The MMO genre is currently attempting to inject originality into itself, breaking the monotony that has ultimately caused it, with the exception of a few key players, to stagnate. Funcom had already tried once with Age of Conan, although the end result was unfortunately lacking. However, their second attempt at an MMORPG, The Secret World, moves closer to release, and after years of following its progress from the safety of preview articles and involving ARGs, I finally got my chance to gets hands-on with it during the first beta weekend.
For the uninitiated, The Secret World takes place in a modern day setting where the numerous myths of ages and conspiracy theories are all true, filled with horrors clearly inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In this world, secret societies work to preserve humanity’s place, although they all want to ultimately have power and be on control. At launch players will be able to choose from three such factions; The traditionalist Templars, the extravagant Illuminati, and the manipulative Dragon, who will be fighting each other for dominance whilst keeping the forces of darkness at bay. In the beta weekend only the Templars and the first location of Kingsmouth were available, but it was more than enough content for me to discover what to expect in Funcom’s next title.
Character creation was naturally the first thing I encountered, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the system. While there appeared to be a sense of scale and range to the options available, I ultimately felt incredibly limited in what I could do for my character. Curious design choices, such as only allowing certain skin tones for certain facial structures, leapt out immediately (in fact two of my friends who were also testing out TSW were not even aware they could change skin tone.) Clothing options were a little lacklustre, and I ultimately had to design my virtual alter-ego McGarnagle (yeah, of course I was going to make him) to look like a smart looking hipster (which I know is an oxymoron, but it’s the best way to describe the end result.) What didn’t surprise me when I got in-game was how many players ended up selecting the same clothing configuration. As such, I hope that the variation in character creation is increased for launch.
Also, a lack of decent large beard options upset me greatly, and our editorial overlord Matt will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of any afro option.
That wasn’t the only thing griping me with character creation. To progress forward players must choose three names; a first name, a nickname, and a surname. However, only the nickname is used in-game and the other two are relegated to the character sheet. While I completely understand the desire to keep everything as grounded in reality as possible, it ultimately felt forced and did nothing to sway the usual level of random nametags (the fact one of my friends used “mansabadman” as his nickname pretty much says it all.) However, I decided that I needed to get past my superficial grievances by seeing what the actual game was like, so Harry “McGarnagle” McGarnagle made his way into The Secret World and began his journey as an initiate of the Templars.
And it’s a journey that started with a bee…
My experience begin with an in-game cutscene that showed a glowing (and assumingly magic) bee flying into McGarnagle’s apartment and taking a one-way trip into his mouth. After a few short scenes depicting his struggle to control the new-found magical powers, McGarnagle received a visit from a Templar agent who urges him to join their cause by heading to their HQ in London. It was after this that I was able to gain control for the first time and initially things weren’t too unfamiliar. Typical third person controls with the WASD setup are in play here, but I did find the Halo-esque jumping, although humorous, a little out of place. Following the waypoint on my mini map I was guided to a crazed prophet, who managed to use some sort of voodoo to send my character into a dream state to begin the combat tutorial.
With a shotgun at my disposal, I was greeted by the three characters that have starred in the CGI trailers; Rose, Mei Ling, and Alex. Picking up quests was a little alien to me to begin with, as small boxes hovering above NPCs needed to be clicked to be expanded, revealing the quest text. Apparently now in the underground transport hub of Tokyo, I found myself fighting off waves of filth-infected foes with action mechanics of a manner similar of that found in recent MMO Tera, and slightly reminiscent of Guild Wars 2. As I progressed through the level I unlocked more abilities, introducing the Resource mechanic. Those who have played the Rogue class in World of Warcraft will be familiar with the system, as using certain abilities builds up these Resources up to a maximum of five, and can then be used on powerful skills for bonus damage. It was simple to play, and more importantly it was fun once I got going.
Shortly afterwards I returned to London to pick my starter weapon and make my way to Kingsmouth. I took this opportunity to join up with three friends who had kindly volunteered to join me for the beta weekend (a big thanks to the usual suspects of Dan, Jonny and George.) It was here that we collectively came across the biggest problem with TSW so far; the social aspect. With no friends list, we were unable to properly track each other when not in the same instance, and even when grouped it took us several times of throwing the group leader position around to finally end up in the same instance to play together. It was a messy affair that definitely needs remedying before the release.
