We haven’t said much about Obsidian Entertainment’s upcoming RPG-Shooter Alpha Protocol here at the Slowdown, tweeting updates on the game instead. I think what has kept us from being too enthusiastic is the confusing nature of the media coming out of Sega; an interesting weapons showcase is followed by a lame cinematic trailer, and so on. But what keeps me interested is the potential of the team behind the game. As I related recently, I’m a huge fan of Planescape: Torment, a 90’s RPG created by some of the developers who are now at Obsidian, including writer/designer Chris Avellone. So I’m hoping that the mixed messages are a result of sloppy marketing.
It wouldn’t be the only thing Sega’s screwing up: the game was initially to drop in October last year, but was then pushed back to “Summer 2010” without an announcement1, only to be finally dated for May 28th in Europe, and June 1st in the US. Much of the team has already moved on to their next title, Fallout: New Vegas2, also slated for this year.
So, Alpha Protocol. The “first modern day spy role-playing game” puts you in the shoes of Agent Michael Thorton on a covert ops mission to investigate terrorist activity and all that jazz. It seems to be more traditional with its RPG mechanics than most RPG shooters these days (which usually only go as far as incorporating “RPG elements”), featuring a full skills system allowing you to customize your character’s physical attributes and ability to use weapons and gadgets. Each ability tree can be upgraded with skill points with passive and active skill milestones. A point in the Pistols tree, for example, can improve accuracy with the weapon; one of the passive skills early on improves critical hit chances, and an example of an active skill is the Chain Shot, which momentarily slows down time to let you mark one or more enemies before your character executes an efficient series of shots to take them all down. It reminds me of the V.A.T.S. feature in Fallout 3, or perhaps the Mark and Execute feature in the upcoming Splinter Cell: Conviction.
The shooter side of the game appears to be pretty solid so far. I’ll have to be honest, I find the animations and overall action to look a little rough, but I’m willing to forgive that if it feels right when actually playing it. It’s kind of hard to know for sure, anyway, with the walkthrough videos being demonstrated with fiddly joypads, making the player look like a fumbling idiot. A familiar problem, sigh. The game focuses on allowing you to be an expert (read: badass) in whichever area you choose, fulfilling the fantasy of being one of the three J.B.s, Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. The cover art most certainly reflects this, giving off that espionage vibe well and an improvement over the old art. I thought at first that the subtitle “The Espionage RPG” was a little strange, but looking back at some of the developer’s older titles it made a little more sense.
Another feature of note is the conversation system. Presenting you with something resembling the conversation wheel in the Mass Effect games, the game gives you a choice of conversational tones as opposed to actual lines, which lets you direct your responses in a more general way. Additionally, you only have a limited time to pick one, à la Indigo Prophecy, hence declining to respond is an option too. With Avellone behind the writing, I do look forward to the story - clichéd trailers notwithstanding. The game promises branching story paths, leading to not only multiple endings but “multiple middles” as Obsidian explains in the video below. Every character presents you with a choice in how to treat them, and there are “ripple effects” of every action resulting in consequences that are not necessarily “in terms of good or bad, but just the reactivity of the world to what you do”3. The complexity of the narrative and its many branches, something Avellone tries to describe on his blog, is intriguing and probably the biggest draw for me.
Alpha Protocol launches on May 28 in Europe and June 1 in the US, for the PC, XBox 360 and PS3; if you preorder it on Steam you can get a free copy of Gas Powered Games’ Space Siege.