The Secret World Hands-On Preview -- When Lovecraft Met GoogleBy Leah Jackson - Posted Nov 21, 2011
The Secret World is the narrative-driven MMORPG from Funcom that already has over 500,000 beta sign ups. In it, there are tens of thousands of pieces of a literary jigsaw puzzle that slowly emerge based on your personal playstyle. The game is ambitious, offering a level of freedom that hasn't yet been seen in many MMOs to date. There are no levels, no classes, and as such, there is no right or wrong way to play the game. We recently had the opportunity to go hands-on with The Secret World, playing a Templar in Kingsmouth, and I found that I really liked the direction that the game is heading.
We last saw The Secret World at GDC 2011, and since then not much seems to have changed regarding the game's design. If you're not familiar with The Secret World, all you need to know is that in this world, everything is real. When I say everything, I mean every myth, every urban legend, every conspiracy theory based on history is true. It will be up to the players, who choose to be in one of three factions, to participate in the war for world domination against these monsters from the past, present, and future.
First we have The Illuminati, who are sort of the bad boy rock stars of The Secret World. Their base is in New York, and those who choose to be a part of the Illuminati will start there. The artfully chaotic Dragon faction is based in Seoul, South Korea. And finally, we have the ultimate good guys from London, The Templar. It's up to them to deliver the world from evil, and they're the faction we played as in our demo.
- PREVIEW: The Secret World GDC 2011 Preview
The demo started with our character in London fighting her way through a subway station filled with disgusting, oozing zombies. By fighting my way through the subway and into the streets of London, I got to explore all the intricate details that have been designed in to the game. Every inch of the world can include some sort of quest or clue, like a small piece of paper on the ground, so it was important to check out everything.
Once I finally continued along in the story line, I ended up at a training area where I could decide what kind of weapon I wanted to use moving forward. There were ranged weapons, melee weapons, and magic. This training is to help you decide which type of character you want to play, as you don't choose a class. I generally like magic in MMOs, so I went with a character who could use magic, and a shotgun, as you're supposed to have two types of weapons in The Secret World.
The way that combat works in the game is a bit backwards from most MMOs. By default, there is no “resource” to use like energy, mana, or rage. Instead, there are different types of moves for each weapon type called builders and exploiters. As I understand it, you use your builders to build up some sort of buff on yourself and then you can unleash your exploiter move for a lot of damage. For example, what I did was use some sort of fireball move as my builder on enemies, and then used a lightning hammer as an exploiter on them when I had built up seven stacks on myself which allowed the lightning hammer to hit for critical damage due to a passive skill that I had.
As there are no levels, you progress your character through a power wheel. The power wheel has nine outer rings, each focusing on different types of weapons and magical abilities. You start in the inner wheel and move your way out, buying both active and passive abilities sequentially from each part of the wheel that you want to level up. Each character can equip up to seven active and seven passive abilities at once, so I put most of my skill points in magic abilities but a few in shotgun abilities as well, just in case some of my magic was on cooldown.
By defeating enemies and completing quests, we earned more skill points to spend on skills in the power wheel. Skill points didn't take too long to acquire, but the more expensive skills cost a lot of skill points to purchase. There are so many skills to the power wheel – over 500 – that the developers had to create a search feature to use within the interface.
Once I finally began to get the hang of combat, we were taken to Agartha – The Garden of Eden. Agartha was a seemingly endless world filled with giant trees that works as a sort of mode of travel. You can go there and teleport to different times and places, and for our demo, we explored Kingsmouth, a modern day town in New England. The Modern Day setting is another way The Secret World sets itself apart from other MMOs.
The developers described the aesthetic as familiar with a twist. For example, you'll have one player using a modern weapon like an AK-47 mixed with players using magic. However, with some of the contemporary elements meshed with so much extraordinary weaponry and enemies, I feel like that almost takes away from some of the modern charm that we don't see a lot of in MMOs.
