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The Secret World Preview from NYCC '11 - Tokyo Flashback and New Gameplay Insights

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According to Creative Director Ragnar Tørnquist, development of The Secret World began in 2006 - over two years before Age of Conan launched - and writers went to work four to five years before that, when the game was known as Cabal. But now years have turned to months (six, to be exact) as The Secret World approaches an April 2012 release date, and Funcom went public this past weekend with a panel appearance at NY Comic Con 2011.

The Secret World Sets the Stage – Tokyo Flashback

Ragnar kicked things off by introducing some of the major characters, most of which you’ll recall from the game’s trailers released to date. There’s the Revenant-shotgunning Rose the Templar, the Illuminati’s urinal monster-fighting Alex, and Mei Ling of the Dragons (whose milkshake-making was messed with by a ceiling-crawling monster). But there’s also Zubari, a mysterious, Jamaican-accented gent who's apparently tasked with reminding the player factions that there are bigger fish creatures to fry even as they fight each other for power.
Introductions were necessary because the showpiece of The Secret World’s NY Comic Con presence – “Tokyo Flashback” – made heavy use of the game’s iconic characters, whose bickering throughout the demo was alternately hilarious and informing. The scene was the Japanese capital’s subway system, where a zombifying blight called “the filth” is spreading among the densely packed population. 

The Secret World Tokyo Flashback
Rose looks on as the Filth-created horrors in the Tokyo Metro rush to meet the player.
While Rose, Alex, and Mei Ling start to succoumb to the Filth, the player remains mysteriously unaffected. This goes to the tutorial-esque “gentle” learning curve of the experience - Ragnar noted that the team doesn’t consider Tokyo Flashback to be a tutorial, explaining that Funcom’s main objective is to “teach through playing - but also to a setup for the unique power of the player. 
That setup ends with a boss fight and a glimpse at "the mystery beyond," which to me looked like planets moving among platelets like you'd find in a bloodstream. Mystery indeed! You can catch the entire demo in this video fresh from NY Comic Con 2011 (quality is a bit rough because of the underpowered projector and reflective screen, my apologies):
[video]http://video.tentonhammer.com/secretworld/NYCC11-TSW.flv[/video]
While Tokyo Flashback was a heavily scripted set-piece, Ragnar noted that The Secret World will contain story missions like this one (some of which are “ranking missions” to ascend the hierarchy of your faction to gain perks like uniforms, items, and lore, but also investigations which mimic adventure gameplay á la Uncharted or LA Noire, PvP warzones, and plenty of open world gameplay totaling over 250 hours of content.

The Secret World Gameplay  - New Insights

In the course of the demo and Q&A session, Ragnar told us more about gameplay and combat in The Secret World than we’ve heard about before. First, though the trailers and gameplay footage we’ve seen hints at FPS-style reticule targeting, Ragnar confirmed that TSW will use tab-targeting, though he was careful to note that you have to have line of sight to the target (so taking cover is possible for both players and AI). Players using firearms won't have to worry about ammo counts for basic attacks, either.

Next, similar to Guild Wars 2,  a player’s seven abilities are determined by the two weapons he or she equips. Players can learn new abilities in the course of the game – Zubari taught a basic heal during the Tokyo Flashback -  and can swap out up to seven of these weapon based abilities.  But unlike Guild Wars 2, given enough time a player can master everything.
Ragnar also summed up the nine different categories of weapons as follows:
Ranged

  • Pistols – Short range, fast firing
  • Shotguns – Medium range (to account for spread), damages multiple enemies in a duckbill pattern
  • Assault Rifles – Medium to long range firearms

Magic

  • Blood Magic – the “medieval, Latinate, demon summoning” magic
  • Elemental Magic – more “scientific” magic, manipulating the elements to do your bidding
  • Chaos Magic – timing-based magic founded on “chaos theory, butterfly in Central Park flapping its wingsÂ… kind of thing”

Melee

  • Blades – Swords (Ragnar mentioned a progression of katanas, in particular), axes, and anything else with a handle and an edge
  • Hammers – According to Ragnar, these can be “quite huge”
  • Fist weapons – For the martial artists in the crowd, these bladed and blunted enhancements affix to your fists of fury.

Ragnar also handled several questions in reference to the game’s level-free, class-free nature. To how players will know their role in a ground absent clear-cut classes, Ragnar noted that players will have a variety of abilities to choose from and can self-select into roles to fill the group’s needs. As for how players will “feel” like their progressing through the game without levels to guide them, Ragnar explained that The Secret World will use a robust item progression “similar to Borderlands or Diablo.”

The Secret World’s Story and Setting

We know the The Secret World models a mythicized real world – In addition to real world locations Funcom has already revealed – detailed if not street-level versions of London, Seoul, New York, the town of Sullivan in Maine,  Egypt, and Transylvania. What we didn’t know is that out-of-the-way real world locations that anyone can visit will work as fronts for faction headquarters. “We’re taking photos of the Illuminati spot in Brooklyn tomorrow,” Ragnar quipped.

The Secret World's Other Factions
Dozens of "wild card factions" add to the depth of storytelling in The Secret World.
In response to another question about factions, Ragnar related that the game will play host to “dozens” of wild card factions beyond the big three. In addition to the Council of Venice, the “UN” of the playable factions “in good ways and bad”, factions such as the Phoenicians will work to help (or stymie) the work of the Illuminati, Dragons, and Templars. And while players chose that faction allegiance early in the game’s Facebook prologue, Ragnar noted that phase two is coming “very soon.”
One particular quote of Ragnar’s was particularly refreshing to me, especially as overt pop culture references, over-mainstreaming, and general plot confusion abounds in the market leader: “We take story seriously; we have fun with it, we don’t make fun of it.” As the stock of cohesive storyline rises in the next generation of MMOs (beginning with Star Wars: The Old Republic) The Secret World seems well suited to take advantage when the game goes live next April. Our thanks to Funcom and panel sponsors MMORPG.com for their presentation at NY Comic Con 2011.

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