CES '08: The Agency Updated Impressions

Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming espionage-themed, persistent world online shooter looks like a winner.

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LAS VEGAS--The Agency looks unlike anything seen to date. In fact, this upcoming persistent online shooter looks very promising because it should deliver a blend of third-person action wrapped in a cool espionage setting, but without the complex, convoluted interface and gameplay of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The Agency itself isn't an MMO per se, but it is a persistent online game that will let you pursue a huge array of espionage missions alongside fellow players.

We last saw The Agency at the E3 Media & Business Summit, which was more than six months ago. While progress has been made since then, the game is still in pre-alpha state, meaning that all the pieces aren't in place. Still, what SOE Seattle has to show at CES is nonetheless impressive; the developers showed off a mission that takes place in a beautifully rendered version of Prague in the Czech Republic. It's the kind of place that's full of cobblestone streets, distinctive Central European architecture, and plenty of detail. Running into a flower shop, which is the front for a secret base for one of the two factions in the game, is a treat because suddenly the shelves swing open and you enter a vast underground facility that takes its cues from many of the Bond films. There's all sorts of experimental weapon and gadget testing going on in the background (with the promise that the developers will update and change the tests over time to keep everything fresh). There's even a working Q*bert video game cabinet, which is an example of the kinds of minigames in The Agency. Even better, the developers will tie these minigames into the main game, so you might only be able to gain influence with a certain character by having a certain Q*bert score.

The game will basically have three types of missions. The short mission is designed to be 10 to 15 minutes long, which is perfect if you want to just get into the game, play for a quick burst, and then get out. Medium length missions are about 30 minutes to an hour if you want a longer play session. And then there are the game's set pieces, which are elaborate missions that last more than an hour.

Your role will be to create an operative and customize him or her using a large variety of body parts and such. That's pretty much par for any online game. Where The Agency stands out is in its gameplay. You play it just like a third-person action game, so the screen isn't cluttered with the kind of interface elements you'd find in such a game as World of Warcraft. Because The Agency is also being prepped for the PlayStation 3, the developers have had to come up with a very clean, simple, and elegant interface that lets you interact with the environment easily.

The mission that SOE Seattle showed off illustrated the depth in the game. In it, three SOE Seattle developers each controlled a separate character as they had a mission to tail an operative of Das Komite, an evil organization that is up to no good. Tailing the operative showed off some of the espionage elements of the game: If he spots you and your cover is blown, you're in trouble. You can have an alias that disguises you, but in that case, your health bar turns into an alias bar, and the closer or longer a bad guy looks at you, the more it drains until your cover is blown.

Having successfully trailed the Das Komite operative to the Prague underground, trouble erupts as the evil organization's plan becomes clear. The bad guys are plotting to blow up the pillars that are beneath the city, so it's up to you and your team to stop them. This involves lots and lots of gunfire. But it also involves a lot of cool ways of interacting with the environment and using special powers, gadgets, and abilities. For example, one operative can turn the water in a pipe to steam and use it to scald unsuspecting guards beneath it.

The climax of the battle is the race to stop enemy agents from planting bombs on and blowing up the pillars or disarming any bombs before they erupt. If you succeed, you'll have an opportunity to execute what are called Agency Moments, which are climactic scenes in the game. In this case, once the bad guys realize that all is lost, they try to begin fleeing to a nearby truck. If you and your teammates can kill enough of them, you can see an elaborate cutscene that shows a Hollywood-esque scene of the truck being destroyed.

There will be plenty of replayability in the missions because you can get graded and receive a bronze, silver, or gold medal depending on how well you do. It looks like SOE Seattle is up to something pretty cool, and we can't wait to learn more. The Agency is scheduled to ship sometime this year, though the exact scheduling has yet to be worked out.

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