PAX East ’10: Alpha Protocol
Ever since its announcement, Alpha Protocol has largely remained a game shrouded in secrecy. Tidbits of info have been released here and there along its lengthy development period only to have the game withdraw back into the shadows. During the second day of PAX I was fortunate enough to get a first-hand look at the so called ‘Espionage RPG,’ along with a handful of other journalists.
One of the biggest points Sega and Obsidian have wanted to preach about Alpha Protocol is that it isn’t simply a game with many different endings. Given the amount of choices in dialogue or gameplay approaches, they wanted to push the point of Alpha Protocol being a game with many different middles. To illustrate this point the demonstration kicked off with a dialogue sequence between lead protagonist Michael Thornton and a female character named Madison. During the initial run through Michael was lead down a generally soothing and understanding dialogue path that ended with a kiss between the two characters. Afterwards the same scene was brought up on an adjacent screen where Madison was furious at Michael and ended up knocking him out. The most important aspect of these alternate scenarios is that they supposedly send ripples throughout the rest of the story, creating your own unique experience.
Moving away from the choices in dialogue, the demonstration jumped to a different part of the game situated in the Middle East. Immediately we were shown Michael’s inventory and stats screen so we could learn a little more about Alpha Protocol’s skill system. Using AP that is accumulated throughout the game players are able to spend points to create the agent of their own preference. Depending on the path, whether it be Stealth, Pistols, Martial Arts or so on, each path requires its own specific amount of AP to level up; Stealth requires more points than Martial Arts because it’s generally more useful. As the paths are filled in Michael acquires various skills that can be broken down into passive and active skills, the latter of which need to be triggered for use.
Resuming the game, our guide equipped Michael’s weapon with some silent ammunition to stealthily remove the sentries in the area. Triggering one of his active skills, Michael became virtually invisible for a short period as he snuck up behind the first of his prey. Using a combat knife, he dispatched of the oblivious soldier in a silent and vicious manner. From the perch where the soldier once stood he proceeded to snipe a few of the men patrolling below, as well as one in a nearby lookout tower.
Using another stealth running skill our demo followed Michael deeper into enemy territory. Nailing another one of the soldiers unfortunately alerted some nearby enemies. With his cover blown, there was no longer a need for silent ammo as Michael equipped something a bit noisier and found some cover. After taking out the last of the nearby soldiers there was a short break before a large armored vehicle arrived. Moving from cover to cover and finding a series of trusty – if a bit convenient – rocket launchers, Michael bombarded the vehicle until it came to a halt on a nearby bridge.
Michael then confronted a General who emerges from the fiery wreckage, at this point Alpha Protocol transitions to its dialogue system, which notably uses a timer to force players to be decisive and think quickly. Without getting into the specifics, Michael is informed that the people he has trusted and followed to this point aren’t exactly who they appear. From here he has to decide how to deal with the General, and in the case of our demo, Michael ended up tossing him off the bridge.
With the demonstration concluded and the story hook revealed, one of the developers from Obsidian opened the floor up for a brief QA session. Much like the Madison sequence from earlier, he continued to stress how the combat could have been approached differently and how the General could have been spared. Keeping with the many middles theme it was revealed that the game has close to twelve hours of cut-scenes, but given the branching nature of the storyline it’s likely during a single playthrough you’ll only see about four hours worth.
After the demo the most burning question I had was how choice could be employed outside of missions, specifically if you had any say in where you went and what missions you took. Thankfully it was confirmed that Alpha Protocol plays out through a series of safe houses across the world that act as hubs, which can be moved between freely. From these locations you’re able to choose missions to take or skip, however, none of the missions will be throw away side-quests. Each mission will support the overall narrative, rather than simply existing to pad the game’s length.
From what I witnessed and was told about Alpha Protocol the game looks promising, but I do have some concerns. Considering that it’s gone through a lengthy delay and the fact that we were watching – rather than playing – a demonstration of a game that lands in only two short months, I find myself slightly skeptical. Despite my reservations, as an emerging fan of Western RPGs I remain optimistic that Obsidian can deliver a title that plays as well as it sounds.