I’ve talked at length about my favourite games and my favourite stories but even with my enduring love for those games, I still have to pick up something totally new and fresh in between run-throughs. There are, very occasionally, games which I enjoy so thoroughly that I have restarted the game straight after the credits have rolled.
Because I’ve always got a back-log of games waiting to be played (and the downside to both reading games journalism prolifically AND working in a games retailer for an extended period of time), my tendency is to finish playing a title and move straight into whatever is next. For a game to impress me enough to warrant pushing back the unofficial schedule even further is a mark of honour that ninety-nine percent of even my favourite games will never earn.
In recent history there’s only been one game which I’ve gone back to not just once but three times consecutively: Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol.
Alpha Protocol first came to my attention for the simple fact that it was an RPG which had done away with the standard fantasy setting in favour of an espionage/thriller flavour. Aside from the (usually) Tolkien-esque worlds of high fantasy lore, the shadowy world of intelligence is one perfectly suited to the conventions of RPGs - loot, stat management and abilities which level up and evolve as the game progresses.
The other hook that Obsidian were promising was a genuinely branching narrative where every decision you made would change the story in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. I was sold instantly - the lack of long-term consequences to player choices has been one of my on-going complaints about RPGs or games with an choice gimmick at all.
I played through my first run as a goody-two-shoes Michael Thornton, doing everything I could to be as good as I could - I chose not to kill when given the option; I favoured non-lethal take-downs and tranquilliser rounds; I made allies at every opportunity and I slept with every single one of the four possible love interests.
I was impressed - the game was amazingly fun and the choices were compelling (if a bit cliché). But anyone who has played a choice-based game knows that there’s usually a ‘right’ way to play and a ‘wrong’ one. You might be able to choose different approaches, but the designers clearly favoured the one path above all others, making the game more enjoyable if you do things how they’d (however unconsciously) prefer you did them. So the real surprise in Alpha Protocol came when I started my Scumbag run - instead of negotiating, I shot people in the face; I blackmailed companies with intel I’d gathered on missions and those non-lethal takedowns I mentioned earlier? Not. Even. Once.
The game was totally different the second time around - it was certainly harder than my first play through, not because the developers had neglected the arsehole choices but simply because the choices I made turned out that way. The gameplay was equally fun and the story was equally engaging, if for totally different reasons.
This game also created one of the few instances where I disagreed with every single review I came across for it - people whined that the graphics weren’t super high definition, as if that should matter. It’s a game for fuck’s sake, the defining characteristic of which should be fun, which Alpha Protocol is in spades. People complained that it was a terrible third person shooter which just shows that they paid no attention to the game at all - it’s not a third person shooter at all and treating it like one is like complaining that Halo is a terrible kart racer because the vehicle handling is shonky. Start playing Alpha Protocol like an RPG and the mechanics make perfect sense and work brilliantly.
Okay, the game didn’t live up to it’s own hype - the claim that you could play through the entire game without firing a single bullet is technically true though trying the boss fights with hand-to-hand combat is just begging to see the game over screen. And some of the animation was a little strange, like that frankly bizarre duck-walk Thornton adopted whenever you tried to move while crouched.
The glitched achievements didn’t help either - I’m not overly bothered by the meta-game addition of doing things specifically to boost my e-penis but I’ll admit to doing my damnedest to get a perfect 1000/1000 for this, only to be crushed by the realisation that Evil Bastard / White Knight choice achievements wouldn’t unlock despite my having met their exacting criteria. There were also a couple of others that I missed out on, like the one for a certain number of kills with the shotgun because, honestly, who the fuck specialises in shotguns for a spy-thriller?
When I got to London, I was seriously tempted to buy a console so I could go through the game a fourth time. So far I’ve resisted the temptation. Barely.