill that's hard to suppress. Similarly, mapping amassed experience points onto special character-defining skillsets after completing a nerve-jangling mission punctuated by lethal and non-lethal Bond-esque takedowns has us virtually weak at the knees.

The time-based communication system, while somewhat limited to fairly simple contextual reactions still demands investment just to see how player decisions under the pressure of a ticking clock influence the game. And it's also impressive to note Alpha Protocol's possible longevity insofar as dialogue decisions will often open or close specific missions later in the game, while the vast experience point allocation system near-demands repeated play-throughs to approach and experience the game from various angles and with different honed skills.

There's no arguing with these structural elements, and all were painstakingly highlighted during the (annoyingly non-playable) demo. But therein lies the problem. The majority of the presentation involved delving into the many layers of customisation available to the player whenever Thornton is between missions housed in one of several international safehouse locations. Surrounded by clean but strangely bland environments, the unexpected graphical sterility, atmospheric shortfall and lack of scale was carried over when Thornton left his Moscow safehouse to finally take on a mission.

Specifically, segue cut scenes looked disappointing by the standards of some genre heavyweights - and worryingly there was no exterior exploration or travel to view as Thornton prepared to unleash his heroics. Surely the final game won't simply transfer the player from safehouse to mission and back again... surely that was merely an unexplained demo condition designed to save time? Regardless, it was safehouse-to-segue-to-mission. Done. Exterior gameplay was necessary, and its no-show was a distinct disappointment. Furthermore, as an aesthetic aside, characters were visually lacking in, well... emotion and character, and dialogue animation was particularly undercooked.

Once ready to take on the mission, which involved a straightforward assault on a luxury yacht to retrieve valuable documents, the same slickly clean graphical style seen in the safehouse was offset by a bout of unintentionally comical running and gunning on a disco dance floor that culminated in Thornton embroiled in a Naked Gun shooting match where the elite protagonist and his enemy were separated by only a grand piano - yet couldn't seem to fire with enough accuracy to kill each other.

Interestingly, when the demo screeched to a sudden halt, the attending Sega and Obsidian handlers conducting the session looked sullen when asked if a pre-release downloadable demo would be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC owners ahead of Alpha Protocol's release.

The answer, which did not include explanation, was a definite no. Is Sega looking to build anticipation by holding hands-on gameplay back until the game hits retail, or is it something else entirely?

Given that Alpha Protocol promises to deliver some 30 hours of potentially tantalising game time and numerous repeat plays, we truly, truly hope the GamesCom demo was Obsidian on a bad day and not indicative of the final release - something that would have been much easier to assess had we perhaps been handed the Xbox 360 controller. Alas that was not to be, and so we're now left harbouring niggling doubts regarding one of the year's most ambitious creations. Our fingers are crossed for the future of Michael Thornton, as are our legs, toes and eyes.

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