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Hands-on with The Secret World's combat system

Jef Reahard
The Secret World's press beta hasn't been what I expected. To be frank, I'd say there are times I wish I didn't have to play it. See, my guild pals are on either the closed beta server or the public beta weekends server, both of which are quite crowded and therefore offer quite a different experience from the forlorn existence endured by my Massively Templar.

There's also the whole I-don't-get-to-keep-this-character thing, not to mention the wow-this-is-cool-and-I-don't-want-to-spoil-it-for-myself-post-launch thing.

On the other hand, I've had plenty of time to muck around with game systems and minutiae, something that my card-carrying membership in the crazy carebear immersionist secret society often precludes. For this week's press beta article, then, I thought I'd give you guys a primer on The Secret World's combat system.

The Secret World - Kingsmouth combat
First off, TSW's tutorials aren't the greatest I've ever seen. They basically consist of a few videos and an extensive text-based help menu. In Funcom's defense, I don't think I've ever played an MMO tutorial that merited an omg-that-was-fun! response. There is the weapons training instance I mentioned last time, which is extremely helpful in terms of trying out the game's seemingly endless chain of possible skill and weapon combos.

It's not the most intuitive thing in the world, though, so expect to spend a few moments fumbling around while you pick up a weapon, figure out how to equip it, and spam it a few times to get a sense of what it does.

The Secret World - Kingsmouth zombieCombat basics

TSW isn't really a game where you want to go into combat half-cocked and spam-happy, either. It's a fairly complex system, both build-wise and execution-wise, even though at its core it is the familiar tab-target hotbar approach.

There are the usual cone, circular AoE, and column effects. There are cooldowns and associated hotbar refill animations, and there's no friendly fire. There's a health bar and plenty of healing abilities, but there's no cast bar analogue, so you can effectively spam some of your attacks without depleting a mana pool or reverting to auto-attack.

Crucially, combat abilities can be cast on the move, and Funcom suggests that you avoid stationary spamming in order to both dodge enemy windups and make judicious use of the aforementioned cone and column effects.

Builders and exploiters

The Secret World's combat is based on two types of abilities: builders and exploiters. Think of builders as those abilities you use to build up a series of effects (Funcom calls them weapon resources) on your target, and in some cases, on yourself. Exploiters, naturally, are those abilities that take advantage of whatever resource effects you've managed to stack.

The Secret World features three weapon types (ranged, magic, and melee), and each type uses a different sort of weapon resource (focus, charge, and momentum, respectively).

If you're using magic or melee weapons, you'll see a series of five blue hexagons below your health bar, each of which represents a weapon resource. As your abilities successfully stack weapon resources on your targets, the ghosted blues will turn solid blue (and as you use higher skill abilities that consume resources, the solid blues will revert to their ghosted natural state).

If you're using ranged weapons, the hexagons appear under your target's health bar, but the functionality is the same. It all sounds simple enough here, but when you consider that the game boasts over 500 unique abilities and allows you to dual wield, say, elemental magic and an assault rifle, you can begin to see how the game's combat and skill systems are a theorycrafter's dream.

In terms of combat physicality, I talked a little bit about that on this week's edition of our Massively Speaking podcast. I've haven't paid a lot of lip service to how TSW combat "feels" because for the most part, that's a completely subjective observation, and it's one of the last things I look for when playing one of these games. That said, some of the animations could use a coat of polish, and I'm interested to see how (or whether) Funcom is able to respond to the inevitable complaints of "clunky" combat from World of Warcraft fans.

The Secret World - target state bar
Combat states

So what's that giant four-button thing underneath your health bar and your target's health bar? That's part of the combat state system, which works in tandem with builder and exploiter abilities to add even more depth to TSW's kung-fu fighting.

There are four basic states that you can induce in your enemies (and vice versa): impaired, weakened, hindered, and afflicted. Each of the four icons corresponds to a particular state, and a lighted icon means that state is active. As you might imagine, certain active states lend themselves to certain exploiter abilities.

The four states and their associated effects break down as follows: The impaired state includes knock-backs, stuns, and silences. The weakened state occurs when you or your target are debuffed. The hindered state has to do with snares and roots, while the afflicted state marks some sort of damage-over-time effect.

And that's about all she wrote when it comes to our primer on The Secret World's combat. The system is based on familiar MMO combat mechanics, but there are just enough wrinkles to keep it interesting, and in some cases, quite challenging. It's also worth noting that The Secret World's combat is only half of the game's complex progression equation. The other half takes the form of the skill and deck-building system, which our own Matt Daniel will break down for you later this week.

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?

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