The Secret World preview: Teamwork on the Savage Coast

If there's one thing that sets The Secret World apart, it's the freedom to play as any character you wish. There aren't any levels or traditional MMO progression -- as you complete quests, you're awarded skill points that you can place into a skill wheel. Don't like using guns? Move some stuff around and become an elemental sorceress. Tired of being on the offensive? Rejigger your skills and be a healer who hangs behind. It's the core principle of the game.

You'll need all the flexibility you can get. All of the known myths, urban legends and monsters have manifested themselves into the real world. By joining one of three in-game factions (the Illuminati, the Dragon and the Templar), you'll fight to dominate the other groups and ultimately rule that world.

During EA's Summer Showcase event, I was able to witness a dungeon run through The Savage Coast, a spooky coastal town home to some creepy woodlands and the horror staple, an abandoned amusement park. Of course, I didn't get to see any of that in my own playthrough: the dungeon I fought through was a river bed that ran through a craggy valley, sandwiched between two mountains.

But it was nighttime, so that's kinda creepy. I guess.%Gallery-127938%
Our party of five set out to locate an artifact (of unknown origin and power) for the Orochi Corporation, a shadowy group unwilling to directly involve themselves in the hunt. After a quick helicopter ride, the group prepared to get into the nitty-gritty. The party was diverse: a healer, a gunslinger focusing on ranged damage, a tank with a sledgehammer, an elemental sorcerer with a focus on offense and a punishingly strong (and criminally underdressed) blonde in skimpy shorts, also wielding a sledgehammer.

Our first encounters were with the droug, the spirits of drowned Vikings who can command the dead and summon zombies at will. The combat looked pretty standard for an MMO -- a lot of 'there's an enemy, click the enemy, attack the enemy, the enemy falls down.' There was teamwork going on, for sure, but it didn't look like anything I hadn't seen in other MMOs, save for the blonde in the daisy dukes swinging a sledgehammer around. After a few encounters, I was shown something really interesting: instantly switching classes at geysers of power placed in the environment by earth spirit Gaia.

Players earn skill points -- there are no levels or experience points -- which can be allocated to skill wheels at one of these power wells. And each section of the wheel has subsections players can access, "over 500 unique abilities" by the count of lead content designer Joel Byloss.

So the high-damage output melee character was having a tough time, so she switched out her sledgehammer and melee skills for those of an elementalist (an offensive sorcerer who uses elemental magic), in all of about 15 seconds. While I would've appreciated a bit more in-depth look at the skill wheel, the ease at which the player switched abilities was pretty impressive. Then again, it was a developer playing, so who knows if it really is that easy?

Jumping back into the dungeon, Byloss explained that every area acts as a kind of tutorial for things to come; learning by doing, basically. So when players see mini-bosses reviving zombies, they know to attack the mini-boss. When they see enemies electrifying the water below them, they know to avoid that hazard. It's all a tutorial for the final boss encounter, which calls upon the player's experience earlier in the dungeon and tasks them with not only recalling what happened, but employing the successful strategies that worked earlier.

After a few minutes of jumping around to different points in the dungeon, the group faced a large Droug boss. Periodically, this beast summoned hordes of zombies and electrified the water around the players, recalling the previous dangers seen in the dungeon. Eventually the group prevailed and the demo was cut short without giving me a look at the artifact in question.

While the demo was more brief than I would've liked, I had enough time to recognize that The Secret World is doing some interesting things. By not constraining players into one permanent class, there's more freedom to play around with what suits your play style best. And framing the game in a modern setting that's being overrun by myth is a nice change of pace from the traditional fantasy setting of other MMOs. Even if you've sworn off killing rats in a basement or flying on the backs of dragons, you won't want to keep The Secret World to yourself.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.