Level 19 Secret Agent Man LFG!

The MMOFPS is an odd beast. Given the overwhelming popularity of both FPS games and MMO games in the modern gaming world, it seems like a natural hybrid. Fast-paced, twitch-based gameplay eliminates one of the primary concerns about MMOGs – combat is boring and doesn’t require skill – and the persistent and social MMOG elements give a reason to come back day after day to shoot people in the face. So why don’t we see more of them?

The Agency is SOE’s attempt to fill a strangely (mostly) empty void in the online gaming scene, and I sat down in front of it to get some hands-on time at the Las Vegas SOE Fan Faire 2010. “The shooter part has to feel right,” said Agency Lead Designer Rory McGuire, formerly of Transformers: War for Cybertron studio High Moon. “I’ve had some people come up to me worrying that it didn’t look like an MMO anymore – it still is, but we need to focus on the shooter part first or people won’t have fun.”

There was only one playable map that we saw, an attack/defense zone set in what looked like an old abandoned castle – naturally, in true James Bondian style, there was a secret agent base hidden within. There were three points for the assaulters to claim as their own, and doing so would extend the time limit for their team – if that sounds familiar to you, then great, it should.

The Agency has clearly taken inspiration from other popular shooters of the day. There are five classes, from the heavy-weapons Suppressor who blankets a corridor in covering fire and throws flashbang grenades to the lightly-armored Recon who is both meant to scout and to stay in the back and snipe. The game is built to encourage team-based play, said McGuire. “It feels like that in many modern shooters, there’s less of an emphasis on integrated teamplay. If I go into a corridor with another guy, all it does is decrease the odds that I’m the one they’ll be shooting at, and increase the firepower we have at our disposal.”

“We want to make a game where you’re glad to have another teammate because they bring something special to the table that you can’t do on your own.” The most obvious inspiration, then, is Valve’s Team Fortress 2: the classes are distinct and all have unique abiities that complement each other. Group composition is something that MMOG players have been dealing with for years, but McGuire and his team are trying to make The Agency‘s classes do more than just bring extra buffs to the table.

The game also draws inspiration from shooters like Modern Warfare, Gears of War and Rainbow Six – the latter two in particular formed the basis for a hard cover system. It’s obviously a new addition to the game, because it feels clunky: Depending on your controller input, the character can switch directions instantly with no real animation involved, and the blind-fire aiming rarely hits (though that could be intentional). Still, once I got the hang of it, it worked well despite an odd error here and there, and proper use of cover makes charging positions very foolhardy.

Teamwork is emphasized in The Agency – after you take lethal damage, you’re incapacitated and injured for several seconds, during which you have another lifebar that slowly drains out. Getting shot will kill you faster, but if nobody takes you out, there’s always the possibility that an ally will come along and revive you. It’s a nice touch, and it’s kind of fun to run out into the middle of a firefight in order to desperately bring a teammate back to fight without having to wait for the respawn.

The weapons and abilities feel cool once you understand what they do – the Assault class has a directional energy barrier that it can use to defend comrades, and the Commander heals all allies in range – but the game feels like it’s still in need of a bit of polish.

Conceptually, it’s fantastic, and I get the feeling that if SOE pulls this one off it’ll have firmly planted its foot in a relatively untrodden area (the last major title in this space was SOE’s own Planetside). The guns feel a bit too inaccurate, and the animations could use work, but the core feels like it has a ton of potential. An action-based shooter with persistant global domination elements? Yeah, I’m intrigued.

The Agency is currently slated for 2011, or “when it’s ready.”

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