Hands-On: The Secret World

By Adam Smith on February 24th, 2012 at 12:32 pm.

Guess what's in the temple? DEMONS

I’ve spent the last couple of months searching the streets for signs of conspiracy, perhaps a Toynbee Tile or two bills from separate electricity companies who are clearly trying to con me out of every last penny. To resolve the troubled contents of my mind, I took another trip into The Secret World, where my every delusional thought seems quite ordinary in comparison to the oddities around me.

The last time I played, I had the chance to play through the beginnings of life as a Templar, which involved conversing with some rather slick individuals in Old London Town. My adventures continued in a grim Lovecraftian coastal town, where, with the help of some fellow journalists, I beat a star-spawned horror so hard that it whimpered and went back to sleep for another ten thousand years or so.

This time, I was one of the first outside Funcom to step into the hedonistic mindspace of an Illuminati recruit, exploring the cavernous, neo-disco trappings of a New York inverse-skyscraper. Let’s call it a crust-scraper, because it’s tickling the earth’s crust rather than the soles of the sky’s feet.

No New England horrors this time around as we skipped that part of the narrative and landed just outside a small desert town. The Illuminati had sent us to Egypt where, wouldn’t you just know it, a cult is attempting to raise a demon from the sands beneath which the blighter is sleeping.

The first thing that strikes me around the face like a boxer at a press conference is the different tone, in terms of characters and narrative. Where Solomon Island is quaffing Lovecraft, Poe and American folklore, Egypt is becoming Biblical, with a sense of high camp thrown in that reminds me of Indiana Jones and Universal’s horror era. Once again, it’s clear how much pop culture has been crammed into this game but it’s also becoming more obvious how it will be partitioned sensibly, with each hub borrowing and reimagining specific complementary portions of the many inspirations.

The Council of Venice are present and they add some gravity to the situation, talking about long-term consequences and the need to act sensibly and fast. The Council are mentioned a lot but I’ve had few encounters with them; they appear to have some kind of oversight over the three secret societies players can join but the Illuminati in particular seem quite dismissive of them.

In fact, the Illuminati seem fairly dismissive of everybody. Where the Templars are proud of their past and have a certain twisted honour, despite their willingness to look at the bigger picture and sacrifice innocents for the cause, the Illuminati, and particularly your deliciously uberhip handler, seem to quite enjoy being involved in The Secret World. They’re soaking in the glamour and delight of knowing what other people don’t know – you’ve almost definitely not heard of their favourite band, not because it only ever released one EP on limited edition cassette, but because it’s probably not even from this dimension.

The Templars seem to have a grave sense of responsibility; the Illuminati have a great sense of fashion. They’re also in on the cultural references that inform the game itself, riffing off computer games and films with the sly and intelligent humour that is one of the game’s hallmarks.

In Egypt, there is a definite friction between the instructions I’m receiving from headquarters and the situation on the ground. From the Illuminati there’s a strong message of “just get in, get the job done, screw the people on the ground, if they die it really doesn’t matter”. The Council of Venice, meanwhile, seem to be taking things a little harder. They’re the first organisation I’ve encountered that are overwhelmed and even saddened by the atrocities that are erupting around the globe.

I won’t go into detail about the plot of the Egyptian missions because so much of the fun lies in discovering them for yourself, but as a final word on narrative, this second viewing gave a much better idea of how the societies will interact. Not on the field of play – that’ll be mostly as teammates or PvP enemies – but in terms of the many stories of the world, which continue to be the most compelling portion of the game. Although, faction-specific missions aside, all of the societies will be performing the same tasks, the dialogue and textual updates provided throughout the journey give a different purpose to what you’re asked to do.

And, as before, the things that you are asked to do are varied and continue to avoid fetch quests. There are a few stumbling blocks where the instructions provided aren’t entirely clear, which led to gangs of hungover writers traipsing back and forth through sand dunes, being attacked by giant scorpions and cultists while occasionally turning to one another, their faces crumpled with anguish. Partly, that’s because The Secret World is trying to do things that haven’t been done in this type of game, at this scale. There are times when it feels more like a team-based adventure, with combat a distraction rather than a focus, as a group tries to think through a problem.

It reminds me of Mansions of Madness, the heavily themed horror boardgame in which players have to solve actual puzzles in the middle of a session, constructed randomly out of counters and card. It’s not something that they expect and it doesn’t come naturally at first. The same is true, I think, of teaming up in an MMORPG and reading mission text where every word matters, where exploration matters and where the answer is often in the details rather than in the grossly inconsistent inventory of a deranged rodent.

