Peeling back the layers of truth.
In little under a month, Funcom finally let loose their most secretive online endeavour ever unto the world, yet somewhat fittingly most gamers haven’t really got a scooby about what makes this MMORPG different from the rest. Sure you probably now that it’s set in the real world with three underground societies – Dragon, The Templars and Illuminati – all fighting to keep an invasion of various occult forces at bay, but what we’re talking about is the real nitty gritty; what’s the levelling curve like? How does the progression structure work without rigid classes and levelling? Are Funcom continuing their fine story-led lineage? What is the real world setting like? Are their cats? Can I go to the bathroom? Well, the majority of these questions will soon be answered as we’ve been given access to The Secret World in its beta form and we’d like to tell you what it’s all about, while spoiling as little of the story as possible.
Following on from our previous time with this sci-fi/horror experience, we decided to roll out as a member of the Illuminati – only this time we wouldn’t be fast-tracked to Egypt, a dozen or so hours into the progression curve. Instead we experienced the game with minimal meddling, beginning in New York and journeying to the unluckiest town on Solomon Island – Kingsmouth.
Much like Funcom’s previous endeavours, The Secret World prides itself on telling a good story, at least during the early levels, with well directed cutscenes, excellent voice acting and intriguing settings that don’t quite show their hand until you’ve spent plenty of time looking around their various nooks and crannies. The dialogue in particular is excellent which is certainly a good thing, as you’ll be hearing lots of it. Following on from the traditions forged by Star Wars: The Old Republic, the majority of quests you take part in are bookended by cutscenes or voiceover, sometimes both. It’s a very affective approach – immersing the player not only in the world, but also in whatever activity they’re being asked to do.
On Soloman Island (the first real questing zone) the majority of quests took place in the open world and ranged wildly from defending a survivor base from waves of zombies, trailing a suicide victim, searching for a hidden datapad and trying to decipher its numerical lock. Most of the enemies we faced were a variety of ghosts, zombies, and mutated creatures who had been irrevocably altered by a mysterious fog which had swept over the island. Despite the horror movie aesthetic there was still an palpable sadness to exploration as we witnessed society breakdown and read testimonies from those immune to the fog struggling to survive thanks to what used to be their loved ones attacking them. Needless to say this isn’t a light and fluffy experience.
The typical kill and collect activities were still in place, but in nowhere near the numbers of regular MMORPGs; instead most quests belonged more in the adventure realm rather than the MMO one, and the interface doesn’t always make what you have to do next. It would be very easy to call this lazy design, but the truth is that once you get your head around the fact that you can’t mindlessly grind quests to get XP you begin to enjoy the setting much more. Activities required all of our cognitive abilities to get that next tasty story morsel and inevitably raise our character’s combat abilities.
Continuing TSW’s middle finger to the establishment mentality, there’s no level gauging for either yourself, monsters, or characters around you. What this means in practice is that the amount of XP necessary to gain the next ability or skill point, never changes and gives progression a very fluid feel.
There isn’t that immediacy of knowing when you’re meandering into an area which is way above your level, and it can be hard sometimes to get the feeling that you’re progressing your character in the best possible way without that numerical feedback. Skill selection varies between passive and active skills, only 7 of each can be equipped at any time. There’s definitely room for freedom and experimentation, but during the early hours of our adventure we would’ve relished a bit more guidance. There are pre-determined decks to guide you towards optimum builds, but it’s easy to see the freedom in this system overwhelming casual players. Another concession which shocked us was the inability to tackle more than six quests at a time, with taking on more than that leading it to existing activities shelved until you initiated them again by talking to the relevant NPC.
Where games like Rift, TERA and Star Wars: The Old Republic actively encourage players to accept as many quests as possible in order to speed up progression, Funcom deliberately limit your choices in order to allow you to dial down and really think about your objective; allowing them to create quests which require much more thought. That’s really the point though; The Secret World isn’t another World of Warcraft clone, it’s trying to do something different in the online space and for that it should be applauded. Some online gamers will lose themselves in its freeform structure, but most will relish it. Funcom’s effort might even attract those who aren’t usually interested in MMORPGs and that’s certainly something worth advocating.
Expect more coverage of The Secret World in next month’s edition of MMOZine.
Tags: The Secret World
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