Visit Sony Online Entertainment's Seattle offices, which house the team making its stylish espionage MMO The Agency for PC and PS3, and you get buried alive: in ideas, in raw information, in words. Most of these things are fired out of the mouth of lead designer Hal Milton at machine-gun rate and you're left frantically scribbling away to keep up, not to mention thrown by the propensity of Milton and the rest of the team to answer questions on almost any facet of the gameplay in great detail, rather than with a "we're not talking about that today".
As a consequence, we've got a lot to get through here, and we don't have much time. If you're unfamiliar with the basics of one of the most exciting and original online games in development, please check out our preview and interview from last year. In brief, and after a deep breath:
Two factions, super-spies UNITE and mercenaries Paragon; six equipment-defined roles in combat, stealth and support that can be switched at will on any character; a raft of pop-culture influences from Bond and Bourne to Alias and the A-team; alias outfits for disguise and infiltration gameplay; NPC operatives you can collect and trade like cards who can research and manufacture equipment or intel while you're offline, or provide support skills in combat; missions that scale to solo or group play; locations across the world, centred on Prague in Europe and Panama in Central America; squad-shooter dynamics, a balance of player skill and RPG progression, player-versus-player skirmishing, a strong storyline.
So what's new to this pre-E3 preview? Principally, a chance to see the game running live on both formats, SOE having previously only shown video footage. Two developers play through a mission (hosted on remote servers in San Diego), one on PS3 and one PC, proving that cross-platform play is technically possible, even if they've not decided for sure to include it for gameplay balance reasons and different strategies for updates. The game looks more or less identical across the formats, clean, sharp and colourful if not abundant in detail; the PS3 version seems to have a slower frame-rate at the moment, but we're promised an inviolable 30 frames a second come launch.
We're also introduced to a couple of new locations: UNITE's private airship, the Sophia II, and the Swiss château where the mission takes place. The Sophia II is a kind of mobile mission hub and social area that houses mini-games, a tank full of sharks (but of course), and docks at cities around the world. Like all zones in the game, it can also be used for mission encounters. SOE is looking to find a more flexible structure for the Agency than most MMOs, which tend to divide their zones into safe social areas, the open world and instanced encounters, each one immutable.
"We're trying to find a middle-ground between, say, Guild Wars and Phantasy Star Online over here, and EverQuest II and World of Warcraft over here; all public with some minor instancing, or all instancing with a couple of public hubs," says Milton. "We're thinking that we can kind of do a little bit of both. This friendly public space? Get used to it, explore it, learn all the nooks and crannies, because it could turn into a combat environment and that knowledge would be helpful."
Indeed, the opening moments for UNITE agents will place them on an "airship headed for disaster", while Paragon players will start their adventure checking out suspicious events on an oil rig for a client. No menial chores to do - The Agency offers globe-trotting high drama from the very beginning, and squeezing as much as it can out of its glamorous locations - we also hear mention of Kiev, Venice, Amsterdam, an island off the coast of Thailand, jungles in Central America - is a priority for a team that doesn't have the luxury of creating acres of open wilderness for players to explore.
"We have to have cities, and cities are complicated, there's a lot of stuff in a city. There's tons of detail," says art director Corey Dangel. "We'll have some locations that are epic; Kiev is a pretty big location in our world, Prague right now is actually super-frickin'-huge. In fact, it may be too big. It may actually have to get a little bit of a haircut." Prague is where you'll find the principal headquarters for your faction, but the world will also be dotted with field offices that serve as last-resort checkpoints.
Step into a mission, and you'll have to choose what to take with you from your collection of operatives, weapons, gadgets and outfits. You can equip two outfits for the field, one of the six "roles" or classes (combat, stealth or support), and your infiltration alias. Very high-level players will be able to get their operatives to craft aliases into role outfits to combine the two - so toting both a tuxedo and a machine-gun at the same time will be The Agency's bragging-rights equivalent of wearing fire-breathing dragon skulls on your shoulders and carrying a sword that's bigger than you are.
The Swiss château mission we see is one of The Agency's mixed-group missions, where the UNITE and Paragon plot threads converge. Using one agent from each, in evening-wear aliases, the developers move through a glossy cocktail party trying to keep their alias ratings intact, avoid the attentions of patrolling guards, cause distractions, gather intel and disable systems using the Paragon agents engineering skills and the UNITE agent's camera. It's an example of how traditionally solo stealth gameplay can be made to work in multiplayer, the players converging on a rendezvous, remotely helping each other get past certain obstacles on the way, in what SOE calls "Mission: Impossible" style.
The upgradeable camera is one of The Agency's most valuable tools, the developers having paid keen attention to the use of photography in games like Dead Rising, Beyond Good & Evil and Pokemon Snap (which Milton thinks is "one of the most brilliant shooters ever made"). Its main use is in gathering static intel, but you might also have to tail NPCs at certain points.
Having negotiated the stealth section, the agents meet their contact, and after a brief cut-scene their cover is blown and they're plunged into combat. This is third- or first-person shooting modified with RPG skills, assigned to three banks of five. On a pad, quick skills are mapped to L2 and R2, while a combination of triangle and stick-flicks selects the rest. The two notable skills we see are a stamina (i.e. The Agency's skill resource, or "mana") and armour buff, and the rather more colourful "Martini bomb", a cocktail-shaker grenade that freezes enemy weapons.
The latter's an example of a gadget-based skill that can be built, found or bought - not all abilities in The Agency will come from ranking up. You might get skills from "unlocking the blueprint so you can always make the Martini bomb, or finding the bartender who has the field assignment where you can pick them up from him," says Milton. "But you'll also have inherent skills and abilities, passive skills, and active buffs, things like, 'I've increased my reload rate for all pistols now, or I've increased all my stealth abilities and have the ability to do an acrobatic dodge [to mitigate damage]."
