The Secret World preview

The Secret World just might have more sheer potential than any other game in development today. Its ideas are extremely ambitious, and it’s one of the most unique offerings in the genre in years. The Secret World could aptly be called a complete rethinking of the MMO genre. From the aesthetics to the quests, and down to the very core of the game design, this game breaks MMO conventions at every opportunity. But with such innovation comes incredible risk, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Funcom is offering up more than the industry is ready for.

Perhaps the most jarring thing to confront when you first see The Secret World is that everything takes place in the present, on modern Earth. The game stars mostly average people, and is far removed from the fantasy of WoW or the futurism of EVE. After years of dealing damage with robed spell casters and chain-mailed tanks it’s a bit jarring to watch a 17-year-old Japanese girl unload on a zombie with a sledgehammer instead.

TSW’s plot hinges around the idea that every conspiracy theory, crackpot idea, or mythological story is actually true. And now, for reasons unknown to us, those stories are infringing on the real world, revealing themselves to humanity. Some enemies we saw were based on old Viking stories about what happened to warriors who drowned at sea. A level we saw was based on the lost city of El Dorado. The mysticism blending with the real world gives this game a vague Lovecraftian vibe in many parts. A couple boss characters we saw even kind of looked like Cthulhu.

But it’s not just aesthetics and setting that The Secret World is doing differently. They’re also deeply uprooting MMO convention by completely doing away with levels of any kind. Traditional MMO progression has gone out the window. In its stead, Funcom has implemented a system of skill points. The more you play, the more skill points you’ll have to unlock new skills. These skills aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other, just different. They liken it to guns in Call of Duty or cards in Magic: The Gathering. Individual guns/cards aren’t necessarily better than one another, but when paired with the right play style they can all be powerful. The more of them you have, the more options you have. There are over 500 skills to collect as you go along through the game, all of which can be acquired by a single character, giving that player tons of options for play styles. Part of the fun will be figuring out which skills to pair together to form your build.

Beyond that, TSW is also taking a new route when it comes to PVP. Rather than the usual two faction competitive play, they’ve created a three faction system. The Illuminati, the Templars, and the Dragon are all working together to solve the mystery of why the world’s myths are coming into reality, but they’re also battling each other for supremacy at all times. This battle plays out on the PVP battlefields and can have real consequences throughout the realm. Victorious factions will earn buffs and experience gains for their entire faction on their server, making them even more formidable. This is balanced by the three faction system. If one faction takes over, the other two will march in and try to even the score.

One battleground we saw featured the Illuminati deeply entrenched in a temple. The Dragon and the Templars wanted to uproot them and gain the buffs for their own faction, and so an uneasy alliance is forged between the two losers to oust the Illuminati. As the Dragon and Templars stormed the temple (they had to accomplish objectives like blowing open armored doors along the way while the Illuminati tried to stop them) the system showed its political complexity. The two losing factions need to oust the Illuminati, and so they work together. At the same time, they have to be maneuvering themselves so that when the Illuminati are gone, they’ll be the stronger team and can take over. It’s a delicate balance made even more complex because the entrenched faction has a special advantage: a huge, hulking mech that smashes the crap out of your team if you get too close.

As if all of this wasn’t enough there’s even a little bit of an Alternate Reality Game layered into this innovative smorgasbord. The ARG bits can show up occasionally in the game’s environments and can require real world research to solve. For instance, part of our demo took place in the wreckage of a shipping boat that disappeared mysteriously in 2007 and became legend. In the wreckage there was a crate that required a password to open. One of the ways to acquire the password for that crate is to go online and research that ship. Shrewd researchers would find that the shipping code for that ship would open the crate. Whether this will have any serious implications for the game (or if it will just be a fun diversion for those who like ARGs) remains to be seen.

The Secret World has loads of potential, and a huge swath of brand new ideas. It’s only noticeable flaw may be that it’s trying to do too much. It has so many new ideas that it’s hard to imagine all of them working. That said, Funcom gleaned a huge amount of experience and expertise from their work on Age of Conan. We’re excited to see them taking a step so far out of the box and couldn’t be more intrigued by The Secret World.

Aug 27, 2011

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