The Agency is one of our most-wanted MMOs at the moment, and not just because it's coming to PS3 as well as PC. The spy-themed massively multiplayer shooter from Sony Online Entertainment - creators of early hit EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies - looks like it will be one of the first major MMOs to offer a convincing alternative to the epic fantasy RPG grind. Players will enter a sharply-drawn, stylish, but none too serious world of intrigue as either a UNITE super-spy or ParaGON mercenary.
Eventually, you'll graduate to start your own agency, staffed with NPCs you can collect who will do much of the game's hard work - intelligence gathering, equipment creation - for you. We interviewed designer and lead writer Matt Staroscik to find out how things are progressing.
Eurogamer: You've said the game is predominantly a shooter - does that mean the combat is mostly based on player skill, or do you earn RPG-style abilities to use?
Matt Staroscik: Your characters will absolutely develop RPG-style abilities as they gain experience. For example, an experienced character may tame the recoil on his weapon better than a rookie, which means more hot lead put on target.
In the end, though, a bullet in the noggin still counts for a lot, because The Agency is, as you said, predominantly a shooter. Less experienced characters will be at a disadvantage, yes, but we are not like a traditional class-based MMO where your 89th-level Dark Paladruid can defeat an infinite number of noobs. In The Agency, the noobs are going to get you - but you'll make them pay dearly.
Eurogamer: How will vehicles figure into the game?
Matt Staroscik: Some missions will center on vehicle challenges, and they'll feel quite different from the run-and-gun gameplay that we've shown so far. Agents might find themselves in an illegal high-speed race through city streets, trying to earn an NPC's respect and some valuable intel. Challenges like that will often punctuate your transition from one area of the world to another, or introduce a special mission that wraps up part of the story.
Eurogamer: Your system for players to start their own agencies, and recruit NPC operatives, sounds really interesting. How's it going to work?
Matt Staroscik: Operatives are collectible NPCs, AKA "living loot". You'll send them out on assignments to gather intel, make them build things for you, and even have them help you in combat. As they work, they'll gain experience and new abilities. They'll also suffer health and morale hits, which you'll need to manage.
One of the biggest goals for operatives is to make you feel like you are always effective in The Agency, even when you are logged out. Set up op assignments so they work while you are at work, and that evening you may have shiny new hardware, or a new mission unlocked. Going on vacation? Put your guys on that research job that takes a whole week, or loan them to another player. Want to know what's going on? You can receive ops updates in email or even on your phone if you like.
The operatives system is a grand multiplayer game of resource management and risk vs. reward - with hundreds of cool, collectible characters.
Eurogamer: How are you going to handle storytelling?
Matt Staroscik: We'll never force you to read pages of information, because we are a shooter. You'll pick up the basics of the story quite painlessly as you play. But if you want to read the files in the laptop you stole, or check the in-game news sources, you'll learn a lot about the world you are playing in.
Your operatives will also have their own stories to reveal, if you follow the opportunities you'll be presented with. For example, one day you'll log in to see that a mysterious enemy has tried to bump off one of your ops. She's asking you to let her figure out why. Do you let her go? You could uncover a fascinating conspiracy while you boost her experience with a series of assignments.