Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not So Secret Now : The Secret World

No Levels? Really?

What, you mean there's no ding? No xp? No linear progression?

That's certainly what they'd like you to think but like most things it all comes down to semantics in the end. There's a whopping great bar right across bottom of the screen. Do Missions or kill stuff and the line fills out from left to right. When it gets yay far there's a satisfying sound effect and a flash of light. That's your Skill Point, that is. Or your Action point. One or the other.

Funcom have very cleverly managed to hand you cake, invited you to eat it then given you more cake so you still have cake left. If you hate levels, consider yourself served, there are no levels! If you love levels, Happy Face! Gaining skill points looks, sounds and feels exactly like leveling!

That's One Hell Of A Wheel

Isn't it just? That's the famous Wheel of fortune cheese Skill. Five hundred, no less. Count them. No don't, we'll be here all day.

I'd heard about this thing and watched someone trying to explain it in a video which sent me to sleep but once I got my mouse pointer on it everything was fine. It's very well-designed. It only takes a glance to see how it works. It's not overwhelming or scary at all.

It is, however, somewhat disappointing. I hadn't realized that every single one of the five hundred skills relates to using your weapon. It's a 500 weapon skill wheel, not a 500 skill wheel. I confess that up until now I have been paying only the loosest attention to The Secret World but even I had noticed the homage, shall we say, to RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia. I was expecting the selection of skills to include things like Egyptology, Advanced Dewey Decimal and freakin' Invisibility.(Someone's going to point out now that Invisibility is somewhere in the Outer Elemental Wheel, no doubt).

Guns Guns Guns

Posterize This!
So, The Secret World is all about the weapons. This seems to be the new MMO black. They all laughed at FFXIV but now everyone's doing it.

The Secret World has no classes. Allegedly. Like it has no levels. Instead you get two hotbars with seven slots each. One has your Actives - attacks and heals. The other has your Passives - buffs. Each weapon type has its own sector going outwards on the wheel. Spend your points, collect the set.

You can use two weapons at a time and some skills affect both weapons. It's ferociously complex but to make it more manageable you can bind combos and swap them out of combat. Funcom even provide pre-chosen "Decks" if you can't be bothered choosing. In the end, call it what you like, Decks, Loadouts, Sets, Builds, you end up with a bunch of abilities that your character can use. Want to bet we end up with a bunch of accepted best builds that get given names that we all end up using when we talk about them? Class names, in fact.

I put nearly all my points into Shotgun. In fact I put them all into the Offensive skills for Shotgun because healing people by pumping buckshot into them just seems weird.The option is there, though.

Take That, Sirrah!

I was taken aback by how combat-focused The Secret World seemed to be. Maybe it was just Kingsmouth. The entire town has been overrun by the living dead and sea monsters, after all. Once I'd poked my nose into every last part of London (or rather, the one small district of London on offer) I took up my shotgun and walked out into the fog. (Or The Fog. Is that public domain already? Just askin').

Ugly UI, Ugly Monster.
I think I did most of the directed content in Kingsmouth. I also did a lot of undirected content. Endless ammo plus infinite zombies = fun. Solo difficulty seemed just about right. I had to pay a certain amount of attention and I employed some kiting techniques I thought I'd forgotten but I never ran into anything that positively demanded I find a friend. I've read that TSW is a more group-centered MMO than we've seen for a while but not at this level it isn't.

The combat itself I found a bit less satisfying than in Guild Wars 2, which I mention because of the superficial similarities - small number of attacks based off weapon type, mobs doing stuff you're  meant to spot and counter etc. Whereas in the GW2 beta so far I've managed 21 levels without once becoming bored of having only five attacks, in The Secret World I was getting a bit tired of the Shotgun by the end.

I think the difference is that in GW2 you're given quite a variety of attacks right from the start whereas in TSW the more interesting stuff is further out on The Wheel. I missed being able to blast enemies up in the air or thirty feet backwards like I can in GW2 (although come to think of it, how am I doing that with a bow and arrow?). I heard other complaints about this but since only the very inner ring of The Wheel was unlocked for beta I think it's far too early to call this a problem.

Anyway, to say I was less satisfied with TSW combat than GW2 combat is misleading. I'm certainly not saying it was bad. I liked TSW combat just fine. It's just that GW2's is even better.

Where Are All The Guys With ?? Over Their Heads?

The Crows Know
Here we go again. There aren't any. TSW doesn't do that kind of thing. Except, well, yes it does. Only instead of above the head its somewhere off to the side. And instead of a question mark it's a square box. Paradigm shift, I know.

It's not revolutionary but it is evolutionary. Mrs Bhagpuss and I both agreed The Secret World's way of handing out quests (oh alright, Missions) knocked spots off the way it's done in most MMOs. I didn't see any Mission presented or offered in a way I haven't seen done elsewhere before, but the appropriateness and subtlety with which the Missions are embedded into the world and above all the sheer consistency with which it's done offer a model that other MMOs really should follow.

Hello? Hello!?
I don't know why it should be so much more satisfying to receive a Mission from a mobile phone clutched in the rigored hand of a dead cleaning lady than it would be to receive the same quest from a guy standing there with an interrogative point for a hat. It just is.

As for the Missions themselves, I heard much oohing and aahing in General chat about the great puzzles and how good it was to have to think while questing. I didn't find I had to do much more of that than usual, but then I always read all the quest text first time round. You'll definitely want to do that here and for two very good reasons.

Firstly the Mission text and NPC mission dialogs, like all the writing in every part of the game, is sharp. If you like reading you won't want to skip it. By MMO standards I would re-iterate that it's exceptionally well-written. Don't go expecting Dostoevsky but it's on a par with solid genre fiction.

Secondly, there is information in the Mission text and dialog that you will need to know if you don't plan on running around aimlessly and getting annoyed. The good thing is, if you didn't listen, or if your mind wandered onto what you might have for tea just as the Important Code Number was mentioned, you can just go back and run through it again. Not that I had to do that. Much.

And There We Have It

I have a few more odds and ends to mention which I'll throw into a bullet point post if I get the time but that pretty much covers the basics. The Secret World, or as much of it as we were allowed to see, is a solid, playable, entertaining MMO with a very interesting and well-realised setting, great art direction, good voice acting and excellent writing. More traditional and less mold-breaking than Funcom might like you to believe, but still a couple of steps ahead of the usual suspects.

I'm looking forward to playing it and to blogging about it.


  1. Very cool. Thanks! I might have to pick this up and play while I wait for GW2 to come out.

  2. Decisions, decisions. I'm not up to pre-ordering this game because I rarely if ever do that with a game, but I do expect to be jumping in quickly provided the community doesn't give this a resounding thumbs-down. Thanks for the informative preview.


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