Then there’s the combat, which I enjoy far more in the dungeons than in the world itself. Partly that’s because the dungeons are linear so monsters are obstacles to pass rather than features of the landscape, respawning and pestering, but it’s also because dungeons are constructed to teach you new ways of fighting. Each new miniboss requires a different technique, usually involving teamwork, and the final boss brings all those techniques together, demanding communication, preparation, and sometimes a degree of patience.

It’s in the dungeons and the clashes at the end of a mission that a character’s skills really matter and there are nearly 600 of the sodding things so it’s not easy to pick and choose. I particularly enjoyed being able to make my hammer wielding lady grow to about ten feet tall and drag monsters toward her with magical chains while my puny little companions blasted away at them. The user interface is much improved since my last visit though and it’s now possible to build a deck of skills for a specific situation, and even to drag and drop that build on a team mate, allowing them to peruse it, learn from it and then use it if they have the requisite abilities.

Sharing tasks is easy too. If you’re on a mission and run into somebody who might be able to help, or who is simply at a loose end, the mission token can be dragged and dropped onto their character and they’ll have it lined up and ready. There are shades of a touchscreen interface, with icons and windows always malleable and movable, so it’s possible to set up your screen in any number of ways. It works well and even seems tied into the fiction, with the interface being an aspect of the character’s phone.

What else did I learn? To help with the investigation missions, Funcom have added an ingame internet browser. It’s something that had been hinted at and it makes perfect sense, both fitting with the interface and allowing for missions that encourage the seeking of outside knowledge. I also asked everybody that seemed even vaguely aware of the game’s existence if they could absolutely definitely clarify that the in-game shop would only allow for the purchase of cosmetic items. They all said ‘yes, that is the case’ and eventually started to look at me like I was insane.

The monster and character design continues to surprise and impress, with everything from giant bugs to madcap doctors and twitchy, drug-fuelled scientists. As on my previous visit, I’ve been confronted with a world packed with the contents of sharp and wild imaginations at play.

As for the rest, I spoke with creative director Ragnar Tornquist and asked a little more about how the team are looking to balance narrative and character progression, and why this story is best told in this particular genre of game. Look out for that in the coming days.

The Secret World will be released on June 19th.

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49 Comments »

  1. GT3000 says:

    So Smitty old pal…Care to drop a good word on a brotha’ for a beta invite?

    Please? :D

  2. Premium User Badge

    cqdemal says:

    I’ve never played an MMO in my life. My friends don’t play them either. But every single preview of this game makes me more and more interested. There’s basically 0% chance that my friends will jump in with me if I do, and I live in a corner of the world where most people aren’t quite good at English, so the chance of me joning a local community is also pretty damn low.

    What do I do? Anyone else in a similar situation?

    • DuddBudda says:

      same re: MMO experience

      every mmo I have seen has consisted of bland worlds, bland quests and bland combat – EVE, Rift, WoW, SWTOR, AoC, LotRO, WO and all those thousand identikit asian games – they’re all identical formulas wearing slightly different, but equally fugly, skins

      GW2 looked interesting, but the more I see the more it looks like ssdd

      Secret World though? Secret World makes me drool into my copy of Bob Wilson’s trilogy

      which puts me in the same crewless boat for Secret World :(

    • unimural says:

      I’m facing a similiar situation. I have tried several MMOs, but I haven’t really liked any of them. Puzzle Pirates is probably my favourite. It was fun, but eventually either too demanding or not rewarding enough.

      Provided my interest in the game holds, ideally I’d like to find a native English speaking group of folks with a suitable sense of humor. I have found that it’s easier to interact with native speakers. Even if my own grasp of the language isn’t nearly as fast or fluent, especially when speaking out loud, it’s helpful when most of the other people can communicate fluently. Also preferably somewhat older people.

      I’m not quite sure how to go about it. Most probably I’ll keep my eyes open in the game and possibly on some forums (RPS forums might be worth a shot). I would like to consider myself as someone who tries to be helpful, but doesn’t engage in endless arguments over whatnot, and respectively that’s what I’d probably be on the lookout for.

    • Furtled says:

      Best I can tell it’ll be entirely possible to play this as an online single-player game if you want, there looks to be enough depth to keep things going and I’m intrigued by the combat system. You could always give it a go on launch and see how you get on?

