GDC10: A first glimpse at The Secret World

Shawn Schuster
S. Schuster|03.23.10

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GDC10: A first glimpse at The Secret World
I bet you thought we were done with news from GDC 2010, right? Well, not exactly. The embargo on our demo of The Secret World lifts today and we're oh-so eager to tell you all about what we saw.

While Creative Director Ragnar Tørnquist's team at Funcom has been doing an excellent job of teasing us with just enough information to keep us excited (although they'll deny the websites are from them), there are still many aspects of the game we have yet to discover. This GDC demo doesn't even scratch the surface on what we can expect from the released game, but it gives us quite a bit more to chew on until that time comes.

Follow along after the jump for our impressions of what we saw in the game's combat, in-game cinematics, storyline and a brief Q&A with Ragnar himself. Plus, be sure to check out the screenshot and concept art galleries below for some gorgeous eye candy.%Gallery-72395%%Gallery-72399%
We began our demo with a brief explanation of the game and what it sets out to accomplish. The Secret World is set in our world where players are recruited as heroes to fight the war against darkness. Sounds simple enough, right? The kicker here is that what you see in the game isn't always what you'd expect after a quick first glance. You were drafted into this war with special powers that are explained in the storyline as you progress. Funcom wants you to feel heroic right from the start, so they've skipped the rusty dagger and kill-ten-rats stage to bring you right into the action from the very beginning. Why play an MMO where you are only one among many, when you can play as a hero?

The Secret World is described by Tørnquist as an action-adventure game, focusing on combat and character progression. Gameplay is king here, and despite the fact that this takes place in our world, there is plenty of opportunity to stretch what we know into something mysterious and... well, secret. The familiar setting is there to bring down our defenses a bit -- to help us feel comfortable, just enough to have our minds blown away by what lies beneath the surface.

The town of Kingsmouth

Our demo centered around Solomon Island and the town of Kingsmouth, which Ragnar was quick to point out is only a small part of the overall world that will be available at launch. The storyline appears to be your run-of-the-mill zombie infestation. The surviving Kingsmouth residents speak of a great fog that came through the town, taking away most of their friends and family. When the kidnapped returned, they were the walking dead.

But listening to further reports, we learn that there were problems with a quarantine and now strange black helicopters circle the town constantly. What else is there to know about this zombie plague? Do any of the survivors in town know?

As with all of the elements of the game's storyline, your character will need to investigate to find the answer. This will take you not only to other parts of an alternate reality, but it will also take you through time. We're told that despite the focus on combat, your character will also spend a great deal of time investigating and solving puzzles. With Kingsmouth being a "zombie wonderland", other parts of the game world will not be so horror-based. A given example was Egypt and the puzzle-solving that will need to be done there.

Cinematics are part of the mystery

An important element of the gameplay is cinematics. Every single mission has a cinematic and all characters are voiced. They're created to give more emotional attachment to the story, allowing you to feel like you're actually a part of what's going on. Now the question is, from what I saw, did it work?

The voice acting is tremendous, and the cinematics themselves are very well-made. My only problem with them is the actor models reminded me of something out of Grand Theft Auto IV. It's not that they're bad, it's just that the rest of the game is so gorgeous, and the quality of these character models in the cinematics is distracting. I'm going to chalk this up to the fact that the game isn't finished or close to launch yet.

No classes and no levels

The Secret World is an MMO with no specific classes or levels to worry about. The meat of your character's development centers on powers such as fire magic, healing, assault rifle, etc. There are hundreds of these powers in the game, but you will need to construct builds of 14 powers to take with you into combat. Seven of these are for active powers visible in your UI, and seven are for passive powers not directly visible on the UI. You gain XP and special points to purchase these powers, and according to Funcom, as long as you have these powers on your character, you can switch them around to create various builds before entering combat. This allows more options for those alt-a-holics among us who may want to play a healer one day and a tank the next. While this is a more diverse system (with no class restrictions), I can't help but be reminded of Guild Wars and how much I enjoy their restricted skill-based combat system. Actually, it almost seems to be a mix of Champions Online and Guild Wars.

Lead designer, Martin Bruusgaard referenced the comparison to a collectible card game when talking about this system of arranging powers. You can collect them throughout the game, and even well into the endgame. The active powers act in direct relation to combat, while the passive powers work to supplement those active powers. One example we were given was an active power with a knockback of three meters. When this is combined with a passive power that adds two more meters to any knockback, you have a five-meter knockback.

Combat focus

But these powers are only a piece of the entire combat pie. We were given a fairly long look at a sample boss fight in the game. The 4-man party on screen was comprised of a healer, an assault rifle character and two with fire magic as a focus: one shooting fireballs from his hands, the other with more of a flaming sword thing going on.

As one of the first bosses in the game, a giant metal golem did his best to eliminate the party in a junkyard scenario. We watched as the players used movement, blocking and their chosen powers to bring the junkbox down. Bruusgaard tells us that combat movement like dodging and strafing are what makes the combat so action-focused.

One important element of combat is the State System. This is based on the ability to put targets into a "state" that can be exploited by another power that you own, or even someone else in your party owns. So let's say one team member causes your target to catch on fire. You can then use a particular power that will cause extra damage (or another result) because of that burning state. It's like skill combos, but anyone in the party can participate.

These combos can be used on both hostile and friendly targets, so you can imagine the possibilities with healing and buffing. When asked if this State System will carry over to investigations or non-combat aspects of the game, Ragnar said it's for combat only.

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