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The Secret World Dev Journals: The Freeform Progression System

By Guest Writer on March 22, 2012

Vast possibilities

The Secret World gives players the freedom to develop their characters the way they want, without the constraints of classes and levels. Players can acquire any of the game’s over five hundred unique abilities, and through them play exactly as they like.

The swarm of abilities makes up the Ability Wheel, and organizes each of them into helpful groups. These main groups are Ranged, Melee and Magic. They divide further into Assault Rifles, Pistols, Shotguns, Blades, Hammers, Fists, Elementalism, Chaos Magic and Blood Magic. All abilities in the wheel are tied to one of these nine weapon groups, and each weapon offers a wide array of different play styles and tactics.

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A character can learn any, and potentially all (after playing for a very long time), of the abilities in the Secret World. This is done through playing and earning experience points from doing missions, defeating enemies, crafting and player versus player combat. The player starts near the center of the wheel and acquires more and more abilities as he progresses outwards towards the outer layer.

The further out from the center of the Ability Wheel a player gets, the more expensive the abilities become. But this in no way means that the inner abilities are less useful or will become outdated as the players progress.

Because the true strength of the character development system does not only lie in the freedom it offers, but also in the limitations it enforces. The crucial point is that each character can only use a maximum of two weapons and seven active and seven passive abilities at any time.

When you can choose between hundreds of different abilities, but only use some of them at a time – a vast field of strategy suddenly opens up. Selecting your fourteen abilities before battle is kind of like making a deck in a collectible card game. Which cards do you choose and which do you discard?

Setting up a build

It is quite easy to learn the basics of the ability system, but as you acquire more and more abilities the opportunity arises to really add some finesse to your chosen setup. The real fun starts when you begin exploring the Ability Wheel to find abilities which fit well together, and design the kind of build that you really want to play.

Let us say you like doing lots of damage from a distance, and you choose Pistols and Assault Rifles as your main weapons. As you play, you discover that quite often you face groups of enemies, and that you are vulnerable when they get close to you. You therefore decide to develop abilities which ‘hinder’ and slow down your opponents, so you can more easily move around and shot them from a distance.

You also soon realize how much more effective you can be when you use abilities which synergize with each other. So for your ranged build you scour the Ability Wheel for all abilities who contain the key word ‘hinder’. Luckily you find them all over the place.

You then buy new passive abilities which augment your active ones, because they trigger on enemies in the ‘hindered state’. Suddenly you are not just rooting enemies on the spot so you can stand back and shoot them, but you are also applying extra DoTs (damage over time) or increasing your own chance to do critical hits with each ‘hinder’ affect you apply.

When almost every ability plays together in such sweet harmony, enemies which once seemed strong die within a few seconds, and you can cut through previously insurmountable groups of monsters like a hot knife through butter. 

But as you encounter harder and harder enemies, you also see that the ‘hinder’ build you thought was perfect, quickly falls short in some new circumstances. In brutal dungeons and against ferocious bosses with all sorts of nasty tricks up their sleeves, you see that quite different tools are often needed.

You decide that big single target damage abilities are good against bosses, and that you should try and make them critically hit as often as possible to maximize damage. Several of the pistol abilities you already have are very good for increasing the chance of critical hits, and since you have started to dabble in Elementalism for DoTs, you continue to develop the weapon group to get your hands on those really heavy hitting spells. You also discover that it would be smart to pick up a couple of passive abilities from the Hammers group, to let your critical hits get that extra punch.

Soon you have all the tools needed for a very different build for a very different purpose. Gone are your crowd control abilities, but instead you combine Pistols with Elementalism to rain down critical hit after critical hit on big dungeon bosses for massive damage.

You save each build in your Gear Manager, so you can swap between them as you see fit. The more builds you make the more you see how much fun it is to try new ones, and that the possibilities are virtually endless.

Band together

For many of the harder encounters in The Secret World, like lairs, dungeons and heroic dungeons, players definitely need to team up to stand a chance, and the builds most useful in a group can definitely be very different from those you use when playing alone.

Though there are many ways to tank or heal in The Secret World, most of the greatest challenges require that the team contains at least one player for each these roles. The most difficult challenges are also however the most varied. So there can in no way be said to be a most effective tanking, healing or damage build for each piece of group content in The Secret World.

