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Hands-On With Global Agenda

Via the Eurogamer Expo, we got some time with Global Agenda. Here's the hands-on experience, complete with some input from the developers themselves.

Global Agenda is a game straddling two worlds. It has two different payment schemes, and two different games within itself, almost. It’s a multiplayer third person shooter, with a class based system and jetpacks. But it’s also a huge sprawling PvE/PvP MMO, with the PvP driven by player Agencies that can form and break alliances on the fly in a bitter battle for territorial zones that grant bonuses and benefits. It’s also got some instanced dungeons thrown in there, for the uncompetitive among us.

There are obvious inspirations scattered throughout the game, from Team Fortress 2, to Tribes, to EVE, to World of Warcraft. It might seem unfair to claim they were just cherry picking the best ideas from each game, but there’s nothing wrong with that; cross-pollination of ideas is what keeps games evolving. It’s wonderful to see each class have a distinctive silhouette design that Team Fortress 2 so championed, that not only helps differentiate from one class from another, but also puts you in mind of what that class does. The Assault class is a huge lumbering armoured beast of a man, the Recon is hunched, every movement furtive and suspicious. And the robotics class, of course, has a giant great mechanical arm coming out of its back.

The actual mechanics of the game are simple enough; you have three weapons, one melee and two ranged, usually one of which is far more class specific than the others. As a medic I had my healing gun and my poisoning gun. You then shoot the enemies until they fall over, and you get to progress further. Jetpacks facilitate respawning with the minimum of fuss, taking you out of the fight just long enough to make death a penalty, but never long enough to frustrate. The game certainly favours team play, with almost all of your class specific abilities, made to function in a complimentary way with your other team mates. So the robotics guy will lay down a shield so the medic guy can be relatively safe while healing the assault guy, who takes the aggro while the recon guy racks up the big damage on the enemies. Something like that, anyway.

There will be two ways to play; stand alone or subscription. The stand alone concept is just having Global Agenda as a straight forward multiplayer shooter, with you playing the inconsequential deathmatch sort of game, where each game is contained within itself. You can still earn money and experience, able to be on a similar plane as those with the subscription game, and you can even play with them and join agencies, but you’re cut off from the really interesting stuff. They obviously want you paying for the subscription model.

And it’s there that stuff gets really exciting. Having a subscription grants you access to the persistent world part of Global Agenda, which seems to draw inspiration heavily from EVE’s 0.0 space, where everything is player controlled and fought for. It’s telling that the game is shipping with the single faction or race; everyone is the same. What matters is who you make friends with, and who you fight against. They’re providing the players with the bare skeleton of the experience; it’s up to you, and everyone you play with, to flesh it out and create something exciting and involving.

Speaking to me about the game, Vice President of Hi-Rez Studios Stewart Chisam stated that "It's all player created. Player created agencies and player created alliances. Drawing from EVE we're letting that be very bottom up. There's no game made factions, we want players to create the drama. I can create an agency, form an alliance with you and then at the opportune moment break that alliance." It's back to that cherry picking concept of game development, and learning from what works and what doesn't. The concept of providing the players with the toys to fight their battles, but keeping what they're fighting for and who they're fighting for entirely in their hands is still a novel concept; far too often an MMO will try to tailor the experience too much, which is fun the first time, but beyond that it is just more of the same, just with different people. Maybe.

That they're trying to make it as casual as possible while allowing the game to draw you in is promising, too. The game comes with the standard month free of the subscriber content, but even if you burn out on the persistent world stuff or don't have the time for it, Global Agenda just reverts back into being the multiplayer shooter you get out of the box. You can still play with your guildmates, and even some of the free content you got as a subscriber stays with you. As Stewart puts it, "when you cancel your subscription, you're not cancelled out of the game."

All of this is just so much talk unless the game is actually fun though, which is where the real test will lie. While at the Eurogamer Expo, I was able to take part in one of the co-operative missions against the computer, which involved four of us, one of each class, moving through a robot factory before having a climatic battle against a final boss. The presence of jetpacks makes everything instantly more fun, and while they've restricted them more to a movement aid than an actual combat advantage, they're still responsive and have enough juice to get you over some pretty hefty gaps. The power is shared across everything, including ammo, which means that if you run out of bullets you only have to wait a few moments for your power to charge back up, avoiding the problems of having to make sure you're stocked before heading out.

