The Agency Preview

Hot on the heels of the title's official announcement, Chris Remo checks in with his thoughts on SOE Seattle's upcoming The Agency.


"We've historically been very much in the men-in-tights genre, a lot of guys running around in [sic] broadswords. But now we're looking at a broader genre," said Sony Pictures Digital boss Yair Landau about subsidiary Sony Online Entertainment in February. "We've started to immerse ourselves in the world of espionage... We think it's okay if you have MMOs where you wear tuxedos and carry a silencer, not just tights and a mace."

The game to which Landau was referring, The Agency, was announced today for PC as well as PlayStation 3, a system that has so far had only a small few massively multiplayer announcements. In May, SOE held a Gamer Day event at which it unveiled the game with members of its SOE Seattle development team. Though no hands-on coverage was given, with the game not expected to ship until at least next year, I was able to get a sense of the game' fundamental concepts and goals from lead designer Hal Milton.

Player characters come in two flavors: the ultra-slick, technological, and always-prepared spies from U.N.I.T.E., and the more mercenary, firepower-laden, roguish agents from ParaGON. Unlike contemporary espionage-themed games such as Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, The Agency has its roots in the campier and classier spy flicks and serials--the world of The Agency is not gritty and rough, but sleek and stylish, with plenty of explosions. It is a tongue-in-cheek world, one in which spies and their nemeses have become so constantly embroiled in conflict that they hardly even attempt to hide it anymore. Ostensibly secret operations take place without any real regard for their noise or flashiness, much to the growing consternation of the citizens. In one mission, a pair of agents requested that headquarters dispatch a RPG-armed sports car, which moments later was dropped onto the ground from a helicoter, only to be recklessly driven a mere block or so to take the agents to their destination.

Unlike most MMOs, The Agency is a first person shooter at heart. When asked to compare the game to SOE's own massively multiplayer shooter Planetside, Milton described The Agency as more team-based, and more persistent with more highly customizable characters, but he also dismissed such kneejerk comparisons. "In five to ten years, all games will be persistent or will have online components," he predicted, "and we won't have that distinction of 'MMO.'" Milton and his team are thus trying to avoid many of the typical MMO trappings, believing that there is already room for more divergent games in the massively multiplayer space. Gunplay is handled in real-time, using the mouse or analog stick, and with PvP options available all at all stages of the game, interesting possibilities are raised. In general, higher level players will have more equipment and weapons, but with the aimed real-time combat system it is possible for a much lower level player to take on his "superior" if exceptionally skilled; there won't be artificial barriers in place. "If the total noob is that incredible, he should rewarded," said Milton.

Due to the nature of the game and the immersion-related necessity not to have too many secret agents performing the same covert opration simultaneously, it will be heavily isntanced. Missions themselves have various gameplay segments. Of course, the most straightforward goal is to take out enemies, but players will also find themselves making calls to operatives, obtaining surveillance photos of sour deals, and engaging in "agent moments," scripted scenes that allow the players to do a great deal of damange with a stylish movie. One mission saw a pair of agents squaring off against numerous enemies near a children's merry-go-round. After proceeding far enough along, the two agents leapt onto the circling ride and dealt out a hail of bullets in a radial fashion. To keep in line with the cinematic theme, bosses too are introduced by brief cinematic cutscenes visible to everybody in the party.

While concrete details about The Agency's brass tacks gameplay are not yet bountiful, Milton shared a number of plans the team has in the works. Characters can specialize in numerous skills across the categories of combat, support, and stealth. Rather than using a rigid class system, players will define their characters by crafting their specialties. Further range is available with weapons--pistols, machine guns, sniper rifles, and many more, which all have their own expertise levels--and outfits, which actually confer various bonuses or abilities related to the three skill categories.

By completing certain missions and achieving certain goals, players will be able to acquire NPC operatives, the equivalent of Bond's Q. These characters do not accompany the player in the game world, but are accessible remotely and are responsible for giving the player intel, outfitting him or her with equipment, sending in support, conducting economic or political tasks, or any number of other functions. Milton describes them as "collectible and shareable."

Players will be able to form their own spy agencies, and form sanctioned alliances with other players' agencies to create joint agencies. Milton has plans for a variety of economic and political systems providing incentive for players to work with and against other agencies, drawing inspiration from games such as CCP's EVE Online. "Eve is incredible," he said. "It's elegant to say the least. It fills me with joy, being able to just take out a fleet in one underhanded swoop."

For the most part, however, The Agency is planned to be less hardcore than something like EVE, offering plenty of instant gratification for players who want it--a goal that goes part and parcel with its real-time shooter gameplay. That said, Milton promises that experienced MMO players will have plenty to stay interested. "If you want to play 24 hours a day for ever and ever to the exclusion of life itself, we'll support that," he said. SOE Seattle plans to provide frequently-delivered episodic content ("like true episodes, regularly," he added) providing new serialized stories involving operatives, new PvP gametypes, new outfits, and more.

SOE Seattle even has plans for opt-in alternate reality game-like content; players may find themselves getting in-character emails, or text messages to their cell phones. "Expect to see some websites out there that aren't labeled as us but are related to the game," said Milton, who teasingly added, "I have to say that the PSP feels like a spy gadget to begin with."

As far as interoperability between PS3 and PC, it seems that nothing has yet been decided. The team is looking into the possibility.

Sony Online Entertainment has not announced a release projection for The Agency on either PC or PlayStation 3, but it is planned to ship some time after 2007.

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