Each of us decided to take a different weapon set to see how they complimented each other. I took the assault rifle to act as support, Jonny took the Shotgun to provide AoE damage, George took elemental magic to provide high level damage, and Dan took the insanely overpowered katana with the intention of being our ‘tank’. However, his basic attack was an AoE attack that could be spammed to no end, allowing Dan to survive pretty much anything, as well as showing that some skill balancing is still needed by Funcom. Still, it meant that we had a full group and headed into Hollow Earth, which acts as the transport hub for the game. If what we saw is any indication, the game world is going to be huge as the tree-like nexus seemed to go on forever, and it was a fair walk from the London portal to Kingsmouth. Once we arrived at our destination though, we released that Hollow Earth was a fair reference of scale, because the playable area of Kingsmouth was a lot larger than we were expecting.
It didn’t take long for us to get into the action, taking a quest from the first NPC we encountered and following the breadcrumbs to the fortified police station. You see, Kingsmouth is currently experiencing something of a zombie infestation, and with the townsfolk either pinned down or undead, it’s up to the players to get to the bottom of the problem. At this point you may be expecting the usual set-up of quest chains, gathering up all the tasks available, going to their location, killing mobs or picking up items, and then returning, rinse / repeat, but this is where TSW diverges away slightly from traditional MMOs in a couple of interesting ways.
The first is the way quests are limited to the player, as they can only have five particular quests to do at one time, and those quests are split into different types; Story, Action, Item, Investigation, and Sabotage. With the exception of the Item quests, you can only have one type of quest active at a time, and a maximum of three Item quests. My group soon discovered that attempting to do every quest we came across was impossible, and not just because of the limits, as some quests were locked until you had completed others. While it took a little while to figure out, we soon realised that there was an intentional flow in place to keep us busy by following the Story quest, which guides you through the area, and completing other quests as we moved through the zone without the need to backtrack.
The second difference comes in the shape of the Investigation missions. The easiest way to describe these would be to compare them to adventure game puzzles, where players will have to look at clues and pay attention to their surroundings to complete the objectives. For example, we had one Investigation quest where we were locked out of a computer and needed a password. By checking the password hint, and looking over some previous text (and in some cases, the game encourages you to do research online with an in-game browser) we were able to figure out the answer and progress. It’s a process that adds the mentality of thinking whilst playing, something incredibly unique to the MMO genre that TSW will be proudly holding up in its favour.
It is important to note though that patience and observation will be needed by players in TSW, as there are no ‘hand-holding’ systems to help the player. For instance, a marker for where the player needs to go is placed on the map, but as soon as the player enters said maker it disappears, forcing them to comb the area for whatever they are looking for. Usually, in the case of clues or items, these are lit up by a highlight, but my group found some clues took a little while to find. Upon completing a quest we didn’t necessarily have to hike back to the quest giver, as a ‘Send Report’ button would appear on the screen and allow us to receive our rewards in the field, allowing myself and the rest of the group to gear up as we moved.
Speaking of my group, we collectively felt that the quest system was in no way group-friendly. We had no way of tracking who was doing what from our UI, forcing us spend a large portion of time confirming with each other what we were supposed to be doing, and it distracted us from actually playing the game. Additionally, we were also faced with the hindrance of no nametags on any of the mobs, NPC, or players, even when selected as a target. While I appreciate that this adds a touch of ‘realism,’ it not only made targeting a cumbersome activity but made tracking my own party a challenge if they went out of my field of view.
Leading up to the beta, Funcom has been proudly telling anyone who would listen about the Deck system, which provides players with the ability to combine abilities, both active and passive, to create unique builds that can be swapped between on the fly. These abilities are unlocked by spending Anima Points, three of which are awarded during the progression of an experience level, and can then be dragged into the toolbar to create an active Deck. While I didn’t get to the point where I could start mixing and matching different weapon skills together to create a build, I was intrigued by the mechanics and feel there could be a huge level of scope towards the end-game. This is good news, because while a few of the skills that were at our disposal were impressive, everyone in my group felt very limited in what we could do. That said, I found that because enemies were dying easily and XP was given to us like it was going out of fashion, we would have easily gained all the AP we needed over a short space of time.
If there is one thing Funcom have put plenty of effort into, it is the immersion levels for the game. The warning sirens as zombies attack the fortified police station, the thick fog that covers the town of Kingsmouth, the fully-voiced (if slightly hammy) cutscenes. Put together, all of these aspects create an interesting world to explore, and although the first hour initially felt like a slog I found myself wanting to continue on, not only to explore the town of Kingsmouth but to find out exactly what was causing all the zombie-based problems. This is why, despite the criticisms I have made, I am still intrigued by what The Secret World has to offer. I sincerely hope that any complaints I have are addressed before the release, as Funcom are quite clearly a talented group who deserve success, and they have a lot of the right pieces towards making a unique and entertaining MMO in their hands.
If you want to give it a try for yourself, Funcom are hosting another Beta weekend event starting today at 5pm. Be sure to check out their official website for information on where to get a beta key and how to get hold of the client.