I’ve just finished playing through Alpha Protocol ‘the espionage RPG’. Straight away I have to wonder why they chose such a meaningless title that a sub-header was needed before anyone would know what the game was about. I suppose they were going for an ‘Ipcress File’/‘Bourne Identity’ kind of vibe, but it just ended up sounding bland. A bad day in the marketing department, and not the only one on this game…

The game has a second subtitle: ‘your weapon is choice’ which in my head can only be followed by “Tea or coffee, sir?” “Ow, no, that hurts!” “Sugar?” “Aaaaaaah!” Fortunately the trailer makes this idea a lot more exciting. It shows the lead character, a standard spy/action hero type named Michael Thorton, interrogating a bad guy by dangling him upside-down off the roof of a tower block, only to spot henchman reinforcements arriving in the road below, followed quickly by the appearance of a helicopter gunship. The trailer runs through the various options available to Thorton: 1. Charge down the stairs and kick the goons in the head. 2. Throw smoke grenades into the air vents, triggering a fire alarm and escaping in the crowd of civilians. 3. Drop the original bad guy to his death, stuffed with grenades, onto the henchmen’s car below. Finally, we go with option 4: the helicopter lands on the roof so the co-pilot can get out and check Original Bad Guy, who is now tied to a chair. Then the gunship takes off – Thorton has his pistol to the pilot’s head, and forces him to fire missiles at the co-pilot and OBG.

It’s a cool trailer. The trouble is, the only one of these choices you actually get to do in the game is kicking people in the head. There’s no dangling people off rooftops, no stealing helicopters, and no civilians anywhere to blend into. Your choices in the main content of the game really boil down to shooting or sneaking. Now don’t get me wrong, it was certainly entertaining enough making these decisions. On the whole I ended up skulking around, taking down guards with my silenced pistol until I got spotted and had to finish off the rest in a fire-fight. There were frequently different routes possible, but this felt like a token effort to give an impression of freedom – they were always small detours to the same chokepoint, keeping you on a fundamentally linear path through each mission. I felt all the more restricted by the fact that there is no way to jump up onto anything, so my elite super-agent was regularly fenced in on the ‘correct’ path by a knee-high cardboard box that a 3 year-old could have got over.

Conversation with other characters is likewise no more full of choice than most RPGs these days, with your options pretty much being nice, nasty or smug. Your interactions lead to gaining different handlers talking in your ear during missions, occasionally different enemies to kill and allies to lend a hand (well, their clothes had changed). However, the missions themselves are never substantially different, and while there is some choice about the order you complete things, it doesn’t seem to have much effect – you play through all the missions eventually.

I wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t like Alpha Protocol. It’s an entertaining spy-thriller romp, with good action and a suitably twisty-turny plot, and I’d recommend it on that basis. No, my gripe is with the marketing that made me expect so much more – a game where you had some genuinely inventive freedom. When the product doesn’t live up to the hype, you are just left feeling a bit disappointed.

Oh, one other little peeve: why, when the main character is sneaking, does he have to look like he desperately needs to urinate? Play it and you’ll see what I mean.

Deathwatch is the latest incarnation of the Warhammer 40,000 roleplay system, made by Fantasy Flight Games, under license from Games Workshop. It follows two previous games that use essentially the same mechanics (and can be mingled together if you so wish), namely Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. The big difference with the earlier two versions is that those games deal with the niche corners of the 40k universe, the obscure and curious asides that litter the rulebooks of the tabletop game, but are rarely the main focus. You can, for example, play a tech-priest or an arbitrator, a navigator or an astropath, chasing after heretics and Chaos cultists. Deathwatch, on the other hand, puts you firmly into the ceramite boots of the Adeptus Astartes, as a member of the specialist alien-hunting chapter that provides the military might of the Inquisition’s Ordo Xenos. In fact, the Deathwatch draws its members from all the other chapters, which means you can be an Ultramarine, Blood Angel, Dark Angel or Space Wolf (or a Storm Warden – a new chapter created for the game). And with the bulk of the adversaries consisting of Tyranids, Tau and the forces of Chaos, straight away this is much more familiar territory for players who are used to the battle game.

The really great thing about being a Space Marine in a roleplaying game is that you are awesome – right from the start. There’s none of that problem you often get with RPGs where your starting characters are incompetent weaklings. Dark Heresy characters in particular are notable for struggling to beat even a Grot with a limp, until they’ve got some experience under their belts. Similarly, I remember starting a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign with some colleagues at Games Workshop, and getting beaten to crap in the first encounter of the first session by a bunch of overgrown spiders, as we repeatedly failed to hit the creatures despite the fact that most of them were crawling on our faces.

Deathwatch is different. As a Space Marine, you begin the game with super-human characteristics, proper Astartes weaponry, the hefty protection of your power armour, the strength to crush a man’s skull and the ability to smell poisons, spit acid and generally throw your weight around without having to worry about the first lasgun shot that comes your way. The game takes things even further with the Horde system. This allows your Kill-team of maybe just three Deathwatch Space Marines to take on dozens or even hundreds of bad guys without dying horribly (and without a single encounter taking six gaming sessions to resolve or the GM’s brain exploding). Single-handedly mowing down a tide of rampaging Tyranids is just proper behaviour for a Space Marine, the kind of image you read about in novels, picture in your head and hopefully one day will see in a movie. The Deathwatch RPG doesn’t merely replicate the idea of a Space Marine from the 40k battle game, because it has none of the same limitations of game balance and product ranges. Rather it elevates the iconic image to its rightful double-hard, ass-kicking place, which certainly feels a lot more satisfying than a Space Marine who dies if you roll a 2.

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