Obsidian Entertainment have some fine RPG credentials. The top minds behind the Baldur's Gate, Fallout and Neverwinter Nights series, as well as Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Knights of the Old Republic... Basically, if it's a computerised RPG and it's worth playing, someone at Obsidian probably made it happen. I'd stake my twenty-sided-dice on the fact that there are some impressive beards being grown at Obsidian HQ.
Therefore, it was with rabid excitement that I tore into my first playthrough of Obsidian's latest RPG. Touted as the world's first modern-day spy RPG (which I suppose is accurate: Deus Ex is really the only thing that comes close in terms of genre, and even then there's not much overlap), the action centres around Michael Thorton, a spy for a secretive US-based agency who then ends up as a rogue agent (don't they all at some time or another?). Travelling to various global hotspots, Thorton meets many different organisations including the Russian mafia, Arabic terrorists, global arms consortiums...
And that's all the plot I can really give you. Not because I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but because beyond this point it's really up to the player to write the story. These days, all RPGs are expected to have branching storylines and ‘good' endings and ‘bad' endings, but in Alpha Protocol it's more than just a tacked-on gimmick: it's the whole point. Sure, there are certain locations and even certain central storylines that will crop up on every playthrough but the way the different factions interact with each other and with the player are fluid and fascinating.
Really, what emerges here are two distinct games: The map full of baddies that you have to navigate through, sneaking or shooting or setting traps or what-have-you; and the ‘interactive spy fiction' that is being written around your actions. The design credo of ‘the player is in control' is obvious in both facets of the game.
In each mission, you have a set objective (plus, perhaps, bonus objectives that might be given by allies and contacts or purchased through the black market), and a handler (who gives you hints and tips over your earpiece as well as a personalised bonus perk based on how much they like you; though if they like you too much their feelings might interfere with the mission and they will not perform as well). On some missions you can choose your handler; but selecting one might cause the others to lose their trust in you. Once on a mission, you can approach the objective in any way you please, be it shooting your way in, sneaking past the guards, using the dazzling array of gadgets, bombs and grenades at your disposal, or just punching everyone in the face until they tell you what you want to know. Your character is upgraded in true RPG style, through the experience point - level up - skill point - new ability process that we all know and love. But these new abilities are not the lacklustre "+1 to strength" powerups some RPGs rely on. Each and every one offers you a new tactic to use in the game. Suddenly, you can go invisible, or do flying kicks, or take no damage from your own bombs, or... any number of other benefits that feel not so much like powerups as new options that can be utilised in any situation. If you've made friends with one of the many, many factions, sometimes their footsoldiers may turn up to help you out - occasionally quite unexpectedly but always with good reason that feeds back into the storyline.
Ah, yes. The storyline. Sometimes your missions might not be to blast/sneak/punch your way into an enemy stronghold. Occasionally it'll be nothing more than a quiet drink with a Russian arms dealer. Then it's all up to you whether you chat to him in a friendly manner or cram his head into the bar until he gives up the intelligence you require. If you've managed to compile a complete dossier on him, you may already be forewarned as to the best way to get him to spill the beans - without him then going to the cops. Sometimes, going to have a sit-down in full body armour will get a reaction just as much as what you actually say or do. Occasionally, you'll be halfway through a mission and you'll get a call from your handler who'll update you on an urgent development and you'll need to decide on the spot which direction to take things. The consequences of these actions can range between a snide comment from an enemy later on in the game or a huge swing in the balance of power that affects all subsequent missions.
So I guess it's pretty obvious that I really enjoyed this game. As a ‘proof of concept' that complex, absorbing non-linear storylines can be created effectively in a videogame, it's as good as you could hope for. During my first playthrough I was constantly torn between hoping there's plenty more game left to be played, and wanting it to hurry up and finish so I could start again with a dramatically different character. And, as Plectrum puts it in last year's Dragon Age: Origins review, ‘that's how you get a ten'.
However, in order to get a ten, the game has to be perfect in all areas. Sadly, there's a list of ways in which Alpha Protocol falls short. Graphically, it's stuck in 2005. Occasionally, the enemy AI falls over or gets stuck on the scenery. There's a limit to how much freedom you have regarding the environment - no mantling except in specific places. The cover system is painful to use. But from a company that primarily writes RPGs, nothing is so horrible as to really interfere with the enjoyment of the game, so we can forgive them. The only problem with the storytelling elements is that sometimes the conversation choices are a little difficult to fathom. Selecting ‘mission' for example, will generally mean you're going to say something about a mission, but what, exactly? You only have a limited amount of time to choose a conversation option, and sometimes you're choosing a response to something that is being said by the person you're talking to just as the time limit runs out.
They've succeeded in doing something original and interesting, engrossing and fascinating. It has the no-win decisions of an episode of 24, the isolated desperation of Jason Bourne, and the stylish locations and snappy dialogue of Bond. I genuinely expect to still be playing this when the sequel comes out.