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PAX East 2012: Exploring the dark corners of The Secret World


As anyone around the Massively offices can tell you, I am eagerly-bordering-on-obsessively awaiting the release of Funcom's latest entry into the MMO market, The Secret World. I'm all about the supernatural, occult, and paranormal, and The Secret World's "all the myths are true" philosophy is right up my alley, so when I heard that there would be a playable demo at PAX East 2012, it was all I could do not to squeal like a 12-year-old girl (and I may have done so anyway).

Of course, many people are hesitant about the title. Between The Secret World's subscription-cum-microtransactions business model and Funcom's track record of poor launches and bug-laden games, some gamers are finding themselves hesitant to get hyped up for the game's June 19th launch. Of course, I'd be lying if I said I weren't at least a bit cautious myself, regardless of my enthusiasm for the game. So how is the game shaping up? Well, sit down, grab yourself a drink, and let me tell you what I think.

First, let me give a quick primer for anyone who hasn't been following The Secret World up until now. The game is set in the modern day, and players join one of three secret societies: the Templars (not to be confused with their ancient predecessors, the Knights Templar), the Illuminati, and the Dragons. Each society has its own agenda, but even as they fight amongst themselves, they're united in the war against a rising evil that exists just beyond the periphery of the common world. Progression in the game is not class or level-based but instead players can forge their own unique ability set using the game's skill wheel system. Story is purported to play a large role in the game, which will introduce a type of quest called Investigation Missions. These missions will have players running around the in-game world as well as scouring the real-world (and the internet) for clues to solve numerous puzzles that will shed light on the story of The Secret World.

I will preface this preview by saying that I did not have a guided tour of the demo during my time at PAX. Funcom wasn't taking media appointments, so the entirety of my gameplay experience is based on what meager playtime I was able to squeeze in between the appointments that I did have. If I had to guess, I'd say I managed about 45 minutes to an hour of playtime total, and this didn't include character creation or much in the way of skill progression, so if those are your main draws for this game, I'm afraid I won't be of much use.

I did get to take part in the Templar starting experience as well as a bit of exploration in the Lovecraft-inspired New England town of Kingsmouth, and to be quite honest with you, I enjoyed every second of it. The first thing that really stood out to me about The Secret World was its atmosphere. The team has done a great job of setting an eerie vibe that keeps you just slightly on-edge, even in the relatively safe confines of London proper. But the ambiance really shone in Kingsmouth, where a terrible evil has taken grasp of the city in the midst of its Halloween celebrations. The attention to detail was really fantastic (I found myself navigating the city not via my map but rather by the town's street signs, which included such gems as Lovecraft Lane), and it truly gave the sense of a once-bustling, happy town that had undergone a sudden and horrible tragedy rather than a developer-constructed playground in which to go zombie-killing.

Screenshot -- The Secret World
The missions available were varied and considerably different than the usual "run here, kill this, and come back" quests you tend to see in many other MMOs, and I think this would be best explained by example. During my time exploring the city, I found my way into a back alley that contained a door leading down to a psychic's reading parlor. The medium had holed herself up down there, noting that it doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that the city's gone to hell. She told me about some visions she had been having in which the only unifying feature was a flock of ravens, so I was tasked with uncovering the meaning behind these haunting hallucinations. After a bit more exploration, I came upon a few ravens huddled together on the streets, but when I attempted to investigate, they flew off in a frenzy. The mission tracker then notified me that I should probably follow them, so I did. After a couple of minutes of chasing the flying rodents, I heard an unearthly roar coming from behind me (which may or may not have caused me to nearly jump out of my skin), and turned around to find a revenant rushing headlong in my direction, sword raised. In a panic, I pumped him full of shotgun shells faster than I could say "HOLYCRAPWHATISTHAT." Of course, that's not the entirety of the quest (which I didn't finish for fear of spoiling the conclusion), but it gives you a good idea of how Funcom is trying to build a sense of mystery and eerie atmosphere into the game's missions.

I also got the opportunity to dabble with the game's skill wheel a bit, and frankly it blew my mind. The sheer amount of customization options available to players are insane, and at times, a bit overwhelming. If you want to rock an assault rifle and a katana (and boy did I ever), you can. If you'd rather specialize in a single branch of magic, you can do that, too. The number of possible combinations I found was absolutely ludicrous, and I barely scratched the surface. To use another example, as I mentioned, I decided to go with an assault-rifle-plus-katana combination for the duration of my demo, but within that combination alone were a number of other possible combinations.

For instance, I could choose to focus on AoE attacks to take out the large hordes of zombies I found myself up against, or I could build myself in a way that provided high single-target damage so that I could hold my own against the monstrous draugr. Beyond that, I could have chosen to focus on debuffing attacks that slowed enemy movement speed and made them more vulnerable to my attacks, and I could even go the combat-medic route and pick up some heals. Keep in mind that all of these options were available within the blade and assault-rifle skill sections alone, and then take a moment to consider the fact that there are dozens upon dozens more available combinations in the myriad other segments of the skill wheel. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're the kind of person who likes to tailor his character until it's just so, The Secret World has got you covered.

Screenshot -- The Secret World
Combat itself is fast-paced and exciting with a high emphasis on mobility. Of the abilities I experimented with, I can only think of one or two that I couldn't use on the move. The game expects you to be very mindful of your surroundings, and collision detection makes it possible to utilize strategic bottlenecks to even the odds against larger groups of enemies. I don't know what else to say about combat, frankly, except that it's quite solid.

Of course, this is a beta build, and no game is perfect (and that goes double for games in the beta stage), so there are a few quirks and qualms I want to bring to light. For starters, many of the animations were dodgy at best and absolutely horrible at worst. The jumping animation right now makes it seem like your character uses his latent telekinetic powers to simply lift himself off the ground, and many of the sword ability animations involved the character's upper body swinging wildly while his feet remained anchored in place. The game also can't really seem to make up its mind about whether it wants you to target things. Many of my shotgun abilities were conal AoEs that I could simply fire off without targeting anything, but some would only affect a single target (and not necessarily the one that my character was visually aiming at at the time), which led to some frustrating instances of "No no no, I wanted to use my slow on the other one." Much of the voice acting is very obviously unfinished (or at least, hopefully unfinished), but the written dialogue itself was quite strong so that's a plus at any rate. I guess ultimately what I'm getting at is that the game is in desperate need of polish, and to be quite honest, I'm not entirely convinced that the team is going to be able to give it the polish it needs between now and June.

On the whole, though, The Secret World is shaping up to be a very solid entry into the MMO market. It's tackling a genre that has yet to be seen in a triple-A title, and the team has done a wonderful job of building a world brimming with atmosphere and detail. The investigation missions do a fantastic job of providing players with a more cerebral and lore-focused avenue of progression, and assuming that the bugs and kinks can be ironed out in time for launch, I believe The Secret World will provide gamers looking for something fresh with a fantastic universe to explore and discover. We'll see how the game turns out when it launches this June, but until then, folks, prepare yourselves. Dark days are coming.

Massively was 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 have it covered!

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