MMO overload. That's what it feels like at the moment. We've got MMOs coming out of our ears. It's all Blizzard's fault of course. More developers than we can think of have been quoted saying World of Warcraft opened up the MMO market to people who would never have played MMOs before. And now everyone wants a piece of that particularly lucrative pie.
Including console manufacturers, like Sony. Hence The Agency, the PS3 and PC spy shooter MMO that's got a targeting reticule firmly focused on a Martini. We checked in with the game at Leipzig Games Convention to put that theory to the test.
Whenever we're faced with a new MMO we want to know what makes it different, what makes it unique and what makes it not WoW. While The Agency follows many MMO standards (pick your class, customise your character, gain experience and skills with other players), the developers have come up with more than their fair share of new ideas and interesting game mechanics that could help raise the game to the top of our console MMO wanted list.
The first is the Operative system. Essentially a trading card game built into the main gameplay, players will be able to use computer controlled Operatives to help them out on missions or even have them working on crafting new equipment and weapons while you're offline. Say, for example, you're finding a solo mission too hard. You'll be able to call in a sniper operative who'll provide covering fire as you battle your way through the waves of goons. Or, say you're up against a guard who's blocking your path into a secret passageway. You can call in a distraction, via your mobile phone, and after a few seconds a pipe will miraculously burst, allowing you to slip past unnoticed. Or, perhaps you need some ground support. You call in say five melee operatives who'll help you when the going gets tough.
There will be over 500 of these Operatives at launch, from which players will be able to form a deck of up to 100. They'll level up, too, much like players will, and, now here's the interesting part, you'll be able to trade them with other players and sell them on The Agency's auction house. Neat.
The Operative system is, to us, one of The Agency's most stand-out features. It's something that should help players get through missions on their lonesome - which will endear the game to non-MMO playing PS3 owners - and spice up general instanced group play as well.
How you'll unlock them is intrinsically linked to the humorous tone of the game. Take Roundup, for example, a pole dancing, cowboy hat-wearing Paragon operative (rough and tumble mercenaries who likes to duck tape their weapons together and do their talking with explosives). She'll only join your deck if you beat her time on the button bash pole dancing mini-game. Or take the resident computer geek on the U.N.I.T.E side (United Nations Intelligence and Tactical Experts - super spy James Bond types who like Martinis, gadgets and high class women). He'll only join your deck if you get at least 5,000 points on the officially Sony licensed Q-Bert arcade game in their high tech Field Office.
Every virtual pour we've seen suggests the developers are having as much fun as they can as they craft The Agency's world. U.N.I.T.E's safe house in central Prague, one of the main hubs (other player hubs include Kiev, Amsterdam and Panama - jet setting is very important in the life of an elite agent), is accessed through the back of an innocent-looking flower shop. Inside, players will cross paths as they get missions, buy gadgets and enjoy the sleek lines and curves of the high tech hideout. They'll also be able to sit back and watch persistent Q-style experiment skits inside the R&D lab. They'll change with the seasons, too. At Christmas, for example, the bullet proof bustier might be swapped for a flame thrower snowman. On Valentine's Day you might see a female agent trying out poison lipstick.
Supplementing the humorous tone is an accessible combat system that's heavy on the fun and light on the fiddling about. Yes, it's an MMO, with classes (called roles in the game) and avatar stat progression, but Sony has obviously worked hard on making the game as far from fantasy MMOs like WoW as it can.
To this end, there won't be any skill bars at the bottom of the screen. You'll only ever manage a couple of skills at any one time. The rest will be automatically detected by the game world. If you go up to a locked door, for example, it will check your equipment and abilities in order to determine what option to present to the player. You might have the option to pick the lock, or use a charge to blow it open, or simply kick it down, ensuring you won't have to fumble for tiny icons in order to trigger the action you want to perform.
Sony actually likens the game to Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat. While you might baulk at the claim, what it means is that your actual skill matters - what you shoot at and how you shoot is just as important as the progression of the skills you acquire. You won't, for example, be able to sit back and rely on your superior statistics. A skilled shooter will give you a run for your money no matter how uber powerful your avatar is.
