EDITOR's NOTE: Since publishing this article, we've heard some feedback from Funcom about our concerns with character creation and the animations. Our Funcom source told us that the character creation is indeed very much limited in this beta build, and will be more fully fleshed out in the future with options and the like. As for animations, Erling explained two things. One is that there are many animations which are not yet final in this build. The second part is that because of the team's decision to allow characters to move while casting skills, they had to untie the upper body from the lower body in the animations. This means there will be times when swinging a sword or using your fist weapons will look odd, but it's the price they've had to pay for allowing players the ability to move while attacking at any time. Basically, it becomes more difficult to structure animations that always look perfect when the characters can't move during the animations.
Funcom developers are finally getting ready to let The Secret World and all its attendant mystery out of the proverbial bag. During this past week, we’ve had the opportunity to put the game through its paces to see how TSW is going to stand up to other MMO juggernauts that are either already on the scene or are imminently ready to hit the stage. The Secret World has been clothed in secrecy nearly from the start with Funcom only leaking information on a piecemeal basis over the past six months or so. We’ve had two press hands on events that gave fans a decent amount of information and there have been the usual interviews here and there but, really, TSW has been shrouded in mystery’s veil…until now.
Character creation in The Secret World is fairly detailed and allows players to select a look that is very unique. As with most MMOs today, TSW starts players off with a basic model that can be customized from hair color and style to chin depth. Inexplicably, however, you can’t alter your character’s body size in height, weight or any other way. I found that my poor Kal had the shoulders of a linebacker which was a bit disconcerting given how slender she was overall. Still, it’s not bad it’s just odd not to be able to select body style.
Players are given several clothing options from which to choose (with more coming we're told). You can try on different tops, pants, shoes and even “back wear” which is TSW-speak for jacket. I went with the basic t-shirt and cargo pants with bright red tennis shoes. Yep, I am a stunner.
The Tokyo Flashback cut scene is where the whole mystery of The Secret World begins. Players see their character waking at various points throughout the course of several days. The news is playing in the background giving players a notion of catastrophic events unfolding around the world. Players hear talk of bee problems and even see one fly into their character’s mouth at one point. The narrator speaks of obvious government collusion in some sort of mysterious cover up. In short, the scene is being set for the mysteries that players will encounter as they move through the game.
Most importantly, the Tokyo Flashback cut scene shows your character beginning to discover strange and inexplicable new powers. At first frightened, the player gradually begins to master these new powers. Finally, a stranger shows up at your door warning you that these new found mystical powers will not be readily accepted by the “regular folks” and that, just maybe, you’d be interested in learning more about the Templars. You’re handed an invitation of sorts that ultimately leads you to London to find the headquarters of the mythical Templars.
The best lines in the game(so far!) are when the mysterious messenger says, “Oh, we’re the Templars. You may have heard of us. We’ve been around awhile.” The utter nerd in me that reads books featuring Templars and alternative views of history guffawed.
First Steps in London
Once you’ve completed the Tokyo Flashback, you’re on your way to London (Illuminatis begin in NYC). This is the first time that you are actually working your character and game mechanics are taught through a group of quests that occur in the London Underground. You are accompanied by several other Templar wannabes, or at least that’s what I assumed they were. You travel through the underground facing off against monsters and practicing your combat skills in the subway system.
There were some pretty weird visuals during this particular set of quests, the most jarring being when my character was passed out for some reason and my character model kept flashing back and forth with someone else's other character model. It was intentional, I get that, but it's just jarring.
The Secret World doesn’t make fighting monsters just another walk in the park. You have to think when you’re in battle. Monsters don’t just run at you and stay in front allowing you to take them down. They come fast. They come in packs. They move. They hit damn hard too. Well, not too hard in the origin story, but you get my drift. You will need to stay on your toes and keep moving or you’ll quickly be overrun once you hit the larger environs of The Secret World.
You and your newfound companions face off with a lot of zombie-esque type monsters while underground but it’s an excellent training ground though if you’re not going to be a gun toting fool like I am, it’s a bit underwhelming. I like guns so it fit what I was going to eventually take on anyway.
I have to be honest here and tell you that my first misgivings began to surface at this early stage of the game. These are not necessarily game breaking misgivings but they gave me pause.
I find that the character animations in The Secret World are seriously lacking. When running, character movement isn’t bad. When in combat, however, I found the animations simply lacking in every imaginable way. The two footed “floating” jump is just odd. The movement around monsters and in combat is just not very fluid when compared to games like Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic, both games that excel in this area. This could be a huge problem for Funcom since, as we all know, you have one chance to impress people and if they’re seeing things that disturb them at the earliest stages of the game, tt might give them a good excuse to give up before getting into the meat of the game and the content where it shines.
