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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Alpha Protocol


The legendary agent whose presence looms over Alpha Protocol's Michael Thornton isn't Bauer, Bourne or Bond - although the game is eager to invite all these comparisons. It's Shepard. Obsidian has borrowed a lot from BioWare, a developer it's always had a close working relationship with, and at times Alpha Protocol can feel a little like a Mass Effect mod as much as an original game in its own right.

A contemporary super-spy mod of Mass Effect would hardly be something to complain about, though, and while Thornton's earthbound adventure isn't as gripping - and is hardly as polished - as either of Shepard's galaxy-spanning suicide missions, it's a still decent action RPG.

The narrative, unfolding in a kind of French plait of chatting and blasting people in the face that will be instantly familiar to veterans of any Normandy away missions, is a pleasingly sinister muddle. While agent Thornton hops around the globe, having flirty conversations with enigmatic ladies on planes and making deals - or, like, totally not making deals - with sheiks, Russian crime bosses and Triads, Alpha Protocol slowly starts to pull together a story of international intrigue, as a weapons manufacturer tries to trigger a new cold war arms race so it can cash in on the ensuing panic. (It's worth noting that this firm definitely isn't in any way at all based on former Vice President Dick Cheney's delightful paymasters Halliburton.)

You can customise Thornton's beard, headgear and glasses, but can't mess with the face. You might want to cover up the eyes, because they're creepy and dead-looking.

While there are plenty of serious things to think about while you're reloading - commercial jet liners get shot out of the sky, private military contractors storm embassies and the corruption might go all the way to the top on this baby - the game never forgets to revel in all the cheesy aspects of being a member of the air-miles-heavy, neck-breaking elite too. This is espionage depicted as a delightful confection of plush safe-houses, video walls, one-liners and gadgets, a game built from show homes and weather-beaten military installations.

A handy indicator, if any was needed, of its reckless handballing of reality comes in the first five minutes, when a slick military industrial complex type conducts a debriefing in an office suite with a lit cigarette in his hand. You can get a license to waterboard at Boots the Chemists these days, buddy, but not even Tier One special forces are allowed to do that anymore.

Reading a character's dossier may give you perks and advantages when you inevitably have to blow their head off - or talk them out of trying to shoot you first.

While the plot spools around your feet one hotel lobby or snowy train yard at a time, the game's missions themselves take their cue from the first Mass Effect rather than the second. It's a blend - and often a slightly wonky one - of RPG and shooter, meaning that it's happy to give you a shotgun to pose with, but if you want it to actually behave like, well, a shotgun, you're going to have to pour money and upgrade points into it.

Although that's frustrating in the early levels, as you feel like you're bursting from cover to pop super-soldiers in the face with tangy bursts of Glade, once the game actually gets cooking you'll start to feel enjoyably super-powered yourself, whichever munitions you're choosing to specialise in. Each trip to the character sheet or the weapons clearing-house becomes a treat, and while certain classes of gun never have that much character however good you get with them - I struggled to love either pistols or SMGs, as they both seemed ineffectual - if you like stock-shopping and comparing the buffs offered by a handful of recoil dampeners, you'll be pretty happy about things.