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The Secret World Previews: The Innovation Two-For

By William Murphy on May 11, 2012

Like my cohorts here on MMORPG.com, I spent a good chunk of time over the past few days playing Funcom’s The Secret World beta. And while I’m of the mind that certain things are a little rough around the edges, a few specific parts of the game really stood out to me as “holy crow, this is genius!” Those things are what Funcom’s been touting all this time: the unique take on questing, and the skill-based character development.  Both have the potential to put TSW firmly in the camp of the most innovative games category. There’s a whole of “let’s do it different” here, but the quest design and character development are most notably what grabs me initially to keep logging in.

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A THINKING MAN’S GAME

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There will be times when you’re tasked with killing a few of this, or collecting a few of that.  I don’t think we’re getting away from that mechanic anytime soon.  But, like Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR, Funcom’s latest game is seeking to change up the way in which we do our daily tasks in MMOs.  First of all, there’s the presentation.  Many (not all) of the quests in TSW have scripted cutscenes that are well-acted and entertaining.  More than once I got the feeling of being in a suspense movie, or a sort of cousin to Stephen King’s The Mist, while doing my thing in Kingsmouth. 

It’s hard to write this article though, because I don’t want to spoil much of the main quest-line.  But let me give you a few less important examples.  When you first arrive in Kingsmouth, a camped out cowboy of a man will ask you to help him take out some of the undead while you’re on your way to the barricaded police station.  Easy, right?  Only all quests in TSW come in tiers.  Meaning: they all have multiple steps of progression.  The first step, and it’s catalogued in our video of the Templar beginner’s experience, is to simply kill a few of them.  Then you realize that you can draw more out of the woodwork by sounding car alarms.  You jump on some hoods, the alarm sounds, and you kill a few more.  Then you realize that fire kills them quicker, so you explode some gas cans, and pull the zombies into them to burn them to further death.  All the while, you’re making your way to the police station.  It’s a wonderful way to offer up a “bread crumb” kind of quest to lead players to a new area. 

In this way, you’re never just “sent out” to kill things and return.  Pretty much every mission, once all objectives have been completed, can be turned in to your faction headquarters via text message through your in-game mobile phone.  You even get currency deposited to your account.  There’s one mission I recall where you see a bunch of squid seafood boxes lying on the ground, fallen out of a delivery vehicle.  You realize there’s a trail of other boxes, get tasked with following the trail, and then discover the source of the many half-eaten squid boxes down by the water’s edge.  I won’t spoil what it is.  Then there’s another mission where you find a note about some Illuminati happenings (as a Templar), and have to figure out the code to a hidden keypad by exploring the location.  The most the game ever really gives you in terms of guidance is a general “circle” area where the next step of the quest takes place.  The rest, they more often than not leave up to you. 

DON’T HATE, INNOVATE

And while I’ve yet to really get “stumped” on a quest (it is the starting area after all), I’m really fond of the way The Secret World doles out its content.  It’s quest-based PVE, but it doesn’t feel like “quest hub to quest hub” as we’ve seen in so many games over the years.  Most are also repeatable, meaning if you liked a particular mission, after about 24 hours you could go back and do it again.  That may not be the most “immersive” of features, but it’s a good option to have regardless.  Additionally, more than anything about TSW, I feel like questing here encourages exploration.  You’ll find random things about the world that trigger new quests, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself completely off the beaten path.  And while it doesn’t seem to work as well as GW2’s dynamic events, the quests themselves do foster a sense of “go figure it out” that’s been missing forever from the genre.

There’s another aspect to TSW that really has me excited, and it’s the skill system.  But, well… it’s so complex I barely feel capable of commenting on it yet.  All I know is that it lets me change my mind on what I want to do and who I want to be at any given time.  I may have to stay within the confines of the 500+ skills, but come on… that’s 500+ skills we’re talking about. Not too confining, really.  I’ve spent most of my time mixing the single-target damage of an elemental magic user with the cone AOE damage of a shotgun wielding maniac.  And I love it. 

The wheel itself is a little unwieldy until you get used to it, and the “Deck Templates” options are great but not adequately explained as of this stage in beta.  By that I mean, I can pick a “Paladin” from the templates list, but it doesn’t say much about the template, or really do much for me to make sure I pick the right skills to get to the goal of being a Paladin.  It just tells me what skills I need to buy, not how to get to them.  For a feature that’s supposed to hold my hand, it doesn’t really.  And considering how complex the system really is (Anima Points, Skill Points, you need this many of this before you can have this, kthxbye) you’d think that something like Templates would put you on cruise control in character progression like an “auto-spend” feature that helps players who just want to play get to the action faster.

In total, I’m quite impressed by the scope of The Secret World in both terms of its content design and its character progression.  Of all the game’s features, while the three-faction warfare was not able to be played around with just yet, these are what really stand out as reasons to try The Secret World.  This isn’t your average MMORPG folks. Funcom’s definitely trying to mix it up, and it seems to be working.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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