Eventually our two man spy group make it inside, where a posh party is in full swing. Here, both characters automatically change to their “alias outfits” – James Bond suit for the male spy and a sexy evening dress for the female player. Here you no longer have access to your guns, but you do have other skills at your disposal. It’s a very James Bond-esque section – you’re in a swanky party, going undercover, taking photos of Das Komitee’s dodgy devices and meeting up with a contact.
Eventually you make it into the room that contains said dodgy devices. You need to take pictures of it with your camera. We take a picture, but it’s only 39 per cent quality. We need 90 per cent to complete this part of the mission. We frame it properly, zoom in and focus. Done. You’ll be taking pictures a lot in The Agency, but there will be variation to it - in other scenarios you might have to take the picture within ten seconds or suffer the wrath of an enemy rush.
If a security guard has a red eye above their head, it means they’re on the lookout for anyone suspicious. If you have the same icon above your head, it means you’re being observed. While observed you can’t use your camera. Luckily, an NPC called Cassie Nova, an inside agent for Unite, gives you a hint: set up a distraction. One player distracts, in this case the lovely lady, while the other takes the picture. Job done.
Of course, completing this bonus objective will be impossible without the aid of another player. No problem – this area is a public space and will be filled with other players running around, perhaps doing the same mission as you or just exploring. If you need some help, just ask. While The Agency won’t force you to play with other players (you can progress all the way through the story and up the spy ranks just levelling solo), you’ll want to – it’s the only way to get the game’s best rewards.
Via a secret door in the building library we enter an instanced space, our own personal version of the mission. Here we finally meet up with Ian, who processes our photos. Unfortunately a helicopter turns up with none other than the evil genius Dr. Kessler in tow – The Agency’s over-the-top tone is unquestionably more Moonraker than Quantum of Solace. Now we see some combat. At any given time you have two skills at your disposal, triggered with the R2 and L2 button on PS3 and the 1 and 2 buttons on PC. But you’re able to access additional skills via the Mass Effect-style skill wheel. From here you can map new skills to the two buttons, or fire them directly. Outside the building and in the line of fire, The Agency plays like a standard third-person shooter, with reticule-based firing, a zoom-in mode and grenade throwing, except with abilities linked to new weapons, gadgets and skills you’ve collected throughout the game. The Combat spy, for example, has a skill called Tough as Nails, which instantly brings up a shield to recover life at the expense of stamina. This again ties into Sony’s “online action shooter” philosophy. “If Max has been playing for two years and Glen has just started but he’s a really good FPS player, he’s going to be competitive in PvP,” Kevin explains. “Max will have an advantage, no doubt, but Glen’s not completely at a loss.”
With all the enemies disposed of and the mission completed, the duo get their silver reward – they set off an alarm earlier so missed out on the gold rating. You’re automatically transported back to The Agency – from there you can pick a new mission, change outfit and role or, with a single button press, get into PvP (while teams are maxed at four players, PvP facilitates much larger fights). PvP is divided into two types: the standard balanced map PvP akin to a FPS lobby, or the Contested Zones, where Paragon and Unite are constantly at odds and missions are up for grabs. Here, Kevin says, you should “expect there might be someone gunning for you”.
The PS3 build we saw didn’t look fantastic – the framerate and resolution didn’t impress, but the PC version looked crisp and vibrant. With the game not due out till 2010, there’s plenty of time to get the PS3 version spic and span. While both versions were running together in cross-platform play, SOE may decide not to enable the feature in the released version because of design considerations.
Whatever the decision, The Agency is certainly an interesting project for SOE and gamers alike. The game might prove too basic for traditional PC MMO fans, but on PS3 it stands out – there’s nothing like it on the platform. There is a danger, though, that it’ll occupy a purgatory-like middle ground on Sony’s console, with the third-person shooting merely functional in the shadow of the more spectacular Killzone 2 and CoD, but the graphical approach – cartooney, colourful and stylised – and interesting online features should help the game attract a unique fan base of its own.
The Agency is due out for PS3 and PC in 2010.