Updated Fri, Feb 24, 2012 by B. de la Durantaye
Come June the MMO space will have a new player in the field: Funcom's The Secret World, built from the ground up to stretch the limits of not only our imaginations, but also the extremities of the MMO norm. Funcom has set out to produce a game that strays significantly from the confines of conventional game play in modern MMOGs. The only question we've had since we first heard of the title a few years ago is, "Does it work?" That's exactly what we set to find out when we visited the Montreal Funcom studios last week and got our first hands-on taste of the augmented modern-themed MMOG.
To begin our inaugural tour of The Secret World we spent our first 45 minutes of game time in New York City, which is the starting area for new Illuminati characters. The Illuminati are one of the three playable factions in the game and they represent the ambitious corporate hand of the remaining populace in our exaggerated yet frighteningly almost-believable world.
New York City itself was a somewhat small game space. This makes sense, because it serves primarily as the starting point for Illuminati characters--the introduction to the game. However, given that the Labyrinth, the main Illuminati HQ, is located in NYC and all missions in the game are to be reported back to the Labyrinth, the city felt a little too small. It didn't quite feel like a major metropolis, but more like a few blocks of a suburb just outside of Jersey. I would have liked to have seen more recognizable landmarks, even if the play space was only a few city blocks. But nonetheless, the area succeeded at its mission of getting me acquainted with the basic game mechanics so I was ready to face more of the world.
As a veteran MMO player, I didn’t find those mechanics at all hard to pick up. Expect the same style of interaction and commands that you're used to in most of today's MMOGs. The real difference in the game didn't come from the basic mechanics but rather from the style of the presentation. For instance, though you still get a form of experience from combat and missions, it comes in the form of ability and skill points. There are no levels for your character to grind through, so instead you spend your earned AP and SP on abilities and skills. You earn ability points roughly three times faster than you do skill points and thus are able to purchase abilities sooner than skills for the most part although some later abilities cost many APs to purchase.
The cool thing here is that your character isn't restricted to the confines of a class-based system; rather you select the abilities you wish to use. You can purchase as many abilities as you like, but you can only have seven active and seven passive abilities up at any given time. There are 588 abilities in the current build of the game so there are plenty of options for customization. Almost too many. I found perusing the abilities a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, Funcom has provided 10 suggested builds for each society, known as Decks. These builds take abilities that work well together and make the selection a lot easier for beginners.
The more seasoned player, who understands how certain abilities cause states which can be exploited by other abilities, can delve right into custom builds. As such, The Secret World is also equipped with an advanced Search option right within the abilities window so the player can easily find the sort of ability they're looking for. They can sort abilities by type, so if they are looking for something with a knockdown effect they can quickly find all knockdown abilities and pick one based on their taste and needs.
The synergies between these abilities are an important part of TSW because they literally translate into how effective you are in combat and stealth. The system reminded me of the way builds work in Guild Wars, but with a lot more happening on-screen. Some abilities were power builders, while others were exploiters, and still others were situational utility. Various meters and indicators would fill up on the screen during combat and although each indicator had a distinct purpose I was still a bit overwhelmed by it all by the time we made our way over to the Scorched Desert, which is the Egyptian area of The Secret World. To be fair, though, Egypt is about 60 hours of play time deep into the game. It’s unlikely that anyone will be as green as I was by the time they reach the area in which we were playing during our hands-on demo. Funcom did assure us that there are proper tutorials within the game to educate the player about all the different displays happening on the screen during combat, so by the time a regular player starts on the missions in the Scorched Desert they should, theoretically, know what they're doing.