Missions are divided up into three types - A, B and C. A missions are The Agency's showcase missions, lasting up to an hour with elaborate events and effects. B missions last about half an hour, and have less stuff happening, and C missions are jump in and out, 15 minute max missions ideal for killing time and building up influence and experience.
So far we've only seen one mission live - a B mission in down town Prague. An organisation called Das Committee, made up of ex-KGB members who want to bring back the Cold War, is trying to attach bombs to four pillars underneath the German embassy. It's your job, along with some mates, to protect the pillars and prevent the brutal act of terrorism from happening.
The mission begins outside in the bustling city streets. You need to follow a bad buy without being detected in order to find out where they intend to strike. You can use a disguise to get in, or sneak in, or simply blow his brains out. If you do that, however, you'll fail the secondary objective but you can still complete the main mission.
Every mission has three completion ratings: bronze, silver and gold. A solo player will be able to get through any of the main story missions, indeed the entire game, and get a bronze rating, but the gold rating, and cool loot, can only be obtained if you bring some mates along, or you're just amazing at the game.
When the mission to save the German embassy nears its conclusion, Das Committee operatives wearing bombs on their backs charge at the pillars. To sort them out you can either aim specifically for the bombs themselves and kill the goons before they reach the pillars (you'll be awarded a Trophy if you can shoot a bomb strapped to the back of a bad guy and chain kill three other guys), or attempt to deactivate any that are charged if you have the right skill and gadgets. If you save all four pillars from destruction you'll get a gold rating. You only need to save one pillar, however, to get a bronze rating, which is doable solo.
In situations like this playing to your role's strengths will be all important. There will be six roles in the game at launch, which broadly fall into three overarching categories - combat, support and stealth. A stealth role, say the Spy, can turn invisible, pick locks and hack bombs so they don't detonate. The Doc buffs, heals, and can resurrect fallen allies with an adrenaline shot, saving the need for players to run back to the action from the last save point or safe house infirmary. If there's no Doc on the team fear not - there's an operative who's specialises in resuscitating downed agents.
In the bigger missions, A and B class, there will be Agency Moments players will compete to star in. Essentially cinematic cut scenes, they big up the player who saved the day. The German embassy mission's Agency Moment is a simple dive as explosions go off in the background. We're sure A missions will provide more spectacular showcase endings.
If The Agency sounds like a PvE heavy game, that's probably because it is. In the game world you'll never have to fight another player or be shot at by another player if you don't want to. But that doesn't mean that you won't be able to try some of your mad James Bond skills out on other players. The game's two factions, Paragon and U.N.I.T.E, are friendly rivals, which means that they'll work together on missions but won't be averse to some PvP action in special maps. Say for example, you fancied some capture the flag action as soon as you log in. You'll be able to join a lobby system and, like any online console shooter, jump in as soon as matchmaking has worked its magic.
At the time of writing it's looking unlikely that The Agency will provide cross-platform play. While it can be done technically, Sony's research suggests players don't like it, no matter how loudly they call for it on Internet forums. So don't get your hopes up that you'll be able to settle that ancient mouse and keyboard versus joypad shooter argument when the game comes out.
Publisher Sony hasn't worked out how it'll charge players for the privilege of playing the game, either. It's going to take notes from Free Realms, another Sony PS3 and PC MMO due out next year, and make a decision closer to release. It's aware, however, that console owners aren't going to take too kindly to paying a monthly subscription, so will probably settle on a free to play model with micro-transactions for cooler outfits and side missions.
The Agency looks like a solid MMO shooter, with one or two stand out features that could help the game stand out from the horde of rival MMOs that are in the works. The Operative card game system certainly has our interest piqued, and the overall look and tone is pleasing to our critical eyes. Our only concern is with the combat, which could prove too basic for hardcore PS3-owning shooter fans. We'll know more when we get some hands-on with what's fast becoming the PS3's most promising MMO.
The Agency is due out for PS3 and PC in 2009