      @unimural
      Big downside to new launch MMOs is the guild choices are always a bit sparse, I’d gladly pay the first MMO dev who added an unofficial laid back, older gamer population server to go with PvP, PvE and RPG ones.

    • PopCandy says:

      Same situation here, I have no idea how I’m gonna play this game if it requires so much teamwork.

    • Temple says:

      Then use the internet? Seriously, it is what it is for. If you are playing the game you have something in common. You play the game then you make your friends or join a guild. I almost understand the point you are making, but you saw how easy it was to join other’s missions with the drag and drop thing.

      I regularily jump on to RPS to say City of Heroes is good and different, now ‘free’ to play -limitation for F2P is communication more than anything. Happy to help people on it. A low level character can join a high level on missions and they get boosted to the appropriate level.

      Play Virtue server for roleplay or Freedom for power levelling. I’m on both, UK time 6-11 most nights.

    • Maldomel says:

      If it looks interesting for you, maybe you should try it. Don’t worry about english or friends, it’s a MMO. You will make friends in-game, and if you can write in english correctly it’s all good. You don’t always have to find a local community, if there is one, good. If not, there are other people from all around the world playing too!

  3. Brosepholis says:

    Wait wait wait.

    This is an EA game??

    Prams at the ready! Let the toy throwing commence!

    • Anders Wrist says:

      EA really has nothing to do with the game itself; they’re co-publishing it, along with Funcom.

  4. thebigJ_A says:

    I hate MMOs. I even couldn’t take more than a few weeks of LOTRO, and I’m a huge Tolkien nerd.
    The only mmo I got any time out of was Eve, and even that was only a few months.

    But I’m extremely interested in everything I hear about this game (bar the few things that remind me it’s an mmo).

    Probably setting myself up for disappointment, again.

  5. Palindrome says:

    That game sounds like an MMO done ‘right’. The lack of fetch quests is especially encouraging.

    1. when is the beta

    2. GIVE ME A KEY!

  6. Kal says:

    Complementary (unless you really do mean that the re-imagined portions of the many inspirations are being given away for free. Or are saying nice things about each other.)

  7. Matt-R says:

    Sounds good, a few of the articles are quite worrying in the sense of the actual progess of the game stating that a lot is unfinished and that progress seems to have been slow, is this something that you’d agree with Mr. Smith?

  8. Chris D says:

    Stop tempting me! I don’t have room for more than one all-consuming MMO in my life, dammit!

    • Temple says:

      Which one? Don’t remember you mentioning any.. maybe Eve?

      Hold on, going to go jump on earlier posts and tell them City of Heroes is great.

    • Chris D says:

      I was referring to Guild Wars 2, which I am ridiculously excited about. Was trying not to mention it too much to stop people getting sick of me talking about it on every vaguely MMO related post.

      You’re not wrong about City of Heroes though.

    • Temple says:

      Ah, spending so much time on CoH I’m not on here so much these days.
      So you are on the wagon now? Just going cold turkey in preperation for GW2?
      GW2 is so going to kill off CoH… though I said the same with SWTOR… hope they server merge soon to get enough people playing still.

  9. ComradeDom says:

    I followed this game very closely and hugely enjoy the premise and lore surrounding it, but as soon as I heard that this will be a subscription + cash shop at launch my interest died down to 0. Or at least 0 as such until they see the error of their ways and make it true F2P (did they not learn with Conan or the many other MMOs that have made the transition and are raking in the munnay). I’m not against subscription or a cash shop, but when both are together at launch in the face of a market that is increasingly adopting F2P (and where your previous title is F2P), it just doesn’t make any sense.

    • Jerakal says:

      Fnah Fnah. They aren’t giving me the orange and the red shirt, therefore this game is terrible.

      It’s mostly this argument running rampant on TSW’s forums that probably caused them to look at Adam like he was a mental invalid.

      This mentality is seriously beyond me. That you would pass up what will likely be a fun and engaging game because they have an in-game clothing store. You people are mental.

  10. zergrush says:

    It’s getting harder and harder to not want this game, but until I see some reports about what the endgame is like ( and whether or not it exists ) I’ll hold off on getting it.

    • Chris D says:

      What do you mean by “endgame” in a game without conventional levelling?

    • zergrush says:

      I mean decent stuff to do after you finish whatever initial questline they have. Age of Conan had an amazing start but pretty much no content after a couple of weeks of playing, as this one is from the same developer and also seems to have an awesome start, I’m simply hoping they won’t pull an AoC again.

