Hands-on impressions of The Secret World

François Blondin
F. Blondin|11.21.11

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Hands-on impressions of The Secret World
Scary monster dude in The Secret World
Last month, Funcom held a special hands-on event for The Secret World at its Montreal, Canada offices, where we sent freelancer François Blondin to cover all the exciting details. François also got to play the game for several hours, giving us a fresh perspective on what TSW has to offer MMO gamers.

In Funcom's upcoming The Secret World, the game's three factions -- Templars, Illuminati and Dragons -- face off, compete, and collaborate (all at the same time!) amidst the nightmarish creatures being revealed throughout the world. But choose your allegiance carefully: Your faction determines your path and special bonuses for the whole game, and faction-switching won't be an option. Join me for a hands-on look at the game's current incarnation!%Gallery-72395%
No levels, kinda

The "level-less" approach of the game is interesting and fresh, since you can jump in and tackle endgame content right from character creation. Of course, you'll be destroyed rather quickly, but if your friends really want to carry you, they can make it happen -- you needn't reach a certain level to be able to explore some areas. Still, a group of new players won't survive very long without the appropriate kit and skills.

Your character does have an XP bar, and you'll ding regularly. But those level-ups won't boost your stats or give you more health or power; instead, they grant skill points, which you can use to unlock skills. According to the devs, you can potentially purchase all the skills from all skill types on all tiers, and when you're out of combat, you can rearrange which skills you give yourself access to so that you can handle most anything the game lobs at you.

Wheel of skills

TSW's skills are arranged in a circular interface (called "the hive") that starts with the basic types (melee, ranged, magic) in the inner-most ring. These are broken down into more specific skill categories (swords, hammers, fists for melee; pistols, shotguns, assault rifles for ranged; elemental, chaos, blood for magic). From there, you must buy skills sequentially to unlock more powerful skills and related tiers or rings. For the demonstration, only the first tier was available, but Funcom promises over 500 skills when the game launches, allowing for deep specialization and devastating attacks. Skills have no ranks; instead, they scale with gear, so more powerful weapons or chakras will allow the same skill to be much more potent.

I was impressed by the synergy between skills and schools of damage. For example, I started playing with blood magic, which provides nice offense along with shields and healing. When I acquired enough points to purchase a skill that allows me to damage and stun an opponent, TSW's senior producer and creative director, Ragnar Tørnquist, pointed out that I could also train up in hammers and use a skill that guarantees me a critical hit when my opponent is stunned. The results were spectacular but not unusual; many skills are built to that effect. And even in an unfinished product, the attack animations are gorgeous and entertaining. After using a blood attack that is akin to chain-lightning that triggers a corpse explosion, I just had to try it again, and again, and again, just to see weak packs of enemies turn to mush. It's Star Wars' dark side's force lightning meets Diablo's Necromancer's corpse explosion. That's how cool TSW is.

Granted, no matter how many skills you accrue, you're only allowed to equip seven skills plus an additional seven passives. You can switch them up at the touch of a button whenever you're not in combat, using the built-in gear manager that is still forthcoming, but you're still limited to seven. Martin Bruusgaard, the game's lead designer, compared the system to playing a Frost Mage in World of Warcraft -- in combat, you use perhaps three primary attacks and a few more defensive or utility skills, ignoring the other dozens of skills available. I found it hard to adjust to, especially in PvP, but the idea is to make difficult choices and pick what works best for you instead of being a jack-of-all-trades.

You will have to spend some time selecting which skills complement your current gear, as well, since gear is what affects your power the most. When I was thrown into the PvP arena as a premade character, I found that balancing my skills and equipment difficult on short notice, but I enjoyed having to set up my character with what I had available, rather than relying on a cookie-cutter build gotten from a website. Fortunately, the game's starting area and tutorial will provide time and information to learn how to manage everything properly, as will the community.

Did I mention that you can cast/attack while moving? Jumping will interrupt casting of spells, but you can backpedal, move forward, or strafe while healing or attacking. I found it refreshing, and now the lack of this functionality in other MMOs makes me cringe.

The attack resource system works with separate resources for melee, ranged, and magic. You use builder skills (to create resources) and then finishing moves (to spend those resources) in combat. A builder skill from one type of attack will also add resources to the other types. Ranged resources are built as you attack the target, similar to World of Warcraft's combo point system, and will disappear once your target is dead. Melee resources start at full always (and will regenerate when you're out of combat), which means you can open up with a devastating finishing attack when you're in melee range, since you're at a disadvantage for closing the gap, and then you can start building them up again. Magic resources accrue as you use magic builder skills or other types of attacks; these will decay quickly when you're out of combat. These resources, coupled with skill synergies, allow for deeper and more engaging gameplay than with other games of the same genre. For example, you can use shotgun's cone attacks to quickly build resources on multiple enemies and on yourself, then launch devastating finisher AoE skills to level your opponents.

Combat is intense and immersive, with some of the best boss fights I've seen in years. In the Polaris instance, the end boss comes from the depths of the ocean -- he's a scary Lovecraftian creature with a bellowing roar that taunted me from the moment I entered the instance. After some standard positioning of the boss to avoid its frontal cone attack, I was thrown into another phase of the world as blue fog engulfed everything. And this time, he was on the hunt -- for me! If he saw us, we'd explode a few seconds later. This game of hide-and-seek had me physically ducking in front of my screen and still has devs crying when they get spotted. Whenever we managed to hide behind pillars to elude him, he got enraged and destroyed said pillars, leaving little place to hide. It was a tense fight, and if it speaks to encounters to come, it's definitely a winning combination.

