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Sony Online Entertainment
MMORPG | Genre:Real Life | Status:Cancelled  (est.rel Q4 2011)  | Pub:Sony Online Entertainment
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CES Update on The Agency

Carolyn Koh, who traveled last week to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show has returned and today files this report on SOE's upcoming spy-based MMORPG, The Agency.

Designer Hal Milton, Studio Manager Matt Wilson and Art Director Corey Dangel were all present in Vegas and showing off The Agency, but Hal was doing all the talking. He was on a caffeine high (I understood they actually let him have a double latte) and the other guys were letting him talk. Nineteen to the dozen, spewing out facts faster than machine gun fire, his passion for The Agency evident in every wave of his hands, he talked while we watched the trailer and took disjointed notes as quickly as we could write.

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James Bond, Modesty Blaise, Man from Uncle, Mission Impossible, those are the worlds that The Agency epitomizes. Suave sophistication, high espionage mixed up with fast action, high-risk missions. It’s about cool gadgetry and plain old fire power. You choose your style. Do you prefer the suave, sophisticated Bruce Wayne, silent, utility-belt-nifty method of gaining entrance into a locked facility? Then you would probably join U.N.I.T.E. (United Nations Intelligence and Tactical Experts). If you identify with the down and dirty Frank Castle fire-power jeep and bazooka method of entry, you might prefer ParaGON, the Paramilitary Global Operations Network.

We listened to the main Agency theme as the trailer rolled and Hal talked, praising the composition by Tom Salta – the composer for music for games such as Red Steel, Ghost Recon2 and for NBC’s 2006 Winter Olympics. “It really gets you going! You think you know the theme. It’s so familiar you feel like you know it,” and it is. The main theme is Get Smart, Mission Impossible and James Bond, but it’s not – and yet, that will give readers an idea of the excitement the music elicits in listeners.

A new trailer was created for CES 2008 with Fraps – it was all in-game footage showing us that the development of the game is moving along well, although they did integrate some scenes from the first trailer shown as they wanted to show Cassie and Duncan, their quintessential U.N.I.T.E and ParaGON agents. Avatars will not be “real people” but comic-book stylized representations. Several body types will be available, but think “beautiful people” with boobalicious babes and, magnificently hunky men. The U.N.I.T.E. agents would be epitomized in James Bond and Modesty Blaise. The ParaGON agents… think of the cigar chomping Nick Fury and hmm… who do you know in female literary characters that would epitomize the ParaGON agent? Think Punk rock style hair and clothing, army boots, rocket launcher… Tankgirl perhaps.

Operative “cards” were shown for the first time – in the manner of I.D. tags with pictures and stats – except that the sides to the card are endless. Turn it over, you get more stats and as your operative improves and levels, his or her skills grow, so too will the number of “sides” to that card. Operatives are your Qs, Moneypennys and Oracles. They help you to retrofit your vehicles and improve your armor, they provide you intelligence and improved weaponry. You can have a stable of 100 operatives, we were told, but like any bunch of employees, they could slack off, quarrel and refuse to work with one another, or you could receive a text message (if you turn on that option) one day from one to the effect of “On 2 wks vaca w Sonia, Cya” and you realize you’ve lost the use of your top two operatives for a few real life days. Interesting… operatives have love lives. So how do you grow and level your operatives? There are “operative” moments in game that if you use, will give them xp. These are found during missions where you can dial your operative and make a request to help you perform an action. For example: short circuit a key function in the building, bust a steam valve, give you information or intelligence.

We watched a video of Hal, Matt and Corey playing a 3-man mission – or 2-man 1-gal mission anyway – James Pwned, Rex and Sophia. Rex entered their agency headquarters to obtain the mission. Old recruitment posters lined the walls, experiments of all sorts are happening behind glass windowed rooms – surreally like James Bond walking with Q to get outfitted with the latest gadgets. Players should be taking “photographs” of these moments in-game as they could well be “Intel” moments that come in useful later in the game. An observant agent is a good agent. Pay attention. That exploding vest or teddy-bear may be a key component in a mission some day.