All of this has me rather confused as I have always felt that Age of Conan has some of the best character battle animations of any MMO on the planet today. And it’s a three year old game on top of it all! Why The Secret World didn’t match itself to the same level of excellence in Age of Conan is a mystery to me.
I also mentioned earlier that I wasn’t overly thrilled with character creation either, another place that Age of Conan has it over TSW. I find this inexplicable since the two games share the same engine. I can only hope that improvements will continue to be made in these areas to at the very least meet the same standard set by Age of Conan. This may be one of the "elements of polish" the team refers to in its known issues list, but still.
Anyway, after working through the training quests, players land in London and are met by a local cop who fills in some lore behind the Templars. She gives you some general directions to the Templar HQ and you’re off on your merry way. London is nicely realized with lots of people walking around and shops, movie theaters and more to check out. The overall impression is, however, a bit dead. Yes, things move and there are some ambient sounds but you can interact with very little at this point. I was rather disappointed but not surprised since this is very common in all MMOs.
Ultimately, you arrive at Templar HQ and end up meeting with the head of the Templars who also gives you a string of lore behind the organization and then you’re sent off to train in whatever type of weapons specialization you choose.
One of The Secret World’s biggest features is the classless system with a skill system that will keep micromanagers busy for months, if not years. Any player can train in any weapon. Want to be a sword wielding magician? Go for it! Want to hurl fire and blast away with a shotgun. Yep, they’ve got that covered too. The astonishing array of skills and useful ways to utilize them is simply mind-boggling.
The more casual player will, however, want to take advantage of the deck system. Basically, a deck guides players in skill acquisition in order to arrive at a predestined build. There are a lot of really good ones so it’s worth exploring the decks if for no other reason than to give enough time to learn the skill wheel.
My girl chose assault rifles for her main weapon and then headed back to find out where she’d be heading in order to start taking the battle to evil. Turns out, it’s time to head to America and a small town called Kingsmouth where some very odd things have been happening.
Kingsmouth: Agartha, Questing & Combat Misgivings
To get to Kingsmouth, players will travel through Agartha.
For those who didn’t know:
Agartha is a legendary city that is said to reside in the earth's core. It is related to the belief in a hollow earth and is a popular subject in esotericism. (LINK)
What Agartha accomplishes for The Secret World is a way for players to fast travel in an innovative new way. Basically, Agartha is almost like spreading branches of a tree deep underground. Players utilize these travel ways to get to destinations around the world.
Following the path given, I headed into Kingsmouth, a zone rife with the undead. Yeah, zombies. Every MMO has ‘em so why not The Secret World? I just find it slightly tiresome but, once again, not unexpected. TSW devs aren’t quite ready to change every paradigm, and at least here they fit the setting. Again, you are tasked with working through several learning experiences and are taught how the player interacts with objects to accomplish all sorts of tasks.
Questing in Kingsmouth is interesting and quite different in some ways than most MMOs. While you still get the quest-giver/quest goals thing, you find that tasks are tiered and you have to finish one objective before you even know what the next objective is and so on until all tiers are completed. Keep in mind, too, that you can only have three active quests at a time: one main story mission, one faction quest and three gather quests. While that seems like a small number, it’s important to note that it’s more like eighteen quests with the different tiers.
There are a metric ton of quests in The Secret World. Exploration is encouraged to help players find quests that will lead them to more quests and so on and so on. Believe me when I tell you that there is no lack of tasks to accomplish.
During my time in Kingsmouth, I came upon my next feeling of foreboding when it came to combat. Now that I was working with my assault rifle, I increasingly became dismayed by the sound of it all. Yes, the sound. I utterly and completely hate the sound of the guns in TSW. Yes, I’ve said it. I suppose I’m spoiled by the sheer aural genius of BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 guns so that might have colored my opinion some. But…but…why does my flipping ASSAULT RIFLE sound like a repeating kid’s pop gun? I finally found a sword and started using that instead because I was so offended by the sound. I know. Shallow, right? Hopefully this is another area that's polished before June's launch.
When I first previewed The Secret World last fall, I was more than impressed. Granted, we were run through a very carefully scripted demo of the game so I know that things were intentionally perfect and they were. But here and now I have to admit that I feel as if I was playing a different game somehow during that event. I’m not sure what to think about that honestly. The things that I love are still there: The need to think; the tiered quests; the oddly compelling characters. But something seems off somehow and I’m at a loss to explain why.
There is no question that there is enough great stuff in The Secret World to make most of us overlook the seemingly inexplicable things that are missing and/or just clunky. If Funcom can make good on squashing bugs, expanding character creation and improving the damned combat animations, I will be a happy camper. But right now it seems like they have work to do.
Will you be playing The Secret World this weekend? Be sure to leave us your thoughts too!