Alpha Protocol - first look

“The mission structure is designed to present Thorton with an Operation, and then there are several avenues he can explore to tackle it using the skill set or preference of the player,” explains Rucinski. “We don’t want to force you through a linear series of levels, we want to treat every operation in the game like a mini-hub, where you get a number of missions you can tackle in any order, just to give the player more freedom.”

As for developing the skills of young Mr. Thorton, the system being developed is a classless one - with 10 skills in which to level up, each containing 10 slots to spend your valuable Advancement Points (or experience points) in. You won’t be able to max out your character; instead you’ll be molding the game into your chosen form of super spydom - whether its gruff no-nonsense headshots, sneakily hiding in the dark, bloody and silent close combat or gadget-heavy explodifying.

A higher rank opens up different options and perceptions, while almost superhuman secret-agent abilities are on the menu too - working on a ‘use and cool-down’ basis during the action. The example that Obsidian conjure up when prompted is, amazingly enough, heightened reaction times that let you assess situations in slo-mo before letting rip with a six-hit chainshot to decimate a room full of gun-toting terrorists. It’s a mundane example, true, but Alpha Protocol’s over-the-shoulder chase-cam action does seem to be a step up from your average RPG. Combat will have you running and gunning, taking cover or sneaking about the place - but that’s not to say you won’t be able to build your character towards the hand-to-hand fisticuffs recently in vogue.

“If Thorton can get close enough to enemies or if enemies get the jump on him, we have a variety of martial arts moves you can employ. There’s nothing as satisfying as getting close enough to a guy to have him turn around just in time to plant a jumping knee to his face,” explains Rucinski. “For the very stealthy player, the martial arts can provide the most silent way to dispose of enemies.”

Mixing your own skill with increasing RPG capabilities (weapons, hacking, electronics, traps, stealth or whatever) will gradually move further and further into comic-book heroism - but that isn’t to say the game ignores realism. “Realism is important to Alpha Protocol. We’ve tried to create situations and themes from actual news items and hypothetical scenarios,” says Rucinski. “Our technologies and equipment are also realistic. We made it very clear early in development that we wouldn’t have a near-indestructible bipedal robot running around shooting things. If we used a robot, it would look like what the military or SWAT would use, with wheels and treads instead of legs.” Near-future is the byword, so as to allow for more gadgets and gizmos than ever before - but again, this is a Casino Royal style of spy, not the Die Another Day “OMG invisible car and surfing on melting CG iceberg” exercise in Ian Fleming grave-turning.

In a lot of role-playing games (*cough* Oblivion *cough*), the people you meet retread the same conversations again and again - mostly accompanied by a frown or a smile depending on what armour you chose to put on that day. Not so with AP - where first impressions count. Meet someone and act all gruff with them and they won’t be all that impressed for a fair while - unless they’re a sexy woman who’s been designed to want to play rough and might like that sort of thing.

“Essentially, the player chooses a ‘stance’ for Thorton (suave, professional,
or aggressive - although the actual breakdowns branch a great deal from this) and then Thorton responds appropriately - and amusingly,” explains Rucinski, having selected his own internal suave stance. “The dialogue system is also set up so that you can’t repeatedly have the same conversation with an NPC to try to find the ‘best’ answer or all the information available. This means that if you are a jerk to a person you will get a reaction the next time you talk to them. It reinforces how important that first impression is.”

Conversations will whip along at a realistic pace, with you selecting changes in how Thorton responds to maintain the flow of real-life chatter. Gaming’s former forays into the lives of secret agents, Deus Ex aside, have only ever focused on the guns-blazing elements, and perhaps a pretty lady or two in cutscenes. Alpha Protocol wants you putting in the legwork, doing the reconnaissance, chatting up the receptionists and looking moody in fancy hotels - it knows the excitement isn’t all in the violence, but in the setup, the situation and the supporting cast. In premise and pedigree, it’s a sure-fire license to kill. Let’s hope the execution is as flawless as it needs to be.

Apr 22, 2008