Sections

The Secret World’s first hours: on mystery and thrills

Thursday, 5th July 2012 09:50 GMT By Patrick Garratt

The first few hours of The Secret World are thrilling and baffling in equal measure, and potentially point to the first genuine MMO breakthrough in years. Patrick Garratt takes his zombie hammer to Kingsmouth.

It’s too early to judge. The servers are juddery and there are some obvious bugs right now. It needs more of a tutorial and some proper group tools, but in truth? I enjoyed the opening sequences of The Secret World more than any other MMO I can remember.

Funcom released Conspiracy MMO The Secret World yesterday, birthing a quirky online game attempting to reinvent the genre’s wheel.

The Secret World is contemporary horror-fantasy. The premise is that three factions operate in the background to everyday life, battling evil and each other just beneath the surface of your day-to-day existence. The shadows are encroaching on normality, though, and a war’s emerged in which the actions of the London-based Templars, the Illuminati from New York, and the Dragons from Seoul will shape the future of mankind.

Twinkies

Starting from the top, character creation’s pretty basic. You get to choose skin and eye colour, nose, lips, jaw, hair and clothes. It’s nowhere near as in-depth as an offline RPG. You have to be chiselled and muscly. It seems reasonable that you’re not going to save the universe by eating too many Twinkies, but I created a couple of male characters and it was tough to stop them looking generic.

My main Templar, named “CrazyAsses” for no good reason, starts by dreaming black and white characters are telling him about “voices”. He wakes to find himself a psychic nutter capable of trashing his apartment by looking at it. After a week of practice, he can lob a ball of energy around and not freak out so much. A Templar visits. CrazyAsses had been “chosen,” and unless he joins up his glowing hands are going to cause him problems. So he does.

The start area of a London street signals The Secret World’s intent of dropping you into real-world mystery. It’s refreshing be a million miles away from WoW. Once through a police cordon – helped by a DI who’s in on the conspiracy – you’re filled in on a terrorist attempt in Tokyo. You see a puppeteer spouting doom, waving a king marionette, ranting about the warm smell of “stale piss”. You collapse.

After inhabiting the body of a Templar called Sarah, you’re thrown into a mission called Ground Zero, a dreamlike experience of the aftermath of the Tokyo subway attack.

This is a taster event. Missions are split into “tiers”. Tier 1 of Ground Zero is to get a gun, which is lying on the floor in front of you. Tier 2 is to clear a platform of enemies, and so on. You have to work through the subway system, killing as you go. It’s good. You click on “accept” and the gun shines yellow on the floor. On-screen prompts leave you in no doubt as to what to do. Combat is intense, and the game doesn’t give you much time to get used to it. Targeting’s with tab and the camera’s standard MMO. Abilities are on the number keys. You can shoot, fire a couple of heavier shots, heal yourself and others. You get mobbed by shadows and brutish large things which take a good deal of beating.

You end by walking onto the last platform and seeing planets and asteroids before collapsing again and reverting to your own character. You’re being bombed with story at this point, and go to see Richard Sonnac in Templar HQ in central London. A spell in “the Crucible,” a training ground in which you select a weaponset, gives you a look at the various starting kits. You have the ability to maifest anima, you’re told, “to do magic”.

Sonnac burbles about Solomon Island and the Illuminati, the “reckless” faction in the game, before you trundle off to Kingsmouth, The Secret World’s first main area.

The whole experience is filmic. Load screens colour from black and white then fade out as bars fill, and the in-engine cut-scenes do a good job of keeping you intrigued. The general character and inventory interfaces are really nice, with slots for talismans, weapons, stats, and all the rest of it eminating from your avatar in annotated rays.

Aside from the setting and modern UI, though, the real difference in The Secret World if the classless levelling. As you fight, you acquire Skill Points and Ability points (SP and AP). Instead of being as “assassin” or a “soldier” you’re just you. You put your skill points into weapon proficiency. CrazyAsses has a hammer, so he’s used points to increase hammer damage. You need to add SP to certain categories to be able to use objects. To equip a talisman, for example, you need to have at least one SP in the Major Talisman line on the skill interface.

