Read a few previews today, here's some notable quotes from them.
There are detectable flaws with the Secret World; firstly, a conspiracy game needs resolutions and they obviously don't want to give them in this, because they want to keep updating it; secondly, the ghost-running body recovery mechanic is surprisingly old-school for such an innovative MMO; finally, it seems weird to make players create three characters to get all three sides of the story, when they'll have the same exact powers for all three sides - why not let them change faction or do some sort of rebirth/amnesia/reincarnation/flashback thing, where they get to start from scratch with their existing powers?
That said, this is genuinely the first MMO for a long time that I want to play, and it's hard not to list its strengths: The underused classless structure, meaning all players can always play together. The superbly scripted story, which is entirely skippable for those who hate stories.
The working puzzle quests which are genuinely taxing. The ambitious dungeon design, halfway to WoW but not afraid to pull in other influences. The levelling system meaning players have a genuine choice as to how they specialise, without ever committing themselves to a path permanently. Finally, they've made a fantasy modern world believable.Funcom ties this all cleverly into The Secret World thanks to a very slick user-interface. Quests and dialogue (all fully voice-acted, and there's quite a lot of it) are all activated with buttons that hover next to NPCs, looking like little smartphone icons. And the Skill Wheel, where you buy and select the tools for your character to use, shrinks and zooms like so many iPad widgets. You can even drag-and-drop mission icons to share with party members. It all feels intuitive and has a natural place in the world, like the game is taking advantage of a tech-savvy audience and implementing clever mechanics in a way that makes sense for the setting.
As somepony who has grown accustomed to the high-fantasy and sci-fi settings that make up 99% of the world's MMOs, The Secret World, with its hip, over-the-top, Tarrantino-style voiced monologues and recognizable locations and style, is incredibly striking and easy to slip into. It helps that many of the quests have surprisingly complex cut-scenes that go with them, too.Each faction will have its own unique, scripted, and voice-acted storyline, and this was one of my biggest, happiest surprises in my time with the game. The writing is top-notch, filled with surreal irony, with more cinematic cutscenes than Star Wars: The Old Republic. While the character model graphics currently leave something to be desired, the bright, vibrant personalities shine through. Because, I'm sorry, but in what other game does a 2,000 year old mummy with a posh British accent give you quests while dressed in a white tux?
You may have heard by now that The Secret World utilizes a class-less, level-less system of character progression. How this works is that the game breaks your character's progression into three brackets on a wheel. One bracket is melee weapons, such as hammers and katanas. Another bracket is magic, such as lightning bolts and blood magic. The final bracket is firearms, such as assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols. As you defeat enemies, you'll earn Skill Points and Ability Points. You'll use these points at your discretion.
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“But Sophie,” you must be thinking. “What is this madness?! No classes? No levels? Only one hotbar with just seven abilities? Blasphemy!” But hold on there, cowboys and fillies, I'm about to blow your minds again: There's no gear or vendors (meaning no vendor trash), either.
If you've just flipped over your table in protest of The Secret World spurning every MMO convention, I'll wait for you to pick up the pieces so we can continue. Good? All set? Awesome.
While in-game currency, vendors and loot drops may come into play later, they weren’t present in our demo. As for the gear, that's a definite no. No beefy shoulder pauldrons, no earrings of +4 Dex. Instead, your character will absorb and utilize various Chakras. This isn't to say your character is stuck looking however you made them at character creation, however. Specialized uniforms are worn in PvP to help differentiate the factions, and Funcom showed us a glimpse of another outfit; something that may be unlocked by completing a tier of the ability wheel. But what bonuses these will provide (if any) was unclear.
So here's the question lurking in the shadows: Why quest? Why bring a group together and face down the challenges of a dungeon if you can't show off your ultra-rare pants?
I'll tell you why. Because it's just plain fun. The locations and enemies I saw during our time with the game were some of the most varied, interesting, and visually arresting I’ve seen in a long time.The Old Republic recently tried its hand at making a survival-horror dungeon with its Rise of the Rakghouls path, and I just about yawned my whole way through it. This, on the other hand, is downright scary—reminding me of the subway portion of Left 4 Dead’s No Mercy campaign. Funcom’s artists are downright brilliant at creating environments that match the “this is the world you live in, but everything has gone absolutely crazy in it” theme. Giant black, oily tentacles break through the ceiling and grasp frantically at anything near them, pillars are shattered and subway trains are infested—the entire place gives me the creeps.
And man is it dark! TOR’s dungeon dimmed the lights a bit, but The Secret World smashes the nightlight and makes you cry for mommy. On one occassion, I was forced into a pitch-black corridor leading into a destroyed escalator system. It was so dark I could barely make out my character’s silhouette, when suddenly a mob of people rushed up the escalator past me. Some were civilians, but there were definitely monsters mixed in there. Their cries and shrieks kick the audio into a frenzy as I panic—I can’t make out friend from foe in the chaos of total darkness. I just start firing my shotgun wildly. At this point, I’m content to take the good with the bad, just to move onto someplace where there’s light.
