Last week, The Escapist got the opportunity to gets some hands-on time with The Secret World again. You can see our previous coverage at The Secret World Preview and The Secret Appeal of The Secret World. This time around our we were primarily focused on the Illuminati faction, three areas of the outer advanced skill wheel and the Scorched Desert of Egypt zone, both in and out of dungeons.

There are three factions to play in The Secret World. The Templars are a militaristic order, set on trying to battle and defeat the current supernatural ills of the world. The Dragons are hoping to channel or use the chaos to bring about certain changes and finally the Illuminati simply want to take advantage of the situation in whatever way benefits them the most. Unlike most MMOs however, there is an agreement between the factions. The three sides are willing to work together to combat a common threat, even so far as to allow players of different factions to group together, but at the end of it all and in the game’s PVP warzones, each of the three is ultimately in it for themselves. As one developer put it, they are all handshakes and smiles above the table and daggers below. This is a great way to throw a wrench into the typical faction structure.

The introduction for the Illuminati takes place in New York City, the news playing on your TV alludes to some kind of event happening in Tokyo, but you’ve got more personal issues to contend with. You’ve suddenly and rather destructively, at least for your furniture, come into some supernatural abilities. After a few days of magical redecorating, you’ve got your new talents under control when a knock at the door introduces you to a character combining the best qualities of Jersey Shore and a used car salesman. With the offer you couldn’t (or can’t) refuse on the table, you venture out into New York to track down your new potential employers. The Illuminati understandably don’t exactly have a spot in the Yellow Pages. So your first mission involves talking to a not-so-crazy conspiracy theorist and then following the clues of who’s keeping tabs on him back to the Illuminati. Your combat tutorial actually plays out through a rather clever sequence where you’re hypnotically, magically and chemically drugged into inserting yourself into the chaotic event in Tokyo. This rather masterfully sets up much of the setting and backstory in one swoop. The three factions are not averse to working together, and this is on a whole new scale from what they’ve normally been combating.

The combat mechanics themselves will be pretty familiar to any fans of modern MMOs. Tab targeting, hotkeys and combo point-esque weapon resources are certainly nothing new, but The Secret World chooses to set its sights elsewhere in order to keep the combat fresh and interesting to even the most dedicated MMO veterans. The crux of it revolves around the game’s skill system. There are no classes or levels in The Secret World, but instead you can learn 500 skills arranged around a wheel. The wheel is broken into three sections, melee, magic and ranged, and each section contains little spokes in both inner and outer advanced skills. Similar to Guild Wars, you’re limited to a set number of skills: in this case seven active skills and seven passives ones. The goal was to promote more focused play and get away from the jack of all trades with bars and bars of abilities. There is also a heavy emphasis on selecting skills that interact with each other. For instance, you might have a pistol skill that puts a hindering effect on the target and an elemental magic spell that will deal damage over time on multiple enemies, but only if the original target was in the hindered state.

While there will be some pre-generated templates to help players along, I had a lot of fun experimenting with the powers and adjusting them to suit my needs throughout the day. I ended up opting for a pure magic build based around the advanced wheel segment of Elemental magic, but by the end I was using something entirely my own from what the developers had initially set me up with. You can even save your gear and builds to easily swap between specialized roles or to share them with players. The other two advanced skill sections that were available to us were in addition to Elemental were Assault Rifles and Hammers. To get around the lack of classes, there are secondary roles built into these advanced skills. Hammers, for example, can acquire skills and put points towards tanking.

After we finished with the Illuminati introduction we briefly got to see Agartha , which seems to serve as the game’s fast travel system. Often described in various forms of fiction, Agartha appears to be an in-between realm where various points of the moral plane, and maybe even time itself, are connected. You can access Agartha through portals at specific points that are always marked with lush vegetation; in fact, Agartha itself is a winding and twisting network of roots and giant trees reaching off into the void. It’s a great little convergence of mechanics being integrated into the setting.

Later we moved on to the Scorched Desert of Egypt, and were let loose to explore and adventure on our own. Egypt is being plagued by some rather familiar biblical issues, in addition to the local Cult of Aten flaring up and making increasingly more brazen attacks. There are three types of missions that you can undertake: story, item and main missions. Main missions are further delineated into action, sabotage and investigation. The game does have its share of go here and kill X number of Y, but breaks the mold with things like the investigation missions, which will require you to break out the in-game browser to search your way through the clues to a solution.

While the combat will be familiar to MMO players, something that might be initially off-putting is the restriction to only 3 missions at a time. The developers stated that they wanted to focus the player on the mission at hand and get away from the approach of grabbing 10 or more quests for an area and running around in a big circle. To that end, every mission finishes on completion of the task instead of requiring you to return to the person who gave it to you, and the goal was also to always leave you near additional missions to lend the game a more dynamic leveling experience. This is fine in principle, though my inner exploring gamer that must go everywhere and complete every quest was dying a little seeing all the mission icons I knew I couldn’t take.

Lastly we ran through a pair of dungeons. One of the more enjoyable aspects was how each boss’ abilities built on each other, giving it kind of an old school feeling as the final boss is a culmination of all the previous mechanics you’ve had to learn up until then. The fights are really mobile too, which prevents the gameplay from falling into tedium of standing in one spot and repeating the same skill rotation. The game does have loot, but The Secret World puts a lot of focus into controlling your character’s visuals. Special clothing might be obtained for tackling challenges, but you’re otherwise free to dictate your look. Instead of rewarding you with Sneakers of Dexterity +2, your statistical buffing items are chakras with the seven slots representing the seven chakras from Hindu. So you’ll never need to choose between abandoning your magic-slinging cowboy look for better numbers.

What’s interesting, and potentially concerning, is how much these chakras can affect your character though. Without any equipped you have the same stats you start the game with. Which means you could, for instance, equip entirely for massive damage and not take a single chakra with health on it, leaving you with the same 1500 health you start the game with. This might seem suicidal, but what if you have a really good tank to hold all the enemies attention? This also seems like it puts a pretty big gap between players with good gear and those without, whereas normally leveling bonuses would help to keep characters similar in power. Granted we only saw a small snapshot of the game, so it’s possible the developers have the math worked out though.

In the end, if you’re looking for something that isn’t just another warrior, elves and fireballs fantasy MMO then The Secret World is worth keeping an eye on. The game manages to find a delicate balance between familiarity and new. The setting is intriguing, skills system is fun to experiment with and there are a number of small improvements to the typical MMO trappings.

If your interested in learning more, we also got a chance to sit down an interview the lead designer.

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