It also means that you have to think tactically about your energy use. Playing Medic, I had two versions of my healing ray. The first healed a single target, the second chained off my target, meaning if my team stuck together I could heal them all at once. This latter used twice as much energy, though, so unless I could get the most out of it, it was more efficient to heal each person individually. Similarly, I can imagine trying to drop in on enemies after an extended jet pack flight could be difficult, as it all draws from the same energy reserves.

Being truly real time, there are certain expectations on the way the game handles, and while Global Agenda is a hybrid, they're making sure to get the basics right. "It's a very fluid shooter mechanic, it's not tab targetting. Stats get involved in your weapons, but it's not a dice roll when you shoot, you have to hit the guy. So it's definitely aim-based, skill-based." And once you're inside the game, it becomes obvious this is the case. Cover is important, if only to recharge your power or let the medic heal you, and making good use of each class' strengths is essential to success in some of the more difficult parts. The Robotics class can place turrets and shields, providing cover where there is none, while the Recon class can lay down mines and the like, preparing the area for the coming battle. And the Assault class just shoots really big guns at anything it can.

There is a levelling mechanic too, but it seems to be more about allowing you more diversity of how to play your class rather than just making you x amount more powerful than y level. As Stewart puts it; "I'd rather play with a skilled level 15 player than an incompetent level 30." While incompetent players are never fun to play with, his point still stands; the levels are less important than they may seem. Even the game's matchmaking reflects this; it's using a variant of the True-Skill system, taking into account both levels and the skill the player has demonstrated, to get the best match.

This even transfers over to how they want people to play. There'll be eight different character slots per account, but they'll all show up under a single account, to provide you with every opportunity to switch out to another class to help your Agency with whatever class deficit they have, while not sacrificing the recognition of your name. It seems they're doing everything they can to make playing together easy, and taking up the most of your time.

Which is why Hi-Rez have been looking at how to get the players interested in the persistent zones, and while I didn't see it in action, what they are promising sounds exciting. "The unique mechanic that unfolds in our territory framework is you have a base raid set up with takes organised teams of 60 versus 60 which is kind of the maximum size. We're actually using some technical tricks to do that, to run in multiple linked instances." So you'll have multiple instances of ten on ten all influencing each other's games based on the objectives they complete. So you have six strike teams, all with different missions. "One is 'go, take down the generators', so each one of the six teams has a mission. And they interconnect, so once the generator is down, the turrets go down over the whole base, which helps everyone else."

By providing a far more engrossing experience in the persistent side of the game, Global Agenda seems to be moving well on the way to becoming the first truly hybrid MMO. It's a big show of confidence that they consider the actual mechanics of their game solid enough to support a multiplayer shooter, especially considering the competition they face on the PC, most of whom they cite as influences. The impression of having such a thriving world just a subscription away could sway people to taking the plunge, and having them interact with the subscribers is a similarly clever move.

While there are a few negative things you can take away from the game in it's current state, like the fact there are no headshots, so it's much more about how you play as a team rather than how good you individually are as a twitch gamer, the bigger worries come in how much reliance they're placing on the players to make the game good. With the somewhat mixed success of games such as Warhammer Online as a pvp game, where the lower levels are no deserted, there is the threat of the same happening here. And if the players don't embrace the Agency territory play, there'll be little to entice players away from the stand alone game to pay the subscription.

Most importantly, it's treading uncharted waters. By being an action-based shooter with MMO mechanics, Global Agenda is far more under threat of being misunderstood than anything else. Perhaps people looking for the safety of a min-max grind will be confused when they're asked to shoot that robot that's coming to kill them YES RIGHT NOW IN THE FACE! Similarly, the hardcore shooter fans might be frustrated by the relatively lite nature of the mechanics, instead preferring to stick to their Counter-Strikes and Unreal Tournaments.

Regardless, though, what I've seen of Global Agenda is enormously promising. It seems to blend the two genres almost effortlessly, and by toning down some areas they've boosted others, and if the subscription content is as promising as it sounds, perhaps we'll have a game that's far more easy to get into than EVE, but scratches a similar itch.

Global Agenda is currently in closed beta. Expect some info on release soon!

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Phill Cameron