Hybrid MMO/shooter Global Agenda is... fine. From its head to the tips of its toes, this is quite literally a game where you can shoot a man and he will fall down. It is a game where you will amass experience points by the thousands and occasionally go up a level. It is unashamedly, incandescently OK.
When Global Agenda starts, you pick your class of either Assault (heavy weapons), Recon (stealth and speed), Medic (healing and poison powers) or Robotics (deployables) before proceeding through a few tutorial missions which see your genetically modified super-agent being broken out of a glass vat by four other super-agents. Some attempt at crafting a sense of place is made as the game introduces the global government monopoly of the Commonwealth, but the moment your 20 minutes of tutorials are over, so is the story. The plot abruptly fades away like a pop song, which is handy since if it hung around any longer it might have to explain all those tedious, nit-picky details like "Why everyone's respawning instead of dying" or "Why you were broken out of your vat" or even "Why you were in a vat".
But then, who cares? Because the moment the tutorials are over you're free to play Global Agenda as a straight multiplayer shooter. Kind of. From the uninspiring safe haven of Dome City your character can approach the Mission Select Terminal to pick out a player-versus-environment or player-versus-player mission, earning you credits, experience points and loot which can be used to develop your character at the kind of lazy pace any MMO gamer will be deeply familiar with.
The shooting itself is an odd one. Any given fight is lengthened by very broad crosshairs and an MMO-style emphasis on gradually wearing away your opponent's health bar, and any sufficiently cautious player can often use their jetpack to blast away from combat to safety. This isn't Tribes, though. You can't shoot while using the jetpack, nor can you use it for very long, and an attempt to climb one of the taller buildings in the game will see you bludgeoning your head on an invisible ceiling.
That low flight ceiling is one of several restrictions in Global Agenda you wouldn't expect to see in a game using the Unreal 3 engine, along with fairly small map sizes in general and a maximum player limit of 10 versus 10. Developer Hi-Rez says that "more players doesn't necessarily equal more fun", but it's still a shame and a surprise from a game that touts itself as massively multiplayer.
In a lot of ways GA plays like the last five years of shooters never happened. Character animations are choppy and weightless, you're often forced to spend an age running back to the same fight that just killed you and many of the weapons produce similar quantities of bang and roar to a hairdryer. Plus, as anybody with a pair of eyes and a soul has doubtless already noticed, the art design and presentation are slick, but weapons-grade boring.
And yet this combat can work, aged as it might feel. The mass of buffing and debuffing equipment available to each class can make for hugely hectic brawls, and the people at Hi-Rez have implemented a neat melee mechanic. Each class can deal a fair amount of damage by hacking away with their class's melee weapon, yet that same weapon's alt fire brings up a protective frontal shield that rebounds melee damage. The result is ridiculous duels where combatants are swapping back and forth between guns, melee attacks and melee shields, all while strafing and jumping like it's 1999.
Going wading through robots as a team of four in PvE is less immediately exciting than PvP, but picks up once you unlock tougher difficulties at level 12. Still, it's less Left 4 Dead or Borderlands and more... well, more Global Agenda than you might be hoping. Blitzing missions as part of a squad who know exactly what they're doing is satisfying, but the moment you find yourself eroding your resolve on some statistically superior arrangement of NPCs the drab design of enemies and levels begins to wear thin.
If Hi-Rez is trying to sell its game to some as a straight shooter, the bigger problem with the PvP and PvE (besides the fact that all four of the classes have trouble shooting straight) is the lack of control you have over your game. You can't simply drop into a match, you have to spawn in Dome City, make your way to the Mission select terminal and then join a queue for either PvE of a certain difficulty or PvP. There is no filtering the matches you'll join in any way, no choosing the map, and in PvP there's no picking which of the five game types you'll end up playing.
More inexplicably, after every mission you're dumped right back to Dome City to repeat this process and rejoin the queue. If you spend a mission as a defending team, you never get the chance to try your hand as an attacker. Oh, and the mission select screen also obscures your chatbox. There will be no chatting while you wait for mother game to dispense your assigned portion of fun.
