Funcom’s The Secret World has been one of the best kept game mysteries for the past couple of years. The team has chosen when and where information will be disseminated and how much will be released when it is discussed. However, as the game nears its April 2012 release date, the team is ready to start letting the rest of us in on what is arguably one of the most keenly anticipated titles coming next year. With that objective in mind, members of the worldwide gaming press were invited to visit Funcom’s Montreal studio where the bulk of the work on The Secret World is being carried out.
What Is The Secret World?
To begin our day, we were invited in for a brief overview of The Secret World. First TSW Senior Producer and Creative Director Ragnar Tørnquist talked about what The Secret World is and the premise behind the game.
For those who may or may not have been following, here is a recap of what we already know:
- Modern world setting where every conspiracy theory is true
- Three factions competing for world dominance: Templars, Illuminati and Dragons
- Character progression without class or level restrictions
- 500+ powers at launch, no ranks on skills
- Players can own all skills and choose different combinations depending on the desired outcome of role assignment
- Combining different weapons and skills is similar to trading card games.
- Skills can be switched out at any time except in the middle of a battle
- Changing powers/skills can make a huge difference
- Social ranks within a player’s chosen faction will drive story quests
- Focus on gear, weapons, and chakras
- Mix of modern and magical weaponry: Voodoo dolls, Viking swords, AK47s, particle canons to name a few
- Monsters drawn from ancient history, movies, fairy tales, urban legends. They are ‘familiar with a twist’
- Player clothing has no stats and comes to players through rewards, achievements
- 150 hours of main storyline game play for each faction
- Every character is fully voiced and quest NPCs have fully voiced cinematics when assigning tasks
One thing that Tørnquist mentioned that especially intrigued me was when he said that The Secret World is essentially a jigsaw puzzle with millions of pieces that the team took and threw into the air, scattering them literally over the entire game world. Tørnquist admits that the story is linear but is discovered in a non-linear way. “Everything,” he said, “EVERYTHING is designed to be informed by the story.”
Anxious to let us test TSW, Tørnquist had one last thing to say, a caveat of sorts. “Right now The Secret World is a diamond in the rough from the standpoint that we are still about six months from launch. We are actively tweaking and polishing combat, our cut scenes are not completely finalized, and loading times on the test client are longer than they will be at launch. But,” Tørnquist said, “we are excited for you to get started.”
The press event was limited to the Templar starting experience, but, as it turns out, that was no limitation whatsoever.
Our journey into The Secret World began with a pre-made Templar character. We were not able to go through the character creation process but given what we saw later during our studio tour, the choices players will have to customize their characters will be impressive. As of our time there, a lot of the character heads models were being overhauled to give players even more flexibility during creation when TSW launches. But given how badly we wanted to get our hands on TSW, not being able to spend an hour creating our character was a good thing.
The origin story is told through a series of cutscenes featuring your character in Tokyo hiding in a dingy hotel room or apartment and slowly becoming aware of your strange new powers. The story introduces the first of the legion conspiracy theories the game will showcase including such ominous things as “what is the Japanese government hiding” and “bee problems plaguing the earth” and more. Your player fades in and out of consciousness. You finally awaken for good to a stranger who reveals the first hints of the Templars. You are given and envelope and told, “We’re the Templars. We’ve been around awhile.” From there you are told to head to London and to find the headquarters of the secret sect of guardians.
Once the initial assignment is given, players head off to get to London but need to complete several stages of the origin quest. The game’s movement mechanics and combat are taught through a series of quest tiers. One of the most important things new players will learn when entering The Secret World is that movement in combat not only is encouraged, but is necessary in a big way. Monsters don’t simply charge at you and stay there in front of you. They move in random patterns, throw projectiles and incendiary devices, and hurl spells and more. Movement is quite literally the way to stay alive even in these earliest phases of the game.
At the end of the initial quest arc, taking about 30-45 minutes to complete, I found myself in London at the Templar HQ: The Crucible. New Templars are instructed about the origins of the organization: “We don’t participate in the war on evil. We ARE the war on evil. We have an aptitude for violence. We are needed to keep society in order. Might will make right.” All of this is told in nicely voiced and animated cutscenes that included my character as well. The environments in The Crucible are lovely and grand as one would expect from a centuries-old secret society.
But historically old doesn’t mean lack of modern trappings both in the way that the Templars look, the trappings of The Crucible’s interiors or the way in which Templars train. After learning a bit about the history of the Templars, I was sent off to learn some skills.
Skills and Training
Once a player has finished the bulk of the informative background of the Templars, they are sent off to train. Players choose one to have bestowed on them before heading out to battle. Choices include Melee (swords, maces, etc.), Ranged (rifles, crossbows, pistols, etc.) or Magic. As said earlier, however, there is no limit on what players can do with their skills. If at some point one tires of being beaten to death by every monster entering melee range, they can simply head back to HQ to pick up a few handy ranged skills either in the Magic or Ranged training that is available to all players. And picking up those skills doesn’t immediately negate others that have been learned either.
While acquiring all skills is a good thing, players will need to keep in mind that only seven active and seven passive skills can be equipped at any given time. While skills can be changed out at any given time except during battle, players will want to experiment with what active/passive skills work best together.
Another innovative feature that Funcom is including in The Secret World is the Power Wheel. Gone is the ever-popular skill tree in favor of this rather complex wheel system. As players complete quests and tasks, they are assigned power points which can be spent in any skill area that a player has trained in (melee, ranged and magic). Once two cells in the inner wheel have been purchased, the more advanced outer wheel becomes available. Skill points can be spent on skills the player likes without using some skills as ‘stepping stones’ to higher level skills. Think Diablo 1’s Charged Bolt as a stepping stone to get to the more powerful Chain Lightning. That simply doesn’t happen in TSW.
Luckily for those of us who are less likely to micromanage or are less obsessive compulsive about discovering what works best together, the Funcom dev team will implement Templates that players can choose to help find effective character progression. These were not available for us to try out but they are there and will be in for launch.
Of course, hearing about 500+ skills, one has to wonder how on earth the team will be able to balance. According to Martin Bruusgaard and Joel Bylos, it’s a “self-countering system. For every so-called flavor of the month build, there is a counter to it. Everyone has the ability to own all skills so every skill can be effectively countered.” In addition, Bylos said, the team will be mining data on the skills to look for any that appear over powering or that aren’t being utilized enough. “Balance to players means that they win 2/3 of the time,” said Bruusgaard.
But back to my Templar: She trained herself in melee combat specializing in swords. My character started with three brand new skills centered around the sword and was then sent to discover Agartha, a strange otherworldly travel system that, for Templars at least, begins underground. It’s TSW’s fast travel system with portals opening to locations throughout the world. It’s not without peril, however, as players are told on embarking on their first journey to Kingsmouth on Solomon Island.