Hands-on with The Secret World's Illuminati experience

Illuminati
Dark days are upon us, and I, for one, couldn't be more pleased. For the past few days I've had the pleasure of exploring the dark corners of the press beta for Funcom's upcoming horror-fantasy MMO, The Secret World, and now the embargo is up and I'm finally able to share my impressions with all of you.

You may recall that I got some hands-on time with the title at PAX East earlier this year and came away from the experience fairly pleased. But that was an hour of playtime at the most, so how does the game hold up with extended play? I decided to hop into the (rather stylish) boots of an Illuminati initiate to find out for myself.

Character creation seems a logical place to start, right? Right. The customization options available at creation, honestly, are a bit paltry. You have your standard facial modifications such as hairstyle, hair color, eye color, and facial structure (though, bizarrely, skin tone seems to be tied to head shape, which seems like a questionable choice), but there are no fancy sliders with which to fine-tune the minor details. But hey, that's cool with me. I hardly ever see my character's face anyway. What I take issue with are the clothing options. A few coats, a few shirts, a few shoes, nothing more. Perhaps it's just the fashionista in me, but none of the outfit pieces seem to come together to form a cohesive uniform. Funcom, do you really expect me to wear black pinstripe slacks with my stylish brown vest? Girl, puhlease. The option to change the color of your clothing would be a welcome addition as well, but hey, it's beta. I imagine/hope we'll get more detailed options at launch. You then give your character a first name, a surname, and a nickname (which ends up being your in-game display name), and you're good to go.

Once Mathieu "Fisticuffs" Devaine was gussied up and ready to go (even if it did look like he got dressed in the dark), I was dropped into The Secret World's version of New York City. Funcom has clearly gone through great pains to ensure that the game's locations remain (mostly) true to the real-world places after which they're modeled, and the level of detail really helps to set the atmosphere of the game. Authentic street signs, towering buildings, grungy alleyways, and the famous New York City taxis all give the impression that this is NYC, not just a half-hearted facsimile thereof.

For fear of spoilers, I'm not going to go too in-depth with the Illuminati starting experience, but I will say that I adored it. The dialogue is well-written, humorous, and again helps to establish that this is the real world. References to Google, Dungeons and Dragons, and old-school hip-hop abound, though it can sometimes skirt the realm of name-dropping for the sake of name-dropping. On the whole, I found the cutscenes to be very well done and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The Illuminati's head-of-operations is one sassy lady, let me tell you.

After some rather... ethically questionable initiation procedures, I found myself a full-fledged initiate of the Illuminati faction. After being supplied with my choice of weapon (in this case I decided to go with Chaos Magic as my tool of destruction), I'm sent on my merry way to Kingsmouth, Maine, by way of Agartha.

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Now, anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a huge fan of Lovecraftian horror, so Kingsmouth -- rather shamelessly modeled after HP Lovecraft's fictional town of Innsmouth -- was an absolute joy. Hidden references and easter eggs are all over the place, from the street names (including gems such as Lovecraft Lane) to storefront signs (my personal favorite being King of Books, which I'm assuming is a nod to Stephen King, who also hails from Maine), and the atmosphere is fantastic. Abandoned cars, an eerie mist, and of course hordes of flesh-craving zombified townsfolk all contribute to the scene of a town in the midst of a horrifying catastrophe.

It's not long before I'm using my incredibly badass Chaos Magic (which manifests in the form of claws made of eldritch energy -- HOW COOL IS THAT) to lay waste to the ravenous hordes terrorizing Kingsmouth. The combat flows amazingly, and there's an emphasis on mobility during combat that I find refreshing. Instead of just standing in one spot to cast my spells while my enemies smack the hell out of me, I'm running, jumping, avoiding power-attacks, and cutting swathes through the mindless minions of evil who think they stand a chance against me (how cute). After a few introductory missions, I'm granted my first few action points, which brings us to...

...The skill wheel! Boy oh boy do I love the skill wheel. I really think that the open-ended nature of the thing is reinvigorating in a world of cookie-cutter builds and linear progression lines. I constantly found myself debating where to put my action and skill points. Do I want to grab another ability in the Chaos Magic cells, or would I rather get some pistol abilities so I can pop some caps in the zombies' proverbial asses? Do I want to assign my skill points to the damage line or the survivability line? Or do I want to go down another branch altogether to provide some healing and utility abilities? The choices are literally endless. Yes, I know, somewhere someone is going to come up with some "optimum" builds, but I don't feel like players are going to be required to use those builds in order to be effective. If you want a gunslinger who puts out massive damage from a range but can still go toe-to-toe using a blade, you can absolutely have that. If you'd rather be a purebred healer, you can do that, too. The system truly allows you to build the character that you want to play, not the character that a predetermined class-build combination says you should. Mix in the fact that you can, later in the game, build entire decks of skill combinations that can be changed on-the-fly, and you've got a recipe for dozens -- nay, hundreds -- of unique combinations that can suit any playstyle.

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"Okay, fanboy," you may be saying. "Is there anything about the game that didn't make your pants tight?" I'm glad you asked. One of the perils of a level-less progression structure is that it can often be difficult to tell exactly what content you are and are not prepared for, and that's certainly the case in The Secret World. In the first few missions of Kingsmouth, I was absolutely steamrolling the competition. Seven zombies? Psssht. Dead in an instant. Then I get a quest to take out some draugr. I killed one big draugr baddy earlier with little issue, so how hard could it be? Answer: Very. I quickly found that running all gung-ho into a fight wasn't going to get me anywhere, as pulling more than one of these nasty-looking creeps would result in my swift and merciless demise.

Now, I'm not saying that it's not good to have a challenge; quite the contrary! What I'm saying is that if something is going to stomp your face into a pulpy mass of grey matter, there should be some kind of warning sign. Come to think of it, it also makes me wonder how players will know if/when they're prepared to set foot in a particular dungeon. I don't think that every little thing should be spelled out in six-foot-high neon letters, but some kind of information as to what you can and can't handle would be very much appreciated.

And then there's the crafting. What the what even is this? All the game tells you is that you have to put the proper components in the proper locations on a grid in order to craft a given item, but there's absolutely no indication as to what combinations of materials laid out in what patterns will actually yield a finished result, so I'm running around with my inventory full to bursting with crafting materials and not even the slightest idea how to make something useful out of them. That said, I do think that the Minecraft-esque crafting system has the potential for a great deal of depth that most crafting systems these days tend to lack, but that depth is absolutely worthless if you just throw me into it without having the decency to give me a pair of floaties first. Again, I imagine/hope that this is one of those beta kinks that will be worked out in the final release, but as a crafting junkie, I was rather disappointed with the lack of information given on the matter.

All-in-all, I had a grand ol' time in The Secret World, and you can bet that as soon as this article is done I'm going to be right back in it. The game's not without its foibles and quirks, but that's to be expected from any beta. Funcom clearly has a solid groundwork in place for a pretty fantastic, refreshing, and unique title. I look forward to plumbing the depths of the world of myths and intrigue that the studio has created, and hopefully before long I'll have even more tales of triumph to bring to you. Until then, folks, watch your backs and remember: All the myths are true.

Look for more of our impressions of The Secret World throughout the day today as we've covered the Templar experience (Dragons were not available during this press beta), with character creation and more impressions still to come!

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.