The most important thing to remember is that you should always have many different builds to choose from, so you can find a fitting build for almost any situation. Perhaps one part of a dungeon is so full of nasty spells, and a boss with such a wicked knock back, that it caters to those who can keep damage from a distance. And perhaps the next part of the same dungeon is so full of traps that the safest place to be is right in a big monster’s face, pummeling him with melee weapons.

Making builds that really work well with your teammates can often be the best way to success. A setup of abilities which focuses on strengthening the entire team can be next to useless when playing alone, but perhaps crucial when trying to conquer some of the hardest challenges the game has to offer.

Seeing how others play, and getting ideas from them for new kinds of builds, is also definitely a big part of The Secret World. There are easy to use functions in the game which lets players share setups with each other. That way players can more easily work together to learn how the hardest challenges can be overcome.

One piece of the puzzle

The abilities you acquire do not make up the entire progression system, nor all the important components you need for a successful setup or build. Equipment and weapons also play an important role. The gear in The Secret World is called Talismans, and they were formerly known as Chakras. The Talismans do not affect how your character looks, so the way your character looks in the game is still up to you.

Because all of the gear in the game comes with several different bonuses to many different stats, it is very helpful to tailor the equipment you are wearing to fit with your chosen role or playstyle. If you want a good build for tanking, which main defense for example is blocking, you should try and find, or craft for yourself, pieces of equipment which add a good amount of hit points, physical and magical mitigation and which adds to your blocking stat.

This kind of equipment may not however be very useful for a build made for doing high amounts of damage, and so you need another quite different set of equipment for your setup of abilities which for example aims at doing ranged critical hits.

Though the need for several kinds of equipment may seem complicated, it is made very simple through the Gear Manager. You just equip your chosen pair of weapons, the seven active and seven passive abilities you find most effective and then put on the most powerful gear you have which fits best with this setup. When you now save this build in your Gear Manager, you choose a name, and it saves all the different components in one big package. Thus swapping gear happens automatically as you swap builds.

Several forms of progression

The vast majority of abilities are equally powerful, and all of them can be useful under different circumstances. It is therefore the synergies between your abilities and the equipment you wear which mostly increases your power as you play more and more of The Secret World.

As you acquire or craft more powerful weapons and Talismans, their bonuses to important stats like attack rating, critical hit chance or healing increase, and that’s how your abilities get stronger. As you progress through the game you get access to better and better gear, so that you can use the same abilities from your favorite builds against stronger and stronger opponents.

The way you are able to equip the new and improved equipment you are constantly earning is through skills. You are awarded with skill points as you play and earn experience points (the same way you get ability points).

You use the skill points to advance several different kinds of skills. There is a skill for each weapon and a skill for each of the three main groups of Talismans. Though all the equipment you find has certain levels of these skills as requirements, the skills themselves also have other functions.

When you spend a point on a skill, it improves one of your stats and also offers a strategic choice. If you for example spend a skill point on Blades, you can choose whether it should add a bonus to an offensive or defensive stat. The same goes for Blood Magic, where you choose between being more offensive or healing.

Deep strategy

When you combine all the different character development components found in The Secret World, you soon see how deep the possibilities go. You can both look the way you choose, play the way you choose and develop your character the way you choose – A chance to be truly unique.

For those who like to delve into game systems and come up with strong builds and strategies, the freeform progression system in The Secret World is like a dream come true. You can use all your talents to tailor abilities, gear and skills to fit together in wonderfully powerful combinations, and then do it over and over and over again as you encounter different kinds of enemies and content.

Since any character can learn any ability and any skill, there is also the potential to make truly legendary characters. Heroes capable of keeping a group alive through healing in the hardest dungeons, and later that same day sweep through PVP combat with a monstrous setup made for speed and damage.

You won’t need to ask yourself – which class should I play today? You can instead swap between your own self composed builds at a moment’s notice on your favorite character, and play them all.

The strategy goes deep and the variables are many, and no matter if you are chasing that seemingly perfect build or trying to find the most fun playstyle, there are always new abilities to discover and combinations to try out.

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