If pursuing a career in games journalism hadn't worked out for me, I would have been a government agent. I'd wear a watch that could drive my car remotely, sleep with a gun under my pillow and never leave the house without a smoking hot chick hanging off my arm. Although Gabriel Logan, Sam Fisher and Solid Snake have all given us a taste of interactive espionage, few of their respective games seem to have captured the lifestyle in the same way that Hollywood has. SEGA and Obsidian are looking to change all that with Alpha Protocol, the self proclaimed 'espionage RPG' that lets players live out their fantasies as a globetrotting CIA agent.
Alpha Protocol wears its inspirations on its sleeve. While main character Mike Thorton clearly models himself on the likes of Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Bauer (although has bucked the trend with his initials), the game itself has taken lessons from BioWare and Mass Effect. Replace Commander Shepard with a blend of the heroes mentioned above, swap the intergalactic setting with a bevy of real world locations, and exchange the space opera narrative for that of espionage – and you'll have a pretty good mental picture of Alpha Protocol.
A familiar 'dialogue stance system' (as Obsidian has called it) envelopes the action, allowing the player to steer the conversation based on what kind of character they're looking to portray. Through flattery, comedy, mockery, intimidation and downright rudeness, Thorton can build or destroy relationships with other characters, which will ultimately affect the direction of the narrative. Choices aren't necessarily verbal either; often there'll be an option to use physical force. At certain points in the story the game will present the option to 'execute' another character, allowing you to permanently remove them from the narrative. You can even flirt up a storm with some of your female handlers, and if your chat-up lines are up to Bond's standards, they'll end up back at your spy-pad for some hanky-panky.
Despite borrowing the mechanic from BioWare, the dialogue system happens to be one of the game's strongest assets. Obsidian is well known for its talents in the dialogue department (KOTOR2 being a shining example) and Alpha Protocol has been treated with the same care and attention. How you decide to react to different situations determines what missions you're given and what characters you're likely to encounter. Supporting this branching narrative is an impressive 30+ endings, and the mid sections will differ dramatically from game to game, too. To see everything the game has on offer will take a serious investment of time.
When Thorton isn't chin wagging with other characters, he's infiltrating enemy headquarters, intercepting crucial intel and taking out key members of terrorist organisations. The narrative surrounding these exploits is well crafted, if a little confusing. After a high-tech US missile falls into the wrong hands, the CIA sends Thorton to clean up the mess. During the mission, however, Thorton is betrayed by his employers, cut off and forced to go rogue. Working on his own agenda, he attempts to prevent the impending missile catastrophe while uncovering exactly who it was that sold him down the river.
Thorton's mission is orchestrated out of several safe houses acting as the hub for real world locations including Tai Pei, Rome and Moscow. As far as spy-pads go, these safe houses are pretty swanky, offering services to check email, change weapon load-outs and even watch the news. It's the kind of place you imagine James Bond chilling out with a Martini before a mission. This is one thing that Alpha Protocol does reasonably well: it makes you feel like an undercover agent. Whether you're flipping through enemy dossiers on your PDA, catching up on new emails or tinkering with your equipment – you'll feel suitably like an employee of the secret services.