Postcards from The Secret World: Joining the Dragon

Apart from a high school addiction to Phantasy Star Online (Level 100 HuCast!), and a six-day foray into an ancient World of Warcraft trial edition that came with my Diablo 2 Battlechest, I have very little experience with massively multiplayer online games. The Secret World, however, has intrigued me ever since it was first announced. Here was an MMO that not only had a real-world setting, but one that drew its story and lore from urban legends and conspiracy theories. Illuminati, Templars, Mothman? In short, it sounded like my cup of tea, so I dug in once early access kicked off at the end of June.

The following isn't a review of The Secret World. Instead, it's offered as an account of my own experiences – an MMO novice – playing through Funcom's recently launched online game.
%Gallery-160116% There are three factions to choose from in The Secret World, all of them based on organizations conspiracy nuts will probably recognize. At least, they're bound to recognize the first two: The Illuminati and the Templars. The Illuminati seek power and nothing else, whereas the Templars seek to rid the world of darkness with fanatical devotion. I picked the Dragon, an order focused on the study and control of chaos. That's chaos as in the butterfly effect, the kind of chaos that Ian Malcolm warned us about.

Shortly after discovering that my character – cleverly named "Richard Mitchell" – had magic powers, I was, shall we say, involuntarily escorted to Dragon headquarters in Seoul. Here I was told that I'd make the perfect agent of chaos, after which I was ushered into a hotel room with an attractive woman. She told me that, as part of my initiation, I would have to open my mind. The quickest route to enlightenment, apparently, is oral pleasure. I'm not kidding.

Through some metaphysical process that I won't pretend to understand, this sexual act transported my character to the Matrix, or something very much like it. The whole rendezvous was, in short, a strange (and sort of cheap) way to introduce a training sequence.

After learning the rules of combat and selecting my weapon of choice, I traveled to Agartha, a web of biomechanical tendrils that resides inside the Earth, weaving every point of the globe together. Agartha serves as The Secret World's transport hub, and immediately reveals that there is much, much more to the planet than what we know.

From Agartha, I traveled to Kingsmouth, a town situated on Solomon Island, a fictional island off the coast of Maine. The town of Kingsmouth has been enveloped by a thick fog, which brought with it hordes of zombies, monsters and H.P. Lovecraft references. In a refreshing change of pace, I didn't start my quest by killing rats or warthogs – I was slaying zombies. Granted, many opening quests are still "kill X many zombies for quest-giver Y," but at least the low-level enemies look intimidating. Some of the other early quests required solving simple puzzles, which was also a welcome distraction from the usual combat grind.

Combat, at least what I've seen of it, doesn't differ terribly from other MMOs. Skills are activated on an action bar, each with a different cooldown period (mostly instant, in my experience). In addition to traditional swords and spells, players can wield a variety of guns. After experimenting with magic, I eventually settled on a sword and an assault rifle, giving me a balance of long-range damage, close-quarters techniques and healing.

Experimenting is easy thanks to a wide open progression system. There are no character classes in The Secret World at all. Instead, players earn skill points and ability points as they gain experience. Skill points are invested in broad weapon and magic categories: Blades, hammers, blood magic, elementalism, shotguns, pistols and so on. Ability points are invested into specific abilities for each category. As long as you have the points, any weapon or ability is yours for the taking. With such a low barrier of entry, its easy to customize the character you want. It's also just as easy to abandon something that isn't working, a nice bonus for anyone worried about "ruining" their character by making a bad choice. For those who want a more dedicated path, a number of optional "decks" are available, which automatically highlight skills that go well together for specific builds.

After several hours of play, The Secret World has done a decent job of guiding me into the world of MMOs. There are a lot of complicated systems in play here – and so many menus! – but the in-game tutorials have kept them from overwhelming me so far. There was one moment, however, in which I discovered that I had to actively target my own character for a heal ability to work. Such concepts might be second nature to MMO devotees, but it took me a minute to wrap my head around it. Thankfully, there's an extensive in-game help section. For the purposes of this article, however, I'm trying to find out how far the tutorials will take me before I have to get more proactive in learning about the game.

I'm still waiting, for example, to see how well The Secret World transitions me from solo play to actually connecting with other people. For someone used to universal friends lists and simple game invites, that's probably the most daunting part of delving into the genre.

Next week, I hope to go into the social aspects in more detail, and I'll finally crack into investigation missions. These missions task players with solving puzzles that require you to research clues outside of the game itself. Color me intrigued.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.