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The Secret World  

Preview: First ever hands-on with The Secret World

8:00 AM on 11.21.2011
Preview: First ever hands-on with The Secret World photo

To say that all MMOs these days are all the same is... well, it's just wrong. That's like saying that all fighting games or first-person shooters are the same. Not true, but with the current MMO market, you have to admit that we don't see too many newer releases that break away from space or high fantasy themes. These days, you're likely to see class- and level-based structures that may look different or have slightly different features but present the same kind of gameplay as the rest. None of these games are bad, but there's really nothing new about any of them.

How about something new? Something modern? Let's not do the class-based thing or get hung up on things like levels and roles. How about something massive and non-linear that's totally open to many styles of gameplay? I'd love a huge story that would support gameplay for years to come. 

I think Funcom is on the right track with all of this in The Secret World.

The Secret World (PC)
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: 2012

From a story standpoint, The Secret World is about as new and different as you can get. It somehow brings together all the myths, legends, and conspiracies you can imagine for what has to be the most unique setting for an MMO I've ever seen. You play as a member of one of three secret societies: the Dragons based in Seoul, the Templars in London, or the Illuminati in New York. These groups have been controlling human history for ages behind the scenes, and now they're at war with each other in what is being called the Secret War. At the same time, each society is also at war with the underworld and the supernatural, constantly working to fight back anything creepy, crawly, and mythical. 

The setting is the modern day, with locales all over the world from small New England towns to ancient Egypt. You could be exploring one of the world's major cities one minute then later find yourself alone in the mountains. There are hints of pop culture everywhere, though you'll never feel like it's slapping you in the face. It's all nicely blended, taking from the past and current day. You'll see new versions of monsters from children's fairy tails in the same place you'd find horrible, imaginative beasts drawn from urban legends. It's a world where broadswords, machine guns, and particle cannons fit equally. I don't know how Funcom managed to stitch this all into a single experience, but they did, and it all comes together nicely. 

It's not just the setting that's different -- The Secret World has no classes or levels at all. It's all about total freedom. You'll start out by choosing your faction, which remains is forever set, and the story changes based on which society you choose. From there, the way you play the game will shape your character. Early on, you'll chose your weapon and start down a path of growing skills for that weapon type, but you can change and mix weapons at any time. There are 588 (!) powers and abilities in this game, and all of them are rank-less, unnumbered, and freely mixable -- this freeform style will surely blow the minds of those used to class-based MMOs. With a change to your power and weapon set, you can be anything you need to be at any time. Gone are the days of forming a static team of healers and tanks and so on.

You'll gain experience points from everything you do, and you're free to pump that into anything you choose. Players will have access to 14 powers at a time, seven active and clickable and seven passive. What's neat is that there are different synergies between powers and that they can be combined with weapons and other items. The folks at Funcom likened the system to building a custom deck in Magic: The Gathering. You have the freedom to "build a deck" around a power, or work out cool combinations of a set. This freedom could bring about in-game advantages that have more to do with creativity and less to do with mindless grinding. 

The story in The Secret World is huge. It spans millions of years of world history, created by fusing together tens of thousands of pieces pulled from myths, legends, movies, books, and popular culture. The story is vast, and the first hour of gameplay will have you plunging right in, becoming fully engaged in this world where dark secrets lie right under the surface.

While the game centers around a long, linear story, it comes together in a non-linear fashion. Funcom says that there's a story thread that runs through the first 150 or so hours of main game from the faction point of view. That story is uncovered bit by bit, with details slowly emerging after completing a mission or from taking to any of the game's fully voiced characters. The Secret World is spiked with high quality cinematics that add depth to this story. There's a scripted core to all of this, but it's up to players to explore and unfold the story for themselves. Funcom hopes to keep building on the story, evolving it over many years. They say they hope this game is going to last a long time.


I traveled to Montreal to be among those who would get the very first hands-on look at Funcom's hard work. They've put ten years into The Secret World and were excited to show it off. I was able to spend an entire day, sunrise to sunset, playing this game and trying out its various locales, modes, and options. That said, I know I only skimmed the surface in my session. The Secret World definitely lives up to the "massive" part of "MMO."

I was able to start the game from the very beginning, from the character creation stage. From there, the opening cinematic and introduction throw you right into the game's world. From awaking in the middle of the night to find that I had strange new powers, to joining the Templars and running around a beautifully detailed London as a faction newbie on my first mission, the descent into the story took about an hour. This "start-up" time might feel a bit long for an MMO, but it's important for a game this heavy on story. 

After getting my bearings and picking my weapons (shotguns!), my first bit of work as a Templar sent me to Japan for a mission called "Tokyo Flashback." I had to quickly make sense of the game's mechanics in the narrow, dimly lit corridors of a monster-infested Tokyo subway. Combat allows movement while attacking, so I kept moving as I worked my entry-level shotgun attack. Eventually, I worked up to multi-hit and spread attacks, which came in handy up against one-on-one sub-boss battles in dark subway stairwells. There were bits of story shared here, but I was too busy watching my ass to pay much attention -- this was a pretty tough way to become acclimated with a game for the first time. I was glad to be an assisting member of a larger party; if I had been alone, I would have died in the subway many times. 

I had much more time to get a feel for the game and its boundaries in Kingsmouth. The wide-open New England setting was quite a change from the Tokyo subway, especially with all the zombies running around. A fog seemed to be overtaking the area, and this was somehow related to an incident in Tokyo, but I wasn't able to see a direct connection from the given story bits. What was clear was that the area was overrun with evil and that I was there to help push that evil back and find out what was causing it. 

