Impressions: The Agency (PS3/PC)

Last month, during Sony Gamers' Day, we ventured deep inside SOE Seattle's secret lair -- no joke, the building's not even marked with the company name -- to get an updated look at its spy MMO, The Agency, for PS3 and PC. Now that details of the event have finally been declassified, we're pleased to share our impressions of the eyes-on demo with you.

The actual event began with a fairly lengthy presentation by key figures from the SOE Seattle team, featuring Matt Wilson, Hal Milton and Corey Dangel. All three had previously worked for Microsoft (which would explain why the studio is located just two blocks from Microsoft's main HQ), and, between them, they have assembled an impressive resume, including work on Asheron's Call, Dungeon Siege, Wing Commander, Ultima Online, Total Annihilation and critical darling Psychonauts. Of course, as Wilson highlighted, SOE Seattle's primary objective is to deliver console-based MMOs, a vastly underdeveloped market, in which very few developers have experience. Enter The Agency.
%Gallery-63985% The gameplay demo was controlled by Wilson, playing on PC, in tandem with another SOE Seattle developer, who was playing on a PS3 right next to him. Both were connected to the same server, and they teamed up to tackle a couple of missions for us. Immediately, it was clear that the PS3 version wasn't running on par with the PC version (which is probably why this was the first time the PS3 version had ever been shown). The PC version ran smoothly with sharp, crisp graphics and superior textures, while the PS3 version suffered from noticeably lower-quality textures and a slightly sluggish framerate. Overall, the PS3 version still looked quite solid, but when displayed next to the PC version, the disparities were very apparent.

The Agency is being developed using a modified Unreal 3 Engine, which provides an ideal foundation for the multiplatform aspect and a variety of pre-made toolsets to build out the graphical and online elements of the game. SOE Seattle is also tapping into the company's previous know-how (see Everquest, Planetside, etc.) to ensure an extremely low latency server farm, capable of creating an online action game with minimal latency.

The PS3 version wasn't running on par with the PC version.

According to Wilson, the team has been working for two years to achieve this specific goal.

Though Wilson and his partner were playing together on separate platforms, cross-platform functionality might not be in place at launch. The development team is still struggling to balance the two platforms' controls, so that a keyboard and mouse setup isn't superior to using a PS3 gamepad -- or vice versa. There's also the issue of patching. Traditionally, MMOs receive a steady stream of patches to fix bugs, add new content and tweak gameplay. On the PC, a patch can be released the day it's finished, but on the PS3, all patches have to go through a certification delay. Clearly, the PC version can't receive a major patch, say, a month before it's delivered to PS3 users. SOE is confident it will work out these issues, but is hesitant to guarantee cross-platform multiplayer at launch.

In addition to the two hardware platforms, The Agency is divided between two factions. On one side you have Unite, an organization described as sleek and sexy (you know, Bond-ish). And on the other, there's Paragon, a rough and tumble outfit that leans toward Rambo-esque bravado. While the groups are competitive in the sense that they're both trying to be the number one, super-secret spy organization in the world, they're not enemies per se -- you won't be fighting against Paragon's members if you decide to join Unite (though there are some PvP elements in the game). Instead, there are numerous villainous groups that you will be tasked with taking down, regardless of your affiliation.

The event's demo started out with Wilson and his pal gathering in a classy chateau, the main persistent area in The Agency. Much like Guild Wars, the places where you pick up missions and assemble with friends are standard, persistent MMO environments, but when once you jump into a mission you'll enter into an instanced combat zone. This framework keeps griefing to a minimum and helps to maintain a solid framerate and low latency.

The first mission demo'd was a surveillance mission, where the two players were tasked with photographing bits of key evidence in a mansion. The camera system appeared very similar to Dead Rising -- a good thing from our perspective. The mission wasn't as easy as point and click, though, as the duo had to outsmart guards and overcome various obstacles that were keeping them from getting close enough to photograph the evidence. At one point, the team overloaded a circuit breaker box, luring the guards from their posts to investigate the incident -- and leaving the path to the evidence wide open! While it wasn't the most exciting espionage scenario we could envision, the sample mission was at least confirmation that The Agency won't rely purely on run-and-gun gameplay.

The game incorporates both action- and skill-based gameplay. There are no RPG elements applied to the shooting aspect, a la Fallout 3 or Dues Ex -- a headshot is a headshot. Instead, SOE has developed several different representations of character growth. One such element is the "operatives." Operatives are "collectable" NPCs (unlocked by completing various missions) that can lend support in the field, spy on enemies, or craft items (think Q or Moneypenny from the James Bond series). Currently, there are over 480 operatives in the game, each with a unique personality and abilities.

Also, in a departure from the normal MMO trappings, your character is not locked into one class. Instead, your class is decided by whatever outfit you're wearing, giving players quite a bit of gameplay flexibility. If you want to mix it up and go into a mission as a heavy weapons expert, all you need to do is change out of your spy gear and into the appropriate getup. Additionally, outfits can be customized by look and style, ensuring there won't be hundreds of clones running around the game world.

The weapons in The Agency will be a major part of your character's progression, too. As you use a weapon (of which there are "a ton"), you earn experience points for that weapon, in turn, unlocking attachment slots for customization. From what we saw, there are a wide variety of weapon attachments, so you won't be merely leveling up a weapon just to attach a standard silencer.

The second mission we were shown focused on these more action-oriented elements of the game. Wilson and his partner took on a small army of grunts pouring out from the mansion. The action quickly grew frantic and both players were making use of all the weapons in their arsenals, while augmenting them with their "skills." Skills are abilities that can boost players' defenses, attacks and other actions and are unlocked as missions are completed. Their usage is limited by a stamina gauge, requiring players to manage their skills usage wisely in order to tackle some of the harder missions.

Eventually Matt and his cohort were able to take down the group of thugs, despite some sketchy moments. The shooting gameplay seemed solid and accessible to anybody who has played a third-person shooter before, though since we didn't get our hands on the game we'll reserve our judgment on that particular aspect. Once a mission is finished, players are judged and ranked based on performance, and then given rewards. Rewards are handed out through a slot-wheel lottery interface. If you just do okay, you receive a bronze rank and two wheels spin; if you do better: silver and four spins; and, if you're awesome: gold and the maximum five spins. Though you only get to choose one of the rewards from your spins, more spins obviously increases the likelihood of a rare item turning up.

The Agency is clearly inspired by the James Bond films; it also takes cues from more whimsical movies, as well, like Charlie's Angels and Get Smart. The team likes to describe the game's style has "jet-setting, cocktail culture" -- translation: fun, sexy, and cool. This style, along with the action-based gameplay, distinct environments and modern day setting, is intriguing and looking likely to offer a welcome change from the standard MMO offerings out there. The PC version was particularly impressive and appeared nearly complete, while the PS3 version was definitely a step or two behind. Still, we have no reason to doubt that the finished product will deliver on both platforms and offer an entirely unique experience for PS3 owners. When that time will come, however, remains a vague 2010 release window, but we do expect to see more of The Agency next week at E3. Stay tuned.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.