Gone are the days of entering an SOE Press Event and hearing the clang of sword on shield or casting of a mighty spell of stable high-fantasy games. The previous year has added the sound of Zat fire as cards are neutralized in Stargate Online TGC; catchy dance tunes as characters outwit the Rob Goblin in Free Realms; the raucous laughter of the developers for Pirates of the Burning Sea as they read parrot jokes on launch day — What do you call a parrot that has no wings and no legs, swimming in the ocean? Bob. And the forever hypnotic sound of Hal Milton as he describes — at breakneck speed (like an endearing monkey on crack-laced caffeine) — what the life of a secret agent will be in The Agency.
They let him drink caffeine this time — a double latte! What were they thinking? We poor press folks have to write and/or transcribe what this man says. So much information so tightly compressed into so little time while you try to watch the screen — and yet, it is sooo entertaining!
If you know nothing of The Agency, it might be best for you to read an earlier preview or interview from last year, but I shall attempt to do justice to the game design inside of this preview as well. Oh, and check out this video. Realize as you are watching, most of this is gameplay!
The premise behind The Agency is you get to live the life of a secret agent, only you get to define that secret agent. You begin by choosing whom you will be, based on how you look. Just like the spy movies we all know and love, everything in game is stereotypical — to the extreme. Will you be a part of U.N.I.T.E — United Nations Intelligence and Tactical Experts, the world's most elite secret agents? They are the forefront of the fight against terrorism, corruption and rogue states around the globe. U.N.I.T.E. agents are deadly specialists in stealth and subterfuge, with access to technology the public has never seen before. Or will you defend against evil by brute force on the side of ParaGON — Paramilitary Global Operations Network, one of the largest private armies in the world, serving clients both upstanding and unsavory? ParaGON's efficient, honorable and often unconventional mercenaries can be found putting duct tape and high explosives to new and exciting uses on every continent.
James Bond is the quintessential U.N.I.T.E. agent, and if you want to be a Sean Connery, a Roger Moore or a Pierce Brosnan (sorry, the other guys haven't been around long enough), you can do it. Of course, any of the female superspies are just as possible. They didn't pick Cassie as their archetypal female for her taste in clothing. On second thought, they could have. The men are all suave and debonair; the women are sleek and bring to mind the word "minx" — just watch out for the claws.
Duncan is the image of their ParaGON agent, but a real-world counterpart has been hard for me to picture &mdahs; perhaps Schwarzenegger in the original "Predator." The women? Think of Laurie Pettie in "Tank Girl." Doc Martin boots, cammie pants, metal attitude, muscles, muscles and more muscles (on the guys at least) — this is what ParaGON is all about. The word "subtle" is just noise to them. And the characters look deaf to anything that isn't LOUD! Turn it up!
Hal was jonesing to play the video for us before we'd sat down because the theme for the game had been written. (No, he was just jonesing. *grins*) Not quite a variation on a theme, the music is an amalgamation of every spy theme you've ever heard. "Mission Impossible," "Get Smart," "James Bond" — you name it, and it is interwoven in there somewhere. Yet, the game theme is distinctly its own sound. What makes it especially fun is that ParaGON and U.N.I.T.E. each have their own themes that, though different, aren't discordant even when played together. Perhaps this is a hint? Nah ... couldn't be.
What gives The Agency longevity and depth — beyond espionage, missions, skills, travel, PvP and general mayhem — is the Operative. Who wouldn't want to have their own cadre of brilliant little Q (whether you think James Bond or "Star Trek" ... who cares?!) as back-up? Remember from the movie "Sneakers" the character Whistler, the blind man who could read code with his fingers? Or how about Daniel Jackson from "Stargate: SG-1"? I mean, how convenient would it be to have someone who can speak 27 languages? Batman needed Alfred; Han Solo would have been out of control without Chewbacca; The Brain without Pinky is a recipe for disaster; and imagine the results of a galaxy where Kirk exists without Spock or McCoy ... or help us all, Scotty.
Building your Operative network is crucial to your survival. How you build it is completely up to you. Operatives can complement or supplement your skills. They specialize, level and form other relationships.
"I can't wait until someone receives a text message from their Operative that says he has gone on vacation with another Operative," exclaimed Hal. Uh ... ok, they have love lives?
For the first time, we were shown exactly how Operatives are represented in-game. First, you can only have an Operative network of 100. *gasp* "OK, Hal, I limit my mini-army to 100 people." Each is represented by a card — like a collectable card — except these cards have an unlimited number of sides. You turn the card and learn more about the Operative; turn it again and learn more; turn it again and learn still more, ad infinitum. The more advanced and experienced your Operative is, the more information is available.
