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GDC 2012: The Secret World's crafting, combat (and cutscenes) revealed

Jef Reahard

Funcom's hush-hush demo at last week's Game Developer's Conference was quite a bit of fun, even if the opening few minutes treaded perilously close to wince-inducing. The Secret World creative director Ragnar Tornquist kicked things off with a brief introduction, which was followed by a look at the game's character creation as experienced by a female Dragon-faction avatar.

Once that was complete, we got an eyeful of some opening cinematics, and I do mean an eyeful. If you've never watched a lesbian makeout scene alongside a half dozen sweaty male game journos (and a couple of pretty PR girls), well, let's just say that it's hilarious to think about now and fairly awkward to actually experience.

The Secret World - character creation
But back to character creation.

"We try to make it as flexible as possible without having huge amounts of sliders," Tornquist explained. "I'm a fan of simplified character creation options myself, but we'll still have enough options for everybody to look unique."

The demo build did look pretty robust here, and Tornquist went through a fair number of minute details -- including several shades of eyebrow color -- before explaining that more customization is planned for launch. Clothing selection will be "reasonably limited" at the start mainly because Funcom wants players to unlock appearance options via gameplay and, of course, the cash shop.

Funcom allows for both a first and last name in keeping with TSW's modern setting, and Tornquist told us that a third name, basically your nickname, is the unique moniker by which your character will be addressed.

The newbie experience

At this point, Tornquist turned over the presentation to lead content designer Joel Bylos, who proceeded to fill us in on TSW's hub cities. The Dragon demo character began her adventures in the hub city of Seoul, and the devs maneuvered her through realistically modeled streets to follow a strange raincoat-clad child who serves as the initial quest-giver.

It was here that I first became a bit concerned about The Secret World. The starter instances, while beautifully rendered, seemed smallish and somewhat linear, and I'm willing to risk the wrath of flamethrower-touting Star Wars: The Old Republic fanboys to report that TSW seems to be following the former's lengthy cinematic cutscene lead (at least in the early going). Some people will love this, I'm sure, but I just... don't... care about dev-driven MMO story -- at all -- and I found myself wishing that I was in control of the Dragon character so I could spacebar my way to the actual gameplay.

Anyhow, Bylos talked up the game's MMO features while this was going on, and you can expect the usual banks, auction houses, and even fight clubs in the various social hubs. Next, Funcom jumped the demo ahead several stages to preview the game's combat, and lead designer Martin Bruusgaard took center stage.

The Secret World - fighting vampires in Transylvania
Progression and combat

Gameplay begins and ends with XP, of course, and Bruusgaard told us that experience may be earned via missions, faction tasks, crafting, PvP, or plain old monster-killing. The XP bar is divided into three segments, and filling a single segment results in an ability point. Filling the entire bar gives a skill point, and both types of points may be spent via the ability wheel, which is an enormous contraption featuring over 500 abilities.

These abilities are spread across nine distinct weapon types: shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, blades, hammers, fist weapons, blood magic, chaos magic, and elementalism. Each ability is also categorized as an active or a passive. Bruusgaard then showed us what Funcom refers to as a cell, and each cell holds seven abilities that must be purchased sequentially (starting with the basics at the top and ending with elite abilities at the bottom). Elites are super-powerful as you would expect, and consequently players can only equip one active and one passive elite at a time.

Your skill loadout will consist of seven actives and seven passives. Bruusgaard said there's a certain amount of synergy between these various abilities. "Players can wield two weapons at the same time, so a lot of the player skill comes in finding the right combination and also finding the abilities that work well with one other," he explained.

At this point we got to see a dual-wielding shotgun/assault rifle character mowing down mobs in one of the The Secret World's Egypt zones. We also discovered that each weapon in the game has unique resources attached to it, and by using abilities called builders, players can either "build" resources on themselves or on their targets, which results in various effects like healing, crowd control, extra damage, etc.

The Secret World - ghost program interface
No class(es)

As you're probably aware by now, The Secret World has no classes, and Bruusgaard explained how every role in the game can serve as a damage-dealer. Players are also able to branch out due to the secondary effects attached to each weapon (like the leeching effects on an assault rifle, for example), and interestingly, entire sets of gear and abilities can be swapped out in the field with the click of a button.

