It sets the stage for an inescapable comparison between Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect -- provided it's Mass Effect one we're talking about. Like BioWare's first attempt at combining third-person, cover-based shooting with long-term character building and narrative choice, Alpha Protocol seems intent on telling a gripping story, even while the cardboard scenery falls down. The character models look dated, screen tearing is distracting and those extra months of post-delay polish don't shine through.
And just as with Mass Effect, the technological struggles of the engine might be relegated to the background and forgiven once your attention turns to Alpha Protocol's cast of duplicitous operatives. Yes, dry spy guy Michael Thorton doesn't make a good first impression -- more Luke Skywalker than Jack Bauer -- but he definitely makes one, as evidenced by two possible scenarios viewed side-by-side. In one, Thorton meets his Rome contact , Madison, for a sweet and earnest bedside discussion. In the other, at the same point within the game's timeline, her reception is icy and violent. What on earth could you have done in an alternate playthrough to lose that many points with her? You know, reputation points.
A more clear indication of Thorton's player-inflicted demeanor comes at the end of a struggle with a suspected terrorist. You can interrogate the man, steering dialogue by choosing general reactions like "trust" and "threaten" (and never forget "headslam"), or you can just drop him off a bridge -- confidently. Expect a high ratio of one-liners to villainous one-timers.
The shooting part of Alpha Protocol retains some of the RPG mechanics and inventory that Mass Effect's sequel jettisoned so effectively, but it's good news for those looking for a little more depth. "Critical hits," for instance, are accounted for by a nifty reticule that slowly encircles an enemy target the longer you keep them in scope's view. Just a few more seconds and ... CRIT! Uh, BLAM! (And FWOOM if the rifle contains incendiary bullets.)
Skill points let you customize Thorton's familiarity with weapons, his stealth expertise and his special attacks, all of which are accompanied by a range of passive enhancements and bonuses. There's certainly enough RPG here, tailored for espionage and reflected in player-chosen additions like improved radar or chained slow-mo shots. The cover system seems competent enough, and when sneaking is no longer an option, the game's presentation is still good enough to convey the heated feel of gunfire (especially when that other type of RPG comes out). Of course, it's hard to put a pin through the action without getting a pair of hands on the controller.
Obsidian expects you to put down the controller after about 16 hours, but hopes that you'll pick it up again soon after. You can't max out your character at any point, so multiple playthroughs and participation in sidequests are a must if you want to see all the ways in which your character can develop (the developer suggests you tackle the tougher "veteran" difficulty once you're done). It'll also be worth seeing just how divergent Alpha Protocol's story threads become. The game's compact size could allow for more elaborate changes, and you wouldn't be alone in hoping that its promising, cloak-and-dagger premise might unfurl to something special.
Alpha Protocol is due in the US on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on June 1, 2010. (If there's another delay, Sega will announce it on June 1, 2010.)