Matt Wilson, the game's design director (and Hal's counterpart, handler and very good friend) is prodding Hal and I — we both talk A LOT — to get on with it. There is gameplay to show! Of course, he'd rather skip the part when he nearly kills a member of the mission, but we'll get to that in a moment ...
Hal makes a point to tell us that all the footage we watch was captured with Fraps — you know, the image/video capture program you buy here? They just used three perspectives and cut it. Oh, and as always, they play from Seattle, but the servers are in San Diego. They're funny that way.
We enter Prague (they like Prague), where spies, master villains and fronts for headquarters are so ubiquitous as to be commonplace. Then we see a blonde hunk — you know the type: stereotypical great medium build, great jaw line, etc. — wave at us and turn around to run into a flower shop toward a U.N.I.T.E. headquarters location. Players wander by on their way to solve other world crises, gun in hand, civilians oblivious. (In case you're wondering, the blonde hunk is Matt, previously mentioned design director.)
As he walks downstairs, posters line the walls from recruitment days gone by, and at the bottom, he sees vignettes played out behind glass windows. It is very reminiscent of James Bond on his way to find Q. Mundane items explode, burst and collapse under strange yet enticing experiments. Each is an Intel Moment captured by the player. Intel Moments are a bit of a reward system for exploring the game. Remember Jade in the fantastic but highly underappreciated Beyond Good and Evil? First and foremost, she was a photographer. Even though she was solving the problem and battling the bad guys, she was rewarded for taking pictures of specific items and increasing her collection. Doing so also gave her intel that helped her. Intel Moments are very much the same kind of idea, only what you see behind the glass today may not be the same tomorrow. That exploding teddy bear just may become an entry point for infiltration later — you have to pay attention to these things if you're going to be a superspy.
The lounge contained a full bar where you could have your martini shaken, not stirred. Apparently, Matt is a lightweight — one drink and the world got fuzzy, the music distorted. Some superspy he is! One drink! Any woman with two drinks and the right sashay in her giddy-up would be able to extract all kinds of secret info.
No worries, he could just work of the buzz playing Q*bert on the office arcade machine. Yes, Q*bert. A fully functional, flash-based game built right in. But this isn't just fun and games, boys and girls, oh no. This is life and death spy work. There may be a secret message encoded in the game, or perhaps an operative is a little narked at Matt for the way he made him work last weekend and will only provide details on his next mission if Matt can beat the Operative's high score. (Good news, he just has to start the game, and mission received.)
Das Committee is trying to blow up — wait for it — the German Embassy. We all know that HUGE policymakers live at embassies, and they're unprotected, and no one would suspect it. I love it! It's so clichй and so fun! Time to stop the nefarious villains and foil their evil plot. First up, tailing the enemies undetected. Why not just take them out, you ask? I mean, that whole "license to kill" thing would come in handy about now. Yeah, but we want to get to the explosives in the Embassy, and we don't know exactly where they were placed. So, tailing first.
I went into this in more detail in my previous review, but the whole "you are what you wear" element comes into play heavily in a mechanic such as trailing. You want to be stealthy. If you are wearing your special ops gear and hiding behind a Smart Car, well ... I'm not sure your instructor from spy school would be proud of your "blending" style. And if the target you're trailing hears you (there is an indicator button on the screen), he'll turn and look for you. If you have on jeans and a T-shirt "alias" in a pedestrian section of town, you just may go undetected (assuming you put AWAY that big gun). However, if he turns to look for you and recognizes you, your cover is blown and then begins The Chase.
Matt and his team were BRILLIANT in their choice of alias clothing; they chose to wear their regular gear — combat, stealth and support! Woohoo! The target heard them and recognized them only when he actually saw them. Into the Embassy they ran ...
Before they could reach him to interrogate him, he entered a passageway, closing and locking a large steel door behind him. Other targets appeared; however, they were not yet aware of the presence of Matt's team. This presented options: Either go in with guns blazing and alert the entire complex as to their arrival, or dial an Operative for help. Near the door (where the new targets were standing) was a steam pipe with a pressure valve. A quick call to an Operative resulted in a blown steam valve and a quick and quiet dispatch of the enemy. A bonus was the experience the Operative earned for the task.
Next task: getting through the door. Do you blow the door (defeating the entire point of the stealthy kills)? Or, do you use your techno-gadgets to get through? Your choices affect what happens next. Once through, you discover that Das Committee has placed explosives on four of the support pillars throughout the complex. Your goal now is to remove the enemies while preventing the destruction of the building. And this is where The Agency departs a bit from the usual MMOG experience.
