It's funny how the release of new games can get you all sentimental about what's come before. It happens to me every time a new mediocre looking Final Fantasy game comes out. Mass Effect 3 launched last week to much critical praise, and I'm guessing rightly so, although I've not had chance to play it yet. I was inspired to write this the other day when I recollected on my time playing Alpha Protocol, a self-styled 'Espionage RPG' released back in June 2010. I'm not trying to go against the grain and say that the Mass Effect games are rubbish, I think they're pretty good, but there are just a few things for me that Alpha Protocol did better (while admittedly drawing heavily from the Mass Effect formula) that I don't think it got the credit it deserved for. I guess it just makes me a sad every time a new big budget RPG comes out that Alpha Protocol got denied a sequel after such a promising first effort.
Let's be clear, it's a far from a perfect game. Much of its gameplay feels, well, like alpha code. Every generation a game comes along that in your heart of hearts you know is flawed, but you still can't help but enjoy it. This game for me just resonated what the role playing genre is all about, for reasons I'll explain below. This isn't about Mass Effect bashing at all, it's just about giving a little appreciation to the little guys that don't deserve to have their ideas and achievements forgotten about. Much of this is very much personal preference anyway. Here are a few things it did better than Bioware/EA's monolith:
SPIES > SOLDIERS
Alpha Protocol was on to a winner before even then first line of code was written in this respect. Gaming has produced many a great spy game through its history, most notably the Metal Gear Solid games, Splinter Cell series and of course the original Goldeneye, but Obsidian's choice to create an RPG spy game, set in the present day, is still to be replicated.
There are few things more appealing to the 10 year old boy in all of us than the allure of the international spy, cultivated of course by the James Bond films amongst others. Gaming has often let us step into the shoes of these revered characters, many as 007 himself in fact, but none have really let you play out your own spy story. By creating a game in which you could decide the path your interpretation of Michael Thornton would choose; the way he reacted to those impossible decisions men in those situations have to make, Obsidian gave us a completely new twist on the western RPG.
A LITTLE LESS ALL OUT ACTION...
Commander Shepard, for all of his all American hero posturing, is actually a bit of a blunt object when it comes to his approach to situations. It's all guns blazing all the time. He has no time for the shadows and the air vents of level design. There is the option to position your two squad members tactically of course, but this is never done to move through a room clinically dispatching of foes, it's always to make the most effective barricade to repel enemy waves.
To an extent my personal preferences come in to play here, but I do often find myself frustrated at the lack of a stealth option in Mass Effect. It's always just the same enter room, dispose of enemies, crack safe/datapad, move on during all of the mission sequences. Replace 'dispose of enemies' with 'speak to an NPC' and you've got a summary of the hub world sequences. There's just a real monotony to it that does grate over the course.
Alpha Protocol's stealth options may be dated, bug riddled and unbalanced thanks to the perks you can upgrade (invisibility for 60 seconds?), but at least the option is there. Giving the player the option to tackle a gameplay situation their own way is at least as crucial in role playing, and possibly more so, than giving them the choice of how to move the plot forwards.
...A LITTLE BETTER CONVERSATION PLEASE
The original Mass Effect was lauded for its new spin on character dialog, letting you chose how to move the conversation on by selecting the general point of what the character wants to say rather than the exact script, but for me Alpha Protocol's implementation was better.
It does borrow heavily from Bioware's design admittedly, but by adding a time limit to responses it added a sense of urgency and gamble to the conversation. That might sound inhibitive to those who want to carefully consider their response, but real conversations don't work like that. It tied in to a really interesting mechanic where by you could grow or drop in an NPC's estimations depending on your response and attitude to certain scenarios. Getting the affection of these characters yielded rewards and actually affected the story, giving even your most innocuous decisions in terms of whether to react professionally (Bourne), suavely (Bond) or aggressively (Bauer) to a remark a sense of purpose and consequence.
IF I'M THE TARGET, CONSIDER ME ENGAGED
Choices & consequences are a vital part of the western RPG experience, and Alpha Protocol is no exception. Once again, its spin on this is better than most. it's hard for me to articulate exactly why the difficult decisions you make in this game resonated more with me than those of Mass Effect, but I guess it was because I didn't have to believe in the world I was playing in; I was living in it already.
For example, if I have to make a choice between saving the girl or stopping a bomb going off and harming thousands in Alpha Protocol, I completely comprehend what the results of each path will be, both to my character and the wider world around him. Does role playing get any more quintessential than that? Whereas in Mass Effect, I have in my hands the fate of an entire race (the Rachni or the Krogan as two separate examples), and while I buy into the lore of this universe and therefore what the consequences will be, it's harder to make that personal connection that is already in place when role playing in a world you already inherently understand.
The present day, it occurs to me, is actually a heavily underused setting in RPG gaming for this very reason, but as more and more action adventure games that tend to use real world settings frequently move to incorporate more traditional RPG elements (GTA IV springs to mind), perhaps it's something we'll see improved upon.
So there you have it. If you made it all the way to this sentence, first of all well done, and secondly please go and buy a copy for yourself. If you love a good role playing experience you won't regret it. Finally, if you work for Sega:
PLEASE WAKE UP TO THE REALISATION THAT WITH A BIT MORE POLISH THIS COULD HAVE BEEN THE START OF SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, AND MAKE A-BLOODY-NOTHER ONE.