Everything from the dialogue tree to the real-time combat system (replete with an "active skill" wheel that pauses the combat and allows the player to choose a special attack) to the main character's circular targeting reticule echoed gameplay elements of the best-selling space saga from BioWare.
During a closed-door demo, senior producer Ryan Rucinski of Obsidian Entertainment acknowledged certain similarities to "Mass Effect," but told me that the "Alpha Protocol" has been in development for over two-and-half years, and has plenty of differences to boast about. It goes deeper than the setting.
For one, "Alpha Protocol"'s dialogue tree, dubbed by Obsidian as the "Dialogue Stance System," has timed responses. As players take on the role of super spy Michael Thorton, they will have control of Thorton's reactions and interactions with other characters via the dialogue system. While there are a few options to choose from, including nice and aggressive responses, the player must choose quickly and carefully. Decide too slowly and your character will revert to saying something that suits the previous stance you selected. Also, non-player characters will not always react in the same way. Rucinski told me that conversations are "cinematic presentations," and players won't always have the same conversations. Players will also have a detailed chat log to refer to.
Instead of having a customizable character like Commander Shepard, "Alpha Protocol" has Thorton, who will remain himself throughout but with a variety of costumes -- like combat armor, casual wear and tuxedos -- as well as face paint, hats, glasses, hairstyles, etc. "The different armor allows for different abilities for different play styles, and people will react to what you're wearing," Rucinski told me. "You have to dress for the occasion."
He also said that unlike "Mass Effect," you'll get at least 600 Achievement points "no matter what" for just completing the game the first time. Though if one plays through the game multiple times, they can get Achievements for choosing a certain stance the entire game or wooing all the women characters in it -- not to mention the multiple endings. "The ending you get depends on what you do; they're slightly different, and it depends on if you left certain characters alive," he said.
While I was told about all these slight differences, I still couldn't get "Mass Effect" out of my head. One scene shown at the E3 demo gave Thorton the choice to extort, shoot or arrest a man. This reminded me of the E3 demo of "Mass Effect" I had last year where a room full of trigger-happy journalists choose death over life for Wrex; the NPC in "Alpha Protocol" had a similar fate. To cover it up, Thorton told a lie saying that the man had pulled a gun on him. And the consequences? You'll never get side missions from a dead guy. But ultimately players aren't really punished for the choices they make; there's still an advantage to having a particular NPC dead because that may open up a whole new set of quests from an opposing faction. "You can be a bad guy, so bad guys can be your friends; it all depends on what kind of character you have," Rucinski said.
So I flat-out asked Rucinski how "Alpha Protocol" can stand apart from the "Mass Effect" comparisons. He didn't seem to think they were entirely a bad thing. "If you think of the work Obsidian's done, BioWare did ["Knights of the Old Republic"] and we did 'KOTOR 2,' they did 'Neverwinter Nights' and we did 'Neverwinter Nights 2,'" he said. "But this is an opportunity to do our own original title. We really respect [BioWare], and not that we don't love those guys, but we'll stand out on our own legs and show what we can do."
"Alpha Protocol" is slated for release in February 2009 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.