Funcom was nice enough to have us out to show off a bit more of the game's huge story and world, a couple of the insane dungeons and several of the most brutal bosses I've ever encountered. They were also nice enough not to laugh when I died. In addition, they let us tinker with new tweaks and usability improvements spurred from press and tester feedback.
The Secret World (PC)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: June 19, 2012
The start of a day-long play session began much like my last one, where my character saw his start in one of the game's three factions -- The Illuminati, The Templars and The Dragons. Last time I was a Templar runnng around in stuffy old London, but this time I played as an Illuminati new recruit, and I started out by poking around a crappy New York laundromat to find my contact to lead me to the Illuminati headquarters. My contact turned out to be a crazed conspiracy theorist that dropped a constant stream of one-liners and pop culture references, mentioning D&D groups, Pac-Man, ramen, the Death Star and pop-up porn ads in the same breath. I think it's safe to say that you've never seen MMO NPCs this entertaining. In fact, the NPCs are crafted so well that I found myself exhausting dialogue trees.
After making it to HQ and through the first training mission, I set off to sunny Egypt, to an area called the Scorched Desert, where I was far too busy fighting off crazed cultists and monster scorpions to enjoy the scenery. I thought I would be able to hang with the big boys with my prior experience, but was quickly put in my place by the stiff challenge and 3-4 skull (TSW's 1-5 enemy difficulty rating system) baddies. I felt a bit better about myself after hearing that this section of the game comes up after some 60 hours of play.
For as difficult as it was, there is a lot of fun to be had in the Scorched Desert. For example, my first interaction there was with a fast-talking mummy in a three-piece suit and hat, talking on a cell phone. He may be rotting a bit, with some of his body oozing through his otherwise sharp suit, but he's surprisingly up on secret society happenings for a three-thousand year old corpse. Again, they've made it to where NPC dialogue is a treat and not a chore. I cannot stress enough how enjoyable the story segments of TSW are.
In Egypt I joined a group with three others to take on some of the area's many missions together. We set out to find out a bit more about the angry cultists that were sneaking about the area's main city and surrounding homes. Unlike other MMOs, where you would devise an attack plan and go in with guns-a-blazing, we were sent on wild chases around the city looking for leads. We eventually encountered a suspicious villager that we tailed, stealth style, to later find that she and others entered a secret door in the mountains. Kicking the door down didn't work; we eventually learned that we needed to take down cultists so that we could use their clothing to sneak in.
This is just one of the game's many examples of how Funcom's team enjoys sending players on a bit of hunt. It's also a good example of how TSW isn't afraid to take a break from standard MMO combat for a bit. Some of the missions, like the combat-free investigations, are so unconventional that I think some MMO players are going to find themselves wearing their thinking caps for the first time. One such mission had my team and I trying to hack a computer with only a few hints pulled off a dead body for a password. This sent all four of us to Google, using the game's built-in browser to comb Wikipedia and other sites for clues. This search led us to an Edgar Allen Poe that was tied to cryptography, and one of my brilliant team members was able to reverse that cryptography to come up with the password!
Our play session ended with a crawl through two of the game's dungeons, taking us through the bowels of Egypt's pyramids, and then onto Hell. They were a blast to play through as a group as they were filled with strange creature types, stiff platform-y challenges and some ridiculously difficult bosses. Instead of picking off random enemies in a tube-ish corridor, The Secret World's dungeons are like tightly crafted adventures peppered with puzzle-like interactions and key battles. In one dungeon, little floating electrical balls called Motes would randomly attach to the heads of players to render them useless and mute. Another mote-free party member would have to pick them off before the player's brains were drained. Imagine dealing with this during boss battles!
The sub-boss and boss battles were imaginative and exciting. They all feature creative design, great art, and a high difficulty level that requires strong teamwork to survive. The boss fights all seem to have a puzzle twist that goes well beyond that tired 'find the weak point' challenge. One particularly memorable fight had a massive Egyptian beast pushing my party and I toward the end of a dead end bridge, squeezing us from both sides. We had to attack as fast and efficiently as we could before the boss and his spawn pushed us to the edge, and we eventually made it with only seconds to spare. Some of the location and enemy details of these battles are still on lockdown, but I can tell you that all I've played through so far are a thrill, and all serve as yet another example of how much care Funcom has put into this game.
During my adventures in New York, Egypt and Hell, I tinkered with The Secret World's skill and equipment systems, both of which have seen improvements since my last play session. There are no classes in this game, but there are 550+ abilities to pick and choose from to create your own class, with an available 7 active and 7 passive abilities open to you at once. With some help I crafted a sword user that also dealt with elementals, which made for a DPS character that could run in and do some major slash damage if needed. Playing through missions earns you experience that you can freely dump into any of these abilities to create and refine your character, pumping in points to unlock attacks and spells in categories separated by weapon and attack type.
It's fun to dig deep into this "skill wheel" to see what you can create, but with the high number of abilities and combinations, it can also be kind of scary, as I noted in my last preview. Since then Funcom has added a set of suggested builds for each of the three factions. They call them "decks," and they're not unlike the decks in a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering. These decks will start players out with preset ability combinations, but can be changed freely with different abilities. They've also added a search option that let's you dig down deep into those 500+ abilities to find, say, all the critical hit abilities. Beyond this, "builds" of abilities and equipment can be saved in slots and shared with other players.
There's a freedom to The Secret World that makes it open to so many different types of players. Love a good story? Dig in with the investigation missions and conspiracy theories and get lost in it. Hate stories and just want to fight? Learn to use shotguns (yes, they're great) and go after the huge bosses. The class-free, totally open abilities system means that you can make any character type you can imagine. The open-ended mission system means you can delve into the types of things that interest you. Its huge world and nearly endless possibilities may prove to be daunting for players stuck in that MMO rut, but I'd bet they'd eventually prove to be freeing.
The Secret World is quite different from other MMOs with its classless system and unconventional mission design, but these are also among its greatest strengths. The sense of freedom, smart writing, and modern setting are also major plusses. They come together to make the first MMO I've been excited about in a very long time.
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