AP is spent on new abilities. You buy new icons for your hot-bar as you move along. CrazyAsses has a Haymaker move, for example, for smashing the enemy scum all up in the face with his hammer. There’s a “Decks” system so you can pick what essentially amounts to a class and work towards it. You click on the Deck you’re after and it shows you where to put your points if you’re trying to make a Warlock of a Witch Hunter.

The progression system’s exciting stuff – if unintuitive; it wasn’t until Brenna led me through how to allocate AP that it made any sense – but after a few hours in Kingsmouth there does appear to be a giant flaw in the plan: grouping seems to be really hard.

CrazyAsses no mates

The progression system’s exciting stuff – if unintuitive; it wasn’t until Brenna led me through how to allocate AP that it made any sense – but after a few hours in Kingsmouth there does appear to be a giant flaw in the plan: grouping seems to be really hard. Unless I’m missing something blindingly obvious, there’s no casual grouping system. You have a Friends interface and stuff for your Cabal (guild), but there doesn’t seem to be a way of just quickly finding someone with which to overcome Mr Slightly Too-Hard Monster. A cursory search suggests this is the case, and it’s going to be patched in later. General server chat’s a heavy stream of “LFG” on Grim, and Brenna said the same of Cerberus. I’ve tried to group with a bunch of people standing around in Kingsmouth, for example, just to have the requests instantly rejected. Maybe it’s because I’m called CrazyAsses, but even so, this seems pretty odd considering the entire point of the game is to get together to win.

One neat thing TSW does do, though, is allow friends to “zone” to each other across servers. Brenna popped over to Grim to hold my hand through a bunch of the early missions, and it works well, but not being able to just find a quick partner for a mission lift doesn’t seem very sensible.

It’s too early to judge, however. The servers are juddery and there are some obvious bugs right now. It needs more of a tutorial and some proper group tools, but in truth? I enjoyed the opening sequences of The Secret World more than any other MMO I can remember. It’s thoughtfully-paced, exciting, and it looks lovely. There’s no way I could say for certain it’s a stayer (the group issue’s a massive alarm bell, especially now I’m running into missions which are tough to solo), but on first impressions the final product’s a funny, thrilling attempt to drag the MMO into contemporary territory, and it definitely has succeeded in an entirely new take on levelling. Based on that alone we should all be tooling up to quash the mysterious forces of evil right now. The world won’t save itself, you know.

Breaking news

13 Comments

Sign in to post a comment.

  1. BULArmy

    I am getting my copy today, but maybe will be able to play first on Sunday. I have huge hopes, as I had with AoC(in my view the only MMO close to disturbing WoW). AoC had a lot of problems with middle to late game content, as with the bugs and that killed it, but still is one of the different MMOs. I hope Funcom solved those problems, because I am sick of all the generic fantasy MMO setings, the concept here is absolutely amazing.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    It’s a lot of fun. The setting’s brilliant.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. brento73

    Although I don’t have the free time of money to pick it up at launch, I did get the chance to get in on some beta events, and I think the game is pretty cool. Although I experienced some bugs and issues, and the grouping isn’t as easy as I’d like(as mentioned above), the game world feels unique amid the sea of Tolkien-inspired fantasy games. I can only think of a few MMORPGs that didn’t have a setting similar to EverQuest(or Ulitma Online before that), and those haven’t done real well. Given that one non-fantasy game that started off a bit rocky, but went on to stick around for the long-haul was Funcom’s own Anarchy Online, I have high hopes for TSW. Since I’d really love to play it down the road, I REALLY want it to be a hit.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. DSB

    I think you’re overlooking a few things Pat.

    Champions had much the same system for levelling (somewhat clunkier with trainers etc. but still very free) and Conan was ultimately quite a pretty game as well, but it didn’t do them a whole lot of good, because ultimately they didn’t have proper endgame.

