Fairly or not, RPGs are fatally associated with orcs, aliens and bearded wizards. Not everyone likes the idea of having to level-up characters over 50 hours, or learn different trades just to be a Level 6 cobbler. Sega’s Alpha Protocol, however, is a ‘stealth’ RPG, applying its stat-heavy mechanics and micro-management in a world anyone can relate to – modern day espionage; in an action adventure where you can be Bourne, Bond and Bauer all at once.
The spy thriller theme might be well represented on the silver screen, with Bond forced into re-invention by the grittier Bourne movies, but there haven’t been many games trying to compete – especially ones that meld the action of an FPS and the depth of an RPG. So we’re pleased that Obsidian – famed for traditional RPGs like Neverwinter Nights and the much lauded Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – are tackling this niche market. First things first: don’t be fooled by Alpha Protocol’s generic-looking lead character – he can be customised to look however you want. He’s called Mike Thornton and, apart from this name, everything can be fiddled about with, including facial features, clothing and skin tone. You’ll even be able to customise his personality and reputation along the way too, but more on this later.
The story follows Mike’s progress from a fledgling CIA field agent – happily tidying up messes that the pen-pushers create – through to the twist, where everything goes pear-shaped and he’s cut loose by his employers – like Jason Bourne. Lucky for Mike, he’s the only one with the insider info needed to bring a mysterious tyrant to justice before he can cause global mayhem, sparing him from being whacked by his ex-bosses. You’ll meet friends along the way who’ll help you in your quest, like Scarlet Lake, sexy freelance photographer, and a young pistol-toting girl with an old bloke, which reminded us a lot of the film The Professional. Originality, eh? But for every good person, you’ll find a whole host of bad folk ready to stab you in the back.
Mike’s pursuit of evil takes you around the world. Rome, Japan and Saudi Arabia have all been confirmed, with possible visits to the US and Russia in the offing too, and each place will contain Intel and contacts to help you along the way. Computers, TVs and radios can all be used to harvest clues and there’s going to be an in-game internet service for you to use. How does it play? Well, there’s a very familiar feel to Alpha Protocol, as it adopts the over-the-shoulder viewpoint from Resident Evil 4, the stealth and sneaking of Splinter Cell and the visceral body-breaking of a beat-‘em-up like Virtua Fighter. And Mike is just like Jason Bourne when it comes to battling. If he’s surrounded by enemies, then you can tap a few buttons to lay them out quickly in a blur of punches and grapples. During one scene we grimaced as Mike ran down a corridor toward a foe and delivered a Muay-Thai style flying knee that burst his jaw with a sickening crunch and a gush of blood. Ouch.
But the shooting seems a bit ropey at this early stage. The Middle Eastern setting is where we get to see his trigger-finger in action, and he’s all kitted out in desert-camo while swirling sand clouds whip around the valley. The duck and cover system – as you’d expect – allows you to pop out and fire off a few rounds before heading to safety as we see while Mike’s about to descend into the enemy base via a zip-line. Two quick pops on a red barrel and the wagon parked next to it that goes up in an impressive looking explosion. Even better is the fact that the blokes within the blast radius are still on fire and screaming for mercy – so Mike obliges and pings a couple of headshots with an assault rifle. The best thing about the shooting mechanics is that enemies will drop after only a few bullets, the worst and most confusing aspect is that you never run out of ammo – so why bother to sneak about when you’ve got this endless arsenal? Hopefully, we’ll see a change before the 2009 release.
In a classic RPG fashion there are numerous plot threads to explore. Just like GTAIV, you’ll have to make key decisions at certain times, which will shape the outcome of upcoming events and the people you’ll encounter. So giving a negative response to a character’s questioning will lead you to a different directive and vice-versa. This intertwining story is also affected by your in-game actions, since you’re allowed to choose how to approach a mission objective. Unlike, say, Splinter Cell – where you have to use stealth throughout an operation – Alpha Protocol gives you a free-form template to play with, so if you’re partial to a spot of sneaking then you can avoid confrontation by sticking to the walls, taking out security cameras with EMPs and other gadgets and hacking keypads via a selection of minigames, but there’s scope for going nuts with a gun too.