Alpha Protocol Impressions: Looks DeceiveS

Like the spy agent depicts, the espionage role-playing game Alpha Protocol is stealthily approaching its release, now slated for early summer. And it's still a tricky game to size up. A few observations from a recent demonstration of the game:

It Doesn't Look Like A Role-Playing Game: At least the Mass Effect games are science fiction, which makes it possible that someone might mistake one of them for being a role-playing game, even though they look like shooters. Obsidian's Alpha Protocol, built like Mass Effect in the Unreal Engine 3 but set in the modern world of a James Bond or Jason Bourne sort of spy, really does look like a third-person shooter. I watched a Sega producer play part of one of the game's early levels during a demo of the title in New York City last week and it sure looked like he was playing a third-person machine-gun raid of a Middle Eastern military complex. I needed the producer to tell me that the size of the gun's targeting reticule was affected by some of the player-character's gun-oriented stats. I needed him to remind me that he was activating various earned perks that would, for example, briefly display enemy positions on a mini-map before needing to shut off for a cool-down period. In other words, I needed him to remind me of the underlying stat-based, RPG-ness of this game. It's not obvious at a glance.

Yes, It Can Be Won Without A Trigger Finger:
As reported last year, Alpha Protocol can be cleared using 100% non-lethal means. The Sega producer said that you can do one better than finishing a Metal Gear Solid with just use of a tranquilizer gun. Someone from the development team cleared the game using only close quarters combat. It was described as "very challenging."

There's A Little Bit Of Crackdown In This Formula: Pardon me if I'm missing other precedents for the kind of optional wide-ranging consequences I so enjoyed in 2007 Xbox 360 open-world game Crackdown. But that game is my point of reference for the idea that making a decision in one corner of a game world can suddenly have sweeping affects on much of the rest of the world. In the case of Crackdown, the player, as a super-cop, was able to take down a gang's lieutenants before attacking the gang's boss. These lieutenants, scattered across a sector of Crackdown's city, might be in charge of vehicles or guns or recruiting for the gang. If you took out the vehicle lieutenant, then suddenly the rest of the gang would have inferior vehicles. If you took out the gun-running guy, then they'd have worse guns. In the level I was shown of Alpha Protocol, we encountered a weapons dealer. We could arrest him, but then lose him as a possible source of weapons in the future. We could kill him, but therefore anger a friend of his we would meet later in the game. We could extort him and make some money while angering our superiors who preferred the option to arrest. But most interesting to me was the idea that keeping him alive would ensure that he'd also keep selling guns to the enemy, arming people we'd be facing in the game. Taking him out of action would have blocked him. I can't tell if the consequences would feel as far-reaching in Alpha Protocol as they did in Crackdown, but the idea of ascribing such widespread consequence to an optional action is exciting and worth watching to see how it is delivered in the final game.

It's no secret that I consider previewing a role-playing game one of the harder tasks of a game reporter. One can sense so few parts of these elephants that it's hard to make out the whole shape. I was told that the game, which had been delayed from its old fall 2009 release, has been progressing well, of course. An inventory comparison screen has been added. Its targeting reticule has been modified to better demonstrate shooting proficiency. Meanwhile, its graphics are beginning to look dated as more beautiful role-playing games become common. The setting's the hook, though. An RPG with espionage trappings? Sounds good. Let's hope early summer is the final target for release.