Alpha Protocol

We've been expecting you

Weve been here before, sat in front of Obsidians upcoming action RPG, Alpha Protocol. Originally set to release late October 09, Sega announced the game would be further delayed until early 2010. It seems little has been changed since we last saw it, apart from some spring cleaning.

Trying something different, Obsidian has gone for a modern-day setting for their espionage RPG. Essentially, Alpha Protocol is an intriguing entry to the RPG genre. With enough content to share over 30 hours of gameplay and several different endings, classes and styles to try out. Everything is affected by which decisions you make. Who you keep alive, who you kill, and your reputation with the characters around you all have a direct impact on the ending.

Showing off more of the story elements this time around, Sega demoed a few dialogue-only missions that would be available in the game. These missions require you to react quickly to NPCs conversing, kind of like a more realistically styled conversation. This quick-reaction feature is much more engaging, especially in comparison to Mass Effects dialogue tree which allows you take as long as you like to reply. The only real nag is that the options take over the middle of the screen, completely removing any immersion you were gaining from the conversation. While it does outline how quick you need to make the decision, it is a serious mood killer.

You can also choose between several different answer styles that are more about your personality rather than trying to gain facts or delve deeper into the mind of the NPC you are chatting to. These choices range from serious, cheeky, suave, tough and all sorts of other styles that affect how the NPC reacts with you in the future. If they are going to help you out, tip you off or screw you over completely in future missions. With the female NPCs, this tends to be another attempt at creating relationships and while the dialogue between jealous female characters is humorous, sometimes it feels a little out of character for some. The game even utilises an email system to keep on track with NPCs and keep in contact, which is a nice way to keep your reputation up. There is a benefit to being nice or nasty to certain characters as well, the handlers offer you certain stat bonuses depending on their like or dislike towards you. Quite interesting, especially if those bonuses end up influencing your choices in the game.

This brings us onto another point about character interaction, the lip syncing. I cant help but not compare Alpha Protocol to the rather polished BioWare creation, Mass Effect 2. It seems the lip syncing is not Obsidians strong point this time around and it seriously shows. Partner this with rather robotic and over-the-top facial animations and you have some really uncomfortable conversations ahead of you. While certainly more comfortable than conversing in Fallout 3, the eyebrows were just bobbing up and down and eyes jutting all over the place making it difficult to really connect with the characters. Plus there are signs of texture pop-in, especially when you are out and about taking care of business.

The voices range from well delivered and a joy to experience to unbearably and extraordinarily embarrassing. At one point we were watching a scene with Micheal Thorton, the protagonist, and a Chinese diplomat called Taipei you need to protect. If ridiculously accented Chinese characters make you cringe then youll be hammering the mute button frequently. Lets hope there are no Russians, right?

You have a safe house to seek refuge. Here you can answer emails, customise your load-out and upgrade weapons. This is also where youll gain access to new gadgets to purchase as well as Intel for missions. Another cheeky nod to Mass Effect 2 is the collectable trophies you pick up from various missions that clutter the safe house, a nice touch that shows your progression in the story. You can also access the dossier system here to read character bios, information about certain factions. This is unlocked by finding files dotted around the game, purchasing intel as well as hacking. Yes, hacking. Yet another familiar nod to BioWares epic space RPG. The hacking is a little different however and a lot more challenging. One of the hacking styles gives you seconds to match up symbols on a screen while other symbols are constantly changing around it. It was very tough to see and was good fun spotting them out. You can bypass the hacking by using EMPs if you are feeling particularly baffled.

You can completely customise the way Micheal Thorton looks. You can alter his hair; give him a dashing beret maybe? A nice touch but it seems strange that Obsidian didnt take a more complete character customisation route or even the ability to be female. They say this has to do with how concentrated the story is around Michael but it is a real shame. The skills screen is almost identical to that of the original Mass Effect, something we feel could have been dramatically altered.

Last but not least is the actual combat system itself. We got our hands on a stealth mission where Michael was infiltrating what looked like a casino. There were alarms that could be triggered from the lights above and there was a good amount of stealth play to be enjoyed. We triggered the alarm a few times and some enemies appeared. The shooting feels a little raw, still styled like a third-person action game but the recital in the middle was so large it covered most of the target. Its lucky that the damage doesnt increase or decrease depending on where you shoot them in the body. For a game that focuses on guns and gadgets, youd think Obsidian would have at least included the trusty headshot.

We found it easier to run up to targets and taken them down with some punches and kicks rather than with the guns. As the damage output from the guns is totally reliant on the player constantly upgrading their weapons, we were struggling to take down large swarms of enemies. There is also a selection of skills and moves to utilise during battles. We enjoyed stealth killing enemies by going invisible or by throwing flash-bangs down. You can place mines on pillars or even throw grenades, although the combat system looks pretty diverse from the limited time we had with it.

Of course, this is still preview code we were looking at. Overall the idea is great; the relationship and reputation feature is especially deep and we are talking about a game that you can play multiple times in a multitude of styles. While right now the game still feels rough, there is plenty of potential to push it forward and certainly attempt to compete with BioWares RPG hold on the western market.

E3 Trailer