    There’s very little to distinguish The Secret World from those two, especially Champions, based on what I played during the beta.

    I think the thrill you’re talking about is a very basic one, that probably only counts if you haven’t played those other ones, which I think a great deal of the core MMO audience will have.

    And ultimately it doesn’t last. I really liked that Champions was more actiony and scripted with guns and spells and all kinds of craziness, but ultimately there wasn’t a lot to really use it on besides the grind, just like there isn’t in The Secret World.

    A successful MMO isn’t about the short term, it’s about the long term, and while I haven’t played The Secret World for very long, I didn’t see any indication that it had much beyond the grind.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    @4 – I did play Champions. Did you not have a level in that? I bounced off it, to be honest. TSW’s loads better.

    I didn’t play Conan, because I was fantasied out. I’ve just moved on to the second TSW area. We’ll see if there’s enough there to keep things interesting soon enough, I guess.

    It definitely is a lot of fun. The story could go on forever, assuming there’s enough interest. I’m crossing my fingers, but I’m really enjoying it at the moment.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. DSB

    @5 Yeah you did, and it did make you go through trainers and all that, but it had the same kind of freedom that you do in The Secret World. If you wanted to be all guns and magic, you could.

    But just like The Secret World, the degree to which the game rewarded it was very shoddy.

    It’s not a bad MMO, but I just think it takes more than a decent one to really make a mark these days. It is a big step up from Conan on Funcoms part, but I don’t see how it will make people run from the MMOs with more solid dungeons and endgame.

    You should do a follow up once you max out. I think that’s really the kicker when it comes to MMOs.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Patrick Garratt

    @6 – Yeah, I will. Brenna’s keen on it, so I think we’ll be playing it a bit internally. I’m definitely interested in seeing how long it’ll keep me going for.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Phoenixblight

    What I find fun in Secret World is the investigations and fantastic environments. I would just get to high level just so I could explore all areas but I won’t pay a sub just for those two things.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. GwynbleiddiuM

    @8 Well TBH I don’t think it’ll last long. I don’t wish em ill but I think eventually people will start to want more rewarding experience, more stuff to do and when those demands aren’t met with proper content things will start to fall apart. TSW doesn’t even have a proper FAQ on their website yet, there are no alternative payment options like game cards as far as I know cause when I’m going to play a p2p mmo I need that option as I don’t have credit card or paypal due to international sanctions. So I think they wont last long based on my personal experience and I played a lot of different MMOs in the past including both Champions and AoC from Funcom.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Kabby

    Doesn’t interest me and seems clunky in everything it does. I await your follow-up article in 3 months time.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. TheWulf

    Will wonders never cease? I actually completely agree with DSB.

    Champions Online is a marvel of a game (heh), and it’s really enjoyable. I loved the customisation, I truly enjoyed being my own hero, but what plagued it was that they didn’t have enough variety in the content. And what variety they did have wasn’t easily repeatable, so you’d blow through these fun bits and then you’d be left with the grind. And that was playing it casually.

    I still love Champions Online, don’t get me wrong. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to try an MMORPG because it’s a brilliant game, and in a lot of ways it’s almost GW2. It’s clever, it’s thoughtful, and it has a lot going for it. But ultimately the way they designed it, so akin to traditional MMORPGs, is what doomed it.

    What had the potential to save Champions Online came too late.

    They added adventure packs and comic series. The first one, the Serpent Lantern, was terribad. I’ll admit that. But the rest of them? Demonflare, Resistance, and the comic series? Brilliant! Brilliant! Now… what would have saved Champions Online? If the whole game had been like those adventure packs and comic series.

    But they understood that too late. Maybe Champions Online 2 will…

    Who knows.

    But what makes a game enjoyable is if you have content that one or more people can enjoy with as small amount of drama and mechanics overhead as possible, and you want to let them enjoy this content whenever. This is why Guild Wars 2 works, and this is why it’s basically CO++. It’s Champions Online done right.

