E3 2008: Alpha Protocol First Look

We weigh our options in a modern spy role-playing game that remembers nearly every decision you make.

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Alpha Protocol was first announced back in March, intriguing many with its promise of a cross between modern-day espionage action and role-playing-game-style character development, but since then Sega has been playing its cards close to the vest. A couple of weeks ago we took part in a conference call with reps from developer Obsidian Entertainment to discuss some of the concepts and inspirations behind the game, but it wasn't until today that we finally got to see the game up and running. The demo was rather brief, but it gave us enough time to develop a good idea of what to expect from not only the game's heavily customizable combat, but also the consequences that follow your impulsive actions and dialogue selections.

Our demo began with Michael Thorton--the former spy protagonist who has been cast out of the CIA--overlooking the United States embassy in Moscow. With the story still mostly under wraps, we didn't get much information on what brought Thorton to this location or what his ultimate goal is once inside, but we were given a look at some of the gameplay basics involved in getting there. It begins with the guard at the front door. You can stroll up to him and try to smooth-talk your way in using the game's "dialogue stance" system, which is essentially a way of choosing basic emotions over preset lines of dialogue, but a few other options exist. If you're the sneaky type, you can try to make it around to the back entrance using stealth, and if you're the straightforward type, you can simply shoot the guard where he stands. That last option carries a penalty, however, because one of the many factions you have to do business with over the course of the game is the Marines, so when they get wind that you're killing their own, they'll be less inclined to cooperate with you later on.

Soon enough, Thorton made it into the embassy to discover everything in a state of chaos. Overturned desks, sheets of paper scattered across the floor, gunfire aimed in his direction from mysterious G22 agents--not a pretty sight. But all this mayhem provided a good opportunity to get a look at the game's combat system. Although the game is heavily character based in terms of both dialogue options and skill upgrades, the combat veers from RPG standards by offering more twitch-based gameplay. You can run and gun using a variety of upgradable weaponry, take cover, and engage in melee attacks once you're near an enemy. If you're patient enough, you can also sneak up on enemies for stealth attacks. However, the RPG roots show themselves in the upgrade system.

We were able to see a handful of these upgradable skills in action. One of them was a critical-hit technique. What you do with this one is focus your crosshair on an enemy, allow the targeting reticle to tighten in on a small-enough area, and then fire. It requires a bit of patience and precision when enemies are jumping around, but if you get it right, you can pull off a critical hit. Another one we saw was more of a superattack called the bullet storm. It essentially sprays a flood of bullets--far more than your gun would normally fire--in the direction of your helpless enemies. You can also use a skill called the chain shot, which is sort of a bullet-time attack that lets you pull off a series of successive attacks in slow motion.

When the members of Obsidian who were guiding us through the demo finished up in the embassy, they gave us a tour of Thorton's safe house. Here you can equip yourself with gear and accessories for your next mission and also alter your physical appearance with things like skin tone and facial hair. We're told these physical alterations occasionally play into the missions in the game, so you might need to disguise yourself with a well-placed mustache from time to time. In your house there is also a television broadcasting the news. This is notable because your actions in the game alter the news broadcasts, so if you finish one mission in a particularly destructive way, you can expect to see your explosive efforts aired during primetime.

Finally, Obsidian finished off by giving us a look at some of the ways your decisions in the game carry consequences that affect you throughout the rest of the story. This time, Thorton was sent to a level in the Middle East to find a weapons dealer named Nasri. When you get to him, you're given the option to let him go, turn him in, or just kill him. If you let him go, you'll lose your reputation with the agency that sent you on the mission, but you can buy weapons from him whenever you like. If you kill him, you'll unlock a perk called "Any Last Words." We couldn't pry an explanation out of Obsidian about this perk, but we were told that it affects your dialogue abilities. Of course, that makes us wonder if it might be a technique to help you intimidate people---they know you've killed in the past, so they'll be more willing to dish out information to you.

The demo we were given was admittedly quite brief. We're hoping to get a more prolonged look at Alpha Protocol quite soon. Even though the game has the usual rough-around-the-edges look common in games that aren't due for release anytime soon (this one's scheduled for 2009), the premise is intriguing, and the way you craft the world around you with impactful decisions is something we'd like to check out in further detail. Hopefully we'll be able to do that soon, and we'll be sure to give you the details.

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