Sony Online Entertainment
Sony Online Entertainment chose CES as a way to have a launch party for Pirates of the Burning Sea, the long awaited MMO from developer Flying Lab Studios (Sony Online is distributing the game via its Platform Publishing label but all of the development and support is handled by Flying Lab). Pirate wench models, flame acrobats, and poker playing were all a part of the press launch and a good time was had by all. The developers told us that the "soft launch" of the game that started on Monday has gone well with no problems; the official launch of the game for non pre-order sales is scheduled for Jan. 22. Already the developers have plans to expand the game with new free content including new raids and others planned for released to subscribers about a month or so after launch. They also told us that their financial situation is sound, so you shouldn't expect launch issues that affected MMO games in 2007 like Vanguard or Fury.
While Sony Online didn't announce any new games during CES, they did hold a press event at the MGM Grand to give updates on previously announced MMO titles via chats with the developers and new video footage. One of those games is Free Realms, which represents Sony Online's first big launch of an online game designed specifically for a younger and family crowd. As we previously reported on, Free Realms will indeed be free to play through advertiser support (for example, a loading screen when the game first starts might show a trailer for an upcoming feature film) but people will be able to pay a subscription fee to turn off the ads and access extra content. There will also be micro-transactions for in-game items as well.
The game's art style is very cartoony which should please the younger set as well as their parents. The game is set in a fantasy world, with people able to play as human males or females as well as male and female elfs. Players will also be able to feature stats of their characters on a separate web site in a MySpace-Facebook kind of set-up to show others about what they are doing in the game. We also got to see (via video footage) some gameplay, such as the title's quest mode (becoming a mail carrier to mail letters to various characters before a timer runs out) and playing quick-mini-games to level up their characters. There will also be combat as well, but Sony Online said that players will initiate combat themselves. Gamers won't have to worry about NPCs or other players attacking them if they so choose.
While itís certainly not a hardcore MMO, Free Realms looks like it will be a step above other games of its type that mostly have poor graphics and limited gameplay options. The company is very optimistic that Free Realms will indeed expand their reach above the hardcore MMO player. Because of its free nature, the game will have a soft launch later this year to get the final kinks out before launching sometime in the second half of 2008.
Sony Online isn't getting out of the hardcore MMO market, however. We got an update on a game that was also introduced last year; The Agency, the PS3-PC Unreal Engine 3 powered spy MMO that is heavy on action and shooting, but will have a lot of the typical deeper MMO gameplay elements as well. Again we spoke to the head developers during the press event from the Sony Online Seattle office and got to see a new gameplay video trailer that we were assured was unedited to make it "look good".
The trailer showed a typical mission where you and two members of your team are assigned to track down an enemy who has some information. We saw the mission begin in the game's version of Prague where we saw the intended target and the team began trailing him.
The first part of the game was all stealth-based as the team followed him and tried to avoid getting spotted by hiding behind cars and other objects in the world. An indicator on the HUD showed us how exposed, or how concealed the characters were as we followed the contact into a building. Once inside, the shooting began as the team started their assault on the enemy stronghold. The game's action is all real time first/third person shooter style; no waiting for a virtual dice roll here. The Agency can simply be played as an online shooter if that is what the player wants. The gameplay trailer showed a massive firefight inside a kind of underground bunker against heavily armed enemies and at one point the team needed to keep the structure intact by shutting down timed bombs that were placed on the side of several pillars. At one point one of the team members was "killed" but we saw his buddy inject him with a syringe (a la Mission Impossible 3) to keep him alive.
Again, the gameplay trailer was heavily focused on action, but we also saw a portion where an agent enters into one of the headquarters of The Agency's two super-spy organizations (the front of the headquarters was a flower shop) where you receive your assignments as well as the electronic gadgets youíll use to accomplish your missions. Again, The Agency is designed to be a quick and easy game to pick up and start shooting, but the developers said that it will allow for agents to level up with more skills, more weapons and gadgets, participating in spy-themed vehicle racing mini-games, and the ability to even form their own mini-agencies. There's still no word if the PS3 and PC versions of the game will support cross-platform play; the developers stated that the approval process for the PS3 is more detailed than the PC and that they need to find a way to streamline the PS3 approval process to be able to get updates to the game faster for both formats.
The game's release date is currently "when its done" and the fact that we were not able to play a build of the game for ourselves shows that The Agency is still in an early stage of development, but if Sony Online Seattle can bring a true shooter based MMO to life (Planetside failed to reach a large audience) there could be an audience for this game.
Overall Sony Online's CES press event was an excellent way to get an update on the company's current features and we await their plans for their next press event sometime later this year, which (fingers crossed) we will finally get some concrete details on their super hero MMO, DC Universe.