Alpha Protocol

First look: Are we really about to get a genuinely exciting role-playing spy thriller?

From Bond's first glowering stare across a baccarat table all the way to Tom Cruise whining like a petulant child and sticking explosive chewing gum on a fish tank - the international spy thriller has been a cornerstone of popular culture for decades. So why has it never really translated to games?

Only one Bond game was ever any good (which wasn't even on PC) and the rest were a sequence of gaudy car crashes and poorly clipped death animations. Other stabs at the genre were late-'90s shooters with internationally themed levels ("Wow! A Chinese sewer!" "An underground base in Mexico? Awesome!").


In fact, the closest we've come to matching a Bourne or a Bond is Deus Ex, with only internationally hubbed adventures like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis treading on its coat-tails.

Well, no more. Not if Obsidian have anything to do with it anyway. You see, Obsidian are developers of outstanding pedigree (formed from the ashes of Black Isle, the creators of RPG touchstones Fallout and Planescape: Torment) yet of late they've been somewhat saddled with being known as the developer who delivered the borked ending to KOTOR 2 and, with Neverwinter Nights 2, created a worthy game that went largely unnoticed.

Now though, with their own world to play with and a remarkably fresh take on the genre, they're on the offensive.

Betrayed by his superiors. Hunted by his own country. The only man alive who has hint of a conspiracy that is soon to result in massive loss of life. A spy who's a bit rubbish at first, but does have some as-yet unfilled skill slots that could lean on the violent side.

Michael Thorton (that's 'Thorton', not 'Thornton' like the high street chocolatiers or our production editor's home village) starts off in full-blown Mission: Impossible territory - gone rogue with only a list of names and potential safe houses, and several thousand air miles to help him.

From there, Obsidian are taking him and us on a journey they hope will meld the aura of the three JBs - Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and James Bond.

"Yeah, Alpha Protocol has much of the edginess of the new James Bond movie," smiles Ryan Rucinski, one of Obsidian's senior producers, as we mull over his new roleplayer.

"Although the development of AP actually started before the release of Casino Royale. So when the movie came out and we saw the results, we knew we had made the right decision. There have been a lot of movies that have influenced
us during the conceptual creation - Mission: Impossible, the Bourne films, Ronin... However, one of the main contributors in look and tone was Syriana. If James Bond is where the action comes from, Syriana has a big influence on the theme."


Yet what Obsidian want to stress more than anything is that Alpha Protocol is a role-playing game.

You'll have multiple missions open in different hubs around the world (locations currently being bandied about include Taipei, Rome, Moscow and Saudi Arabia) and you'll be able to flit between them at will - each one containing one overarching operation and a cavalcade of minor missions leading up to it - be they stealing sensitive data on a hard drive, tailing suspects or extracting information from grumpy NPCs through bribery, diplomacy or murder most foul.

"The mission structure is designed to present Thorton with an Operation, and then there are several avenues he can explore to tackle it using the skill set or preference of the player," explains Rucinski. "We don't want to force you through a linear series of levels, we want to treat every operation in the game like a mini-hub, where you get a number of missions you can tackle in any order, just to give the player more freedom."

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