Written by James 'modeps
Within a dimly lit conference room in the nearby Sheraton Hotel, SEGA was previewing Alpha Protocol to select media at PAX East. Wearing a now semi-ironic Mass Effect 2 N7 Hoodie, I found myself within mixed company of real
newspaper/magazine types who would form their queries "SUBJECT. QUESTION," as well as some other game journalists in a semi-circle of chairs facing two LCD televisions with two Xbox 360's attached.
The demo began with an emphasis on the concept of "multiple middles." Where other games have multiple endings, they wanted to make sure people knew Alpha Protocol would deviate in ways other than just the final outcome. To show this, they loaded a game onto the right screen and played through a scene between two main characters that have had some previous dealings in-game. In this version, your player character, Agent Michael Thorton, and a female have a kind hearted exchange and end up getting down to some business
with a subtle fade to black after the initial romantic embrace.
Swapping to the other 360, we were at the same point in the game, but clearly things were a bit different between these two characters. Not only was the ambiance of the location darker than the other, but now instead of some implied hanky panky your player character ends up getting smashed over the head by some sort of sculpture before the woman storms out of the room. Unfortunately, the characters just don't emote particularly well and there were some lip sync issues. We were told this was basically a final build, so I don't think they're going to shoehorn a sweet facial animation system in this late in the game.
The conversation system that took place within both of these scenarios was similar to that of Mass Effect with two main differences. Instead of a radial menu with six choices, you'll use face buttons for input allowing for four emotion-based choices. Also, instead of giving you unlimited time to make your choice, there is a timer that will tick down. If you don't pick something by the time it's gone, the game will choose what was set as the default and just keep going. This timer system will certainly keep the actual audio smooth and connected, but not allowing ample time may turn off some people.
Next up we get to see actual action gameplay where Thorton is out somewhere hunting terrorists. We get to see several abilities he has to choose from like the silent run ability which cloaks Mike for a brief period of time so he can get away, or sneak up behind someone. There's also a bullet time style power which will allow more accurate aiming, as well as "always on" abilities that will help point out things in the environment that you're proficient to use. Clearly, we're only scratching the surface here with what's available.
Towards the end of the running, gunning and taking cover, Michael encountered a fairly large tank and some very luckily placed rocket launchers that were used to dispatch it. We were then brought back to a debriefing room where your handler was talking about how the mission went down. This was an example of how they utilize "flash forwards" to help tell bits of the story. After a short conversation, we were whisked back to the middle east where Michael was deciding on how to deal with his target. Ultimately, the bad guy tried to learn how to fly off of a very high bridge, but forgot that people can't fly.
As the game progresses, more and more of the world will open up through a series of safe houses that act as hubs. Dependent upon how certain things play out, those safe houses can change and your missions will also change. According to the devs, even the order in which you partake on missions will effect the world and outcome. On each mission, which is selected through a menu interface, you'll get to choose a handler. This handler will be your guide through the mission and each will offer a bit in terms of bonuses based on their skill and your relationship with them. For example, if you think stealth is the best option, you'll want the handler that has that in mind and not some yahoo with a giant Bowie knife.
My biggest concern for Alpha Protocol is that SEGA purposely delayed the game to put it out after Mass Effect 2. From what the developers were saying, the decision for this delay was purely strategic and the game was effectively completed before being pushed off till this June 1st. Now that the bar has been set extremely high, things like the stone faces you'll see just aren't going to cut it. Alpha Protocol has been positioned for a long time as the spy equivalent to Mass Effect, and from what I saw, they're certainly trying to get there. It's rather unclear as to how the final game will turn out considering we only saw a small slice of the thirty-plus hour pie but the ideas and execution seem like they're on the right track.