Release Date: Q1 2009
Alpha Protocol, to be published by SEGA, is the developer Obsidian Entertainment's first fully original concept to hit the games market, but the talented team of RPG creators are hardly neophytes to the industry. For years, they've been the skilled second string to RPG legend BioWare Corp., developer of the PC new-classic Neverwinter Nights, and, equally destined for contemporary classic status, the blowout Xbox role-playing title Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, arguably the first game to certify that RPGs on a PC scale could truly succeed with console audiences — certainly, it was the first RPG deviating from traditional medieval period or surrealistic fantasy themes to break out in a big way on a modern console. Obsidian was responsible for the well-received sequels to both Neverwinter Nights on PC and Knights Of The Old Republic, successfully hurdling the hand-me-down-property blues through keen talent both technical and creative.
For their first original property, Alpha Protocol, Obsidian intends to step boldly out of the straight-arrow RPG mold: There's no traditional fantasy or science fiction here. The forthcoming RPG title isn't, of course, devoid of fantasy, but the fantasy herein is that of playing as a CIA field operative in a suspense thriller, blending all the best elements of the last 50 years of spy novels and cinema. You'll take on the role of Michael Thornton, agent at large, agent in trouble, fighting to uncover a conspiracy that has left this spy out in the cold, hunted by his former employers for the insider information he possesses and the potential threat he presents in exposing a national intelligence scandal of massive proportions.
During a recent press conference unveiling early details of Alpha Protocol, Obsidian senior producer Chris Parker, when asked why the decision for plot divergence from traditional RPGs, discussed how his team had just finished work on a typically straightforward, purely rule-based RPG, and they were motivated to create a more broadly accessible, action-oriented title, and to allow playing as a unique character, a wet-behind-the-ears spy recruit progressing to a "really, really powerful modern-day superhero." Of course, the progression from junior operative to superhero is sublime material for the character-development systems of role-playing games. What at first seems an odd, or at least risky, choice for an RPG universe makes perfect sense when one factors in that the slick, stealthy, perpetually coolheaded super-spies to whom we are accustomed in contemporary suspense thrillers were not born that way. Here, the specific strengths of video games trumps that of film, allowing for a deeper, lengthier experience that takes the player, as Michael Thornton, from a fairly fumbling new guy to a masterful Bond-esque intelligence operator with spectral traits.
Indeed, in the area of Bond-esque, and other, spy types, Obsidian has designed Thornton's relations with non-player characters (NPCs) to promote three basic modes of interaction, which may, or may not, immediately affect the action at hand, but always ultimately affects the story path over the long-term. These "personalities" are, boiled down: a meticulous professional; the aforementioned slickster à la Ian Fleming's renowned fictional British agent, and a more aggressive head-thumper, something akin to the hit television series 24's protagonist, or even more classically, perhaps Bruce Willis in his famous "Die Hard" John McClane role, reprised in three popular sequels.
However, Obsidian used these three archetypes merely as a model for designing the game, and in the process of moving forward and developing in-game content, they intentionally moved away from straight-up stereotypes. As the whole point of a fully realized RPG is for the player to create whatever kind of character — in this particular case, a secret agent — he wants to be, the development team avoided players leaning too hard on their preferred interaction type, making a crutch out of it, or an obstruction to personal creativity; ergo, there's plenty of room in Alpha Protocol for making Obsidian's Michael Thornton almost entirely your Michael Thornton — because, in good RPG order, it is after all you in the game.
Alpha Protocol's role-playing game elements weigh in most heavily with points earned along the way, especially by demonstrating prowess in accomplishing the game's objectives. The points are used to boost a variety of Thornton's nascent skills; the skills and point enhancements never expire, but even covert operatives in tip-top shape require a rest now and then to remain razor-sharp, and this dynamic is represented in the game by a mechanic delaying reuse of these special skills. Thornton's special talents cover a range of abilities, including weapons handling and other areas of expertise particularly useful to CIA agents on the run from, well, everybody.
Obsidian has put much effort into making Alpha Protocol as realistic as possible, relatively speaking, in the context of spy thrillers. For example, the overarching philosophy is that the gamer plays as Thornton, so he should be doing things Thornton himself could indeed accomplish. This means altering physical appearance with, say, beards and eyeglasses, rather than face-modeling techniques common to some titles, as this would imply Thornton, in the game universe, is capable of performing cosmetic surgery on himself. In this manner, Obsidian hopefully will keep the experience immersive and exciting, yet not preposterous.
Stepping out of a fantasy/science-fiction realm places certain restrictions on RPG gameplay and character development, and Obsidian seems intent on respecting the "reality" of the situation. However, as Alpha Protocol team member Nathan reports, the original design for the game was more purely realistic, perhaps approaching simulative. Eventually, as Nathan says, "Thornton is a super-agent, so he should be a cut above a normal human being." This realization pushed the team to greater balance between realism and elements more fantastical, like handing Thornton some skills that defy real-world physics. An example: Thornton has the ability to stop time in order to line up shots with firearms, something akin to "magic" in a "realistic" RPG, but benefiting the game by adding a better ration of control and excitement to gameplay.
For Alpha Protocol, Obsidian briefly considered a first-person perspective, more prevalent — becoming less so — in contemporary and near-future shooter titles. They soon opted for the game's current third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective since the team felt that the need to observe and react to everything happening at one time in the close environment superseded any call to traditionalism for shooter-type titles. As it stands today, the player perspective Obsidian decided upon has reached a degree of near-total acceptance, as gamers realize that full immersion in a well-designed game does not require staring straight out the eyeballs, watching as the rifle muzzles bob up and down when the main character sprints. Chris emphasizes the importance of Alpha Protocol's camera perspective when he says, "We have a lot of action elements in the game, like jumping, using cover, zip-lining, talking to people, and we felt doing these things all the time, it was really important to feel the things he [Thornton] is doing and understanding that interaction in the world; so, ultimately, we went with a third-person, over-the-shoulder camera."
Alpha Protocol is clearly shaping up as potential motif-changer in modern RPG gaming, an evolutionary title that may well open doors for more traditional RPG developers to occasionally shelve their tried, true plot constructs, creating from scratch original stories free of dependencies upon wizards' fireball spells, elves' crossbows or space privateers' plasma lances. The well-trodden traditions in RPG titles provide a certain comfort zone, and will surely remain fun to play and a stock sub-genre of RPG gaming; but the potential to create RPG fans out of gamers who don't favor sword and sorcery or fantastical, alternate-universe science fiction is an important move in games development, and perhaps much needed to keep the role-playing genre in good health indefinitely. Significantly, Alpha Protocol, definitely slated for Xbox 360 and Windows PC, will also mark the debut of an Obsidian Entertainment-developed game for PlayStation 3, for the first time bringing Obsidian's highly regarded work to a console audience especially well known for its interest in RPGs, having cut their teeth on a large, and often quite good, catalog of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 RPG titles.
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