|Platform:||PC, PS3, Xbox 360|
Obsidian has been hard at work on Alpha Protocol, and they've made big strides from the time of its announcement (last year) until now. Published by Sega, this multiplatform (PC/PS3/360) "modern spy" RPG is presently scheduled for a Fall 2009 release. We had a chance to meet with Matt Rorie (A wicked cool guy. -JohnM), Marketing Producer at Obsidian, to check out the latest "alpha build" of Alpha Protocol.
The game takes place in the "near future," and you play the role of a spy named Michael Thorton (Not the long-lost twin of San Jose Sharks Player Joe Thornton. -JohnM). It seems Thorton was betrayed by his former employers, and is now working independently to clear up his tarnished reputation, or perhaps, just get lots and lots of sweet revenge. After all, this is another one of those touted "moral choices" games.
Thorton (often misspelled as "Thornton," a fact that the developers decided to poke fun at within the game) is the one and only playable character in the game. You cannot choose to be a female, and you cannot change the basic physical features of the young man. However, when back at your home base, you can play with hair style (including facial hair), and accessorize with hats, glasses, etc. (You can change your clothes, too, but instead of just making Thorton look like Fidel Castro, it actually has repercussions in the game. -JohnM).
Gameplay "proper" takes places in short missions that send you to various shady locales. In the demo shown to us by Matt Rorie, Michael Thorton heads to Moscow to meet a female Russian operative who, apparently, likes it rough. Before demonstrating combat, we saw how the dialogue system works in Alpha Protocol. When it's your chance to talk, up to four dialogue options appear. They can be represented as a portion of your full statement, or as a generic description of how you'll react. The reaction statements are assigned to different buttons. The trick to this dialogue system, that makes it stand apart from Mass Effect (and other BioWare titles) is that these dialogue sequences are like quick-time events. You have a time limit (and a fairly short one at that) to determine your reaction. Doing your homework is key: in the menu, your dossier gives you background information on nearly every character you meet. Thus, if you read up on the people you may encounter, you know how to properly control their reactions. In the demo we watched, Thorton chose to be aggressive with the Russian operative. As a result, she and her faction helped you take on some "bad guys" (I use the term loosely) while you complete your own objective. After the mission was complete, however, Rorie took the aggression too far, and the operative decided to fight you in a mini-boss-battle sequence.
However, fighting her just makes her like you all the more. The game displays "relationship" points for major characters you interact with. Most characters would not react the way she did, of course: most people aren't gluttons for punishment. In another part of the demonstration, we saw Thorton get aggressive with an old, drunk man. The man gets smacked around pretty badly for refusing to answer some questions. However, your "handler" (a young lady who exists as a primary love interest in the game) does not approve of these methods. A second play of this scene by Mr. Rorie demonstrated a much more amicable exchange, with the end result being the same: except you didn't freak out everyone in the bar, and your handler didn't hate you for what you did. (Thorton got way fewer bad-ass points in the second version, though. -JohnM).
The game's combat system looked rough in the demo we saw, with plenty of little graphical glitches that need to be ironed out before launch. But combat looks like plenty of fun. You enter missions with a limited selection of a large stockpile of weaponry. As you level, you can assign skill points to certain proficiencies to help master weapons usage (including martial arts). Much like Mass Effect, players unlock abilities the further they have placed their points in a particular skill. (The combat was looking good, even if there were some alpha-build glitches. I've got faith in Obsidian that this will be cleaned up. -JohnM).
There's a lot more to say based on the 30 minutes of gameplay we saw. Missions are radically open-ended, and anyone who laments the plain old "good or bad" morality choices of other RPGs will enjoy the truly morally ambiguous quality of this game. It's not about right or wrong: it's about getting the job done right, and seeing what happens along the way. (That's including seeing if you can bag the Bond girls, too. -JohnM). There's no question that we'll be looking forward to this game's full launch before the end of 2009.