|System: X360, PS3, PC||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Obsidian Ent.||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: SEGA||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Oct. 6, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Mature||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Valerie Hilgenfeldt
December 16, 2008 - Perhaps it's coincidental that SEGA will be publishing Obsidian's upcoming Alpha Protocol, since at a glance you could mistake it for a North American Shenmue. If you don't see it, we'll help paint the picture.
Replace the Asian retro-romanticism with a summer blockbuster vibe, then lay everything out according to one developer's big dream (not a marketing department's). Define the youthful main character as an unstoppable man out to solve a mystery, even though they're a rookie that's marching into a lion's den. Now, go even further defy the FPS-loving masses, and adopt a third-person viewpoint. Before it's all said and done, toss in a long-shot hope that the fans of traditional RPGs and action romps alike will give it a spin.
It's a familiar path that SEGA tread once before, and the underwhelming response led to the death of a first-party franchise. Given that, this budding action RPG is an interesting venture for SEGA, and its external development removes them from investing every penny themselves. Though they're only the publisher on this go-'round, will the gamble prove worth their while?
What's certain is that Obsidian's universe doesn't rival the size of Suzuki's. Aside from completing Alpha Protocol's missions, you can explore what they're calling "safe houses" there aren't any cities to be found. Depending on how you perceive titles like Shenmue and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., this may come off as a plus. You'll spend hardly any time running around unless you're running and gunning against your foes, that is.
Obsidian's clearly emphasizing the "action" half of the title's "action RPG" labeling, which befits its explosion-prone Hollywood-esque script: you're a greenhorn super-spy out to make his mark, and you'll have to make your own opportunities. Along the way, the title's customization system will let you show how well-worn you've become, too. You can opt into a scruffy beard or an old military uniform, but in a very non spy-like manner, you'll stick out -- the environments you'll explore won't look nearly as lived-in.
You'd think that your seediest foes wouldn't keep their walls well-scrubbed and their mustaches trimmed, but they've a pseudo-Bond to please. Another thing Shenmue had going for it was its lovingly-crafted environments; Alpha Protocol's are practically as sanitary as a hospital's walls. Between now and its slated 2009 release, there's a chance Obsidian may breathe life into the ho-hum stages, but that can't be guaranteed. This title will have to earn the RPG half of its categorizing somehow, which means their current focus could be script-related content.
They're aiming to strike a balance between the linear storytelling of Japanese RPGs and the sandbox-like style of Western endeavors, and that's going to be challenging. The advantage of Japanese RPG storytelling is in its writers' opportunity to pen a very coherent tale (though whether they do or not is up to debate). Meanwhile, Western developers like to let the player's actions speak louder than pre-written words. Thus, if Obsidian's overarching plot isn't strong, the main character whose name is Michael Thorton will have to compensate with his chit-chat.
A many-branched dialog tree, descended from the system used in Neverwinter Nights 2, should give players the freedom to experience multiple twists on Protocol's storyline. It'll also include several endings, and you may not even know the far-reaching consequences of your loose lips until you've finished the game. While you watch the finale unfold, you'll likely wonder, "what if I'd said something else?", and that's where the replay value comes in. If you can immerse yourself in the script, you may enjoy Michael's spying efforts despite his lackluster surroundings.
Maybe the music will help enhance the atmosphere, but hardly any of that has been heard yet. Since there isn't a concrete release date in sight, Obsidian can do practically anything their budget allows with this one. Will it become Shenmue Lite and pull SEGA back into this genre, or will it fall flat alongside the likes of Dark Sector? Chances are, we'll be waiting for months till we'll get to find out, and no amount of spy toys nor virtual gashapon will let us peek into Alpha Protocol's future.
CCC Freelance Writer