If there's one obvious flaw in FPS/RPG games like Borderlands, it is that they tend to focus heavily on the RPG aspect. I can play through a lot of the games and let my stats carry me, rather than my skills. While there's certainly an appeal to that, it makes those games stand out less as first-person shooters. When combat can be determined by the fact that you've leveled up your special skill and have a strong machine gun instead of the fact that you can dodge attacks and earn headshots, it turns the FPS element into more of a cover for the RPG. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it difficult to enjoy the games for the same reason one would Quake or Halo. The Agency, the latest from Sony Online Entertainment Seattle, seems to realize this. It's a shooter/RPG hybrid, but it has a serious focus on the shooter aspect instead of the RPG.
In The Agency, a group of bad guys has formed a secret organization called OMEN, which is mostly comprised of former black ops specialists, KGB and CIA agents, and various other elite of the elite. They intend to get revenge on the governments of the world for leaving them out to dry, and they have begun a terrorism campaign unrivaled in scope. Players get a chance to join one of two groups: The United Network of Intelligent and Tactical Experts (UNITE), which is the home of the world's most secret of secret agents, or the Paramilitary Global Operations Network (ParaGON), which is a Blackwater-style mercenary group that offers its services to the highest bidder. Regardless of which group the player chooses, he'll be pitted against OMEN and each other in a battle for the fate of the world.
The Agency is an online team shooter. A first blush, it seems fairly straightforward. Most of the basic gameplay mechanics look like exactly what you'd expect from a modern shooter. Since the game was co-designed for PS3 and PC, it plays pretty simply, including snap-to cover systems and various other common gameplay elements.
The Agency isn't just a straightforward shooter; it's more of an online shooter/RPG hybrid, roughly comparable to the aforementioned Borderlands. Players will take missions from hubs and be tasked with defeating the OMEN forces in various story quests. You can also call in friends to assist you or take on PvP matches against other opponents. What we got to play of the game felt smooth and easy. Despite having RPG elements, it felt exactly like a traditional shooter. Headshots were key, and battles depended more on twitch shooting skills than any noticeable stats. We're told that there are no behind-the-scenes "dice rolls"; it's an FPS with RPG elements, not an RPG disguised as an FPS.
In our brief demo, we got to try one of the five classes, the Recon agent, which is the sniper class. They're weak, fast and carry weapons that allow them to fight from a distance. Where they really shine is in their special powers, such as the self-teleport move, which allows the Recon to move to where his or her teammates are. It basically turns him into a backup unit for an ally in danger. Being able to zoom over to an ally and unload a close-range pistol shot into the enemy's face is a great way to turn the tide of battle. We also saw the oracle ability, which will temporarily show the location of all enemies on the map for you and your allies. It's not only useful for sniping, but it also prevents you and your pals from getting ambushed. This is important because Recon seems to be the least durable of the available classes. You may be able to get in and get out at a moment's notice, but that doesn't help much if you're getting shot to pieces.
We also got to see a few of the other classes. The Commander is basically the team support unit; he can heal allies and use gas grenades to stun or damage enemies. He doesn't seem like the most powerful in direct combat, but when he's supporting a team, he's darn near unstoppable. The Assault is a close-range class whose shining feature is a special barrier that stops all bullets coming from the front, turning him into a very useful tank. This comes at a bit of a cost, as the Assault's shield won't stop grenades. This is where the Suppressor comes in. He's more of a traditional tank, capable of dealing and taking a fair amount of damage, but lacks the Assault's awesome shield. It makes up for this with the Hangfire ability, which allows it to shoot grenades in mid-air. An Assault and Suppressor would make a pretty good team, especially when backed up by a Commander.
A lot of thought seems to have gone into these classes. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but the other classes seem capable of compensating for the weaknesses of their allies. It's a gameplay style that will strongly encourage teamwork, which is always a plus for this type of game. There is a fifth class, the Gadgeteer, but it wasn't being shown off at E3. It sounded a bit like The Engineer in Team Fortress 2, so instead of fighting directly, you'll be building turrets or using other tools to do your fighting for you.
The neat thing about abilities is that they're not just magical powers. Each ability is represented by something on the character. Oracle, for example, is shown as a nifty pair of tech goggles that the Recon agent is wearing. Your weapons and powers can be customized by getting new kinds of equipment. We didn't get to see the different gadgets, but we were given some examples. The Oracle vision can be augmented to have a faster charge time but with less range for the see-through-walls effect. The Assault's Kinetic Shield can be made to have a full 360-degree effect, but that would also disallow shooting. These various gadgets seem like they might invite interesting play styles, although we'll have to see how varied they can get.
The Agency is primarily a shooter, but it has its fair share of RPG-like elements. In addition to getting new equipment, your characters will be able to level up and take on different roles. You may begin as a Recon or Commander, but you'll eventually be able to play all classes. Despite the leveling system, it should be reasonably possible for characters of all levels to play together. PvP will be designed so that everyone is on a mostly level playing field. The various equipment options should provide different options, but shouldn't give players an overwhelming advantage over someone who just started. In theory, either co-op or PvP should be easy to pick up and play. Leveling can also be done through completing story missions or doing PVP, so players who are interested in the competitive aspect can advance pretty easily. We didn't get a clear idea of what exactly leveling will do, although there is some kind of benefit available to higher-level characters.
The Agency has the makings of a pretty cool multiplayer-focused FPS. The basic gameplay looks simple and straightforward, but there are enough cool features and abilities that it seems to have a lot of potential. I'm particularly fond of the way the classes work together and the game encourages players to vary their class choices, as no single class seems to do everything. While there is clearly more of a progression and advancement in the RPG elements than Modern Warfare's leveling system, it's also pretty clear that the FPS aspects come first. The Agency seems like it could be a lot of fun, especially if you've got a good group of people to play it with.
More articles about The Agency