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And after I battle my way through this horrifying, incredibly detailed shattered world of corrupting evil, I find myself walking around in the Illuminati HQ, which might be the most boring capital city I’ve ever seen. The walls are plain grey with no texture worth mentioning and no set pieces or differentiating elements for huge lengths at a time. Only a few modern art-style pieces and about 20 NPCs break up the endless flat, grey surfaces that make up this ghost town. The whole place reminds me of an old Quake prison map I used to play.
It’s this inconsistency in quality that worries me about The Secret World—I went straight from what might be the most atmospheric area I’ve ever seen in an MMO to one of the least inspired. To be fair, after playing for a full day, the ratio of awesome areas to lame ones was probably 9:1 (in favor of awesome), but we’ve seen so little of the game’s content so far that that 10% is still troubling.The first thing that strikes me around the face like a boxer at a press conference is the different tone, in terms of characters and narrative. Where Solomon Island is quaffing Lovecraft, Poe and American folklore, Egypt is becoming Biblical, with a sense of high camp thrown in that reminds me of Indiana Jones and Universal’s horror era. Once again, it’s clear how much pop culture has been crammed into this game but it’s also becoming more obvious how it will be partitioned sensibly, with each hub borrowing and reimagining specific complementary portions of the many inspirations.
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In fact, the Illuminati seem fairly dismissive of everypony. Where the Templars are proud of their past and have a certain twisted honour, despite their willingness to look at the bigger picture and sacrifice innocents for the cause, the Illuminati, and particularly your deliciously uberhip handler, seem to quite enjoy being involved in The Secret World. They’re soaking in the glamour and delight of knowing what other ponies don’t know – you’ve almost definitely not heard of their favourite band, not because it only ever released one EP on limited edition cassette, but because it’s probably not even from this dimension.
The Templars seem to have a grave sense of responsibility; the Illuminati have a great sense of fashion. They’re also in on the cultural references that inform the game itself, riffing off computer games and films with the sly and intelligent humour that is one of the game’s hallmarks.
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as before, the things that you are asked to do are varied and continue to avoid fetch quests. There are a few stumbling blocks where the instructions provided aren’t entirely clear, which led to gangs of hungover writers traipsing back and forth through sand dunes, being attacked by giant scorpions and cultists while occasionally turning to one another, their faces crumpled with anguish. Partly, that’s because The Secret World is trying to do things that haven’t been done in this type of game, at this scale. There are times when it feels more like a team-based adventure, with combat a distraction rather than a focus, as a group tries to think through a problem.
It reminds me of Mansions of Madness, the heavily themed horror boardgame in which players have to solve actual puzzles in the middle of a session, constructed randomly out of counters and card. It’s not something that they expect and it doesn’t come naturally at first. The same is true, I think, of teaming up in an MMORPG and reading mission text where every word matters, where exploration matters and where the answer is often in the details rather than in the grossly inconsistent inventory of a deranged rodent.
Then there’s the combat, which I enjoy far more in the dungeons than in the world itself. Partly that’s because the dungeons are linear so monsters are obstacles to pass rather than features of the landscape, respawning and pestering, but it’s also because dungeons are constructed to teach you new ways of fighting. Each new miniboss requires a different technique, usually involving teamwork, and the final boss brings all those techniques together, demanding communication, preparation, and sometimes a degree of patience.
It’s in the dungeons and the clashes at the end of a mission that a character’s skills really matter and there are nearly 600 of the sodding things so it’s not easy to pick and choose. I particularly enjoyed being able to make my hammer wielding lady grow to about ten hooves tall and drag monsters toward her with magical chains while my puny little companions blasted away at them. The user interface is much improved since my last visit though and it’s now possible to build a deck of skills for a specific situation, and even to drag and drop that build on a team mate, allowing them to peruse it, learn from it and then use it if they have the requisite abilities.
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What else did I learn? To help with the investigation missions, Funcom have added an ingame internet browser. It’s something that had been hinted at and it makes perfect sense, both fitting with the interface and allowing for missions that encourage the seeking of outside knowledge. I also asked everypony that seemed even vaguely aware of the game’s existence if they could absolutely definitely clarify that the in-game shop would only allow for the purchase of cosmetic items. They all said ‘yes, that is the case’ and eventually started to look at me like I was insane."We actually have a reverse leveling curve" said Joel Bayloss, Lead Content Designer at Funcom, "players will actually gain AP and SP faster as they progress to harder content and harder mobs. At the same time though, the farther you go up the scale of skills and the deeper you go into the ability wheel, the more expensive the skills and abilities are."
There are seven active and seven passive abilities that can be equipped at any time, and the strategy here is to equip passive abilities that will support the active ones. There are also seven levels in the series of abilities in any segment of the wheel, and the 7th is an active elite skill that you have to build up combat focus to use. This can be intimidating to the new player so the game will provide a number of templates or “decks” with suggested abilities that players take if they like to play certain roles such as Ninja, Assassin, Elementalist, Blade Dancer, Tank and etc.
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“We really encourage players to switch out builds a lot,” said Joel, “The decks are starting points and as players get comfortable with the ability system, we expect there will be a lot of experimentation and discussion on the forums, especially in regards to which passive ability does better at supporting which active ability.”
Players will have to weigh the advantages between better crits or improved damage for example, and build their abilities accordingly. The UI and search functions to assist players is being reiterated and polished at this time, and promises some excellent filters to help players make those difficult choices.