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PAX East 2012: The Secret World demo

Funcom's The Secret World has had a big weekend at PAX East with its first public chance for hands-on interaction! It's a game that's been stirring up quite a bit of interest; the classless, level-less progression system, secret societies, and sword-and-automatic-rifle genre-bending are just a few of its selling points. My ears tend to perk up when the game gets mentioned, so of course I was all but falling over myself to hop into the playable demo this weekend. Walking away from that experience, though, I'm unconvinced.

What I'm mostly unconvinced about is the idea that a stroll-up demo is really the best way to get a feel for The Secret World. A large part of the appeal of the game, in my estimation, comes from its story, and not just the character story, which you more or less miss out on by walking up to a demo station and finding yourself wherever the person before you left off when he or she wandered away, but the narrative of the world surrounding characters. The game setting is described as a world where every myth, conspiracy theory, and urban legend is true; players can travel around the world to cities both real and mythical and through time itself as they unravel the plot. Almost all of that is hard to impart in the span of a demo.

I am in no way blaming Funcom for the fact that I didn't get 15 hours to sit down with the game, craft a character with loving attention to detail, and then get lost in the nooks and crannies of in-game lore. It's just that in light of the relative absence for what might be the most compelling aspect of the game, it's difficult to talk in any definite way about the experience. The Secret World is in beta, and beta is beta, as the kids say. So the fact that jumping currently looks like an odd mixture of a pogo-dancing animation mixed with City of Heroes' Super Jump isn't something that bothers me. I assume that it, like unvoiced dialogue lines and other trimmings, will be fixed by the time Funcom deems the game ready for launch.

The Secret World: Clique Edition
The beta-testing state of things also leaves me wondering whether the oddly far-reaching mob audio was a sign that the game needs a little more polish or was an intentional addition to the surreal atmosphere (I could hear the breath-patterns of zombies scores of yards away from me as if they were crawling right behind me, and combat that was so far off as to be no more than a speck of lighting effects in the corner of my screen that sounded like a mini-apocalypse unfolding right next to me). These and other things that I assume are a matter of polish or my own philistine nature did nothing to take away from the fact that the environment design is truly lovely and the lighting effects are stunning.

In fact, there wasn't much anything that I'd point a finger at as being bad about the game. Combat was functional and mostly fun as both melee and ranged characters (a key exception being one hideous beastie who refused to either die or do any real damage to me; the fight offered neither challenge nor interest, so I just kept backing away and shooting round after round until he finally, grudgingly, gave in and collapsed into a splendidly twitchy death animation). The game encouraged mobility, and I ran into only a few rooting skill animations. The lack of a class system intrigues me, but I wasn't able to explore it much as the only time I looted up a weapon, I found that putting points into abilities for that weapon seemed to be locked for the demo.

I'm still eagerly awaiting The Secret World. I think it has wonderful potential, and I think everything I was able to see was on par with what I'm expecting in the long run from the game. I just wish there had been more to see. I think that when we're able to really dig into the meat of the story of the game, everything else will fall into place.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of April 6-8, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2012. Whether you're dying to know more about TERA or PlanetSide 2 or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!

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