A few minutes of footage is always unlikely to be representative of a role-playing game, because in a few minutes of videogame footage, in the face of lots of game-hungry industry folks, it's vital to show several things, those things being: guns, guns being fired at someone, someone falling over when fired at with guns. Given that RPGs are as much about dialogue and narrative as they are about action, this approach is rather like promoting an album by stitching together all the choruses. Sure, it's noisy and excited, but it's also confusing and peculiar. For the same reason, E3 didn't do Alpha Protocol many favours.
Guns, guns, guns. The wrong end of the stick, it seems. Sure, this is a game about secret agents in the near future, but it's being made by Obsidian - they of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Knights of the Old Republic 2. Regardless of those RPGs' many embarrassing technical problems - something Obsidian is resolute won't happen with Alpha Protocol - what they definitely did well was story. Arguably, even better than the BioWare games they were sequels to. In a lengthy walkthrough of what Obsidian call 'reactivity' in Alpha Protocol, I get a decent sense of how your character's actions - as opposed to his action - influence the game in both the short and long term. And all without some all-knowing morality meter judging you for choices.
Say you want to be a nice guy: the Sean Connery model. Super. Drunken geriatric informant Grigori is appreciative of your kindness to him, offering up details of a side-mission as well as the information you need, and, seeing as you're now chums, offering you some fancy armour to protect yourself. Off you go to your mission, feeling all warm and fuzzy, and, after killing or stealthing past a few mooks, you encounter Sei. She's a Teutonic warrior-woman, buff as you like and with an accent you wouldn't laugh at to her face - think Dolph Lundgren in a crop top. So you turn on the charm and... you get rebuffed, possibly even attacked. Sei's not interested in politeness. She wants aggression and arrogance. You could even opt to fight her, and that'll impress her even more. Later, we're promised a catfight between her and your agency guide.
Or perhaps you don't want to be a nice guy. Perhaps you want to be a brutal meathead: the Daniel Craig model. Super. Drunken geriatric informatant Grigori peels his face off the table you've just smashed it into and grudgingly shares the location of your target. He doesn't offer any further information, but he's so terrified of you that he does let you access his gun collection. Off you go to your mission, feeling pumped with rage and confidence, and, after killing or stealthing past a few mooks, you encounter Sei. She takes your threats, mockery and absurd self-confidence as something like flirtation and offers to lend you a hand (or, specifically, the gun-toting hands of several dozen of her hired mercenaries). And you'll probably need it, seeing as battered old Grigori sold you out and let your target know you're coming.
Adaptation to your play-style, not punishment. In fact, Alpha Protocol could even be said to be rewarding you for playing however you like. While clearly this is only one example, if Obsidian can stretch this philosophy across all 30-odd hours of the game (which sounds short for an RPG, but the 120 hours of dialogue hint at huge scope for replay) it could achieve something role-playing developers have been chasing in vain for years: a game that's truly shaped by you, not one that simply tumbles into arbitrary good, bad, and somewhere-in-the-middle.
Alpha Protocol's theme helps, of course - you're not Sir Amnesiapants, with a fixed destiny to save the entire world, even if you are a tad prone to biting the heads off children en route. You're a spy. Spies do bad stuff as part of a grander plan to achieve their mission. In a sense, your morality is already fixed by the character you play as - you're always going to be Michael Thorton, Super-Spy, with a remit to bring down threats to civilisation (though there are strong hints you'll be deciding which threats are ultimately greatest). You can choose to give Michael a silly beard or a bald head, but while that makes the cut-scenes funnier, it doesn't change their outcome. He's a man with a job to do, and he'll achieve it by whatever means he and therefore you deem necessary. "We try and make it so there's no bad choices," says programming producer Nathan Davis. "We want to reward you for playing in the style that you want."
This includes the combat as well as the conversation: the pow as well as the pow-wow, if you will. While superficially the action and the levelling up/abilities system is reminiscent of Mass Effect, it's a lot more integral to the game as a whole, as opposed to an extra lump stuck on the side. There isn't, it appears, much in the way of wandering around hub locations picking up quests and making idle chat-chat: the conversations happen during missions, and then shape the directions those missions go in, and where you go next. On the one hand, this promises a tight flow and a naturalistic narrative, rather than the strange, ancient RPG hangover that sees guys delay saving the entire world to go find someone's lost teddy bear in the hope of earning a few coins and a pat on the head. On the other, it could severely limit the sense of world and place, in favour of a series of arenas with cut-scenes in between.
On the other, other hand, the one with knuckles made of steel, those arenas are impressively flexible. Wanna kill everyone? Kill everyone. Wanna avoid everyone? Avoid everyone. Wanna kung-fu everyone? Kung-fu everyone. Wanna, er, gadget everyone? Gadget everyone. This is a game chock-full of toys. Again, the game responds to what you do, rather than boxing you into a corner - keep on kung-fuing folk and you'll be rewarded with perks for it (many of which are paired with Achievements/Trophies) that unlock ultra-attacks. Switch to sub-machine-gunning goons in the face and you'll earn a few perks from that too. Again, there's that shining promise of replay value - a game that shifts down new paths in on-the-fly response to your actions is never going to play the same way twice.
On the other, other, other hand, the one with seven fingers and weeping sores on the palm, it's not an especially pretty game in either its technology or its art style, none of the demonstrated characters stick out as especially memorable and some of the dialogue seems a little stuck between the rock of run-on exposition and the hard place of attempted James Bond camp. Again, though - it's impossible to demonstrate an RPG in anything less than several hours if you want to convey a meaningful sense of what it's like to lose yourself in the character. And that's what Alpha Protocol aims to do above and beyond anything else. You're a secret agent, after all. Nobody tells you what to do - except you.
Alpha Protocol is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in October.