By John Walker on October 24th, 2011 at 12:00 pm.
I was recently sat down to watch one of the opening sections for Funcom’s MMO, The Secret World. A game that promised much, and so far seems to be confusing everyone by delivering on those promises. Is that still the case? I consider such things below.
There are two lies most developers tell when they’re starting the development of their MMO. The first is that their game will have no levels or classes. The second is that their combat will be real-time. Then comes the actual process of developing such things, and it is discovered quite how difficult that is to do. And neither happens.
When Funcom were first talking about The Secret World, they explained that their game would have no levels or classes, and the combat would be in real-time. Despite this coming from the people who made The Longest Journey, even I was able to turn a cynical eye toward them and mutter, “No it won’t”.
Except, well, it might be true. With only a few months left until release, and the game currently in the early stages of its closed beta, it’s a bit late to introduce levels as every other MMO eventually does. And as for real-time combat – I think I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
I was recently shown the opening sequence of the game, the one for those affiliating with the Templar…
Let’s not get too confused here. While your character doesn’t have a particular class, rather access to a route through the same 500 available skills as everyone else, you do pick an allegiance at the very start. In fact, it’s Funcom’s hope that you’re already picking an allegiance, months before you ever play the game, such that when you finally get it you’ll not hesitate before making your choice. There’s the fervent Templar, corporative Illuminati, or chaotic Dragon, and which you pick will certainly affect the game you play. Indeed, it will define the opening you receive.
For the demo I was watching, Templar was picked, and so it was that at the time of the awakening of paranormal abilities in thousands of humans across the world, it was the Templar who visited the girl featured here. Not before she’d destroyed her apartment with her newfound skills.
Gaia, in reaction to something unknown (indeed, something that the very point of playing TSW is to learn) is awakening these humans to fight back against the rise of an evil known as The Filth. An occult bomb went off on the Tokyo subway three weeks earlier, and led to a chain of events that saw this Filth leaking into our world. So it is that our character woke up one morning to find herself feeling a little strange (with a copy of Dreamfall on her bedroom floor – fnarr). The sort of strange that causes someone to be suspended in midair, arms hanging backward, as torrents of magical energy start screaming out of one’s eyes, mouth and fingertips. We’ve all been there. During a series of vignettes across a week, we see this girl accidentally breaking everything in her home as she comes to terms with it all. Until finally there’s a knock at the door.
A brilliantly sass-mouthed lady boldly steps in, informs the girl that she knows exactly what’s happening to her, and asks if she wants to come join an ancient secret organisation in doing something about it all. The mute player character (a necessity of the way the MMO will work) stares in bemused silence as this excellent diatribe is delivered to her. And it’s worth listening to. This is a game that (later) includes lines as splendid as,
“I’ll show you how it all goes down through the medium of unreliable narration.”
That’s the sort of writing we expect from Funcom, and it’s going to be a delight to see an MMO with some wit about it. I was also pleased to learn that one of the benefits of joining the Templar includes, “A fantastic medical plan.”
Our character begins in a fictional area of London, which is astonishingly carefully created. This is London, not just a generic street with the odd red phone box. From the architecture to the flaked road markings, it’s a painstaking effort, and one that looks unlike any other MMO I’ve seen. While The Old Republic (and the two games will never escape comparison – the first two story-focused MMOs releasing within months of each other) looks very much like an updated WoW, this is something else entirely. It’s set in the real world, and they’ve gone to some considerable effort to have it look like the real world.
Pretty quickly the character finds herself taken back in time, by three weeks, to what’s known as The Tokyo Flashback. She’s in the subway where the bomb went off, and she’s met by those four characters so familiar from all the TSW CG trailers and posters. It’s a tutorial, but a well disguised one. Because here you’re going to learn combat.
So while watching the opening sequences of the game can only prove that there are no classes, it doesn’t demonstrate how the lack of levelling will work. (You can read much more about that here.) But it certainly does make a convincing argument about the fighting. Because it’s pretty hard to doubt when you see the character firing a shotgun with no cooldown, and dodging out of the way of attacks.
There are compromises here. The shotgun really is firing in real-time. There’s no greyed out icon cooling off after you fire, there’s no bullets bending through time and space to hit a fleeing enemy. It’s firing a cone of damage. At the same time, there will be magic attacks that lock onto a target, and will hit no matter where you run. It’s a halfway point to a genuine freeform fight, but it’s technology MMOs have struggled to do before – in fact a Funcom representative informed me they weren’t able to do it while they were developing Conan.
Dodging also works on a semi-compromise. When you’re about to receive a big attack, a warning exclamation mark appears above an enemy’s head. That’s your cue to dodge out of the way. And of course if the enemy are using cone attacks, simply running around will evade. Indeed, running around is a crucial part of the combat here, since you can – and here’s another big difference – move while spells are being cast. Where most MMOs will cancel the casting if you wobble a toe, here the bar will carry on filling as you charge around to the back of the fight, or peg it backward. The result looks like something much more fluid, much closer to the freedom of small-scale arena online gaming. Of course, I’ve not yet played it for myself, so how it actually feels to handle isn’t something I can comment on yet.
Again, the underground is vividly created, dull and crumbling, but brought alive with the remarkable spell effects. And we see the character accompanied by the gang, until she’s sent off on her own for a bit, and then stumbles upon what’s causing all this trouble. Through some windows she sees what looks like the stretches of space, the front of the view filled by a vast, molten orange sphere, threateningly… and that’s where the demo ended.
It was convincing. But then, when I was a kid – in Norway appropriately enough – I was in a toy shop and saw this amazing video of a furry creature that seemed almost alive with the way it could wiggle through your fingers and over your shoulder. Begging my parents for one, my father heavily warned me it wouldn’t work, but I was completely taken and would not relent. They gave in and bought one for me, and I was utterly devastated to find that rather than being some remarkable new thing, some gorgeous piece of cleverness, it was just a lump of fur on the end of a thin nylon thread. I was so very upset, not just because my toy was crap, but because I’d been tricked.
It’s a cautionary tale, and one that will be on my mind until such a time as I’ve got my hands on the game itself and experienced it first hand. Which shouldn’t be too far away.