Last weekend, I nabbed a second look at Funcom's upcoming MMO The Secret World, now scheduled for a June 19th release. I was going in with high expectations, having been blown away by my first playtest of this modern-world-based MMO, and I'll say that this second visit managed to convince me that this game is on the right track to impress gamers with fresh gameplay, vicious puzzles, an ability wheel full of synergies, and new elite abilities at the top tiers of weapon specializations.
First, I was able to experience the Illuminati starting point, reliving the same opening as that displayed for the Templars but from a different perspective. Instead of walking through London to get to the Templars' sumptuous palace, I had to find the Illuminati's hidden lair in New York's back streets and warehouses. While the Templars featured rich colors, warm ambiance, and classical music, the Illuminati are all about cold design, technology, futurism, hip-hop music, and a lot of swearing. You'll learn to walk a fine balance between diplomacy and gunplay; the goal is profit and influence, and you must succeed at corralling both to climb the ranks. It's clear that you are but a tiny part of a vast organization, at least in the beginning. The motivations are different, and the angles from which missions are viewed differ, but the much of the gameplay is similar across the factions. We can, however, expect faction-specific missions and missions that are common across the factions but are given in a different context. For example, the Templars might kill X to put a stop to his research, while the Illuminati might steal the research outright and the Dragons might blow the whole installation to smithereens.
Following the New York introduction, I was thrust forward about 80 hours (with a customized character and a new build) and placed in Egypt's scorched desert, doing quests and killing a lot of enemies -- humans, beasts, and demons alike -- while trying to figure out what was happening in the region and why earthquakes seemed to plague the area. The puzzle I encountered during my investigation mission was... evil. Granted, the in-game browser allows you to research clues to the solution without tabbing out of the game, but even then, the information is not always easy to decipher. I suspect that many players will simply search for other players' answers or use a guide to get through challenging puzzles, but for me, the challenge is what makes it fun. The puzzles might be downright brutal, but the satisfaction you'll get from solving it on your own will be a refreshing experience. My advice? Suck it up and go the distance.
Even apart from the puzzles, the desert environment is compelling, with lots of sand, ruins, and cultists running wild around al-Merayah, where you'll encounter new factions to ally with, including a dried-up mummy sporting a nice suit. All quests are voice-acted; important NPCs now have dialogue options, allowing you to gather information that will help you learn about your surroundings, nearby points of interest, and the game's story. Once you've exhausted all that an NPC has to say about a specific subject, a green checkmark will be added to the menu to remind you in the future.
I experienced The Ankh dungeon with the help of the developer who designed it, Brent Ellison. My first review of TSW sang the praises of the Polaris instance, in which the boss fight was intense and one of the best I'd seen in a long time. The Ankh managed to provide a similar experience over three separate boss fights, including a moment when I was certain we had wiped, only to discover that we had indeed beaten the encounter. Brent's smirk was memorable after I berated him for being a crazy and sadistic designer and putting us through such emotions. The slow descent into the tomb allowed us to learn boss mechanics along the way and see them combined at the end in the final, hectic encounter. It's traditional design, but it's well-executed and doesn't feel "gimmicky." If all instances in this game are as good as this one, we're in for quite a ride.
It's an ability wheel now?
Last time around, I talked about the skill wheel and noted that there were no ranks to the skills. Well, Funcom has renamed the skill wheel to the "ability wheel" because you'll now earn skill points that you can use to augment your selected abilities and decide whether you want to max the skills or not, thus introducing "ranks" to skills. The rewards for using skill points vary for each weapon, be they one benefit (like damage) or two (like defense or healing). Skill points are earned as ability points are: Your experience bar is split into segments, and when you complete a segment, you gain a skill point. When you complete the whole bar, you get an ability point. Unlike MMOs in which the XP required to level up increases with each level, TSW offers an XP bar that is always at the same level.
Monsters from earlier areas will deliver fewer XP than those at higher levels, but they'll never stop giving it. They will be much easier to kill, of course, but you'll need to kill a lot more to get the same benefits. Also, a new player will always be able to hit a very hard monster, whereas other MMOs give high miss rates if the mob is so many levels above you. You'll probably be destroyed by that monster if you're solo, but you can still contribute if you're in a group -- that's Funcom's level-less philosophy.
Earning ability and skill points should be steady, allowing you to climb through the 588 available abilities and unlock newly introduced elite skills, which are available as the top-most specialization for a given weapon. You are permitted only one elite active and one elite passive ability on your bar at any time, as these are quite powerful. For example, I had an elite assault rifle ability, a long-cooldown, high-power shot. As Brent and I were going through a sewer, I used the skill to pull a mob and one-shotted it with a critical hit. Brent seemed amazed by that. Another priceless moment! Of course, builds will not be created around those elite abilities; they'll bring high-damage or useful abilities to your arsenal, but their long cooldowns mean they'll be situational rather than bread-and-butter skills.
