Choices matter in Sega and Obsidian's upcoming Alpha Protocol--a modern-day spy game that splits the distance between traditional role-playing game and straight-up action shooter. The game's narrative poses a particular challenge for its designers: How do you make sure that the decisions a player makes--even relatively simple choices--have far-reaching consequences throughout the rest of the game's plot? It's an ambitious goal for a game that, according to developers, will have about 20 hours of gameplay, and earlier today, we got a taste of the range of consequences players may face.
You play as Michael Thornton, a rookie CIA operative who finds himself embroiled in a global conspiracy as the game's narrative threads unwind. Along the way, Thornton will interact with a large cast of non-player characters; how he interacts with these characters will determine how they treat him as we saw in detail during a demo given to us by Sega representatives. Approximately midway through the game, Thornton returns home to find a female character named Madison asleep in his bed. Up to this point, Sega reps told us, Thornton and Madison have had a close relationship, which the dialogue between the two confirms. As the two talk, dialogue options pop up periodically, which you can use to direct Thornton's responses--depending on the situation, you can choose to react in a variety of ways--from frustrated to tender and many points in between. You can even choose to skip the conversation altogether and move on to the next scene.
How you interact with the game's characters will build up a reputation, which is unique to each NPC. In the case of Madison, it was obvious that Thornton's reputation was in the positive, as the two shared an intimate moment that likely turned even more intimate offscreen. Once the Sega reps loaded up the game with a different save, however, we got a completely different take on the Thornton/Madison angle. This time, when Thornton entered the room, Madison was hiding in wait and managed to belt him in the head twice then shock him with one of his own spy gadgets. We weren't clear on the subtleties of the plot that led up to Madison's anger toward Thornton, but it was clear that, in this play-through, his reputation had suffered in her eyes.
Reputation and consequences are an important aspect of the role playing in Alpha Protocol, but it isn't the whole story. The game's many action sequences are also powered by an RPG system that has you buying weapons or equipment with money you pick up, upgrading weapons with new accessories or ammo, and a robust skill system that lets you build Thornton into the kind of spy you want to play. There are nine different skills you can train in--a good chunk of them are centered on the different kinds of weapons you use in the game, including pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, and so on. There are also specialized skills, such as stealth or breaking and entering, which you can upgrade as well.
As you upgrade skills, you'll gain additional proficiency with that particular weapon or ability; if you upgrade it enough, you'll earn entirely new active skills that you can use in the field. For example, if you put enough points into stealth, you'll eventually earn an active skill that will let you essentially move invisibly for a short amount of time. It can't be used at a full run, of course, but it seems as if it will be valuable tool for those who are looking to play Alpha Protocol in a stealthy manner.
While developers told us that you can play the entire game without killing a single enemy, it seems like combat will be plentiful. The game is played from a third-person perspective, and when aiming your weapon, you'll have a targeting reticle pop up--the longer you aim the reticle without firing, the more accurate your shot will be. If you use stealth wisely, you'll be able to sneak up on enemies and take them out without even firing a shot. This being a spy game, you can also use the game's plethora of gadgets to aid you in the action--things like electro-magnetic pulse grenades, radio mimics, incendiary grenades, and, of course, the ubiquitous first aid kits.
From what we've seen of it so far, Alpha Protocol looks to have something to offer thoughtful RPG fans, as well as guns-blazing loose cannons. The game's multilimbed plot looks to offer lots of intriguing choices to the player, not to mention the prospect of multiple play-throughs to see how things might shake out with a different style of play. Here's hoping the action sequences live up to the ambition of the game's narrative. Alpha Protocol is due for release on June 1.