Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always thought that if you’re gainfully employed as a spy – by a government, private security agency, or even some form of business – then your actual workload should largely consist of… well, spying. If you act like the office clown to the point that your boss hates you; if you attempt to sneak your way into a terrorist base by arguing that no, you’re not an American secret agent – you’re actually a Canadian; if most of your espionage work consists of running around like a maniac, unloading a shotgun into the face of the nearest security guard…. if you do these things, I don’t know what you are – but you’re certainly not a spy, in the traditional sense.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be much fun to be a spy in the traditional sense. The idea behind Alpha Protocol, SEGA and Obsidian’s forthcoming espionage RPG, is that you can approach your cloak-and-dagger duties in any style you like. If you want to woo and smooch your way into the hearts of your contacts (well, the female ones at any rate), that’s one James Bond-shaped option. Alternatively, if you want to make progress by cutting through badguys like a hot, Arnie-shaped knife through butter, that’s a possibility too. Naturally there’s also the sneaky-sneaky approach, as well as one that relies on hacking and recoding all the computers and keypads you can find. And if you’re feeling particularly kind – or perhaps if you’re just in the mood for a challenge – it’s apparently possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone.
Alpha Protocol certainly offers a lot of player choice, coupled to an enticingly fresh premise. Spy-themed RPGs are hardly two-a-penny, and it’s not hard to see the appeal in a game that lets you play as a Bond or Bourne (or even a Sterling Archer) of your own design. And yet despite these boons, and Obsidian’s clear track record in the genre, there seems to be a distinct lack of buzz about this project. A delayed release date is clearly part of the problem (the game was originally due to ship at the start of 2009) but it’s hard to escape the idea that the long shadow of Mass Effect 2 is equally to blame.
Let’s be clear right now: this isn’t as pretty as Mass Effect. Lead spy Michael Thorton and his chums would never be described as “da hotness” by hormone-fuelled street yutes, but nor would they be described as “well butters”. Fine, so those particular slang terms both went of out of use years ago – but hopefully you get my point: it’s solid-looking, rather than spectacular. On a similar note, the action doesn’t feel quite as pant-dampeningly pleasurable as BioWare’s sci-fi romp. The controls just aren’t as immediately responsive, so pleasingly contoured to your destructive whims, and the battles lack the same “instant blockbuster” feel that you get while battling with Shepard and company. If Alpha Protocol had made its original release window, it wouldn’t have had to suffer these comparisons – but it didn’t, and so it must.
This all sounds very negative, but what I’m trying to say is that Alpha Protocol’s strengths lie elsewhere. There’s the aforementioned flexibility, for one thing: if you want to play the game as a run-and-gun cover shooter, it’ll handle that. If you want to play it like a Splinter Cell game, it’ll cater to that desire too. There’s a big menu in Alpha Protocol’s restaurant of death, and the chef can do every dish on the list: close-combat nastiness, silenced pistols, assault rifles, face-pulping shotguns. In between missions you’ll get to hang out at private safehouses dotted around the globe, and each of these has a computer which allows you to buy weapons direct from the local black market. There are other cool tricks you can do here too, like arranging for a sniper rifle to be conveniently left in a nice spot at the location you’re about to visit.