Hands-on with The Secret World's Templar experience

The Secret World - Don't mind this hollow earth portal
Believing in The Secret World takes a certain of amount of... faith. And I'm not just talking about Funcom's less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to bug-free MMO launches. No, the very foundation of this particular title rests on a narrative about things unseen, and that cryptic, otherworldly esoterica informed every moment of my time spent in the press beta over the last couple of days.

The basic premise, of course, is that everything is true. Every myth, legend, and spook story that our rational minds scoff at has a place in this particular riff on reality.

The Secret World is also quite heretical when it comes to gameplay. It eschews the tried and true class-based approach for a complex grimoire of a skill system featuring an ability wheel made of hieroglyphs and higher math (or so it first appears). To come right to the point, though, I bought into the game almost immediately.
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The Secret World - London street
There are some goofy moments. How, for example, do London's crowds of NPC muggles fail to notice a sparkly hollow earth portal perched conveniently at the bottom of a subway staircase? Suspension of disbelief is everything in The Secret World, I guess, and if you give yourself over to both the narrative and the game's labyrinthine advancement system, you'll enjoy yourself a lot more.

For this particular article, I played through the Templar starting experience and dipped a toe into the game's daunting skill system pool before moving on to Kingsmouth. It's worth noting that this press beta is ongoing through TSW's June 19th launch, so in addition to this initial impressions piece, you can look forward to several more in-depth articles from the Massively crew.

First things first, though.

The Secret World - London storefront
Logging into The Secret World is an exercise in haunting piano music, modern and minimal design aesthetics, and an immediate faction choice. Funcom presents you with a hex-based map of the world, on which are superimposed three buttons: one each for the Illuminati, Templar, and Dragon factions (the Dragon faction is unavailable in this build, though we did get to see it at this year's GDC).

Below each faction is another button showing a brief intro video with the barest amount of backstory and some rah-rah-pick-me voiceover. After that, there's character creation, which is solid if unspectacular. There are seven to 10 head choices, hairstyles, and eye, lip, nose, and jaw types (no sliders, though). After a few minutes, I unintentionally ended up with Dante from Clerks.

Starting clothing is pretty limited, though there is a leather trenchcoat, some spiffy boots, and some sort of pimpish open shirt waistcoat thing that I hurriedly swapped out. After you pick your threads, it's time to choose a character name. The process is slightly outside the MMO norm, as there are spaces for both a first and last name as well as a nickname. Once you get in game, though, the nickname is what other players will see, and I'm assuming this is akin to Cryptic's system that allows for duplicate names in some regard (more on that as I find out for sure).

The Secret World - the filth
The opening Templar cutscene was longish and not terribly interesting. My Dante doppelganger lounged about his flat in various states of undress, alternatively looking moody and juggling little balls of blue magic fire from hand to hand. Eventually a large-chested Templar lass came calling, and she proceeded to dump a metric ton of exposition on him (and me) before presenting us with some sort of faction-flavored hall pass designed to clear the way to our next objective.

I'm not sure whether the cutscenes were one of the things that Funcom was referring to in its press kit that highlighted a lot of known beta issues, but the overall quality of the vignettes pales in comparison to those from Age of Conan, which is also powered by the in-house Dreamworld engine. Load times weren't bad, and they were helped along by some beautiful concept art, initially presented in black and white, which slowly faded to color as the progress bar did its thing.

The UI is minimalistic and not terribly customizable. It owes a debt to Age of Conan in terms of the chat boxes and option screen menus, and I'd like to see some more resizing and dragging functionality as we get closer to launch. It's pretty and usable, though, and quite immersive in a modern, touch-screen inspired sense.

The Secret World - Templar office
The initial London zone is somewhat linear, but Funcom has left room for players who like to run off the beaten path. You can blow through the Templar starting experience in an hour if you like, but I ran around snapping shots and soaking in the considerable old-world atmosphere for much longer.

The streets seemed pleasantly alive, with NPCs milling about, though the /say dialogue is sparser than I'd like and voiceovers are few and far between. I made my way past a barber shop called Ockham's Razor ("shaving heads since 1321!" the sign said) and over to the tube station that was my first quest objective.