I was quite pleased to note that your avatar isn't rooted to the ground while casting spells and abilities, and Bruusgaard said that in-combat movement is crucial to success in The Secret World. "You can watch the monster's animations and pay attention to your surroundings and really avoid a lot of bad things and damage," he said.

Next, Funcom whisked us away to the Blue Mountain CDC camp to view another cutscene (which basically consisted of an overly talkative Center for Disease Control worker who filled us in on the creepy happenings in the area). "Frankly, if it wouldn't violate protocol, I could really use a hug," she deadpanned.

Bylos then showed us a nifty in-game interface called the ghost program that simulates a command line terminal. He said that players can interact directly with many computers in the game-world, and the quasi-authenticity of the interface was a welcome departure from typical Hollywood hacker setups. When combined with an in-game HTML dump to the mission journal, the ghost program resulted in a good bit of additional immersion.

The Secret World's achievement system debuted next, and Bylos explained that Funcom intends it to serve as a bonus for people who actually pay attention to the story (and by bonus, we mean additional XP, not just a diversionary minigame). And there are a lot of achievements, if our quick glimpse at the interface is anything to judge by.

The game's lore system also got a mention here, and it looks to be different from the encyclopedia entries you may be familiar with from other MMOs. "This is a story being told to you by a mysterious narrator," Bylos explained as he collected a lore piece. "It's for filling in the cracks in the jigsaw puzzle and solidifying it into a picture for players."

The Secret World - lore journal interface
Crafting... in Transylvania?

Next up was a trip to Transylvania. We loaded into a burned-out Soviet-era town that was besieged by some particularly nasty bloodsuckers. "These aren't your standard vampires," Tornquist said. They can move around in the daylight for one, and later versions of them are the frighteningly dangerous result of some Stalin-era experiments gone awry. While the devs cut through hordes of vampire foes (and rode nifty zip-lines between a couple of decrepit buildings), Bruusgaard took the wraps off The Secret World's crafting system.

Funcom uses the word "transcribing" to describe its tradeskilling approach, and it basically entails breaking down existing items and learning the appropriate shapes (and how certain items are constructed). Once you've done that, you can change the items and reconstruct them to feature the kind of stats you'd like to complement a particular skill build.

Bruusgaard chose a looted hammer for his first example, but it didn't have any stats that meshed with his current skill build (which focused on critical and penetrating strikes). He disassembled the hammer with a button press, which resulted in component items laid out in the shape of a hammer in his crafting window. This shape defines the item type, he explained, while the materials determine what sort of stats go on the item.

He then took the metal gained from disassembling the hammer and refined it (another button press), which resulted in a stack of pure metal. He combined these with pre-existing pure metal items in his inventory and laid them all out in the shape of the hammer. Bruusgaard added a weapon assembly kit to raise the quality level, and after another button press, he found himself in possession of a rare hammer with increased weapon power. He was still missing the critical and penetrating strike stats, though, and achieving them required a bit more explanation.

All items in The Secret World have a prefix, a core, and a suffix, and players may create any or all of these items and combine them however they wish. Bruusgaard created a prefix item with the necessary critical stats and then combined it with a prefix assembly kit. This resulted in a glyph of ferocity, and combining it with the rare hammer led to a fierce hammer with the desired stats.

Funcom's aim here is to make a crafting system that is both accessible and integral to the game, particularly when it comes to players' being able to make gear that matches their preferred skill decks and playstyle. Crucially, Bruusgaard also mentioned that players are free to trade these prefix, core, and suffix items as they see fit, which should lead to both unique weapons and an actual in-game economy that doesn't gloss over crafters in favor of loot drops.

The remainder of our time with The Secret World consisted of a look at the Darkness War dungeon and boss fight as well as some hands-on time with the Dragon and Templar starter areas. While I do have some concerns about the prevalence of the "MMO story" gimmick in The Secret World, overall I must admit to being pretty impressed with most aspects of the game. The crafting reveal in particular was quite a pleasant surprise, and while your first reaction may be "wow, that's like Minecraft," Funcom's take on the mechanics ultimately bodes well for a more complete MMORPG experience as opposed to yet another combat lobby.

The Secret World was certainly on my gaming radar prior to this demo session, but I'm happy to report that it's now smack dab in the center. Frankly, I can't wait for June 19th.

The Secret World - boss fight
Massively sent four resolute reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! From games like The Secret World to PlanetSide 2, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!

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