I really enjoyed how The Secret World had no set structure or path to follow. While I was in Kingsmouth to help and relay information back to Templar HQ, I was totally free to act in any way I liked. All of the attending press at this preview event started out in much the same way, taking missions from a kindly small town sheriff who was in over her head regarding the monster attacks. Missions had us running back and forth from the police station into town, doing things like gathering supplies, installing security cameras, and taking on roaming zombies and other monsters in the streets along the way.

What was interesting is that we all seemed to branch out after those first couple of starter jobs, moving to missions and other tasks that better fit our personalities and game preferences. Kingsmouth was absolutely packed with different types of missions to fit different types of play. Those that come from an MMO background felt right at home continuing on with classic missions that had them taking down big monsters, working to constantly acquire new powers and abilities. Others set out on item- and goal-based quests, backing down from the combat a bit. I spent most of my time digging further into the narrative and lore in what were mostly combat-free story missions.

The story missions in Kingsmouth centered around the Illuminati and had me running around town looking for hidden clues to uncover more secrets about the group's roots. These missions aren't the shallow, text-based quests you might be imagining. They're steeped in legend, and I spent a long time digging, learning, and second-guessing how I read into clues. Things started out light, with my discovering that each of the town's manhole covers featured the Illuminati triangle and that their orientation pointed the way to one of my goals. On the other end of the spectrum, separate research would probably be necessary for most. Players of these missions might find themselves digging through real-world Illuminati legend and conspiracy theories in a Google search to find their way in the game. We're talking situations like referencing classical art and then reading into the life of the artist to find a tie to the game's story. The reward for completion, other than experience, is a deeper understanding of the underlying story in The Secret World. These missions require a sharp eye, an even sharper mind, and lots of patience, but they're a brainy pleasure. They're the exact opposite of standard MMO combat missions, and I loved that they were available to a totally different type of gamer. 

Another mission I took on has to be an MMO first: a stealth mission. Imagine walking around traps, stepping over trip lasers tied to bombs, and ducking behind boxes to avoid cameras and spotlights, Metal Gear Solid-style. One of the Kingsmouth missions played out exactly like this, to my surprise. We're talking straight-up 3D action here. The action (and detection) may not have been perfectly polished, but I liked where Funcom was going with this, and they should be commended for trying something a bit different. I will say that some of the other attending games press were a bit less impressed with this particular mission.

In stark contrast to my single-player experience was a team mission in which I participated with several other attending press members. We took a helicopter to an area infested with zombies and other creatures that seemed to be spawning from one central point. We waded in knee-deep waters, moving past wrecked shipping containers and other metallic junk, taking on baddies that not only could summon others but also fought with elemental powers like electricity, making us wish we weren't in the water. Later, coming up on land and into a sort of nest of shipping containers, we took on our first boss, a massive magic-using tank that could also summon lesser beings to give us more electric hell. Even with a member of the development team in our party, we died multiple times.

We eventually moved to the root of the invasion to find a massive, mountain-sized boss waiting. He was strong enough to knock any of us out with a single hit, so beating him required sneaking around quietly to get behind him. Of course, he was also able to summon zombies to hunt us out as we waded in knee-deep water, hiding behind rocks for our chance to attack. Though difficult, this team mission was a lot of fun.

Finally, after all of this, we were able to try out a bit of the game's PVP in a game of Capture the Flag in a desert setting called El Dorado. Unfortunately, we weren't able to use the characters we had been playing as all day. Instead, we had to quickly learn the ropes with pre-made characters. My assigned character was nothing like the one I had grown used to, and this made for a very frustrating experience. I was stuck in the heat of battle, trying my best to configure weapons and powers that I had no idea how to use. I died enough times to decide that I would have to come back to PVP at a later time to make a fair call on it.


Overall, The Secret World is really different. The story is huge and unlike anything I've seen in any other MMO. The setting and art are fresh and inspired. The dialogue is great, and the writing is quick and punchy, and sometimes pretty funny. To jump in and experience the world Funcom has created is refreshing and exciting. The development team's desire to make something different and new is clear in every aspect of The Secret World's design.

The gameplay in The Secret World is all about player choice. You get a real sense of freedom even from early on, and it's apparent that the team has done everything possible to keep the game open to as many choices and styles of play as possible. Choosing to avoid a level-based or skill-based structure was bold, and adding this to a game with such an open method of storytelling could have made for a very loose game experience, but it all comes together unexpectedly well. 

The only aspect of The Secret World that isn't markedly different is the combat -- it's really standard MMO combat just with more freedom of movement. I'm okay with that, though. The vast backstory, player choice, and customization options give me all the "different" I need. Having that standard MMO combat is a nice way to keep the game grounded. Those looking for a completely different kind of combat won't find it here.

I'm excited about The Secret World because it's an exciting game. There's a freshness and a boldness to Funcom's latest work, and I can clearly feel the team's efforts shine through while playing. The team was able to successfully tie up a big world and an even bigger story with some creative ideas to make for a very interesting experience. They've created something that will make MMO players sit up and take notice. That's probably why half a million gamers are signed up for beta already. The secret's out, I guess you could say.

Even with all of that work to make something fresh and new, I know that the decision to jump in for many gamers rides on how well the subscription model will work; hopefully, Funcom realizes this. Done right, The Secret World could be huge.

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