Party mix

In most MMOs, you need a balanced mix of tank, heals and DPS to conquer group content, which often leads to unbalanced levels of some classes compared to others and long wait times for popular classes. TSW eliminates this problem, since anyone in the group with the appropriate skills can take up any role at any time during the instance, as long as she's not in combat. This means more dynamic dungeons, faster grouping, and the ability to tackle challenges in new ways each time. Let's say you find yourself being overwhelmed by a boss because of the sheer number of adds or amount of damage being dished out. Your group dies. Before going for a second round, everyone can switch skills around to help out on tanking or healing duties, all without going back to town. The idea seems to work well in practice too, bringing a lot more thought to each encounter and reducing the prevalence of cookie-cutter builds.

You'll need a party to tackle the instances, but there is still a lot of solo play available. There will be specific areas made for grouping, and PvP will take place in both arenas and persistent battlegrounds for which you queue. While there's no official confirmation, these PvP zones may handle up to 100 players.

Equipment, stats, and crafting

I asked Martin Bruusgaard and Joel Bylos the critical question: How do you distinguish high-level characters from their lowbie counterparts? In traditional MMOs, the guy wearing a grass skirt and tattered cape will surely be lower-level than the guy in the shiny armor with glowing fire escaping from his helm. In TSW, you choose what your character looks like, and you'll never need to upgrade the look. If you like the jeans-and-t-shirts look, your endgame character can still look that way. Clothes will be cosmetic only and will not boost stats in any shape or form. Quests and instances will reward you with specific clothing sets that you can equip, but they won't contribute to your power in the game. Still, you'll probably want to display the clothing that you get deeper in the game for the cool factor alone.

So where do the stats come into play? Through chakras, the force centers of Hindu myth. You'll loot chakra enhancers that will boost some of your attributes, be they health, agility, defense, offense, crit chance, and so on. The interface for viewing chakras is inspired by classic Hindu depictions and works well with the mythological theme of the game.

Crafting will play an important part too. There is no harvesting per se, but you'll need to collect materials as drops or purchase them in game (for in-game currency, which hasn't been decided on yet) to craft items, which will be on par with the more powerful weapons in the game. These weapons play a role in boosting stats and are the only visual cue to your power. Top weapons are detailed and huge and will always display on your character when you have them equipped. You can have two weapons equipped at a time, and the game will switch them in your hand depending on which attack you use, seamlessly and with no penalty to gameplay.

Environment and atmosphere

I simply cannot write a preview of TSW without saying how great it looks. The atmosphere is great, the shadows are probably the best I've seen in a game, weather effects during boss encounters are an integral part of the strategy, and the sound design is out of this world. I got access to the Templars' training facility, its serene music clashing with the chained demons in a surreal environment I fell in love with. Music changes dynamically during combat, becoming more and more intense as adds appear and the challenge grows. Funcom has hit the mark on all those levels, making an immersive world vibrant and interesting. While I saw only a small portion of the game's territory -- the London starting point for the Templars, an island off the coast of Maine in the USA, the Polaris instance, a shipwrecked container vessel, and a Mayan-ruin PvP battleground -- ancient Egyptian tombs were also shown and looked spectacular. A mix of urban settings and mythological settings sets the stage for TSW.

There is collision with NPCs, meaning you can't just push through them. To prevent PvE griefers from blocking doors or quest givers, collision is disabled between players except during PvP, meaning that body blocking to protect your healers or your relics can be used.

A "subway" system, called Agartha, allows players to travel to different parts of the world. It was planned as a PvP battleground, but now it's a beautifully made transit system. The game lore hints that deeper levels of Agartha would be dangerous to wander through, so we can assume there will be game content to be found among its tiers. It's a beautiful environment for a travel system.

Three quests at a time?

"The team doesn't want players to stack up on quests and then do a milk-run to get those quests completed."

Right now, Funcom's plan is to allow players only three active quests at any given time, one for each type of quest (story, main, and side). The team doesn't want players to stack up on quests and then do a milk-run to get those quests completed. I'm not sure how that will fare with players in the end because you do have to choose what mission you'll undertake instead of taking all available. This means that you need to go back to the quest givers to get other quests that you couldn't take without replacing ones that are active. Of course, when you replace a quest with another one, your progress for the first quest is not lost, so you can pick up where you left off at a later time. And when you've completed a quest, you can simply send a report from wherever you are and get the rewards instantly without having to go back to the quest giver.

Most side quests are repeatable after a certain delay. I encountered a quest that had me searching for seven missing people, which I completed, but then when I took the quest again, it sent me hunting for the same people in the same locations. This lack of randomness is something I hope will be fixed when the game launches. You can also track objectives on the minimap, but it currently shows only one quest at a time. Finally, there will be investigation and exploration missions, in which you track and decipher puzzles hidden in the game world. Martin said that you'll need good knowledge of real-world mythology (or easy access to Google) and the ability to be analytical to be able to solve some of the harder puzzles in the game.

Payment model

TSW will be subscription-based and will also offer a store from which you can purchase items for real money. However, Funcom has stressed that no weapons or stat items will be offered, only cosmetic items and (maybe) some crafting materials.

The bottom line

There is so much to say about this game. It's still a work in progress, and continued development -- as well as beta testing -- will hopefully allow Funcom to fix all the little problems and turn all the planned features on. I hope it comes together in the end. It has a lot of promise, it looks fantastic, it plays really well, and it has me itching to play it. Other MMOs are looking quite bland now. Curse you, TSW... in a good way!
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