On a cold winter's day in Montreal, a bunch of game journalists from all forms of publications were drawn together to play together in 5 man groups (4 journalists plus 1 Dev), exploring the starting areas of the Illuminati, one of the more esoteric (to put it loosely) secret societies in Funcom's The Secret World. For the uninitiated, The Secret World is set in a parallel world to ours. One where the old myths and monsters live and magic flows through the world and in us, the humans that live in it.
We were given the chance to play in the Scorched Desert, a region in Egypt, and learned that the cult of Aten is alive and active and that the biblical plagues of old have revisited modern day Egypt. (Hint - start looking it up!) Here is the inevitable spoiler warning. If you hate spoilers, I'll let you know when to stop reading because I am going to talk about the game play and that will describe the area, the quests and the dungeons we ran through, the horridly splendid boss mobs and the evil, evil experiences that are in store for players. Experiences that made us first groan, cuss, and then wane enthusiastic when we beat the content. The day was justly titled "Immersion Day" as we spent the entire day, with short breaks in between for lunch, playing the game after a short presentation.
We were shown the character customization capabilities that are forthcoming, but did not go through character creation apart from choosing gender and Funcom's Devs applied a build for the type of character we wanted to try out. We however, had a ton of ability and skill points to use, to purchase other abilities and skills not already in the build. Character growth in The Secret World is not about levels, but the abilities and skills you have. XP in the Secret World is measured in terms of AP (ability points) and SP (skill points) earned. Skill points are weapon based whereas ability points are used in purchasing abilities on an Ability "wheel" with each segment fragmenting into smaller pieces as you neared into the center. Each segment is a series of abilities, both active and passive that is bought with ability points.
"We actually have a reverse leveling curve" said Joel Bayloss, Lead Content Designer at Funcom, "players will actually gain AP and SP faster as they progress to harder content and harder mobs. At the same time though, the farther you go up the scale of skills and the deeper you go into the ability wheel, the more expensive the skills and abilities are."
There are seven active and seven passive abilities that can be equipped at any time, and the strategy here is to equip passive abilities that will support the active ones. There are also seven levels in the series of abilities in any segment of the wheel, and the 7th is an active elite skill that you have to build up combat focus to use. This can be intimidating to the new player so the game will provide a number of templates or “decks” with suggested abilities that players take if they like to play certain roles such as Ninja, Assassin, Elementalist, Blade Dancer, Tank and etc.
Lest readers think otherwise, the three branches of magic are each considered a weapon. Skill points are earned at a much faster rate than ability points, but there are primary and secondary skills associated with each weapon. Primary skills are all damage based, but secondary skills support other roles. For example, the Hammer's secondary role is tech based.
“We really encourage players to switch out builds a lot,” said Joel, “The decks are starting points and as players get comfortable with the ability system, we expect there will be a lot of experimentation and discussion on the forums, especially in regards to which passive ability does better at supporting which active ability.”
Players will have to weigh the advantages between better crits or improved damage for example, and build their abilities accordingly. The UI and search functions to assist players is being reiterated and polished at this time, and promises some excellent filters to help players make those difficult choices.
Funcom has always stressed the importance of horizontal progression being much more important than the vertical in The Secret World. Players might begin with a certain build, or a role they enjoy in the game, but might encounter a solo dungeon where they will have to think about the build that would beat it. It never hurts to have a healing ability in your back pocket you can pull out when you need it.
How you “level” your stats is through equipment and Chakras. Chakras are basically centers of energy in your body; these are dropped by mobs and can be traded and sold. They also can be swopped out at any time, and some may fit into more than one of the Chakra slots. Playing a healer tonight? Swap in all your healing Chakras.
Quests are divided into three main types and only one of each type can be active at any time. They are: Story, Main which itself is split into action, Sabotage and Investigative, and Item missions which are picked up when you interact with items, such as a crumpled note you find on a street or a laptop left in an office.
The UI is still being refined and polished, but at this time is already pretty sweet. There is a log of drag and drop functionality like sharing quests with your group mates (although they do have to be in range) and windows you have open, fading out. This is especially useful during an investigative quest, so you can have the quest dialogue / hints window open at the same time as the in-game browser while you are searching for answers.
We got to see several in-game “suits” for PvP that are still in the works. Since visible gear does not indicate your character’s faction or powers, players need some sort of “tell” when playing PvP, not that the warrior there with the mucking big hammer won’t have some blood magic in his pocket for a heal or two, or the thaumaturge throwing those AEs won’t suddenly pull out a blade for a little close-in action. The suits will give a visual hint, but more importantly, tell you who’s who!
The Gameplay (Spoilers Ahead!)
The Illuminati Newbie Experience
In a cinematic sequence, I watched as my character gained her powers mysteriously. She learned to control her powers and next she knew some jerk in a suit and dark glasses shows up at her door, knowing that she had powers and invited her to a meeting, advising that she not miss it. The experience continued with sequences of active participation and cinematic cut scenes, I discover the Illuminati base in New York City, meet key NPCs, learn to use abilities and gain some knowledge of the Illuminati.
The newbie experience preps your expectations for the rest of the game. You do some searching, get a puzzle or two, and learn combat. I also discovered that I am so used to 3rd person view in MMOs that I don't look up... You know? Where things like billboards, signs and security cameras are? My group mates were to learn the same as we played the game. Remember to look up.
The newbie experience is also different for each faction. Some parts may be familiar to the others but is likely to be an event viewed from the perspective of that faction. “To know the whole story,” Game Director Ragnar Tornquist quipped, “you’ll have to play every faction!”
We've got a lot more to say so be sure to head to PAGE 2 for more about The Secret World!