The Secret World presentation we were treated to at this year's PAX Prime began with a re-hash of the same dungeon experience we saw several months ago at EA's Summer Showcase. The Kingsmouth dungeon experience did look much further along though, with a newer UI, further improved visuals, and it seemed much smarter AI even though our demo folks from Funcom cheated (ah, to have the power of the devs). We saw the skill system in effect and were treated to a preview of the skill wheel itself (there really are 500 unique skills to gain). But it's what came after this recap that really caught our attention and showed us just why Funcom's next release deserves the "Most Anticipated" award we've given it.
THE PERSONAL STORY
Once the big baddies of the dungeon had been defeated, we were given an overview of the game's three factions. The Illuminati (whose motto is sex, drugs, and Rockefeller) are all about change, progress, wealth and power. Hailing from New York, New York, they believe the old moral code is outdated and that it's high time "Morals 2.0" was ushered in. The Templars, from London, are the exact opposite of this in so much as they believe in the righteous and true path of Arthurian legend and will stop at nothing to make sure their age-old virtues are upheld... Even if it means innocent lives must be sacrificed for the greater good. Lastly, the Dragon of Seoul, Korea believe in the natural order of things and that even the smallest actions can create tidal waves of change... Chaos theory at its finest.
As a player you'll be starting in your faction's home town, and so we were shown an early personal quest of the Illuminati as an example of both The Secret World's cinematic nature and its vastly different from the norm mechanics. The mission had us meeting an informant about something in the privacy of a darkened parking garage in New York. However, when we got there, we quickly came to realize that something was wrong. With the modern setting, TSW can use things like cellphones and computers within the game to great effect. As such, our helper back at "the base" watched us from the garage's security cameras and talked with us via our cell. All of the game's mission content is fully voiced and it's quite well done from what we could tell too.
Our helper showed us on the security camera that what we thought to be our informant was actually a Templar operative. Since no one but us was supposed to know of this meeting we then divert our goals to chasing down this operative to find out why he's following us. Only it becomes quickly apparent that he's doing more than following us as the lights go out and several ghouls are alerted to our presence. The coolest part of this dungeon was easily the atmosphere set up by the darkness and the horrific aspect of the setting. Funcom's Dreamworld 2.0 engine is capable of some fantastic lighting effects and they're used to a wonderful extent here. When the lights went out we grabbed a lighted construction helmet to show our way, but the lit also drew enemies to us. It's sort of anise change of pace for mechanics to see light used as a form of aggro. Our battery eventually ran out on the helmet and we then had to use a flare gun to place sources of light throughout the garage, and like the helmet the zombies were drawn to the light which was nice because they then became easy pickings for our assault rifle skills. It was really dark and atmospheric and I got the feeling that TSW could be the first MMO to actually scare its players. We chased the Templar all the way deep into the garage, where we found our informant bloodied and dead on the ground, a message written in his blood on the wall. The lights then went out one final time and the screen faded to black as a horde of zombies rushed our character and our help hollered in our ear on the cell to get out as fast as possible.
THE PERSISTENT WORLD PVP
The final portion of the game we were shown is probably the most enticing part of TSW so far: the three faction persistent PVP. Sure the game has its "battlefield" type PVP for quick and dirty competitive fights. Places like Stonehenge, El Dorado, and Shambhala are used as great scenes for competitive fits. These maps are all well and good for some easy to digest action, but it's the persistent Warzones that will be scattered throughout the world that really got our mouths salivating for this game.
They're persistent, massive maps capable of hosting over 100 players at a time, and Funcom's tying some serious bonuses and rewards to them to make sure each faction will want in on the action. If your faction holds control of a zone, the entirety of that faction receives bonuses and buffs and other benefits that they're not quite ready to talk about just yet. But one thing they've already seen in their beta experience is that the three factions allow for some really unique warring and subterfuge across the board. When one side dominates it's not uncommon to see the other two team up for a time to take down the winning side. Of course once this is complete, all bets are off right?
The example zone we were shown in action was in Asia, centered around a temple with some seriously ancient and powerful artifacts that each faction craves to use in their fight against both the darkness and their hunt for power. It's just one of four main objectives in a rather massive map (again that is always on and operating and up for contention). The one we saw involved groups of attacking players trying to obtain explosive magical charges from an anima well to blast open the doors to the temple. The two attacking factions could work together for a point only to break off and fight each other once inside. It’s really a dynamic way to set up a fight.
In order for any one side to gain the bonuses for the whole warzone they have to control at least two of the four artifacts. Additionally, each artifact does give bonuses to the players within the zone, so you can imagine that taking down the faction controlling all four may be quite difficult.
But then, that’s why there are three factions and not two.
Funcom also showed us that inside of Warzones and the smaller PVP maps, players will have “uniforms” that differ from their regular PVE chosen looks. You may still end up tweaking the look for PVP, but generally the tanking-spec’d folks will have padded armors while the DPS will look scrappier and those with healing spells slotted may seem more “squishy” still. Each faction will also have specific colors assigned to them to make sure everyone can be told apart: green for Dragon, blue for Illuminati, and red for Templars. This is the team’s answer to having everyone look however they want and creating mass hysteria on the battlefield in the process. Apparently they tried the total freedom approach in PVP and it just didn’t work internally, so they decided to let PVE looks and PVP looks be separate.
Last but not least, Funcom recently announced the first details of their pricing model during a business meeting. Players can expect The Secret World to require a monthly fee, and the team will also be exploring ways to offer vanity items for additional costs (though they assured me that almost everything you’ll see as a MTX will also be earnable in-game). When I asked whether or not they were worried about players getting miffed at both an expansion and MTX on top of it, they said they hoped the fact they’re keeping the real-money stuff to vanity items would be enough to make players comfortable with the idea.
Funcom’s The Secret World is due out in April of 2012, and the build we saw is just after a significant internal milestone. The Oslo-bound folks expect the beta process to really open up in the next couple of weeks, and there will be plenty of chances for players to get their hands on the game and try out the conspiracies and warzones for themselves before too long. It’s definitely becoming one to watch.