At E3, we were able to get a new look at SOE's upcoming shooter MMO The Agency. The regular PvE experience was not on display; instead we got to see and play PvP multiplayer for the first time. The demo takes place in the Black Abbey, a three-point assault map, set in a monastery in Venice. Each of the three main areas (a courtyard, library, and a submarine drydock) are captureable and serve as respawn points. One side's goal is to detonate the sub (it's rigged with explosives) and "sink" the monastery; the other side tries to protect it.
Combat is fluid and fast and better than I expected - there was no noticeable lag, even when the screen was filled with multiple players and particle effects. The game feels indistinguishable from a regular shooter, with very few MMO conventions in evidence. Headshots are automatic crits. Players use WASD and a mouse to move and shoot, and Ctrl to get into cover... and that's about it. The cover system is handled very well, allowing players to duck and hide behind objects when under heavy fire, while still allowing them to peek/lean out and take the occasional potshot.
We played with pregenerated characters (I only saw three classes in the demo: Recons, Suppressors, and Commanders). Recons are stealthy snipers; Suppressors are heavy-weapon specialists, while Commanders are tactical support classes.
What sets the Agency apart from other shooter MMOs is the concept of "you are what you wear" (YAWYW). Gear doesn't just give you increases to base stats and/or change your visual appearance. Instead, many of each class's special abilities are only available as bonuses from gear. These abilities only appear on your hotbar if you have the corresponding specific gadget equipped. The number of additional class core abilities is also small. This results in each player's UI being clean, uncluttered, and sleek, with only a couple of keys that you have to worry about. It's unclear how common these YAWYW gadgets are in game, or how difficult they are to obtain. However, there were plenty on display in the demo.
For example, the Recon character I played with was wearing Oracle Vision Goggles (which were clearly visible on the character's in-game model). These goggles (when worn) give the player an ability that makes all enemies appear as red outlines regardless of whether they are behind walls or behind cover, which is phenomenally useful when sniping.
The Suppressor class also had a couple of YAWYW items equipped. The first, a Kinetic Shield (worn around the neck), charges up whenever you kill someone. When fully charged, you can activate its ability, which results in a large sparkly shield that sits out in front of the player. This shield stops incoming bullets but still allows the Suppressor to fire outward through it. I saw several instances where a Suppressor triggered the shield and the rest of his team also hid behind it and then followed the Suppressor forward into enemy positions causing carnage... until the Suppressor became flanked.
The Suppressor also had a special glove gadget which slowly charged up whenever the player was in cover. When activated, this gadget gives the Suppressor electrified bullets - essentially just normal bullets but with a hefty damage multiplier. Like the Kinetic Shield (and the Oracle goggles), the glove was clearly visible on the character.
This YAWYW system is clearly a departure from the normal character progression we see in other games. While each class does still have some core abilities, the sexier abilities are loot based. The player is not confined to a play style simply because of the class they started with. Equipping a character with useful YAWYW gear can dramatically change how your character plays and will lead to interesting loot-based builds. Hopefully, SOE has created a multitude of these gadget items and their corresponding abilities.
There are two types of PvP in The Agency: "PvP Anytime" and "World Domination".
"PvP Anytime" are encounters that players can jump into quickly and with no fuss. SOE wouldn't go into any of the matchmaking specifics. However, the Black Abbey is also a location that exists in the main PvE world. Whether players unlock PvP encounter maps by completing PvE "objectives" is speculation on my part.
"World Domination" (WD) is Agency-based PvP. (Agencies are player-run guilds.) If you were to run Black Abbey as a WD map, only members of your Agency would be allowed on your side. WD skirmishes have persistent consequences. For example, it is possible for an Agency to "own" a particular encounter. SOE were cagey on the details, but it sounds like owning particular maps may give an Agency bonuses that might apply to crafting. Again: speculation on my part, but still an interesting concept. If a certain rare resource in the game is only available from owning the location where it is made, then Agency-based crafting is not only feasible, but potentially leads to interesting markets and monopolies. While I didn't get all the details, SOE was clear to point out that holding on to a map would be very hard, and that they would tip back and forth between Agencies a lot.
Players have levels in The Agency. However, I did not see any character screens or any numbers indicating what level my character was. I did see my character earning XP, and, when I asked, SOE confirmed that players can level purely from PvP XP.
Overall, the demo was a lot of fun, with zero noticeable lag. Time will tell whether the main game world will be able to handle the frantic action that was shown in the Black Abbey. Also, with little detail about how PvE works, it's impossible to get a decent impression of what the full game experience will be like. However, if the rest of the game is as high quality as the PvP demo shown at E3, then The Agency will definitely be a game to watch out for, especially for players who like their MMOs crosshair-based and action-ey.