The Secret World Preview: Building a Better MMO

 

When asked to describe what he thought made The Secret World worth playing, FunCom PR rep Thor Andersen had the adjectives ready to go: “Unique.” “Mature.” “Edgy.” “Challenging.” “Story-driven.” The game might well be all of those things, but Andersen’s answer to this question — “which are the two most important features” — was more illuminating. Besides the game’s involved, conspiracy-driven story, he praised the game’s unprecedented ability system.

Abilities in The Secret World are divided into nine categories, arranged on a wheel. As characters progress, they will gain more and more abilities, but none will go obsolete. Instead, the challenge lies in combining a character’s ever-expanding suite of abilities in synergistic ways — Secret World characters can only have 7 active at any one time, leading to a lot of difficult decisions. There are no classes or levels, only builds. Character builds can be changed on the fly, and saved, intact, for later use; the game even makes it easy to demonstrate a build to other people.

Flexibility in the face of different dangers is therefore a desirable goal. FunCom’s encounter designers will expect players to change builds to suit different enemies, and present a variety of different challenges that go beyond normal MMO archetypes — some dungeons might call for multiple tank, healer, or DPS builds within a given party. By combining abilities with the appropriate weapons (each character can carry two at a time) and the appropriate gear, (each character has seven slots, which confer bonuses even if they don’t affect visual appearance), players will be able to surmount any obstacle. That’s not to say it will be easy, though — Andersen smiled mischievously when asked about the build challenges that would face high level players.

The build system is complemented by the game’s robust crafting mechanics. There are no junk items — everything in The Secret World can be broken down into parts. There are no schematics or recipes either — players simply combine items in a Minecraft-style building grid, using their knowledge of the correct shape of the item, plus a lot of trial and error, to achieve the desired result.

Andersen also described the game’s story: a “big puzzle, with pieces in different places.” These places include London, New England, Egypt, and Transylvania, New York, and Seoul, judging from the locations’ availability as he used a dev console to whisk people around the map. Story will be affected by faction choice, as will guild structure; you can only form a “Cabal” with members of your own faction, though you’re free to party up with them.

Despite the emphasis on conspiracy and puzzle solving, the affable Norwegian was sanguine when it came to spoilers. The FunCom team seems resigned to the possibility of people taking the easy way out, though they hope that people delve into the mystery, even using the in-game browser to look up song lyrics and bible verses on Wikipedia. The game even includes some real-life history like the Pharoah Akhenaten, who tried to bring monotheism to Ancient Egypt. In the Secret World, followers of Akhenaten’s cult will try to do the same, in a more modern setting.

Bidding thanks to Andersen, I helped myself to some hands-on time with The Secret World. The sequence I played took place outside of Kingsmouth, a sleepy New England town beset by zombies. My character — clad in a tank top and daisy dukes — looked unprepared for either New England weather or fighting supernatural forces, but being able to dress your toon in cool modern clothes is a perk of the contemporary setting, one supposes. My first quest-giver was only slightly less ridiculous: a cowboy-hatted sniper who laid it on a little too thick with the down-home Old West talk. Still, the profusion of fully-voiced NPC’s is definitely a strong point.

Secret World players will be able to take on three quests at a time, each corresponding to a category: sabotage, investigation, and destruction. Quests are divided into tiers — my zombie killing mission first asked me to simply kill zombies, then to set off car alarms to attract more, then to light gas canisters on fire and lure zombies into the flames. It’s a nice, digestible system, and it worked well in practice; it’s not far beyond the simple “kill x of y” structure, but it feels like more thought has been put into the design, which counts for a lot.

To kill zombies, I was furnished with an assault rifle and a magical staff, which enabled me to unleash torrents of burst-based “Chaos” magic. It was an effective ranged/melee combination, and some of the spell effects looked quite nice, particularly one AOE attack that enabled my character to charge through a group of enemies swinging magical lengths of chain.

My activities in the zombie-infested forest eventually took me to a quest hub — a group of Kingsmouth citizens in a police HQ besieged by the undead. More fully voiced quest-givers awaited, along with more involved mission types, and everything was suffused with an appropriately creepy, cryptic vibe.

Throughout my experience with the game, I was impressed by the slick, modern UI design, which dovetails nicely with the up-to-the-minute events depicted in the game. Other features were more standard, including ghostly “corpse runs.” This conflict between old and new will be crucial to The Secret World’s success in the MMO space. If the game’s cool, new features (ability-based progression, unique source material) can overcome its traditional trappings (fetch quests, weightless, lock-on combat), the game will likely be a success. If it can’t, it likely won’t.


Game Front is on-site at PAX East all weekend (April 6-8), bringing you daily news, hands-on previews, interviews and pictures. Stay tuned for more PC gaming-focused coverage!

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