Impressions: The Secret World

During GDC, I saw Ragnar Tornquist demonstrate his upcoming Funcom MMO, The Secret World. I should note that I'm not well versed in MMOs, and my experience doesn't extend far beyond a scant few hours with the trial version of World of Warcraft (and many, many hours with Phantasy Star Online and Diablo II, if you count those). As such, I had my doubts about being the best candidate to catch an early glimpse of Funcom's latest project.

After seeing the game in action and learning more about its direction, however, I started to think otherwise. As someone who typically avoids MMOs, it's interesting to see one that abandons the traditional fantasy and sci-fi trappings of the genre. As a gamer accustomed to lavish, story-driven console games, it's wonderful to see an MMO focusing on narrative (with fully voiced cutscenes, no less). No leveling, no specific character classes -- no Orcs? In short, what really struck me about The Secret World is how different it is.
The hands-off demo showed off the opening area of the game, Kingsmouth, a sleepy New England town whose defining characteristics are charming architecture, pervasive fog and slavering zombies. Tornquist and lead designer Martin Bruusgaard told me that the team is concentrating on creating a believable, interesting world -- I noticed a few cute touches, like a gas station selling gasoline for only $6.66 per gallon. Still, I was told that the world is built with an MMO experience in mind. Along with nearby Solomon Island, the opening section of The Secret World has plenty of room to offer would-be adventurers something to do.

Which brings me to something that The Secret World does to set itself apart from other MMOs: cutscenes, and lots of 'em. When players approach quest-giving non-player characters, a menu pops up inside the gameworld in augmented reality fashion (think Dead Space). Once a mission is accepted, players are treated to a narrative cutscene complete with voice acting. This isn't just an occasional occurrence for missions central to the plot, either. It's for every mission in the game.

Tonquist noted that telling a story was very important for The Secret World. "It's nice to have a purpose," Tornquist said, assuring me that missions will amount to more than simple fetch quests. He added that the overarching story of the game will have an actual conclusion. Players don't have to worry about running out of content, however, with Tornquist noting that Funcom already has a two-year plan for the game's launch. And it won't be confined to Kingsmouth, either: Players will also venture to Egypt, among other locales.

The problem with small towns: Every zombie in Kingsmouth is already gossiping about how you crashed into that telephone pole.

As for the content itself, players can expect to spend a lot of time killing the aforementioned zombies. Apart from the walking dead, Kingsmouth also plays host to other baddies, including a massive junkyard golem, cobbled together from scrap metal, and a slimy sea monster that sits somewhere between kraken and Cthulhu.

Combat plays out similarly to most MMOs, with players swinging swords -- or shooting guns -- and using powers. Powers can interact with one another, offering special combinations for players that work together. As an example, Tornquist showed off a power that set a group of zombies on fire, putting them in a "burning" state. Another player then used a power that causes any enemy in a burning state to explode. Handy.

What sets the combat apart is the way that player abilities are managed. For starters, there are no pre-defined classes and there is no leveling system. None. Instead, players use earned experience points to purchase different powers. Akin to NCsoft's Guild Wars, players select their powers before going into combat, seven of them active and seven passive. Using this system, said the developers, players will never have to restart The Secret World to create a new character. You want to play as a damage-dealing tank one day and a healer on the next? As long as you've got the powers to do it, go for it.

Creepy Kingsmouth concept art

What about epic armor sets, you ask? There aren't any in The Secret World. There are plenty of clothing options, but all of them are purely aesthetic. The defensive properties usually offered by armor are taken care of by things like necklaces and rings. That said, there are certain items of clothing that can only be obtained in specific missions, so those of you who just need a status symbol can still have one. Also, for the loners out there, like me, Tornquist said that there would be plenty of content that can be tackled by a single player, though certain missions -- particularly bosses -- will require teamwork to complete. Furthermore, I was told that it doesn't take long to earn new powers, meaning that players pressed for time can log on for short sessions and still feel a sense of accomplishment.

Overall, the power mechanic and storytelling elements are what intrigue me most about The Secret World. It seems like a game I'd actually play by myself, let alone with thousands of other players. The demonstration ultimately left me wanting to know more, especially about the planned Xbox 360 version. Unfortunately, most information regarding The Secret World -- including its release date -- remains a secret.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.