Today we present a double-header on Hi-Rez Studios' independently-produced, sci-fi shooter MMO, Global Agenda. You can watch a video interview over on EGTV and, below, read our hands-on impressions from the beta test.
The atmosphere in the dropship is... well, not tense exactly. Nobody's hastily checking their weapons or telling anybody else it'll be okay. Nobody's losing their lunch. The only movement is coming from two dudes in a corner who are jumping up and down and one nobhead who's hitting me in the back with his sword. Friendly fire's off, so I could care less. The dropship's not even moving. We're just waiting for the big transparent door at one end to open.
There are 10 of us, we brave, we few, we band of guys in anime-looking robot suits. And by God, when those doors open we're going to prove we're better than those other guys we're fighting, the other ten guys in anime-looking robot suits. And we will do this for... for the glory of, uh... experience points, I guess. And loot!
The beta test of Global Agenda I played a few weeks ago wasn't much for lore. The plan is for the first five levels of Global Agenda to be a scripted experience which teach you about the game and its post-apocalyptic, high-tech, mercenary world in a kind of extended tutorial, but I started with a level-30 character. And with NPCs limited to a handful of vendors, there wasn't much of a chance to educate myself.
What the beta did have was access to some of the PvE and PvP missions that'll make up the entirety of Global Agenda for its non-subscribers. This game's pricing plan is definitely something that needs clearing up before I can go on.
Global Agenda is an odd hybrid of a third-person shooter and an MMO. Buying the game by itself gets you access to a domed, outpost-themed MMO town from which you can manage your character's armour, equipment, skill trees, appearance and implants while shoulder to shoulder with other players. It's from here that you can drop into PvE missions against tyrannical government robots or PvP missions against those other players, and both types of missions get you experience points, credits and loot.
Those players who go on to subscribe get access to crafting, which we haven't seen anything of yet, and a persistent world where your Agency (Global Agenda's version of a guild) can battle other Agencies for territory and prestige. Hi-Rez Studios hasn't shown much of that yet either, and the rest of the subscriber content is fairly minor stuff like bonus cosmetic customisation options for your avatar. So let's move on to the combat which all Global Agenda players can look forward to.
In short, you're looking at an old-school third-person shooter with a grab bag of MMO elements. As such it plays slower and more tactically than your average online shooter, so don't pay too much attention to the videos Hi-Rez has been releasing which show punchy gun battles with enemies going down in one hit. Unless you're going up against the cannon-fodder AI variants, combat is very much a case of eroding your opponent's health bar over several seconds while strafing like it's going out of style. (Which it is! Pretty sure psychotic strafing in games went out with quicksaving, avian flu, Busted and wristwatches.)
Other MMO similarities include the "energy" pool, which resembles mana or stamina and powers everything from your guns and grenades to your jetpack, plus the fact that lots of your equipment has cooldown times, and the class system. You can either be Assault (tank/heavy weapons), Recon (sniper/scout/melee damage dealer), Medic (healer/poisoner) or Robotics (guy who builds and destroys turrets, drones and forcefields and tries in vain to pull his weight in PvE).
What's a touch weird is that despite these MMO trappings, the only time Global Agenda is ever massively multiplayer is in that hub you revisit between missions. PvP missions max out at 10 players to a side, even in that big ol' persistent world planned for the subscribers. Like I say, weird. But from what I could tell from the beta, it still works pretty well.
I tried a Medium Security PvE level first, which meant joining a team of three other players and assaulting a facility with the aim of destroying a big robo-boss at the end. Advancing through the level, blowing apart bots and getting to grips with the healing grenades of the Medic proved engaging and fun, and the need to avoid a surveillance spotlight and, later, a surveillance drone was a nice diversion.
High Security PvE was a different story. It bodes well for Global Agenda that my incompetent team found progressing through the level's AI against the clock a lot like climbing a barbed wire fence with bare hands. This is also where I had my first encounter with a Hunter, a special type of AI bot which changes to resemble the class of his target then runs up and tears them apart. Since Hunters are highly resistant to gunfire, if you're targeted by one the best thing to do is run like hell while your team leap in with melee weapons, which also slow the Hunter down.
These special enemy types come into their own during Double Agent PvE missions, which, in a Left 4 Dead style, select one extra player from the mission queue to control the unique bad guys. Unlike Left 4 Dead, however, there are currently no precautions in place to stop the chosen double agent from strafing and weaving out of your crosshairs like a Quake player. No prizes for guessing which of the robots you're fighting is player-controlled.
Pleasant as all this was, PvP proved the better mode. The first mission I tried saw one team attempting to push a large hi-tech thing along a winding track to some arbitrary point close to their dropship while the other team tried to stop them. This was where Global Agenda started to come together for me - that player cap, which had seemed so disappointing at first, proved to be the perfect number, and there was a real energy to the match.
Everyone was racing to fill the roles of their class, throwing up and destroying static defences, dropping into fierce melees, setting off area-of-effect items and jetpacking into and around everybody else. The mass of health we all had meant there was a nicely territorial feel to the combat, with an emphasis on assaults and retreats. Every match spawned little rivalries and grudges, and I even found myself growing attached to the totally impersonal level-30 characters I was stuck with.
That said, a second PvP mission on offer seemed less well designed. One team was tasked with holding and capturing a warehouse, the other with defending it. Problem is, it's a lot easier for 10 guys to work together camping a room than it is for 10 guys to launch a unified, combined assault, and the way Global Agenda respawns you in batches wasn't quite enough to solve that. The mission devolved into a sad firing squad and their carefully positioned turrets eliminating enemies in batches of two, three or four, as the level's 15-minute timer ticked down.
But then, what are closed betas for but fixing stuff like this? The most important thing to take away at this stage is that Global Agenda's trying something a bit different, and it already has a solid foundation of rewarding team-based combat. Whether this game will be hugely interesting will come down to that persistent subscriber stuff - the chance for Agencies to capture chunks of a map, build facilities on them, fight to keep them, and all the choices and choices and features in between.
While all that's still totally under wraps, you'd think Hi-Rez Studios has got to be working on something pretty spectacular if it wants people to pay a subscription for it and (more or less) it alone. Or maybe they're just insane. Which possibly makes this game worth watching in either case.
Global Agenda is due out for PC on 1st February 2010. Check out our video interview elsewhere on the site.