Completing the mission is a matter of degrees. It is not pass/fail. There are gold, silver and bronze completions for which you receive medals. To complete this particular mission at the gold level, you'd have to have all four pillars standing; silver required two to three standing and a second objective (which wasn't an option due to it being negated by other conditions); a bronze condition only required one pillar standing. Completing the mission regardless of the level at which you do so is a completion, and your character advances. If you want to play solo, chances are you would complete this mission at the bronze level — the "appropriate" level — but you can always come back to it later. If you want to play in groups, you have a better chance at a silver or gold completion. Now, back to our mission and Matt trying to kill his teammates ...
The team of three enters the basement to find Das Committee attempting to arm the pillars with explosives, and mayhem ensues. Bullets begin flying, characters (NPC and PC alike) are ducking for cover, and all the while, the bombs are ticking. One of Matt's team is attempting to disarm the bombs while the enemy is still trying to place them. Two pillars go down as the team doesn't get to them in time. If Matt could shoot, he could shoot the bombs on the backs of the enemy. But alas, this isn't so. However, he does see that his teammate is in trouble. She's attempting to disarm a bomb tied to a pillar while an enemy approaches; so Matt takes aim, fires and ... hits the bomb instead, blowing up the third pillar. Doh!
They manage to subdue the rest of the insurgents but not before the truck that carried the explosives leaves through an underground passageway, triggering an Agency Moment. Agency Moments! Did you watch the video I mentioned at the beginning? Remember the merry-go-round scene at the end? That isn't video; that is gameplay. Those cool moments in the spy genre — jumping out of planes, off dams, zip-lining across New York City — without those moments, who wants to be a spy?
The Agency Moment triggered gives the team the chance to stop the truck (and in this case, Matt the option to redeem himself). He runs to the trigger and activates it. The truck is careening down the tunnel, speeding away as fast as it can, boxes falling out of the back. Matt picks up an explosive and throws it toward the truck, setting off a chain of explosions of each successive box until they reach the truck ... and the mission ends.
What we see in 15 minutes — while listening to Hal and trying to write while asking questions — is a 30-minute mission cut and compressed for time. What would have happened if they all died? Well, if they had a Technician with them, they could have laid down a Custom Checkpoint for respawn — yeah, I think this rocks, too.
What do you ask after a 15-minute rollercoaster ride of information that is Hal Milton? Operatives! I called them dolls in my last preview — but really, Pokйmon is more apt. Leveled in specialties and grouped appropriately, they become exceptionally powerful allies — if you treat them well. Treat them poorly, and you could just be building your biggest enemy. Still, what makes them particularly cool is how they keep even the most casual of player engaged in the game when they are not or cannot play.
Sony Seattle houses not only the development team for The Agency, but also the team for The Matrix Online. Say what you will about The Matrix Online, for all its faults as a game when it launched, the team created The Matrix both inside and out. Matt and Hal have not only their own experience and ideas, but that of the successes and failures of MXO's to call upon. I had to ask how they were progressing with building extensions to Operatives outside the game.
Hal assured me that they were in the final stages of creating the Web interface so that it felt no different than the game client. Got five minutes at work? Check in and order your Intel Specialist to Mozambique to scout that smuggling operation you overhead whispers about while dining last night. Cool. And for those that don't have access to the Web? Matt said that they're looking at four to five different partners for SMS and text. I had hoped they had an answer for those who have no mobile access OR Web access but alas, nothing about cranial implants.
I think it was here that Hal started literally bouncing up and down. Obviously, it was killing him, because he wasn't able to tell us exactly what he wanted, but he did say that all of the corporations in the game are fully fleshed out and that they've reserved an insane number of urls. The mind reels at the information overload this game could produce. It also squees in delight!
To date, no title has convinced me I need a PlayStation 3. I mean, I could play this on a PC but...why? The MMOs I play (as well as other PC-only entertainment) run just dandy on my laptop, so I am not tied to my desk. I like consoles specifically because I put the keyboard down. For me, a keyboard means I am working. I like titles that let me determine how long I want to play; I like titles that let me determine my path of advancement; and I love the idea of interacting without logging in. (Although, it frightens the compulsive in me!)
Funny, I never wanted to be a secret agent; I imagine I'd be more of a female Austin Powers or Johnny English. I never even wanted to play one on TV. But if Hal and Matt and the folks at Sony Seattle can pull this off, and I find it half as fun as it appears to be, they may just convince me to not only buy a PS3, but to don an orange turtleneck and become the spiritual successor to Velma. I just refuse to name my first Operative Scooby-Doo.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.