Last week we sent our own Carolyn Koh down to EA's Summer Showcase where Funcom's The Secret World was on hand for an exclusive and semi-private demo of the games combat, skill system, and dungeon mechanics. Finally, after a whole lot of waiting I feel like we're getting something to talk about! The focus of the event was definitely the dungeon where the freighter Polaris ran aground on what used to be the habitable Solomon Island. The team, for the first time that I can recall, talked about the "four pillars" of The Secret World: the modern day setting, the classless skill system, the secret societies, and the games deep sense of storytelling. Let's dig into what we learned and saw, and opine on it all shall we?
We've seen a few videos, heard a lot of talk, but at the showcase we actually got to see hoe the modern day setting will be applied to a somewhat traditional MMO motif. The whole thing had a very Left 4 Dead feel and I mean that as a compliment. The freighter had spilled hundreds of metal shipping crates all about the once peaceful tourist city. The lighting was suitably creepy and atmospheric, and it really looked like something out of a good Stephen King novel.
The Combat and Skills System
Amid all this though is the fact that TSW is still an MMORPG at heart. The combat we saw was still your target and hotkey variety, with the added caveat that you can move when you cast spells or use skills. During the videos posted by IGN I saw plenty of fireballs and the like, but there's something unique about a fireball being thrown by a hip looking dude from today when compared to yet another elf or Orc. Wielding a big old sledgehammer instead of a sword (though they are in the game) brings something new to the table too. The worry is whether or not the combat will be old hat, though judging by how reactive you have to be during a simple trash encounter in a dungeon I'm betting it won't be all that stale.
This event was a chance to see the skill system in action too. Players don't gain experience in TSW, not in the normal sense. Instead of leveling up, you gain points throughout the game to use on purchasing one of the five hundred skills available. We saw AOE grenades as skills, blood magic, crowd control spells, and even an assault rifle as a form of skills. Depending on how you load out your active and passive skills, you can make traditional classes in a sense with tanking, healing, etcetera all there. But the idea behind the system. If you give everyone the ability to be whatever they want whenever they want by allowing them to earn a ton of skills and switch at will, you eliminate the constant shortage of important roles. Sure you still have the roles, but you also free people up to use one character for many different purposes. It's not completely unheard of in the industry but it's definitely still a welcome idea.
You'll have skills that require specific items to use, displaying how TSW has vertical progression in terms of items, but horizontal progression in terms of the skills with both reliant on each other. There seems to be a whole lot of freedom in the system, even as the game is still in super secret squirrel mode, and that's promising.
Another thing we really saw at play during the event was just how important the story really will be in TSW. Not to be outdone by other upcoming games like The Old Republic, all of the quest dialog in TSW will be voiced, with an emphasis on in-game cinematics during both quests and dungeons. But more than just that, using the real world setting as a way to break the fourth wall, the game will often ship players off to the Internet to do some research into one of the title's many mysteries. I love this. I know some folks will ruin it regardless, but I'll be damned if I go anywhere to find out how to get past a puzzle. I want to be challenged in TSW, I want to think. It's been too long since I really had to do that in an MMO.
In all Im really pleased with what we saw out of the EA Showcase. I know there's a whole lot left to learn, and that we will hopefully get some of that during the last few big shows of the year. And while there's a lot of question marks about PVP and other ancillary MMO features, for now I'm pretty stoked just to know that The Secret World is going to be a game that makes me think for a change. I've missed that.