PAX East Preview: Alpha Protocol
Stealthyslyth and I had the pleasure of sitting in on the SEGA demo for their upcoming Spy RPG: Alpha Protocol. Now, I went in not knowing much about the game, but with an open mind to be impressed. First of all though, let me tell you that I had a long weekend over Easter and in that time I spent pretty much an entire day playing through Heavy Rain on the PS3. And most of you will probably know what a huge Dragon Age fangirl I am. When you mix those two ideas together, a more story-driven RPG surrounding a single character sounds like a pretty cool concept.
And what we saw of Alpha Protocol seemed to fit that bill. You play as Michael Thornton a spy part of an organization known as Alpha Protocol. Typical to what we’re used to with Dragon Age or Mass Effect and to a different extent, Heavy Rain; your choices in the game will effect the storyline. Now, more similar to Heavy Rain than the two Bioware games I mentioned is the main character. In Alpha Protocol, the Obsidian design team made a very conscious decision to single out a main character for you, versus giving you the option to pick one yourself. By doing so, you as the player get a more thorough play experience as Michael. Indeed, part of our preview included a cut scene from the game shown twice: both extremely different from one another as there had been far different choices made in the game leading to that scene.
An interesting addition to this sort of game play is the inclusion of timed dialogue choices; players have to be able to think quickly about the choices they want to make. The games missions are based on the intrigue and danger of a spy life, and the choices made both in game play and dialogue options mean a richer and more varied play experience. Now, the variety of choices available also mean that the type of spy you want ‘your’ Mike to be, go right down to the type of weapons and abilities he has. You can focus on being a stealthy, silent striker, a guns-blazing loud cowboy type, a martial arts guru, or non-stereotypical spy combination. This also means, if you choose, you can make your way through the game and it’s missions without killing a single soul. Hard to do, and not necessarily spy-like (unless you’re Chuck), but possible. And that choosing who lives or dies means that characters reactions to Mike, and the story may change as you go based on that decision.
Another interesting item about the timed dialogue options, and in fact, the entire dialogue options throughout the game is that they vary more than usual from our standard RPG fair. Most of us are by now used to the dialogue trees common to most RPG games where if you don’t get the option you want in a conversation with a character, you can go back and cycle through the options differently to get the one your want. Or, you can try and trigger different responses or options by continuing to go back and rehash old conversations. In Alpha Protocol, this isn’t an option. You make a decision for Mike to say something, and that’s it, it’s said and you’re on to the next topic. This also means, much as we’ve seen with Heavy Rain or Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, that it’s not about a specific dialogue option, instead Alpha Protocol has what they call the Dynamic Stance System (DSS) which means you’re not choosing a specific for Mike to say, but instead a ‘stance’ for him to take: Aggressive, Professional, Suave; though they may not be labeled as such in the game.
Now all that’s great, but what about the actual action? I’m so glad you asked.
We did get to see some action during the preview, but it wasn’t a hands-on so I can’t necessarily tell you HOW it played. But from what we saw, combat moved pretty swiftly. You will have the option of pausing to change weapons more suited to the moment, and there’s what looks like a pretty quick system of using the special attacks that Michael has based on the abilities you’ve chosen for him. We watched some stealth abilities in action, which looked like they might be easier for game designers used to playing the same scene over and over at demos, but maybe would be tricky for players right out of the box. That’s not to say they’re not neat, but that there might be a level of comfortability involved in pulling them off like we saw. But, without a hands-on it’ll be hard to say more. I did like some of the stealth options though, especially a sort of ‘locator sense’ which many of us are familiar with from other games, but might not necessarily be something you expect from a more realistic RPG.
Alpha Protocol, after previous delays, is looking to hit the shelves this June for both the Xbox 360 and the PC. And, I’ll say it’s looking pretty darned good. I know they showed me enough to at least get me willing to give it a go when it comes out.