Framerates in this initial zone were fantastic, and happily the world looks considerably more impressive than the cutscenes. Say what you will about Funcom, but the company knows how to make gorgeous environments. Everything is pretty realistic, from the NPC outfits to the quaint little econobox cars that look slightly familiar (but not familiar enough to merit a licensing fee). Crucially, there's a sense of dread that permeates the whole enterprise and infuses London's cobblestone streets and dark alcoves with a palpable sense of foreboding.

I ESC'd my way through some more cutscenes (it's not that they sucked; I'd just rather save them for my permanent character). It wasn't long before I was thrown into the midst of combat, with three or four shotgun abilities on my hotbar that I spammed with gusto as wave after wave of disgusting ooze-covered zombie things came at me in the depths of a subway station.

The Secret World - principal cast
I also met the trio of NPCs that serve as Funcom's factional mascots (you've seen them all in the game's various cinematic trailers). Each is fully voiced, and the actors do fine. We cut our way through something called the filth, an X-Files-ish black oil goo thing that makes really gnarly tentacles and has a tendency to zombify nearby civilians before turning them against you. After I recovered from this initial story mission interlude, I was free to roam around the London starter zone again.

I ducked into a record shop and found a Templar lore collectible, which opened a nifty journal with a ton of closed-off entries (presumably waiting on me to unlock some more). I also ducked into a swanky retail outlet called Pangaea. The six NPCs clustered around the desk were clothing and accessory vendors (three each for men and women). Unfortunately I couldn't afford any of the items, but it was nice to see a good selection of sunglasses, jackets, pants, and plenty of individualizing items that mitigated the limited selection at character creation. It was even nicer to see that appearance slot functionality isn't something that has to be added after launch.

Eventually I meandered over to my next objective at the Templar Hall, which is architecturally intimidating, all crosses and cavernous space.

Now, I'll be honest: I'm not the biggest fan of cutscenes and MMO story. That said, when I stepped into the Templar training hall known as the Crucible, I had a bit of a geek moment. See, there's a crusty old master-at-arms named Lethe waiting inside, and he verbally assaults you with a voice that sounds quite like David Hemmings'. Design-wise, the zone is a familiar weapons tutorial instance, but the kick-ass atmosphere drips from the walls, and it's helped along with dialogue gems from Lethe like "we do martial magic, none of that faerie stuff" and "you're not the only one, and you're not the chosen one."

The Secret World - practice demons
Oh, and did I mention the grisly (live) practice demons hanging from the ceiling and waiting to provide you with as much hands-on weapon training as you need? They're chained down, "but they bleed the same," Lethe says.

Picking up one of the weapons scattered about the room granted me some basic skills and hotbar abilities specific to each weapon, as well as a quest to practice on the nearby demons. I equipped each in turn and then drew them (with the tilde key). There was an assault rifle, a shotgun, dual pistols, a katana, a warhammer, and knuckle spikes.

There were also three magical choices: blood magic (which was disabled), chaos magic, and elemental magic. After some experimentation, I settled on elemental magic and equipped my focus item. I spent a few minutes shocking the nearest demon and giving him a taste of my newbie fireballs. As I exited the Crucible, I received a system prompt letting me know that I was about to confirm my starting weapon.

After a few more skipped cutscenes, I was off to the aforementioned hollow earth portal and a trip across the pond to the Kingsmouth zone in New England. That will have to wait for another article, though, as will further details on the game's skills, abilities, and its curious questing and mission setup.

The Secret World - inside the portal
In terms of overall performance, I crashed to desktop once but otherwise encountered nothing but smooth sailing on 64-bit Windows 7 supported by an Intel i5 3.30Ghz CPU, eight gigs of RAM, and dual GTX 460 cards running at 2560x1600.

To sum up my initial impressions, I'd say that I have several minor and one very major concern about The Secret World. I'll touch on the minor ones in a followup article. The major one has to do with the game's launch window (and said window's proximity to the MMO black hole that is Guild Wars 2). Funcom is a small, independent studio, and as such I don't see it being able to compete with the dollars behind GW2's development and what is likely to be a sustained marketing blitz.

Hopefully there's room enough for both games this summer, though, because as much as the gaming community is head over heels in love with all things ArenaNet, The Secret World and the unique experiences it offers are just as worthy of everyone's attention.

Look for more of our TSW impressions throughout the day today as we cover the Illuminati experience, character creation, and more!

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.