The impact of player decisions is significant in Alpha Protocol

The folks at Obsidian Entertainment are masters of an art — the art of doing something great with established game franchises. They've done it with Bioware's Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and more recently, nearly managed to surpass Fallout 3 (in typical bug-filled fashion) with Fallout: New Vegas, and with Dungeon Siege III, we got a nice looking dungeon crawler which was faithful to the original. The only aberration, it would seem, in what would otherwise read like an excellent resumé, is 2010's espionage RPG Alpha Protocol (published by Sega), a game that received a lot of criticism. However, there was no other game like it at the time and no other game has explored similar territory since. For those invested in it, Alpha Protocol delivers a genuinely unique experience, some dodgy combat and gloriously dumb artificial intelligence. But it's the uniqueness of the experience that leaves a lasting impression.

Games are a test of their players' decision-making ability and the often-advertised ‘player choice' system is a regular fixture in games with a non-linear approach to narrative. In Sony and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, for instance, the concept of winning does not exist and there is no “correct” choice in any given situation. This open-endedness is echoed by Skyrim, and while a player can essentially change the composition of the game world, a decision's impact feels more like a ripple in an ocean (in the game's defence, its scope and scale are immense). Games such as Mass Effect and The Witcher, through their own distinct methods (one in which the player is the centre of the universe and the other in which the player is a tool of the powers that be), draw the player into the proverbial ‘gray' area, giving them a choice between two lesser evils, but never has player-choice (and its subsequent impact) seemed a more organic process than in Alpha Protocol.

Playing as Michael Thorton, you will be presented with various choices. Execute an arms dealer and you'll never be able to find his buyer, or spare him and allow the free flow of ballistic missiles to terrorists. Go into an embassy all guns blazing (alerting agencies to your presence in the process), or take a stealthier approach. Harass a contact aggressively like Jack Bauer or attempt to charm them, James Bond style. These are choices spies have to make (usually without the luxury of time), and as a result, something as simple as a conversation in Alpha Protocol packs in just as many moments of anxiety as an entire play-through of Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell (effective manipulation of individuals can help you later in the game). Its ‘dialogue stance system' or DSS allows the player to either win a character over, deliberately provoke them or play it safe — all the while maintaining free-flowing conversation by giving the player a limited amount of time to take their stance. Every single response (as well as collective responses) can have a lasting impact on the story's outcome — decisions taken in the field have the same effect as well. Something as seemingly insignificant as accidentally opening fire on a CIA agent or an attempt to blackmail a corporation via e-mail will trigger an event that could impact Protocol's endgame. Add to this a gripping story, superb writing, memorable characters and spy activities such as ability to trade weapons and intelligence on the gray market, research and complete dossiers on individuals and factions, read intercepted communiques between various spy agencies, and you've got a simulation of espionage where player choice is paramount.

Two years after release, Alpha Protocol in its current state (the PC version is available on Steam for $19.99) is still a buggy product and Sega have ruled out the possibility of a sequel. Ignore its generic third-person action and horrendous artificial intelligence, however, and you've got a game that's remarkably close to being a perfect simulation of espionage where your decisions as a player have a tremendous impact.