The Agency Hands-On

We take the direct approach and shoot our enemies in the face on the E3 2010 show floor.

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Several developers, including Sony Online Entertainment, have created and released MMOFPSs--that is, massively multiplayer online first-person shooters. The success of these products has been hit-or-miss, but SOE hopes to swing the bar in its favor with The Agency. According to James Karras, The Agency's associate producer, the game is a high-fidelity first-person shooter first, with the massively multiplayer elements layered on top. We didn't get a chance to see the open-world aspect, but we did get to see a stand-alone match in action and eventually took over the mouse and keyboard for ourselves to see how the shooting felt.

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We watched Karras play as he outlined what The Agency is all about. He started playing as the recon class, but one thing he focused on was that "you are what you wear." Players can jump between classes within matches, and weapons level up, as well as characters. As you play, you will be able to unlock entire weapon families, as well as upgrade them with attachments. Skill will be important, of course--this is a shooter, first and foremost. But this system seems to provide a good deal of flexibility, letting you be what you need to be based on the circumstance. From what we could tell, players will to choose from several different available roles: commander, suppressor, assault, gadgeteer, spy, and recon.

Karras showed us the recon role initially. Recon specialists will equip battle rifles, pistols, and sniper rifles, among other choice weapons. But classes aren't just about weapons--they are also about iconic abilities. For example, the recon class can activate oracle vision, which makes enemies appear visible even through walls to the player and his teammates. Commanders can activate healing auras, assault players can utilize bullet-deflecting shields, and so forth. The map we saw was a monastery, but it had been given a hi-tech makeover. The shafts of light emanating from the stained-glass windows made for a beautiful tableau, but a giant holographic globe and a giant submarine partially submerged in the small waterway found within betrayed this holy edifice as the center for something more sinister than evening prayer.

Fortunately, we weren't forced just to watch the action and eventually got to try it out for ourselves. The action played out as a typical team-based shootout, but the special powers and flexible classes gave the match some nice variety. We started out as recon class, sniping foes from afar but used a pistol when necessary. Oracle vision became handy very quickly, letting us identify foes that had taken cover and were out of view. At that point, you might run up and punch the hidden enemy in the back of the head or perhaps take him down with a flurry of gunfire before he can escape. The AI tried a few similar tricks while we were protected behind cover. Luckily, the cover system feels fluid and natural, so the action flowed smoothly whether we were running about the map or taking potshots from behind pillars.

Switching between the assault and commander classes yielded similarly solid results. The commander's healing aura was a deciding influence on several firefights, and it was fun to take aim with an SMG as the assault class. Of course, what will hopefully make The Agency more special than your everyday online shooter are the elements adorning the shooting. In the open-world portion of the game, you will team up with others to gather intel and take photos, which you can then turn into your contacts for rewards like new weapons and other loot. You can also jump into the action from almost anywhere, and your weapons can earn experience even if you can't stay for an entire match. All the player-on-player action is consensual, though if you are in the mood for action and feel in a cooperative mood, you can join other players for some player-versus-environment fun.

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With such a limited portion of the game on display, it's hard to get a feel for the bigger picture that could potentially make The Agency a hit. But the action seems solid enough and the visuals are attractive, so shooter fans should keep an eye on this game. Karras indicated that the development team is taking an "it's done when it's done" approach, so we can't yet pin down a release date. But we'll bring you more on The Agency as soon as we receive the necessary intel.

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