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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Secret World's Secrets

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Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

- Robert Frost

Another week, another beta test. This weekend I got to sit down with Funcom's new MMO, The Secret World, for the first time. It's a game I have been following a little over the last year or so, mainly due to what I find an interesting concept behind the game's lore, so I was pleased to get hold of a key for this weekend's test. I approached the game with some interest, though with no real plan to purchase on release (it would have to be really great to shift my focus away from The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, especially with it being a subscription-based MMO).

Zombie-bashin' time...
The game is due to launch in the next few weeks (on 3rd July), so I was keen to see how close to "finished" (or as finished as a launch MMO will ever get) the game was. There is one more weekend of testing to go before launch, and that will open up the PvP game for testing (sadly it wasn't available this weekend).

Like my recent Guild Wars 2 testing experience, everything in this article is based on my opinions of the early levels of the game (though the term "levels" isn't really appropriate as we shall see!). Before coming to the beta I was aware that the game had no character levels or character classes in the usual sense, so I was particularly interested to see how this would work.

The beta client was quick to install and downloaded without issues, clocking in at 12.6GB. I tried to log in and hit my first snag - the game would not authenticate my login. I clicked on the "Account" button which opened up my browser and took me to my account page, and from there I clicked the "Live Chat - Get Help Now" button at the bottom of the screen. Within the space of two minutes I had my problem resolved by a friendly customer services rep and I was able to log in. Kudos to Funcom on a great first impression with their customer service, which was quick, efficient and helpful. Other than that minor issue I encountered no problems or bugs during my playtime, other than one crash to desktop (which was never repeated).

Meet Roderick.
Character creation was interesting. There are no races as such, as in most other MMOs. All characters are Human (after all the game is set in the "real" world as well as the secret one). Facial customisation was pretty basic, with a selection of faces, noses, jaws etc to choose from. It was based on a slider system similar to that in The Old Republic, but with even fewer options. Maybe there will be more at launch, but experience with previous MMO betas says not.

The real visual customisation was given by the clothing choices, of which there were many. Chest, back, legs and boots could be chosen, and there were a large variety of designs and colours for each piece of clothing. There also appear to be clothing shops in game, and I can imagine further customisation will be given by clothing rewards. There are certainly enough options to create a unique looking character (as I saw whilst running round London - the hot pink pimp outfit I saw someone wearing was certainly striking!).

It's London baby!
Character creation finished with naming your character. You have to pick a first name, surname and nickname (the nickname is your unique identifier in the game that your friends will be using to send you /tells and group invites etc). Then it was time to log in and watch the introduction video.

The lore behind the game is really different to any other MMO I have played. Ostensibly it is set in the "real" world, but one in which strange forces are at play and many of the conspiracy theories are proving to be true. The video embedded below gives a good idea of the backstory. Kind of.


Trying to fight back the encroaching darkness and build their own power bases are three shadowy Secret Societies that make up the three factions in the game: The Templars (an ancient traditional society who will stop at nothing to hold back the darkness, based in London), The Illuminati (the puppet masters behind governments and corporations who crave power and wealth, based in New York), and The Dragon (a force for chaos and anarchy with no formal structure, based in Seoul, Korea).

I chose to join the Templars and the introductory cut-scene opened up on my character asleep in bed, before things started to get weird. I won't spoil it here, but the opening to the game is very odd, and illustrates the slightly unhinged, weird, creepy and darkly humourous tone that permeates the whole game. It really does feel like nothing else.

Before too long my character was being ordained into the Templars, training up his abilities, then being sent out to investigate strange goings on in the sleepy New England town of Kingsmouth (check out http://www.kingsmouth.com/ for the town's formal website - more on how the real world and the game blend together well later).

All is not well in Kingsmouth.
Whilst the presentation throughout the game is excellent, it is nowhere near as polished as other new MMOs such as The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2. Environment graphics are excellent and atmospheric, whether is be the rain-soaked streets of old London, or the sleepy, mist-enshrouded backwoods of New England. Character graphics however do leave something to be desired. Textures are sometimes basic, and the animations are stilted and somehow off in many situations.

The problem is exacerbated in the conversation cutscenes (this is another fully voiced MMO). These cutscenes offer a much  more cinematic experience compared to the ones in Guild Wars 2, but the character animations and graphics are shown up as being much less polished. It must be said that the writing and voice over work was uniformly excellent however, really bringing some of the characters to life and rivalling the excellent VO work in The Old Republic in many cases. The silent protagonist was a little jarring at first coming from TOR however.

You meet some odd characters along the way.
The environments I did get to explore were all very well designed - very atmospheric and full of (sometimes very unusual) life. With everything maxxed out (including DX11 tessellation) I was getting between 20 and 50 frames per second. The zones also seem absolutely huge and very open (after the game's tutorial anyway), with little funnelling of content.

The user interface is excellent - clear and functional, with some limited customisation (you are able to move and resize some components). I particularly liked the map (stylised, but still useful) and the quest tracker (which only tracks one active quest at a time, but allows easy switching and checking on progress of all quests).

As advertised the game really does not have any character classes or character levels in the traditional sense. Instead you earn skill points and ability points as you travel round, solve mysteries and take part in combat. These can then be spent on any combination of over 500 different abilities, allowing you to create a truly unique character.

