The Agency Preview
With this new generation comes a greater emphasis on online multiplayer, and due to the PlayStation 3's Network capabilities, we'll even get some true MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) titles. One of the first will be Sony Online Entertainment's highly anticipated MMO/action shooter, The Agency. It's very much unlike anything you've ever seen before, as it provides players with an intriguing blend of third-person action in a very James Bond-esque setting. Some hesitate to even call this game a MMO, primarily because it's not an MMORPG (no role-playing, here), but also because it plays more like a slick action game than a clunky and repetitive multiplayer RPG. SOE Seattle showed off their lastest build of The Agency at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and it seems like everything is shaping up quite nicely. Attendees got a chance to sample one mission that takes place in the picturesque city of Prague, and has you attempting to trail one of the Das Komite operatives. We shouldn't have to explain that we're talking about an evil organization, here, but we'd rather focus on the type of gameplay we can expect.
Three of the game's developers showed the viewers how to tail the operative without being seen, using a variety of stealth and espionage tactics. If he does spot you, a world of trouble is headed your way, so yes, stealth will be a major theme in an online multiplayer game...try to stay calm, it is indeed a reality. One of the techniques on display was the alias system, which allows you to assume an alternate identity in order to blend in with the crowd. However, if the operative sees and continues to watch you, your "alias bar" will continue to drain, and when it runs out entirely, he'll finally recognize you. We're wondering if the game will utilize a shadow and light system like we find in Splinter Cell, which would let us hide in dark corners while following the target. The game is so wide open, it could attempt to use a variety of gameplay mechanics, thereby generating the single most fully-realized espionage/spy game in history. Of course, the team would have to take full advantage of the concept for that to happen, and all we really want is some deep, customizable and ultimately engaging gameplay.
In the demo, we learn that Das Komite is planning to blow up the pillars beneath Prague, which would be a colossal catastrophe. After trailing the operative to their base of operations, you must then devise a plan of attack for stopping the insidious plot. Here is where SOE showed a bit of that depth we were hoping for, because while there's plenty of shooting going on, there's also a goodly array of gadgets and goodies. Heck, your main character will even have special powers! Yep, we're not looking at an entirely realistic world, as there's obviously some supernatural abilities present throughout your adventure. In the presentation, one of the developers was able to change water in a pipe into steam, which then allowed him to use it against some very surprised guards. So...elemental abilities might be a staple of those special skills? Will we have the ability to change water into ice? Alter the wind? Move the earth? We have no idea, but we do know our character will be able to interact with the environment in several different ways. In many ways, this almost sounds like Deus Ex in its science-fiction theme and implementation. Sweet, huh?
Anyway, at the end of this mission, you have to disarm any placed bombs and stop the enemy before everything goes ka-blooey. But here's one of the very interesting parts of this presentation- upon successful completion, the player will be able to execute what are known as "Agency Moments," which are intense climax scenes. This requires that you be both fast and efficient; if you can manage it, though, you'll be rewarded with bad-ass cut-scenes! Why does this sound more and more like a high-profile, big-budget, flashy console production? We kinda like this new twist to the MMO style, and the more Bond-ish it gets, the more psyched we get. Throw in those very special supernatural abilities, environmental interaction, and stealth elements, and The Agency looks like one hell of a roller-coaster ride. Best of all, the inherent freedom that accompanies any MMO is quite evident and even tailor-made to the gamer's needs. The game will boast three different types of missions; short, medium, and the "set pieces" for the title, which are considered to be long. The short ones will only take about 10-15 minutes to complete - perfect for those who don't have a lot of time - the medium ones will take about a half-hour, and those plot-advancing ones will take at least an hour. See? Something for everyone! And in a multiplayer online game, too...what a revelation!
Furthermore, you'll be able to replay certain missions in an effort to up your medal. The game awards you a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal depending on how you perform, and the truly hardcore will likely want to land some Golds here and there. We're not sure what a better rank nets you, but we're assuming something along the lines of more money, more points for upgrades, better items, weapons, and general equipment, etc. After all, you will have a fully customizable character right from the get-go, which is similar to just about any online game. But what is most dissimilar is the entire game itself, and how you go about playing it. Sure, you can select from a gajillion body parts and styles when setting up your character, and the world is appropriately large and engrossing, but you're dealing with a third-person action game within that MMO format. Therefore, it's very difficult to assign an accurate genre for The Agency, just because it encompasses several genres and can't really be called anything besides "MMO," but not "MMORPG." Essentially, this may be the very first "MMO/Action" video game in history.
It's due out some time this year, and everything we've heard so far is awfully encouraging. For the most part, we're not big fans of the MMO, but The Agency could change that negative viewpoint very, very quickly.
1/9/2008 Ben Dutka