It doesn’t stop there, either: by buying intelligence dossiers on people and factions that you’re about to meet, you can get the drop on your rivals. If you’ve gained enough background info on a given individual – either by buying it online or by retrieving it from hacked computers on your travels – you’ll unlock new dialogue options when you finally meet them. The old adage about stick and stones doesn’t apply here; words can hurt, and if you use them properly, they will. In any given conversation you’ll have the choice of acting casually, aggressively, professionally or suavely; your choice of approach may result in you securing an ally, getting laid or having a gun pushed in your face – but in all cases you’ll have to live with the results.
We covered this quite a bit in the last preview, but it’s worth re-stating again: everything you say and do in this game will have an impact on later events. Obviously, if you kill someone important early on in your spying career, they won’t show up later as anything but a tough stain on your laundry bill – but the balance of action and consequence goes much further than this. For example, at one point on your travels you may need to deal with a particular Russian informant who has some info that you need. If you’re polite, he’ll give you what you need, and he’ll also give you both an optional side mission and the contact details for a new arms dealer. If, on the other hand, you shout at him and then glass him like an ASBO yob on a government grant, he’ll be so utterly terrified of you that he’ll give you give you a five per cent discount in his shop (everyone in Russia sells guns, apparently).
In most RPGs this would simply be another throwaway morality choice, linked to a binary good/evil karma system – but here, things aren’t so clear-cut. If you glass the informant he’ll run crying to the local authorities, so when you later turn up to burgle a local embassy you’ll find it staffed by grizzly marines. This might sound like a bad thing, but if you approach them in the right way you get nice and chummy with them - so when the embassy gets attacked by terrorists, ten minutes later, they’ll help you out. If, on the other hand, you were squeaky-clean and nice-as-pie with the initial informant, the embassy will be staffed by wimpy security guards. No prizes for guessing what happens to them when the bad guys show up.
If Obsidian manages to maintain this muddied morality throughout Alpha Protocol’s 20 hour span, it should be a lot more unpredictable than the average RPG outing. The developer on hand at SEGA’s recent showcase claimed to have finished the game five times without seeing the same plot arc twice, and that the full game will have somewhere in the region of 32 endings. There’ll be a certain amount of “rubber-banding” in terms of the way everything ties together – minor variations on established events and structures – but there will also be quite a few branching points too.
Even within the first hour or so of play, I managed to annoy my boss to the point that he actively disliked me – so much so that I earned the trait “loose cannon” – while embarking on a promisingly flirtatious relationship with my female handler. My hope is that by the time it reaches its middle stages, when the plot has had to time to properly develop and thicken, there will be lots of difficult, gray-area decisions to make.
Alpha Protocol is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on May 28.