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

Thursday, 5 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.

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