It is a little confusing at first, to say the least, and I think there is plenty of potential for gimping your character if you aren't careful. There are also suggested templates, which are more like conventional classes, that you can build towards if you like, but they are simply suggestions and nothing more. You can choose a build from any of your trained abilities (a build is made up from any 7 active abilities taken from 2 of the three ability types - melee, ranged, and magic). These builds can then be saved and switched at the click of a button (so you can create a build specifically to deal with one particular boss mob for example, and switch to it on the fly). It's a very open-ended system, allowing you to concentrate on one area or spread your ability points around. I decided to put all mine into the bladed weapons tree to start. After a short while the system really does come into it's own, and it's easy to see the potential it offers, with even more freedom than that afforded by Rift's class system.

During the first hour of my play I was feeling a little disappointed by the game. The lack of polish, small locations and confusing mechanics left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Four hours later and I was just about hooked and I began to understand the potential, depth and mystery of the game.

I found combat in The Secret World to be a lot of fun. Like Guild Wars 2 there is the ability to dodge by double-tapping a direction key, but unlike that game I actually found it necessary to use. There are a lot of directional attacks in The Secret World, and I found that if I ran around, circle-strafed, and dodged attacks it did make a big difference. The effected areas of enemy attacks are well highlighted prior to their execution, making dodging them obvious, simple and fun.

Despite the requirement to have a target (as in most other MMOs) I actually found the combat a lot more involving and fun than the much-vaunted action combat of Guild Wars 2, even if the combat animations were nowhere near as polished. The combat felt both strategic and action-packed at the same time. It is also tougher than in most modern MMOs, which I found refreshing.

The death system is a little odd, with the player respawning as an anima-ghost and having to return to their corpse. Like much of the game it makes the systems feel like updated versions of old-school MMO mechanics, but I mean this in a good way.

Questing is a lot of fun. Quests are along the line of traditional MMO quests, but the quest hub system is well disguised, and exploration is well rewarded. As well as the usual quest givers there were absolutely loads of quests I discovered just by wandering around - quests triggered by lost cell phones, by examining corpses, or by reading a newspaper, and some quests involved puzzle solving or listening to NPC conversations for clues.

Nice carpet!
Most quests are multi-staged, and whilst most often requiring combat, they managed to seem fresh and interesting, and sometimes required a bit more thought than usual, with quest targets highlighted as areas on the map rather than exact locations as seems the norm nowadays. Once a quest is complete you file a report to your faction HQ remotely, so there is no backtracking to quest-givers required.

As well as the story quests the game also has a rather unique type of quest called Investigations. These quests are truly something different to the MMO norm, normally long and difficult, and require serious thought, and surprisingly actual investigation. These quests do not lead you by the hand, with no quest objectives on the map, and require you to find clues, even going as far as using the in-game browser to research the mystery thanks to hundreds of websites that the game developers have set up (like the Kingsmouth.com one I highlighted earlier).

For example, one of the Investigation quests I was given involved a woman asking me to investigate some murders that occurred in 2002. That was it! Just investigate them - no pointers or quest objectives at all! I won't spoil the solution here, but it involved a lot of travelling, some research on the web, and a very odd way of getting through a locked door. Another Investigation quest had me scouring Kingsmouth for hidden Illuminati symbols and looking up bible verses using the in-game browser.

I have to say that these quests were unlike anything I've ever played in an MMO, and if the same level of creativity is displayed in later areas there will be much fun to be had. Of course, the downside to such a novel quest system is the risk of spoilers. It's easy to find walkthroughs of MMO quests online nowadays, and there is always the risk of people blabbing in general chat (though during my short time beta testing that wasn't an issue - people were giving hints rather than blatant spoilers). It won't be for everyone, but if you are prepared to put some time in and use your brain, and can resist the urge to look up spoilers I think these quests will be amongst the most interesting and rewarding ever seen in an MMO.

The guild system (guilds are called Cabals) was not open in the beta test, but I did group up, which was fun as we tried to solve various mysteries together (once we'd figured out how to join up in the same zone instance). There are raids, world bosses and dungeons to play through, but I didn't get a chance to try them.

I didn't have time to try crafting unfortunately, and I doubt I will have time to do so before the game is launched. The game seems free from bugs (I only experienced one crash), and despite the lack of the very high levels of polish seen in The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 seems just about ready for launch.

So, where does all that leave me and how do I feel about the game? I actually came away from my short time testing seriously considering buying it (I'm still making up my mind, but I'm actually considering cancelling my Guild Wars 2 pre-order as I wouldn't have the time to play both).

Prepare to enter The Secret World.
The game is a little rough around the edges, and isn't very friendly to MMO newcomers, with a complex and deep ability system, some tough combat, and quests that require thought and patience. However, the atmosphere and story are truly unlike anything I've played before. It's like a weird cross between Call of Cthulhu, the X-Files and a Poe novel, with global conspiracy theories thrown over the whole for good measure.

I found the PvE game (at the early stages I played at least) to be a lot more fun and rewarding than the time I spent in the Guild Wars 2 beta. Guild Wars 2 was fun and very polished, but left me feeling a little cold, and the big features were not as revolutionary as I thought. The Secret World on the other hand is a rough diamond in comparison, and I have actually been missing running around it's crazy and weird world of dark forces and dark magic.

I'll probably wait until after next weekend's beta test (for a chance to check out the PvP game) before deciding whether to take the plunge, but despite the short time I got to spend in The Secret World I want to walk back through the anima portal and explore the branches of the world tree and fight my enemies in the Hollow Earth.

The Secret World will not be for everyone. It won't be a success on the scale of Guild Wars 2 for example, but I have to say I much preferred it. MMO gamers really have some good choices right now. If it sounds remotely interesting I encourage you to give it a go and you may find yourself surprised. I went in mildly interested and the developers have left me very impressed with their writing, quest system, ability system and world creation. Bravo Funcom!

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