    The events, both renown (heart) and dynamic are clever.

    They’re clever because you’re not playing the UI. You don’t need to group with people, you don’t need armchair generals, you don’t need drama. You can just hop into this crazy shit as it’s happening. See people invading a town? You can jump in to help stop that, and you can even fail.

    How is this relevant? You can play whatever events whenever you want.

    Levels don’t matter. You get rewarded according to your current level, anyway, and numbers don’t matter because your power is matched to the content you’re doing. So whether you win or lose is very much an element of your skill. A level 80 character could fail at a level 10 event.

    So if you get bored of doing events in areas which are designated as level 80, you can go and do events which are designated as level 10. You’ll get rewarded for it in ways which are very relevant to you as well.

    In this way, the entire game is end-game.

    It’s clever, really clever. Let’s say that there’s this event you liked playing as a level 40 character, yeah? You can go back and play that event at level 60 and have a blast with it until you’re done with that, and you can do that without anything getting screwed up. And you receive the same level of challenge at level 60 that you did at level 40.

    Now, the adventure packs and comic series of Champions Online also scaled like this, but they were instanced. Which is a damned shame.

    Guild Wars 2 is like an entire game of CO’s comic series and adventure packs, except set in the open world where everyone who’s in the area can take part in them and be rewarded for them in meaningful ways. It takes the good ideas of Champions Online and builds upon them, and it fixes them, and builds the entire game upon the basis of good ideas.

    The problem with a game like TSW is that it’s traditional. You’ll blow through the good content, and people will get in your way and annoy you when you’re trying to do that (adventure games are usually very personal experiences), then you’ll pass all that content and what’s left to you?

    You grind. You grind. You grind. You grind some more. Because all you have left is the combat.

    I want to see more games being clever like GW2, where people are encouraged to play together, but where the older content of the game never becomes irrelevant. Guild Wars 2 is end-game, all of it is end-game. It’s end-game from level 1 to level 80, it’s designed that way. That’s why GW2 wins. CO came so damned close but it didn’t get enough right. GW2 does. If GW2 becomes the new MMORPG standard, I will be very happy.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. TheWulf

    Also, Pat… come on. You know TSW has a level as well as I do, it’s just not explicitly explained as a level. It’s a level that’s obfuscated.

    Area A: The monsters in this area are easy, you need only two skills to do well.
    Area B: The monsters in this area are harder, you’d need at least five skills to do well.
    Area C: The monsters in this area are much harder, you’d need a good variety of skills to do well.
    Area D: If you don’t have the right skills and powered up in the right way, the monsters here will slaughter you.

    Area A: Level 1
    Area B: Level 5
    Area C: Level 20
    Area D: Level 50

    It might not implicitly state a level, but there is one there. It’s measured instead though but the amount of skills you have and how powered up they are. It’s just that you get those skills and upgrades more intermittently (Guild Wars 2 also does this with its skill unlocks and weapons) instead of it being linked into a level.

    But the level-gating is still present on TSW’s content. It’s painfully obvious that level-gating is there. Just because it isn’t called a level, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a level system in place there. A level basically means X Amount of Power, and that philosophy is firmly in place in TSW.

    If you want an example of a game without level-gating, look at Ultima Online or Minecraft. In those games if you’re careful you can go wherever you want. This is absolutely not true about The Secret World. It’s just a really pretty con, it’s a clever con that people want to believe.

    But levels and level-gating are alive and well in TSW. Obfuscation thereof is irrelevant.

    And what makes it worse is that it’s going to hard for people to group up since you can’t explicitly say what level an area is, you can only try and compare what skills a person has and how powered up they are. People are going to get sick of that fast.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. absolutezero

    I bought The Secret World for Ragnar tornquist and little else. Im enjoying taking my time going through the story, which is actually somewhat interesting.

    I made a girl that looks real.

    Actually she kinda looks alot like Sue Perkins. D:

    #13 2 years ago