Sony Online Entertainment's senior game designer Kevin O'Hara describes The Agency, due out for PS3 and PC next year, as an "online action shooter". "First and foremost we're trying to be a shooter that appeals to people who like FPSs or action shooters," he explains as PS3 and PC versions of the game are being played together in glorious cross-platform loveliness. It's enough to make you think The Agency is some kind of MMO-esque Call of Duty or Killzone 2, but it actually looks nothing like those popular FPSs. It looks, for all intents and purposes, just like you'd imagine a super spy MMO to look - the game's played primarily from a third-person view with a standard MMO user interface, mini-map and health bars.
What's different is that The Agency is an entirely skill-based game. Unlike other MMOs that see your character's statistics rise in accordance with experience gain, The Agency takes a much simpler approach: if you're good at shooters you'll be good at The Agency, irrespective of how many hours you've put into levelling. Sure, as you play the game you'll gain access to new weapons, outfits, abilities and gadgets, but, when all is said and done, the last spy standing will be the one with the most accurate trigger finger.
This is both a good and bad thing. It's good for people who haven't got the time to play the game as if it were a second job (or even a first job). It should ensure a level playing field in most player versus player situations, and enable players of all ranks to group up for player versus environment missions. But, conversely, it's bad for those who enjoy the grind, those who enjoy levelling and pouring hours into a game. For them, the reward of having a better character than Jonny Newbie is entirely appropriate - 'I'm putting more effort in, so why shouldn't I have an advantage?'
Whatever your opinion, this skill-based approach seems entirely appropriate on a console MMO. This, after all, is what console gamers are used to. Yes, The Agency will also be released for the PC, but it seems Sony reckons the PS3's got great potential for the genre, what with Free Realms, The Agency and DC Universe Online all due out on the platform. At a time when most PC MMOs struggle to compete with Blizzard's all-conquering World of Warcraft, who can blame them? Seeing the game in action for ourselves, Sony's approach looks full of win.
We last saw The Agency at the Leipzig Games Convention trade show in 2008, where we got a good idea of how the game will work. Players pick from two sides: Paragon and Unite. Paragons are the mercenaries, brutish action whores who shoot first and ask questions later. Unite take an all together more sophisticated approach, favouring fast cars, fast women and explosive Martinis (really). In-game, you're able to switch from the three classes, called roles, at will. One of The Agency's hooks is "You are what you wear". Your role, then, is determined by your outfit - combat, stealth and support. Combat spies do and take damage. Stealth spies silently stun enemies. And Support spies provide back up, and pack a special gadget called the Martini Bomb - shake it then lob it like a grenade to freeze enemies in place. Strategy comes from deciding what outfit to wear before embarking on a mission - do I want to play Metal Gear Solid style or do I fancy running and gunning?
Self improvement comes from obtaining new weapons, outfits, gadgets and skills, rather than increasing base line statistics. This perk-like system keeps The Agency from getting too complicated and, as we've already mentioned, balanced. Accessible and fluid character progression is key here - The Agency won't be the most hardcore MMO ever released, that's for sure, but conversely it should appeal to most.
Following the game's Games Convention showing Sony took the game underground, but at E3 last month Sony gave us an update on the game's progress, showing off a new mission set in the Swiss Alps. Two players, one on PC and one on PS3, playing stealth and support roles, were grouped together to infiltrate a swanky party. This is where world dignitaries have gathered to discuss future events. Unfortunately, we've got wind the gathering's been compromised by none other than Das Komitee, the very same bad guys that bombed the embassy in our Leipzig demo last year.
This time around we're after intel on what they're up to. We need to meet up with a guy called Ian, who's holed up somewhere in the building. We can't get in via the front door because we don't have the right credentials, so we have to sneak around the side gate. This is what's called an "Infiltration Encounter" - if we sneak through we'll be better off. If we don't, well, Kevin says we're in for some "additional challenges".
One player hacks the security system, using a camera panel to scout patrolling enemies and laser gates. There's a short mini-game to hack a door - fail and it sprays poisonous gas that does damage. Keep failing and eventually it'll become lethal. With the security gates turned off we head up some stairs. Both players are crouched and moving slowly. The Stealth spy uses a pocket pen to fire a knockout dart, stunning a guard from behind. This section is very much reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid - you have to pay attention to your radar, watching carefully for enemies and the direction they're facing - avoiding them or stunning them in silence. Make too much noise and they'll call for help, setting off alarms and turning laser gates back on. Nasty turrets pop up and start filling you with bullets. This is what Kevin meant, then, by "additional challenges".
You can, however, go in all guns blazing, using your weapons to wreak havoc and EMP grenades to take out the turrets. You'll get your Experience Points, but you'll fail the bonus objective - to not set off any alarms. You won't get the coveted gold rating and the lovely gadget that comes with it either - this point in the game, at least, encourages you to play stealthily.
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.