I am tired of elves. I’ve been playing MMOs since the early days of Everquest, and I am tired of magic spells and chain mail armor and battle-axes and dwarves and magic rings and dungeons. I’m tired of every played-out trope that every game designer ever stole from J.R.R Tolkien, beat to death, and sucked the life from. So when I first heard about The Agency I was primed to love it, No one in this game has a magic ring or a +3 Staff of Light. Instead, The Agency is an MMO about spies -- sleek, sexy, mysterious government agents who work in the shadows and don’t need an axe to kill you, because it’s much more stylish to put a discreet hole between your eyes with a silenced Walther PPK, then stop by the casino for a Vodka martini and a few hands of high-stakes Baccarat.
I’m happy to report, after having watched someone play an Agency mission as a guest of Sony Online Entertainment, there was not a single pointy-ear in sight. Instead of misty mountains and ominous caves, The Agency is inspired by spy films, so it takes place in exotic jet-set locales: Mansions, casinos and hopefully a fair share of super-villain lairs under active volcanoes. And it's planned for the PS3 as well as PCs.
The difference between this and a typical fantasy MMO is more than just cosmetic. SOE seems to be going for a grind-free multiplayer game here. The idea is that action and adventure can be yours easily and quickly, so you’ll spend your time having fun instead of mining for copper ore or pretending to fish. This kind of “casual MMO” is a perfect fit for the sitting-on-the-couch-after-work style of most console gamers.
The game’s overall look is cartoonish without being corny or ridiculous. The spy genre lends itself well to a light-hearted touch (think Live and Let Die era Bond but not Austin Powers), and truth be told, I’m almost as tired of “gritty, realistic” games as I am of elves. This is the opposite of grit: Character models are stylish and the environments are shiny and inviting. This is not to say the look is without subtleties. The weather effects and some of the lighting effects in The Agency are impressive. Maybe not the most technically amazing things I’ve ever seen, but they definitely add to the spy movie vibe.
Players choose an identity within two factions: The slick and sexy United Nations Intelligence and Tactical Experts (U.N.I.T.E) and The Paramilitary Global Operations Network (ParaGON), a hard-boiled group of rock and roll soldiers. Each of the factions, of course, takes on the world in different ways. ParaGON would be blowing open the gates of an enemy stronghold, where U.N.I.T.E. players would tend toward stealthy entrances made with style.
Along with the player Agencies, NPC criminal groups have their own speres of influence. Some are enemies with both player factions, where some are allied with one or the other. The one we were introduced to, Das Komitee, is everyone’s enemy and is made up of former KGB agents wielding bizarre Cold War weapons and trying to amass enough wealth to build a global power base, just like the good old U.S.S.R days, comrade.
Unlike elf-based MMOs, The Agency is, basically, an action shooter. Players can switch between first and third person views in the game, and PVP victory is determined more by skill than which player has spent the most time grinding for superior gear.
The game isn’t absent of RPG elements, though. Because subterfuge is essential to a spy’s life, The Agency allows players to assume different disguises and aliases. Many common areas will require an alias, and when you’re undercover, you can’t shoot. So your blackjack mini-game won’t be intrupted by griefers shooting pistols at the dealer.
Another RPG element is the game’s Operatives. Operatives are collectible NPCs that provide various goods and services in-game. For example, if you were playing as James Bond, Q would provide you with high-tech weaponry and Miss Moneypenny would provide you with snazzy Saville Row suits to keep you looking good and keep you in disguise.
Sony plans to allow players to build their own agencies within the larger factions as well. These will function like guilds in traditional MMOs. Eventually you’ll be able to ally your Agency with other players’ to form Joint Agencies, although the details of how this will be done are still to be announced. For instance, when asked if players could potentially turn double agent and turn on their compatriots, Sony said they were considering it.
The level we saw demoed began in a common area at the Bergerbilder Chateau (get it?) with a couple of U.N.I.T.E. agents crashing a swanked-out cocktail party by disguising themselves as louche swells and blending in. The party and mansion are public areas. Agents in your party don disguises and mingle with NPC party guests, guards and other unrelated players, but when the actual mission starts, the Chateau transitions to an instance – same NPCs, same scenery, but no players other than your party.
In the Bergerbilder mission, spies are tasked with taking pictures of a few locations without being seen by the butlers, bartenders and guards – whipping out your camera and snapping shots at a party of this caliber would be dreadfully gauche, so stealth must be employed. Get all the snaps you need without Jeeves blowing your cover, and move on outside, to the heavily guarded chateau backyard/maze.
Here the game switches from a photography and stealth game to a shooter, or a stealth shooter, depending on how you play it. The Agency level I saw was designed with multiple entry points and paths, so skulking secret agents can hide in shadows and headshot distant figures with a sniper rifle, while John Wayne types can blast their way through with rocket launchers and the like. I didn’t have my hands on it, so I can’t really say how it felt to play The Agency, but it looks solid, even in this early stage of the game. There was nothing super innovative about the gameplay, but that could have even been an annoyance as opposed to a selling point -- there's a reason most shooters control the same way.
Like James Bond’s shaken-not-stirred Vodka martini, the success of The Agency will rest on the way the different elements are mixed. If the light-hearted cartoony art style mixes well with the shooter gameplay, and the over-arching story elements and persistent world are deep enough to hold people’s interest but not so deep as to confuse, this game could emerge as a serious contender in the world of MMOs that are not World of Warcraft.
The Agency doesn’t have a release date yet, but right now, it’s planned for the PC and the PlayStation 3. We hope to see more of this title at this year’s E3.
Oh, and one more thing, and this is a very important point: Because I know TheFeed’s readers would kill me if I didn’t ask, I got confirmation from Sony that yes, this game will feature sharks with frickin’ lasers on their heads.
Check out this new gallery of screens and concept art from the game.