Stace Harman takes a look at the shady dealings in Funcom’s new modern-day MMO and speaks to lead designer, Martin Harsheim Bruusgaard.
Have you ever swallowed a bee? Me neither, but according to the start of the eyes-on demo of Funcom’s upcoming modern day MMO, doing so bestows magical powers. It seems a higher being is turning everyday people into superheroes by sending glowing bees into their bedrooms to be ingested while they sleep, granting them supernatural abilities when they wake.
We’re shown the opening scenes of a new character obtaining fantastical abilities in this unconventional way and accidentally trashing their London flat as they come to terms with the resulting power that leaps unbidden from their fingertips.
Several days later they receive a mystery caller who drops by to tell them that they’ve been chosen to fight against the Filth – an insidious black goo that infects those it touches, turning them into homicidal maniacs. The mystery visitor advises that her order, the Templars, can help the hapless individual learn more about their abilities and how to control them as well as how best to put them to use fighting the Filth. Ostensibly, it’s left up to you whether you take her up on her offer but it’s an easy enough choice to make: there’s no going back to a nine-to-five job once you learn how to shoot lighting from your fingers.
The Templars aren’t the only ones fighting against the Filth, alongside them are Dragon - practitioners of the art of chaos - and the hedonistic Illuminati. Each organisation has their own mandate and reasons for operating, though none appear to be entirely selfless or valiant and all want dominance over the others.
“The main differences between the three sides are primarily narrative-driven,” explains lead designer Martin Harsheim Bruusgaard.
"While members of different factions might be in the same place at the same time, their reasons for being there are very different."
“Each faction has a very different philosophy and reason for being so while members of different factions might be in the same place at the same time, their reasons for being there are very different. The storylines interweave so the factions will come together in the play field and then separate again for some unique story elements before coming together later on.
“We want players to have made the decision of which faction to join before they even start playing. We have a test on Facebook for you to take to determine which faction you’re best suited to and we’ll also have a Facebook game prior to The Secret World’s launch which will highlight the differences between the different secret societies. Participating in this game will entail doing tasks for your faction and you’ll be awarded for that when you start playing the main game.”
Nose to the grind
Funcom has decided that people are tired of the grind often associated with MMOs and so The Secret World will not feature levelling up in the traditional sense, nor will it feature pre-defined classes .
“We’re looking at levelling in different way,” says Harsheim Bruusgaard. “The Secret World offers vertical and horizontal progression: the vertical progression comes in the form of items which do things like make you stronger, mean you can heal faster, help you do more damage and give you more options for crowd control. The horizontal progression is about acquiring skills and abilities, of which there are 500 in the game. Each of these skills is unique, so for example, we don’t have eight ranks of a fireball ability. A fireball is a fireball and it scales with your gear.
“We really feel that a lot of people are tired of rolling a class, playing them up to max level and then, if they want a different type of character, they have to start again at level one and play through the same experience. Here, you can play the way you want to and not be restricted to a particular class’ style of progress.”
It’s an interesting concept, though without seeing how different skills complement each other it’s difficult to comment on how well it will work in practise. What’s more, being awarded new skill points will need to feel suitably rewarding to avoid underwhelming the player, though Harsheim Bruusgaard explains that the method of progression will provide its own satisfaction.
“When you are recruited by one of the three secret societies you start as an initiate and once you’ve performed a certain number of tasks for them they’ll send you on a mission to increase your standing within the faction.
“Many of these missions will be where we pit the three factions against one another. So, as a member of the Illuminati you might be sent into kill a guy, whereas the Templars will be tasked with keeping him alive. Depending on how you perform in that mission you’ll increase your faction rank, which will grant you abilities, items and more information about your secret society.
“You’ll also gain some faction specific powers but there’s very few of those in order to maintain the balancing between the three sides. There is a heavy PvP focus to the game and we didn’t want to give out very different powers a skew the balance based on your faction.”
Combat is focused around two types of powers: builders and finishers. Using conventional weapons like assault rifles and shotguns your abilities provide buffs that multiply damage, imbue your ballistics with elemental damage and add area of effect modifiers. Movement looks to be key during combat, a battle we’re shown in a London underground station sees a number of enemies charge the player and visual prompts offer the opportunity to dodge attacks rather than stand still and spam the attack button.
A more in-depth hands-on session would be required to ascertain how combat feels, but the conventional firearms on show here lack the visual appeal of an attack made with more traditional melee weapons and despite much of the progression being tied to equipment we see little in the way of loot drops from the battles we’re shown.
The MMO genre is a crowded market, and with Guild Wars 2 due out next year and EA’s own Star Wars: The Old Republic due out just before Christmas, Funcom has a fight on its hands to stand out. However, Harsheim Bruusgaard is confident that The Secret World has a number of defining factors that will ensure it will justify its place alongside the better well-known titles.
“We feel that MMOs often neglect the story element, so with The Secret World we want to make people care a bit more about their character and the world in which they’re living. I think that if we’re able to do that a lot of players will see that there’s something extra here.
“We also think the modern setting will interest players who are tired of orcs and elves. Here you’ll be going to places that you recognise, like London, Tokyo and Egypt and you’ll be fighting with modern weapons too. There will be PvP flash points in places like Stone Henge and El Dorado where the factions will battle for control and holding these places will bestow bonuses to their faction.
“What’s cool about having three factions is that rather than having one side butting heads with another side you can introduce the idea of making deals with the devil and creating temporary alliances with another faction.
“So, let’s say that the Illuminati are dominating one particular area and they’ve been reaping the benefits of holding that area for a long time, players from the two other secret societies might team up to oust them.
"We’re really hoping to instil the potential for double-crossing and underhandedness and provoke feelings for the game."
“Of course, with human nature being what it is, the factions might successfully wrest control from the Illuminati but then turn on each other. We’re really hoping to instil the potential for double-crossing and underhandedness and provoke feelings for the game.
“Yes, some people might be pissed off by getting stabbed in the back but others will be rubbing their hands together and saying ‘that was awesome!’ We think that if you have feelings about a game then you’re going to want to keep playing.
“World of Warcraft brought millions of players to the genre and we think there’s room enough for more than one MMO to exist side-by-side.”
The Secret World is due to launch April 2012.