As we moved along, screens upon screens of data hung from the walls. Intelligence from Prague, Shanghai, and the latest oil prices maybe? We stopped to play on an arcade machine in the lobby. Q*bert opened up on the screen. I kid you not. Q*bert. Yes, mini-games are in The Agency – but they all mean something. Maybe the spook you are meeting will respect you more if you beat them in a game, or your message could be unlocked only if you make the high score for the day. Yes, this is a world of espionage. Trust no one; make use of everyone… and everything.

We received the mission – basically, a “Follow” mission. The word is that Das Committee had plans to blow up the German Embassy in Prague. Bombs will be attached to four columns. Our mission is to tail a member of Das Committee and find out where exactly those bombs are, and disarm them. Here, Hal explained the alias system. How strong your alias is will determine whether or not you are spotted. So, if you wore street clothes and kept a reasonable distance, you could possibly tail the suspect all the way without being caught out. Well, our agents were in their field clothes – they were dressed in their combat, stealth and support outfits. The suspect, wary of being tailed, looked around and scanned the street often. Our agents ducked behind cars and other pedestrians to no avail. Spotted! So the chase began.

He disappeared through a passageway and a massive steel door closed behind him. Now what? Blow through the door or use a gadget from your utility belt? Hal pointed out the “smart” in-game objects here. In order to keep the UI minimal and interaction simple, world interaction is integrated into the objects in-game. A mouse over will bring up the integration screen with the actions available to your character – and some of these are operative moments.

We opened the door silently and moved quickly through. Four bombs, four columns. Have they been planted yet? Other enemy agents stood in the way. Scanning around, we found an operative moment. Oh, this will do nicely. A steam valve right about face level of the goons. A quick call, a blown steam valve for distraction and a fast knifing, they were dispatched without bringing undue attention to your location, plus XP for the operative.

We entered another room and stumbled into Das Committee wiring up the bombs. A firefight ensued with our agents attempting to shoot the enemy, disarm the bombs and stay alive. The objective here is to save the Embassy. How you do it is up to you. You can shoot the guys carrying the bombs and prevent them from planting the bombs or disarm the bombs after they’ve been planted. We found out here that stray bullets could do a lot of harm to your own team. In an attempt to provide Sophia covering fire, Matt instead shot the bomb she was disarming. Blam. Dead Agent and destroyed column. Oops! Is that the floor above coming down?

We saw another Agency moment then, as we either blew up or disarmed all of the bombs and Das Committee tried to escape. Only Matt made it (well, Sophia was dead!) and as the truck peeled away, he grabbed a package of explosives and threw it. That started a chain reaction that reached the truck and blew it to kingdom come.

Then we revived Sophia with what looked like a hypodermic needle and two more little nuggets of information fell from Hal’s lips. A field medic can revive. A field technician can set custom respawn points.

Missions here are a departure from the usual MMOG quests. Instead of a pass / fail method of grading, it grades on a scale, from Bronze to Gold. For this particular mission, to get the Gold level, you’d have had to have all four columns standing at the end of the mission. Bronze required only one column standing. The better the grade, the better the rewards, so you could repeat this mission with your group, at a higher level with less group members or even solo, to earn more cash.

That was the end of the trailer, so we went onto Question and Answer time. We learned that the PS3 and PC game will launch at the same time, but the players will be separated although they can chat across platform. They are working hard to get all of their game / web / mail and other communication interfaces properly working, as this game will integrate text messaging, IM and email to get updates to you. Imagine getting a text message in the middle of a boring meeting telling you that your new Lamborghini has been retrofitted with rocket launchers and was ready to go. Then after the meeting, you fire up your web interface to get a second operative to deliver it to Prague. Cool…

As we talked further about the game world, Hal began bouncing up and down in his seat in excitement. The various corporations have been fleshed out and SoE Seattle has reserved a large number of domain names. Their intent is to set up websites for each of these corporations.

“We’re going crazy with our story and content,” he exclaimed, “We’ve fleshed out the whole world story and we’re reserving a bunch of websites and we’re going to have fun with that!”

“We will make use of all the tools available at hand,” concluded Matt. “This is a world of espionage. Secrets and intelligence.” If they can pull it off, incorporating real world gadgets and tools, it could be the next big thing, blurring the lines of virtual worlds and reality into one big MMOG.

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