Alpha Protocol Aims Ambitiously For RPG, FPS Fans

Obsidian Entertainment says it's found the right mix of action and RPG, balancing subtlety with "over-the-top" visual style, and weighing realism carefully against the "abstraction" of fantasy elements.

Alpha Protocol, though billed as an "action-RPG," sounds a bit weighted more toward the former than the latter, aiming for a happy medium that hopes to make RPG elements accessible to twitch fans, while still adding the depth to please RPG purists. Not only that, but the team's touted a heavy emphasis on character interaction and player choice.

It sounds like a a tall order to fil, but when the developers' pedigree includes projects like KOTOR 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2

The Obsidian team held a conference call today to answer tons of questions about the game. Is it challenging to do a modern, realistic RPG (especially with Star Wars and NWN in your rearview)? How do the action elements balance with the RPG elements, and just how much influence will the players have? What kind of man is hero Michael Thorton?

"When we made Alpha Protocol, we had just finished up Neverwinter Nights 2 [which was] pretty traditional, pretty rules-based... and we wanted to do something a little more action-based, a little bit more accessible," said Obsidian executive producer Chris Parker.

"We really liked the spy genre," he said. The team also thought it would be cool to give the player the experience of developing from a green rookie agent into a "modern-day superhero." Thorton will have many traditional weapons, but will level up on a skill-based curve.

One of the things the team said was that they hoped to welcome more traditional FPS players into the RPG fold by allowing the player to simply auto-level on a class-like track, while still allowing more experienced RPG players to develop whichever skills they wanted, and allocate their points on their own.

While they hope to offer a good deal of character customization, players won't, Obsidian said, be doing the "traditional 'make your face' type modifications" - instead, customization for Thorton is more about his skills, abilities and accessories, along with subtle appearance factors like hairstyles.

Interactions with different characters will influence which factions ally with you and which oppose you - in particular, the team said you can expect your endgame to be heavily influenced by your actions in the game. The conversation wheel, the team said, resembles Mass Effect's a bit, but with less looping back and more of a real-time feel; it's also possible to choose a single "stance" and carry it through all of your interactions.

Even though Alpha Protocol is a modern spy thriller, the team decided it shouldn't go too far into realism. "We originally went for a more realistic version of gameplay and the way Thorton interacted with the world, but that wasn't as exciting as having some kind of magical abilities," said Parker. "Michael Thorton is a super-agent, so we have added some abstraction, and something... like super-powers."

One such special ability will involve Thorton being able to stop time and line up shots to kill many opponents at once.

It was also a challenge to balance realism with an engaging RPG, the team said, so in terms of the story feel, they took inspiration from the post-processing effect film style of Syriana. For the visual style, though, the design team wanted to elevate the artistic language. "We wanted to stay away from just having guys in suits... it helps gameplay-wise if they have over-the-top characteristics."

The team also hopes that the game's opening events will draw players in on an emotional level. At the story's opening, a tragic event sends Thorton on a mission - "something that has value to the world and to other people immediately." From there, the world gets turned upside down when Thorton is forced to go rogue to unravel the mystery.

"It's a unique opportunity for the player to have an effect on real world events... basically, the player can affect things happening in the news, in the financial market... to bring down a real bad corporation, or the government if that happens to be the case. There's a chance for the player to affect things happening in our world right now."

Alpha Protocol is slated for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC for February 2009.