Previews

Alpha Protocol

We spend two hours playing Sega's impossibly deep spy RPG

You could accuse Alpha Protocol's hero Michael Thornton of being bland. After all, he's a spectacularly generic caucasian 20-something with short hair - the 'go to' character design for every action game in the world. But this is entirely intentional, because Michael Thornton is you. He's been specifically designed as a blank canvas; a host for your own personality and playing style.

And you can be anything in Alpha Protocol. A by-the-book professional, a ruthless assassin, an aggressive psychopath, a smooth-talking ladykiller. How you approach situations is entirely up to you, which means Thornton is as interesting as you make him. You can even get rid of the crew-cut and give him a giant, unkempt tramp's beard.

Zoom

Our hands-on begins in a top-secret government facility where we've just been hired as a spy. Our first hour is spent meeting our employers - who, incidentally, you can immediately start hurling abuse at - and learning the basics of stealth, gadgets and firing your weapons. It plays like any standard third-person, cover-based shooter, but it's the RPG mechanics and the stuff going on in the background that make it interesting.

Role call
When you start the game, your aiming reticule is a large yellow circle, and when you fire at someone, bullets can hit anywhere within the circle, meaning your accuracy is far from perfect. But as you level up your weapons skills, the circle gets smaller, decreasing your chances of missing. It's an elegantly designed, simple system that makes a lot more sense than say, Fallout, which simply makes your guns more powerful as your skills increase. How can you possibly make a bullet stronger?

The game also has its own equivalent of RPG-style magic spells. Thornton has a number of special abilities that can be activated for a few seconds, before requiring a 'cooldown' period to use again. The two we used are silent movement, which has obvious stealth benefits, and perception, which enables you to see enemies through walls and what direction they're facing. Eventually, perception becomes 'passive', meaning it's no longer timed and always on - a benefit of upgrading your character.

Job seeker
The first mission we tackle is in the Middle East. After being briefed in our safehouse (complete with hidden weapons cache), we head to the front door and are given a list of available missions. There's no free-roaming in Alpha Protocol - your house is your hub and you're taken directly to each objective when you accept a mission. This actually disappointed us. Exploration is part of the fun of an RPG, and by stripping it out the game feels more like a traditional action game with set 'levels'. But you do get to choose the order you do them in, and there's a lot of variety.

Zoom

Our mission is to infiltrate an enemy base deep inside the desert. We kit Thornton out with heavy SWAT armour and machine-gun, which is actually a terrible idea as the stealth-focused mission is hampered by our heavy, noisy armour and lack of silenced weapons. So we decide to go in guns blazing.

Since we're just starting out, Thornton sucks at shooting, and we die a lot. In combat, things feel very familiar, and the aiming is twitchy - something we're assured will be fixed before release. In fact, if it wasn't for the RPG bits AP wouldn't actually be that remarkable. It's definitely designed with stealth in mind, and comes into its own when you're outsmarting guards and leaving traps with proximity mines and concussion grenades.

Interrogation is also a big part of the game. We see Thornton talking to an informant in a Russian bar and there are dozens of paths the conversation can take. The first time we slam the guy's head against the bar and demand answers, which he fearfully gives. But then we try a gentler approach and we actually procure better information.

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