GDC 11 – The Secret World Demo Impressions

“Everything Is True.” This motto was omnipresent at FunCom’s GDC 2011 presentation (it was even the wireless password!), and it acts as a concise summation of The Secret World, the studio’s forthcoming MMORPG. Though many games — indeed, many MMO’s — have tackled the supernatural and fantastic, The Secret World is the first game to take these two themes and bring them directly into the real world, filling familiar, formerly mundane surroundings with ghosts, zombies, demons, conspiracies, myths, urban legends and more. “Everything,” really means, well, everything — lead designer Ragnar Tørnquist isn’t ruling anything out. Every bit of religious ephemera, every X-Files re-run, every forgotten Stephen King novel, and every old wives’ tale has been made fodder for the big Norwegian’s quest designers as they populate our workaday world with sinister magic.

Players will choose between three factions, each with an urban headquarters and a distinguished pedigree. The Illuminati, based in New York, promote the survival of the fittest. The militaristic Templars, based in London, seek to stamp out malevolent magic, no matter the cost or the collateral damage. The Dragons, based in Seoul, play both sides against the middle. Characters are tied to particular factions, and each faction can take advantage of exclusive gear and abilities, but there isn’t open war between them — more of an uneasy detente.

Traveling between the three widely disparate cities is simple, thanks to one of the game’s most ingenious features. Among the legends the game tosses into its supernatural gumbo is that of Agartha, a giant city located within the earth’s supposedly hollow center. In The Secret World, Agartha is both the central area for socialization and also an extensive transportation network, enabling players to pop up aboveground wherever they might want to be.

The first location unveiled at GDC was Kingsmouth, a sleepy New England harbor town with a serious zombie problem. The GDC presentation represented the first time the game had been shown to anyone outside of FunCom, and the initial impressions were positive. MMO’s have stringent graphical requirements, in order to keep framerates high and minimum specs low, but FunCom’s designers seem to have transcended these limitations with some verve, creating a colorful world full of sharp renderings, believable, but haunting settings, and stringent attention to detail.

Zombie Cutscene/Mission

After a short cutscene (which featured some amusingly pulpy voice acting and writing), the party onscreen set off down the road, plugging zombies as they went. This served as an opportunity to introduce The Secret World’s various quest types, starting with the most basic, the “kill 10 rats” type, which involved taking down a certain number of the shambling undead. To ensure that there were enough zombies to go around, the developers showed off a little Left 4 Dead homage — jumping on cars will set off their alarms, attracting the horde. This initial quest contained another important mechanic: missions are divided into “tiers,” meaning that once you’ve reached a certain point, you’re free to log off, confident that your progress will be saved when you want to start adventuring again.

Zombies aren’t the only supernatural nuisance plaguing Kingsmouth. Down by the harbor, the developers introduced us to “draugs,” supernatural beings whose ghastly reproductive cycle is responsible for the outbreak. A profusion of draug eggs on the beach were the immediate source of the zombies, but if you wanted to cut the problem off at the source, you had to wade farther into the water, attacking the draug females and destroying their incubators. Do this enough, and you’ll anger the local draug lord (husband, presumably, to a draug queen?), a spellcasting fiend straight from the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft, whose tentacled visage glowered at our heroes before he succumbed.

Another draug aristocrat was shown off during the next sequence, which could be described as a “world event.” A loud alarm warned players that  Zombies were assaulting a fortified structure in the center of town, and all the nearby players were expected to help. The idea in these situations is that every player, no matter how powerful, can contribute something to the cause and also, by extension, reap some of the reward. Hewing their way through the advancing undead, the players onscreen eventually reached the draug warmonger, a towering, crab-like foe who packed quite a wallop, before eventually crashing to the ground.

Kingsmouth Under Siege

Given all the half-remembered legends, urban myths, and conspiracies involved in the gameworld, it was important for that sense of mystery to carry over into the quest design, and the team at FunCom is hoping to accomplish just that, using two methods. The first is called “Visual Storytelling,” and it asks players to follow visual clues onscreen to complete quests, instead of just consulting a mini-map. In the sequence shown at GDC, the players chased some sort of Raven-spirit through a wooded area, following a spectral murder of crows from place to place as the spook appeared, was attacked, and disappeared at will in a flurry of black feathers. Questing players will have to play close attention to their surroundings to spot the crows that signal the presence of the spirit, though by casting a certain spell in a certain place (a spooky playground), it can eventually trapped on the earthly plane, triggering a final showdown.

Visual Storytelling

Even more intriguing were “investigation missions,” adventure game-style puzzle quests that will require players to really inspect the gameworld, down to the details of the paintings on the walls. Not only that, but they’ll also have to do research outside of the game, scouring the internet to figure out riddles, word games, and abstruse historical and occult references. These particular quests will take place over long periods of time, and are intended to be solved collaboratively. “We want you to be thinking about the game while you’re at work,” one of the developers quipped. MMO’s of course, attract a breed of player who will just consult an online walkthrough when the going gets tough, but FunCom isn’t fazed. They plan to continually introduce new investigations into the world, always keeping game’s sense of mystery one step ahead of the power players.

What do you get for completing all these different mission types? You don’t level, at least in the traditional sense. The Secret World is a class-free MMO (not like that, commie!), instead finding it’s progression through a mammoth “Ability Wheel” that contains a huge panoply of different skills — 0ver 500! — which are unlocked one at a time by hitting XP milestones, and which scale with your gear, meaning that they never become obsolete. You can only equip 14 skills at a time, however — seven active skills, like “cast a fireball,” and seven passive, like “+10% to all healing.” In addition to the “active” and “passive” categories, skills are also divided among magic, melee, and ranged abilities. Unlike many other games, you can acquire as many skills as you want and respec on the fly, meaning that players are free to customize their roles and strengths to their hearts’ content. The game will suggest certain templates, which hew to RPG conventions (like the Monk, a high-dps, low-defense build), but players are free to ignore them in favor of fine-tuning their own custom class. Within the ability selection screen is a readout that shows you how various character stats are affected by the skills you choose, and if you play The Secret World, you’ll likely spend a lot of time in here, “building your deck,” as one developer put it.

The Ability Wheel

Hard decisions in character customization will get a chance to succeed or fail in PvP, which also proceeds organically out of the game’s “Everything is True” philosophy. Instead of rote, boring venues for combat, players from all three factions will battle each other simultaneously at various locations of occult power: Stonehenge (15-player King of the Hill), El Dorado (30-player Capture the Flag), and Shambala (ranked arena battles). You’ll have to decide whether to spec into attack, defense, or a mixture of both, and, having done so, use the terrain to your advantage.

Secret World PVP

The Secret World is nothing if not original; the game’s subject matter differentiates it both from other MMO’s and also from many mainstream games in other genres. Whether or not this originality is strength or a weakness in the generally conservative (and World of Warcraft-dominated) online space remains to be seen. If FunCom can sell people on the game’s unique approaches, particularly its flexible character customization and cool investigation missions, and clean up some of the its wonky aspects (like the jerky character animations), The Secret World could make a splash. It could also be a total flop. The game is approaching closed beta — inching towards completion — but only a better sense of how the ambitious project works in practice will enable us to predict its fate.

The Secret World GDC 2011 Trailer

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