Decks were disabled for this playtest, unfortunately, so I can't go into too much detail here except to say that while they are meant to be helping hands in learning about the ability synergies, they are not the absolute best options. I've also discovered that a powerful build that had been arranged for me by the developers didn't work for my playstyle, so I switched it up a bit and found it to be about as powerful as the other one but more in line with how I like to play. TSW gives you this leeway in setting up your skills according to what you like to do. Love to go toe-to-toe and throw big numbers? Shotgun/hammers might be for you. Pure builds also work well, but they can be lined with passives from other weapons to augment what abilities you are using. This will require a lot of testing and figuring out how you like to play, but the experience is rewarding and fun!
I wasn't able to PvP in this round of testing, but Martin Bruusgaard confirmed that the persistent battleground is functional and that 100 players at once is a low estimate. He wouldn't confirm what the number will be, just that it will be "at least more than 100." The faction that controls a battleground provides both a buff for everyone from that faction (no matter where its members are in the world) and token currency rewards.
The ability to switch your build, gear, and chakras quickly is controlled by the gear manager, a part of the UI where you can save presets to get everything done with the touch of a button when you're out of combat. However, you have only three slots to save your profiles. You can acquire more slots either by spending in-game currency (no details were given on how much will be needed or how fast you accumulate tokens) or by purchasing it from the cash shop. This brings Funcom's cash-shop design in line with the standard MMO offerings. I applaud the company's decision to keep weapons and chakras out of the cash shop so that your ability to fight and compete is not determined by how much extra cash you're willing to spend. Cosmetic items and convenience items (perhaps temporary stat boosters or XP-boost tomes, though nothing's been confirmed) will be available from the store.
The notion of fast travel is always important too, especially on large maps, where going from point A to point B can sometimes take a long time. In my earlier hands-on, I covered Agartha, TSW's underground "subway" system, but when out and about, players will have the ability to enter sprint mode to speed their movement. Sprint isn't fully implemented yet, but toggling it on will trigger visual effects and sound. When sprinting, you'll run faster, but as in most games, damage taken will likely slow you down.
What about crafting?
Finally, some information about crafting! Funcom has been keeping it all under wraps, but Martin Bruusgaard was able to give me the lowdown on this feature. I'm not sure how I can compare TSW's crafting to that of other MMOs because frankly I haven't seen it in action, but from what I was told, it seems to build on solid ideas, so I hope the implementation will be as cool as it was described. The game takes a very logical and modern approach to crafting. To learn how to make something, you first have to disassemble an item. If you want to craft a pistol, you have to disassemble a pistol to understand its inner workings. The same is true with prefix and suffix stat boosts to the item. Let's say you want to add crit to your weapon -- you'll have to disassemble a crit chakra to learn the pattern, and then you'll be able to add it to weapons. Crafting should require three parts for each item you want to craft, but I wasn't able to see specifics. This system looks to add to the complexity of TSW while allowing you to have more control over what you are able to do, which is a great thing! There were also hints of some kind of recreational crafting skills, but nothing concrete.
I also learned about some specific encounters that will require you to use certain builds or stats in order to progress. As an example, the devs brought up a monster surrounded by an impenetrable force field that made it immune to physical and magical damage. When you (or someone in your party) gets a penetrating hit, the shield is disrupted and you get a 10-second window to damage the mob. This means that someone in the party will need to have a build that favors penetrating hits to be able to take on this challenge. And what will that monster drop? Penetrating-focused items to disassemble and learn, naturally.
I have to hand it to Funcom: The Secret World is a gorgeous game. It's fun to play, and the monster design is imaginative and fresh. While it's a complex game with a lot of abilities and possibilities, it's also quite engaging, and I think it has what is needed to hook players and keep them hooked for a long time. With release coming in June, I'll confess that I'm a bit worried that some bugs won't be fixed and that some polish will be lacking from some areas. But bugs can be fixed, and polish can be added. If the issue were with bad game design, then there'd be no amount of polish that could fix it, but that's not the case here. Game design is brilliant; dungeons are intense and well-made. Also, Martin was pretty confident that things would be fixed before launch, as several iterations are in the works to ensure the quality of the end product. I hope he's right because this game deserves a solid launch. TSW really delivers on a vibrant, living world with a dark hidden side, bringing it all to life on your screen... and hopefully for long time, too.
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