Hands-on with The Secret World's Darkness War dungeon

The Secret World - Darkness War boss
What do Vikings, Excalibur, native Americans, and Mayan hell-beasts have in common? They're all part of The Secret World's Darkness War dungeon, of course.

The instance's story setup is pretty slick, and I don't think we're treading too far into spoiler territory if I reveal that you'll be taking a peyote-fueled trip through time and memory to experience a traumatic event from the annals of the Wabanaki tribe that dwells in the game's Blue Mountain region.

Earlier this week I took my own trip through the dungeon -- as well as parts of Egypt, Transylvania, and New England -- with a trusty Funcom guide and a pair of similarly enthralled game journalists. While it wasn't necessarily mind-altering, it was bizarrely enjoyable in a uniquely Secret World sort of way.

The Secret World - Savage Coast er, coaster
Despite being an unabashed skeptic of MMO story, I'm intrigued by The Secret World's take on the mechanic. Or maybe it's just the real-world horror-fantasy setting mashup; I'm not entirely sure. It's still irksome that every player experiences the same narrative (and has a negligible effect on the game world or the play of others), but Funcom's decision to avoid the dead-horse "you are the One" trope, not to mention its nifty non-standard quest design, goes a long way toward making MMO story more palatable.

I found myself constantly asking our guide to avoid details about each new location, its inhabitants, and the strange goings-on in general. There was something about Dracula and how he's not all that legends have made... no, see, stop right there. It's not time yet.

I'd just as soon discover this stuff for myself in a couple of weeks (on a character that I can keep, no less), so much of the dev-journo banter between fights and loading screens focused on TSW's mechanics.

The Secret World - Darkness War boss tactics
For instance, did you know that there's no player rezzing in The Secret World? This makes dungeon runs like The Darkness War pretty interesting. If you buy the farm during a boss fight, for example, you'll respawn outside the instance; you'll need to either wait for your surviving mates to down the boss or wait for the wipe and try again.

After my initial Darkness War death, our GM summoned me back into the thick of the battle, and even that was no easy task, despite what amounted to godmode abilities. The Secret World's dungeon bosses are hard and about as far from traditional tank-and-spank baddies as its possible to get. Funcom has largely eliminated trash mobs and room-clearing too, so the instance encounters flow from boss fight to boss fight, with each baddie incorporating aspects of the previous boss' repertoire into attack and defense routines.

The Secret World -  Darkness War summit boss
While the encounters are certainly challenging, The Secret World's skill system provides plenty of ways to deal with them. You may be familiar with the game's skill and ability decks from our previous coverage, but what you may not know is that you can swap out said decks on the fly as long as you're not in combat. So if you're having a tough time surviving a boss like Wayeb-Xul, you can take a moment to change from a ranged DPS to a tank build and see how the next round plays out.

Or you could fire up a mending spec and take some of the load off the group's primary healer. Traditionally, skill-based MMOs lead to cookie-cutter builds that enterprising players test and then share with the community, which ultimately reduces the design back down to the familiar class-based trinity mechanics in spite of a developer's best intentions.

With The Secret World, though, Funcom says this won't be a problem because there is no "one build to rule them all." There are hundreds of unique encounters and hundreds of ways to approach each of them, so running around with the same build all the time isn't going to get you very far.

The Secret World - Wayeb-Xul
I also asked the devs about mob difficulty, conning, and what happens when a low-skill player wanders into an area that features high-skill enemies (which is quite possible; travel isn't restricted in TSW). These challenges are no-brainers in your average level-based themepark, and the devs have managed to incorporate similar level-based mechanics under the hood despite the game's skill-based progression.

Each piece of your character's gear has a quality level, and each of The Secret World's zones is designed with certain gear ranges in mind. The Savage Coast, for example, is intended for folks wearing QL3 and QL4 equipment, so our uber-geared demo characters powered through mini-boss events at Atlantic Island amusement park with little difficulty (though again, we had the benefit of a GM with both powers and game experience). Transylvania, on the other hand, is a challenge even in QL10 gear -- doubly so if you try to make your way through its zones as a solo player.

We had a pretty tough time with a boss known as Deacon Claude despite the fact that we were rolling with endgame builds and equipment. I'm not complaining, though, as the occasional death-related time-out gave me a chance to soak in The Shadowy Forest's creeptastic horror movie atmosphere, not to mention spend some time looking at the zone maps, which are notable for their mish-mash of old-world-style and modern-day landmarks.

There was more to this particular dev tour, including a hallucinogenic roller coaster ride and an encounter with a world boss outside Egypt's City of the Sun God, but you'll just have to experience those things for yourself.

That's pretty easy to do, too, since Funcom is basically taking all comers for its final public beta weekend. Head to the official site to sign up if you're curious. Early release for pre-order customers kicks off on June 29th; launch day comes your way on July 3rd.

The Secret World - Transylvania map

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.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.