In Kingsmouth, we were introduced to four types of missions that are available to players in The Secret World. First there are blue missions, or story missions. You'll never be without a story mission once you start. They drive progression and ultimately everything in TSW is related to the story, so you'll always be moving it forward somehow. Next up are action missions. These were my favorite; they'll ask you to go collect several items, or to follow a path to a new area that you haven't been to yet.
The best action mission we did was called "The Raven." We had to follow a group of ravens all around the town, and each time we caught one, we had to fight a raven lord type of enemy. Once we did this about five times, we had to solve a puzzle that would let us summon a massive raven boss out of a fountain that we had to defeat. There are also yellow sabotage missions which are primarily based around stealth, but I didn't get a chance to go on one of these during the demo.
Then we have the popular green investigation missions. These are the ones that require going outside of The Secret World, like to Google (or even to real books), to decipher their hidden meanings. I tried one investigation mission during our demo and was utterly confused. Luckily my group member had some idea what to do though, so I followed his lead and we Googled our way to figuring out some Bible verse that gave us a clue of where to proceed next in our mission. Having to use outside sources rather than in-game clues was fascinating and exactly what the developers wanted us to do. Plus, there is so much material out there for use in puzzles and riddles that this type of mission will always continue to lend itself to the game.
We also got to try our hand out at The Polaris, one of the game's first dungeons. The Polaris is essentially a cargo ship that we found and had to investigate. When we descended in to a creepy mist to check out the contents of the cargo ship, we encountered all sorts of Lovecraftian, Jellyfish-looking beasts of varying strength. The bosses used different techniques, like the Hagbui Jarl who electrified water and forced us to jump up on containers to avoid the shock. The final boss in the instance, Ur-Draug, looked like a giant Balrog/Cthulu creature who could manipulate time. We could only get near him during certain phases of the fight, and would have to hide around pillars that he'd smash during the second phase or he would smash us in an instant. The effects of the fight, accompanied with the soaring music, and other components made us feel super epic after we downed the boss.
The music, and sound in general, for The Secret World is fantastic. The game determines the intensity of the music based on the difficulty of the enemy you're fighting in relation to your power. So if you're doing the first part of a quest for example, the music might not be too exciting. But as you work your way through a quest chain, or through a dungeon, the music will build up dramatically and get more stimulating over time.
After The Polaris, we finally got to test our hand out at The Secret World's PVP. The developers have promised two types of PVP for TSW: large-scale persistent war-zones where hundreds of players will be duking it out faction versus faction versus faction, and smaller team vs. team vs. team battlefields in iconic locations like Stonehenge, El Dorado, and Shambhala. For our demo, we tried out El Dorado, a 10 vs. 10 vs. 10 capture-the-flag style PVP that was very weird, as it was three teams vying for the flags instead of the usual two.
How it worked was there were four flags total and that one person could carry multiple flags. If you put a flag on the ground, it gave the surrounding party members some sort of buff. The longer your team holds on to a flag, the more points your team can accumulate. The first team to carry all four flags for 30 seconds, or the team with the most points after 30 minutes will win. Personally, I didn't like this style of PVP too much, as I felt that the team who had the flags were getting buffed too much, and that the teams who didn't have any flags were at too much of a disadvantage to turn the game around.
That said, the game is still very early in development so all of this is subject to change. El Dorado itself was a very interesting location for the battlefield. It was like a huge forest with tons of golden temples built between the massive trees. It offered tons of great places to hide flags and to coordinate a variety of strategies with your team; I just felt that certain things needed to be balanced a bit differently to make the game more fun.
At the end of the day, The Secret World is aspiring to do things and to go places that we haven't seen yet in most MMORPGs. The developers are forcing players to think outside of the box, to create the characters that they want to play with, and to allow themselves to get wrapped up in a story that history buffs are sure to get a kick out of. It's an intellectual MMO served with a small side of zombies and magic that's hitting exclusively for the PC in 2012.