The Secret World Hands-On Preview

We got our hands on Funcom's The Secret World its the latest press event and we learned that it's nothing like the typical MMOG. Will its unique features impress players or alienate them? Check out our preview for details.

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.

The Secret World screenshot

Illuminati out for a stroll in NYC.

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 didnÂ’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 Secret World screenshot

The Secret World's Ability Wheel.

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. ItÂ’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.

And knowing what youÂ’re doing by the time you reach Egypt is a good thing because the missions were a little challenging. Again, The Secret World is an all together different type of MMO, so challenge has a different meaning here. For instance, the story mission my group decided to work on had a simple-sounding goal: we needed to find the cultists within the city. As we explored the city (marked by a large slashed circle on the map and mini-map which will be quite familiar to Age of Conan players) we did indeed find some angered cultists. We assumed, in typical MMO fashion, that we just needed to kill them. So we did. As it turned out, that little display of gratuitous violence proved futile because it wasn't at all what we were supposed to be doing. One of our group members astutely noticed a "suspicious villager" walking around the village... suspiciously. Finding this suspicious, we followed. Eventually the villager led us outside the city and into a secret cave where they disappeared behind a door. Believing ourselves victorious we passed out our high fives as we clicked on the door to enter, only to have our celebration crash down on us by red text stating we could not enter dressed as we were. So while I began trying to strip down to the bare essentials, my group mates went about, found some villains adorning cult-like attire, and killed them for their outfits. Then we could proceed into the cultists' lair.

The Secret World screenshot

Entering the Ankh.

These are the sorts of challenges that The Secret World presents. The challenges aren't so much about figuring out the combat strategy (though there's plenty of that too in the instanced dungeons and boss fights) but rather thinking a little less conventionally to solve the mission you're working on. The missions are a lot more involved than in other MMOGs and require a good deal more thought. For this reason, it's perhaps a good thing that Funcom has limited players to only being able to work on three missions at once, and only one of each type (Story, Main, and Item). In this way, players need to either put their entire focus on the quest at hand, or give up one of their missions before they move on to something else. So don't expect quest hubs where you can gather 10 quests, go to an area, knock them all out, return for hand-ins, and then move onto the next hub. That just doesn't exist in The Secret World. Instead, expect to get wrapped up in a story, pulled to a distant land, and to spend an hour (or hours) solving its mysteries.

The deeper puzzles come in the form of investigation missions which will have players scouring the internet and using parts of their brains that may not have had much exercise while killing ten rats for the past 8 years in other MMOGs. I was only able to find and pursue one investigation mission during my time with the game but it did leave me craving more, as I do enjoy a good puzzle. Without spoiling too much I will say that the puzzle was challenging enough to make it really feel rewarding once it's figured out. It involved first finding a cleverly hidden object within the environment, then finding an alternate route into a building where we searched for clues. We then used the clues to find a codex on wikipedia (conveniently with a built-in web browser available in game for those who don't wish to alt-tab) which we then used in-game to hack a computer. This led us to another area where we had to memorize a series of audio tones and then play them back with no visual indicator. It was quite challenging, but a heck of a lot of fun for a puzzle-lover like me.

As you can begin to see, The Secret World is not your typical MMOG. Players who are looking for more of the same solo-quest-xp style gameplay probably won't find much fun here. But even though the stylings are quite different Funcom has still included some of their famous scripted dungeons which are a whole lot of fun for groups of friends. During our hands on time we were able to check out The Ankh dungeon.

The dungeon was cleverly scripted adding new twists to dungeon crawling. For instance, we were chased by "motes" which would latch onto a player and prevent them from using any abilities. If other players didn't kill the mote soon enough the attacked player would die.

The Secret World screenshot

Boss fight in the Ankh.

The boss fights in these dungeons were fun scripts as well. I don't want to post too much of a spoiler but suffice it to say that even the most seasoned dungeon runner will have a lot of fun figuring out the mini-boss and boss fights. Players will be challenged throughout the dungeons and then, in a more traditional style than most of the rest of the game, they will need to use all the skills theyÂ’ve learned in the dungeon to defeat the final boss.

Loot drops in dungeons and in the open world as well as mission rewards. But equipment itself comes in the form of “chakras,” which are simple stat builders. This system is similar to the systems we see in games like Champions Online where the equipment isn't necessarily reflected by a graphical change to the character, but does add stats to boost their performance. Chakras vary in stats but tend to be designed to a traditional model of healer, tank or DPS.

Usable items and chakras can be swapped and used conveniently from the inventory. But even more conveniently you can create your own bags by clicking on a button from the inventory window. This will open a new window with several item slots where you can fit various items and then transform that window into a whole new set of hotkeys. All in all there are 120 slots so players should rarely, if ever, run out of room.

Like your ability set and build you can save your gear set so you can conveniently switch back and forth between different roles and builds youÂ’ve created. You can even share these builds with friends in game. So if you have a standard tank template you'd like your guild tanks to try, just send it to them in game and they'll be able to use it (assuming they've unlocked the appropriate abilities).

It's refreshing to see Funcom trying to break away from the norm in MMOs and push for something new. But how big will the waves be from The Secret World? I suspect with such a strong shift away from standard MMO mechanics like quest hubs and experience levels that The Secret World may never find itself in the mainstream of MMOGs. But I don't think that's even what Funcom is shooting for with this game. It will definitely appeal to puzzle-lovers and the dungeons themselves are quite fun. Theorycrafters will have more than enough to keep them busy trying to find the perfect build among the ample supply of abilities.

With such an odd mix of elements, which are at times seemingly in direct opposition to each other, the question remains as to whether The Secret World will be able to captivate enough of a fan base to keep resources flowing in for post-launch development plans. Of course, it's also possible that its mélange of unique features is a perfect combination to answer a large segment of MMOG players' demands. One thing is for sure though: come June no one will ever again be able to say "all MMOs are the same." The Secret World is anything but.

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