In fact, you can forget about standard MMORPG progression altogether. In The Agency, you 'll be unlocking things and advancing your character on several fronts, most notably within your faction, within your role, and within weapon classes. "The philosophy behind it is that we didn't want to have one monolithic level ding, we wanted to kind of spread that around," explains Milton.
"So first off, you have your rank within your agency. The higher your rank, the more operatives you can have, the higher rank they can be, the more stuff you can use, the more places you can go. And you increase your rank by completing career missions. Then you have your role, the thing you use to complete those career missions and explore the world - your combat, stealth and support, switching freely between them. As you complete either career or side missions, you're getting XP for your roles, unlocking new titles which unlock new skills and outfits and attachments and accessories.
"Killing guys and using items in the field gives use-based experience for our weapons families. You're unlocking new slots for attachments, new skills that are specifically for the weapons over time. All those things ding at different rates. And last but not least, your operatives will advance over time as they perform assignments for you. All of that is part and parcel with some other things we have like influence and reputation, and those are managed and raised in order to unlock access to career and side missions and operatives..."
It sounds like a lot to keep track of in a game that's intended to be played in shorter sessions than most MMOs. "But that's what's so great about it, because it's really simple concepts, right?" says Milton. "'Well you know, I'm a few days away from promotion with the agency, but I'm only a few hours away from this title. But tell you what, if I can unlock this skill on my weapon in 15 minutes, I'm going to be awesome!' What we want is a whole bunch of carrots, from the short term to the long term, and players don't have to worry about much when they start."
Operatives could well be The Agency's most compelling time-sink, with alignment properties (faction, star sign, blood type, morale) that will govern how well they work with each other, and a huge range of ways to unlock them - missions, trading, operative assignments, combos of operatives that unlock others, intel gathering, PVP rewards. "We are splitting up the operatives pool," says Milton. "The ones you can always get, the ones that are luck of the draw, the ones that are rares that you have to get through headhunter assignments or other special actions, and the ones that are big bone-daddy rewards for being so damn tenacious."
Operatives divide into field ops, administrative ops, research ops and manufacturing ops "which creates the lovely acronym FARM", says Milton. You can only pick certain of these to be active at any one time, and initially only one field op who will help out in missions, although this will scale up later. But you also have a roster of operatives you've recruited to pick from, and a temporary recruiting area where operatives will appear as you earn them, and you can choose whether to dismiss or recruit them to your roster.
In other words, operatives are loot, and hopelessly irresistible loot at at that. Pursuing and sorting an ideal roster will be akin to assembling a perfect gear set in an RPG - if your gear argued with itself, made more gear for you while you were offline, and you could equip 100 pieces at once at max level. Any gamer with obsessive-compulsive tendencies (and let's face it, that's most of us, especially in MMOs) will be going weak at the knees right now.
The final piece of The Agency's picture is PVP, and that's the least clear right now. It will divide into standard multiplayer maps for "blowing off steam", contested zones that give perks to the faction that controls them, and crossover story missions, in which UNITE and Paragon agents might stumble across each other and compete for the same goal. You'll earn weapon experience, role titles and gear through PVP as well, offering a combative progression track for your character.
You can bet on the result of matches, and even on your performance in PVE missions, as well as in gambling mini-games. However, you might not be able to bet currency or operatives, if these are open to real-world trading. "Gambling will be a weird road for us to navigate, because the things that can have real-world value we can't expose to gambling, otherwise it becomes real gambling, and that's kind of destructive", notes Milton.
PVP will also tie into The Agency's own achievement system: service awards, which Milton calls "our version of trophies. We'll have PS3 trophies, but we'll also have service awards, and service awards are either one shot, like every achievement you've ever seen, or repeatable and provide you bonuses to experience, influence and can possibly unlock operatives or other features. So if you do really well in PVP and max out a given achievement, you may earn a rare operative as a reward."
It's becoming clearer than ever that we could just keep asking about The Agency, and Milton and his colleagues would just keep telling. But our time's running out and this preview is already too long. There are two pressing questions left. One - how is the game going to make money? Subscriptions, item sales, DLC? SOE won't be drawn on this, but they do say that they're after the "lowest barrier to entry" for console players, which probably rules full subscriptions out.
Secondly - how do they think PS3 players are going to respond to it, and can they make a game for that audience without compromise? Console gamers have very different expectations, and The Agency already boasts an awful lot more detail in the game design - and, to be fair, a little less detail in graphics - than your average Call of Duty fan is used to.
"I'm not overly concerned about [the graphical detail] to be honest," says Dangel, "because I think as long as we're delivering that compelling fantasy, that you feel like you're living the life of an elite agent, there's plenty of non-traditional-looking games, non photo-real games that take all kinds of artistic approaches and they do quite well."
Milton is more bullish still. "There's a lot of pre-conceived notions about what MMO means," he says. "For people to say, you first have to respect these stats and these chat types and these logs and these types of UI widgets - no you don't, actually. So when we started off to make this, it wasn't about re-creating a traditional MMO and then re-casting it for console. It was just, what's interesting about persistence and socialisation, and how do we get that controllable with a very limited set of buttons on our PS3 controller.
"We need to be able to bring people into this space, and we need to do that by saying, hey, you know those games you like to play? Well start playing this one, and then you scratch the surface and, oh my God, there's all this other crap, and then you come back a week later and all this other stuff is waiting for you. That's something I want people to experience."
The Agency is due for release in 2010 for PS3 and PC.