Sony Online Entertainment Launches New Facebook Game: The Agency: Covert Ops

When we last heard from Sony Online Entertainment, the company was diving headfirst into Facebook with a fairly complex, but fun strategy-based game called PoxNora. In their second game, Sony is moving into the tried and true role-playing realm with its newest Facebook title, and a promotion for its upcoming first person shooter MMO of roughly the same name, The Agency: Covert Ops.

While yet another RPG on Facebook may seem like a boring thing, Sony has actually taken some of the genre’s most basic concepts and polished them to a pristine shine. In line with the company’s vast repertoire of titles and its extensive game design experience, the level of quality is hardly unexpected. However, that begs the question: How does that make up for a relative lack of social gaming experience?

Covert Ops is a story driven RPG with a level of quality above and beyond even that of Playfish’s Flash-based Gangster City. In a nutshell, the player picks from a variety of starting classes – each of which have their own sets of special abilities – and are immediately greeted with, quite possibly, the most primal and basic ways of getting a player interested: Something blows up.

Immediately after class selection, players are pulled into the game’s storyline somewhere in the middle of Amsterdam. From here they proceed through a tutorial set of missions. However, it is worth noting that this “tutorial” mode is all part of the story line, with the various tasks simply requiring one new feature each time (rather than massive blocks of text telling users everything at once). Truth be told, while tutorials are a necessity, most players despise them, so any methods that make them feel more invisible certainly warrants mention.

Now, as far as missions go they are broken up into a main Assignment and its sub-tasks. Each sub-task is your typical Facebook RPG type of quest that has a blurb of story and undertaking it, earns you experience (Influence) and costs energy (Cover). Upon completion, the player will also gain X amount of money and the chance at random rewards. Here’s the catch, though: Players do not have to repeat tasks to gain “masteries” of them like in other RPGs; which, frankly, often feels like a very artificial way to increase longevity. On the contrary, Sony takes a more MMO-like approach in having users repeat things.

While you can redo everything for more experience (at least until an entire assignment is complete), many require you to acquire specific items from doing the task itself. For example, in one mission, the player has to gather intelligence, so they peruse the city streets, talking to citizens in order to find out information. Just like in reality, a single pass will not reveal everything you need to know, so the player must repeat the quest in order get the needed criteria to “drop” as a reward at the end. This is the same Pavlovian methodology used to add addictiveness and longevity to massively multiplayer online games. If you need proof, merely look at basic quest design in World of Warcraft: Players constantly kill the same type of creature over and over again to get items required for quests, and even if they are not questing, they do similar repetitious activities to farm for items and rewards to make their character stronger.

Of course, this methodology is hardly by accident. As was noted before, The Agency: Covert Ops is but a mere promotional precursor to the full blown FPS-MMO, The Agency, coming to both the PlayStation 3 and PC. Already, the upcoming main game sounds interesting in the sense that is a shooter, but with an app the quality of Covert Ops, it’s likely to get a nice boost. It’s certainly better than past promotional Facebook apps we’ve seen… ahem.. Lego Indy, we’re looking at you.

As far as tasks go specifically, there are, at least early on, three other types of missions beyond the basic ones. The first is combat missions which are most reminiscent of a turn-based battle system in a standard, console RPG. Essentially, players face off against some non-player opponent and select various abilities to defeat them; abilities determined by the class of character you picked at the start. Unfortunately, we have yet to earn anything beyond these; an issue that could eventually lead to this mission type being a bit dull in the long run. Luckily, these are at least augmented based on the players statistics (which you upgrade whenever you level) or through researching and upgraded equipment.

You see, equipment such as weapons, defenses, and gadgets are not bought. They are built. Every 12 hours, or as luck provides through assignments, players are given components. With these, the player can create and upgrade any number of items that will enhance their performance, which really adds a nice collection element to the app. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to be possible to trade them with friends. Nonetheless, you can always get them by spending some real money on Sony’s virtual currency, Station Cash, and just buy them.

The next major mission type is a mini-game type. Players are given a mission to decrypt a password that protects some computer you need to access in order to garner more information for your overall assignment. In order to do so, the player is granted an infrared visor that will allow you to see fingerprints on a key board. Scanning it back and forth will reveal all keys recently pressed, with brighter fingerprints being on letters pressed multiple times. In order to decrypt the puzzle, players must formulate a word X letters long (determined by the number of spaces provided). Doing this will reveal one letter of the already encrypted password. However, choose carefully, as harder encryptions have more letters in the password and a time limit. If your words are spelled incorrectly or not real words, you will lose time. Conversely, if they are correct, you gain time. As an added bonus, encryption is not the only mini-game as players will also have to defuse bombs, gather evidence, and even perform some rooftop parkour.

The last task type is where social play comes more into the picture. Beyond just wall postings, users can invite their friends to become operatives as well. With them playing, you get all the basics such as visiting each others’ headquarters (to be touched on later) and viewing each other’s avatar, but the big feature is what is dubbed Group Missions.

These particular missions last extended periods of time that can reach up to a couple of days. Obviously, the length means that the rewards are significantly higher but so is the risk. In doing these missions, users can assign an NPC operative (which are bought with in-game currency) or friends to complete it. However, players must return to extract their team when the mission is finished lest they become compromised.

Beyond all the missions the last aspect of Covert Ops is virtual space customization. As was mentioned prior, friends can visit each others’ headquarters – presumably to sweep for bugs. These are isometric spaces in which the player utilizes the money earned from their assignments to purchase furniture, electronics, and other forms of décor to decorate as they see fit. Sadly, these does not seem to have a point beyond aesthetics and is mostly out of site, thus making the addition nice, but ultimately superfluous. Additionally, that same cash is used customize the way the player’s 2D avatar looks as well.

On a side note, more in-game currency, energy, and a special item pack called a “Dead Drop” (contains weapons, components, and NPC agents) can be bought for Station Cash as well.

Overall, The Agency: Covert Ops is a very cool game. However, it looks very much like a mainstream title. Granted it plays like a Facebook, social game – even if it has many more features than most – but since a majority of Facebook users, and by extension social gamers, still deny themselves as being gamers, Covert Ops’ very game-like appearance may, for lack of a better term, scare them away. It is a prospect enforced greatly by the rapid decline of Sony’s predecessor, PoxNora on Facebook. Nonetheless, that game was synchronous whereas Ops is more asynchronous. It will be interesting to see just how much of a difference that makes. Moreover, it will be curious to discover just how much buzz gets generated and how much this app plays into The Agency MMO’s initial success.