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Impressions: Alpha Protocol


Who needs Mass Effect 2?

I would be upset by Mass Effect 2's 2010 release were it not for Obsidian's upcoming "espionage RPG." The core mechanics of BioWare's space opera are here: shooter controls, experience points, specialized skills and branching dialogue trees with a strong emphasis on player choices. In a world about traitorous spies, these choices will certainly keep you on your toes.

The many developer diaries released by Obsidian certainly took away some of the surprise of seeing Alpha Protocol in action. At the very least, I was relieved to see that the game simply works, and most importantly: looks like a lot of fun. For those that choose to go guns blazing, the many abilities you can acquire make the combat ridiculously fun. Depending on what players spend their experience points on, players will have access to a number of different abilities. Some of the skills I saw: a radar to highlight enemies (and allies), a rapid lock-on ability, bullet-time, and increased stealth -- helpful for when you want to sneak up behind someone and snap their neck.

Gallery: Alpha Protocol | 18 Photos

What makes Alpha Protocol so engaging is the potential for meaningful character growth. As helpful as these bonuses are, they can evolve rather significantly. For example, spending enough XP on the radar ability will make it persistent: no need to activate it and use it as a "power." At the lowest level, each of these abilities have a refractory period, meaning players will have to budget them quite wisely. Maxing out the "lock-on" ability should, in many ways, make you as badass as Sam Fischer in Splinter Cell Conviction.

These abilities are useful, but there's no way to create a fully maxed-out character in Alpha Protocol. At least, not on one playthrough. (A "New Game+" option is available when playing at the hardest difficulty.) Players will have to choose their abilities wisely. Will you spend your points in conversation, or will you spend them in combat, or will you choose stealth -- opting to avoid combat altogether? The character system really emphasizes how important player choice is in the world of Alpha Protocol.

You may already be familiar with this scenario: a mercenary named Sie holds you at gunpoint. You can attempt to befriend her, get the trust of her allies, and gain help through the subsequent level. If you choose that route, you'll still have to watch out. If you don't have the radar ability equipped, you won't be able to distinguish friend from foe. Attacking one of Sie's men will obviously have its consequences.

Choices are given to the player outside of scripted dialogue sequences. For example, in the level I saw, players were given the choice to destroy or smuggle a weapons cache they discovered. Both will have consequences -- some which the player may not see. For example, what will the player do with the weapons once they're acquired? Sell them? To whom?

Players will have to carefully manage their allegiances to make the most out of the Alpha Protocol experience. Sie is not only a valuable ally in battle, but she can also provide players access to an expanded arsenal of weapons. Money is a vital part of the player experience, and like in real life, having a lot makes everything a whole lot easier. Everything costs money, from the weapons to the ammo to the armor. Having the best quality stuff will certainly cost a pretty penny. Perhaps I'll attempt to seduce Sie and get a discount. She's but one of four women you can sleep with -- and yes, you can sleep with all four in one playthrough. (You'll even get an Achievement for it!)

All in all, I have to say I'm impressed with what I've seen of Alpha Protocol. The gunplay looks incredibly fun, and the character customization options offer impressive depth. There's a real sense of consequence to the choices players make, whether through in-game actions or dialogue sequences. An attractive world of espionage, coupled with Obsidian's attention to detail, have put Alpha Protocol on the shortlist of games I really want this holiday season.

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