You might be wondering how the MMO side of things fares: all that character progression and crafting. Well, wonder no more! It fares just like the shooting. It's unquestionably tolerable, but also a touch hamstrung by the fact that Hi-Rez wants a low-level player to be able to defeat a high-level player.
As such, levelling up tends not to mean a great deal. You either get a single new item of equipment or a skill point. Getting a new weapon can be relatively dramatic in the context of Global Agenda, but since all the weapons and items in the game are meant to be balanced (and classes tend to get some of their best gear from the start) getting new items only ever offers more variety in your loadout. Getting a skillpoint to spend on one of your three skill trees is a similar story - it's nice, but rarely anything that'll change your game.
The upgrades you can craft suffer the same fate. The huge array of different helmets and armour you can see on fellow players is actually only cosmetic. Crafting, which uses components gathered in PvE, is different. It lets you create little stat boosts to put in any of the 16 slots on your character. Crafting is also colourless, laborious, and the upgrades you can create are both invisible on your character and degrade over time.
What Hi-Rez was always trying to create with Global Agenda was a Frankenstein's Monster of a game. As the developers said in interviews, they wanted to stitch together the best parts from any number of successful games to create some unstoppable, giddy über-game. The way the character progression I just talked about ends up hampering the shooting is one of many examples of an error in their working.
The theory was that if you make the benefits of going up a level insignificant enough, a low-level agent can still have a badass shoot-out with a high-level agent and you don't have to divide up your players at all. In practice, they've got the worst of both worlds. After level 12 the rewards for levelling up are frequently unsatisfactory for the work you're putting in, and yet a level 30 agent with a collection of upgrades is still going to be able to casually flambé a level 15. The level 15 could attack with the advantage, he could throw grenades in first, it won't make a difference. A +2% here and there adds up over the 20 hours of play separating those two players.
So far, everything I've talked about (with the exception of crafting) is available to players who simply purchase either the boxed copy or digital download of Global Agenda. What treats await for subscribers willing to part with a planned (all content is currently free as a launch offer) £8 a month?
That would be Conquest Mode, something many people considered the most interesting part of Global Agenda's design prior to launch. Here, players are allowed to form Agencies (guilds of the future) then spend huge wads of money bidding on an unoccupied hex on one of five hex maps. Once you have some territory (which might create money, blueprints or even powerful vehicles for your agency) you become part of a scramble for neighbouring hexes that lasts for two and a half hours a day and begins at a different time on each on each of the five zones.
At once, Conquest Mode is Global Agenda at its fiercest and weakest. With something at stake on the outcome of these matches they become hugely tense and team-focused affairs, and playing to that standard you'll likely have more fun than you would anywhere else in the game. On the other hand, Conquest sees Global Agenda at its most crushingly mediocre. You might have 700 players in your Agency but you're still stuck playing the same 10-vs.-10 point-capturing match you'll recognise from PvP, and while the maps are new, there aren't many of them. Global Agenda's sole concession to scale is that you can link together "Strike Forces" so you're playing a maximum of six 10-vs.-10 games concurrently, but in terms of territory-based MMO gaming this is unexciting stuff.
It's also the smallest amount of content I've ever seen anyone try and demand a subscription for. Or it would be if they were demanding it yet. In Hi-Rez's defense, Conquest Mode is free for everyone until March 3rd, it's currently in its infancy, and the developers are doing a lot of talking about bolstering how many game modes and maps it has before they begin charging. But then, that's why we have re-reviews for online games.
However, without a total reboot, what bars Global Agenda from being an obvious purchase will not change. It's a shooter without eloquence or crunch, an MMO without content or personality, and as an experimental combination of the two it's missing ambition. I played Planetside for a year because I was so inspired by what it tried to do, and because its problems tended to arise from it being huge and daring at any cost. This? It barely has any problems beyond its averageness. And that's a much, much harder thing to get behind.
6 / 10