    • Chris D says:

      Ok, that seems fair enough. Although Age of Conan’s problem was perhaps more a lack of mid-game content. I’m just a little wary of the attitude that the game doesn’t really start until you hit the level cap but that doesn’t seem to be where you’re coming from. Generally I think the journey should be fun rather than the destination and when you get there it’s probably time to start a new character or play something else, but that’s just me.

    • DuddBudda says:

      ‘The game desn’t start until the level cap’ is the reason I would rather work my hand-cartilige into a paste using a pestel and mortar than play most mmos

  11. Jockie says:

    Some of the design choices and the ambition on display here are impressive, but I worry that the moment to moment of the game might not be as revolutionary as MMO fans are hoping.

    The combat doesn’t look great (even though Adam makes his character’s abilities sound very cool) and his description of the monsters as landscape features makes it sound like every MMO out there.

    Hopefully the investigation, classlessness and writing can make it something special, but with the hype and excitement, I fear a nasty backlash (ala AoC – a decent game that was buried because of internet outrage over undelivered promises/misleading marketing) if they don’t get the simple stuff like the fighting right.

    • GT3000 says:

      ..monsters are obstacles to pass rather than features of the landscape, respawning and pestering..

      Read he was referring to dungeons, not telling if that’s the case for the overworld.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      They’re obstacles in the dungeon, they’re landscape features in the overworld…

    • ShrikeMalakim says:

      Actual in-game combat is much more interesting than has been shown so far. For one thing, standing still and cycling abilities is generally unwise, and there are no penalties for movement.

  12. Echo Black says:

    Someone give me a tl;dr, I don’t have time to read this right now :/

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      tl;dr version: come back later and read it when you have time to do so.

  13. Dominic White says:

    It sounds like it has a definite edge over most other MMOs in terms of storytelling (better than your average Bioware offering, although that’s not saying too much), but the gameplay I’ve seen – what I’d imagine I’d actually be seeing most of the time – looks a little too trad-MMO ‘stand around and loop combat animations’ for me. Plus, the subscription is a big turn-off.

    If the reviews after launch are especially glowing for this one, then I might give it more than a passing glance, but there’s a certain 800lb gorilla of a game lumbering onto the scene that is going to give it one hell of a time.

  14. diamondmx says:

    Didn’t the previous TSW article you guys linked explicitly say that Funcom are planning on both ‘vanity’ and ‘convenience’ items?
    Because that’s a lot different from just ‘vanity’

  15. caddyB says:

    The big question is, can I really play this without having a facebook account?

    • ShrikeMalakim says:

      Yes. At no point has a Facebook account been required for any reason other than to participate in one small portion of the beta announcement ARG. (And you could even register for beta without Facebook; e.g. I have a Facebook account and did not get in, my wife does not, and did.)

  16. fenriz says:

    why do you journos waste so much words? Words are precious.

    Simple question: Is there anything about this game borrowed from puzzle adventures? If yes What, else go to the trashcan.

    Stories? Don’t you guys get it? Online gamers don’t want online stories, they want awesome content.

  17. moarage says:

    anyone know what engine they are using?

  18. Consumatopia says:

    From the Illuminati there’s a strong message of “just get in, get the job done, screw the people on the ground, if they die it really doesn’t matter”.

    I don’t get how a secret society with that attitude could stay secret for very long.

    • caddyB says:

      Everybody knows about Illuminati, nobody believes?

    • Jerakal says:

      Shoot the people who talk too much. Play off any rumors of your existence as insane conspiracy theories.

    • Consumatopia says:

      “Shoot the people who talk too much” isn’t how you run a secret society, it’s how you run North Korea. It works when NK does it because everyone says “oh, dang, if I say the wrong thing, the government will shoot me!” It doesn’t work when then Illuminati do it, because the very thing that the Illuminati are trying to conceal the existence of is the thing that would scare people into line.

      I mean, I’m sure Funcom has some explanation for why it makes sense that you can run up and shoot monsters in the face without worrying about whether anyone can see you, it just seems weird that in a game ostensibly about secrets, we haven’t seen any stealth.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Fair point but it does make sense in context. A lot of the events I’ve played are moments of crisis when supernatural events have overspilled catastrophically. It’s sometimes a case of sealing off an area and making sure nobody gets out to talk about it rather than rescuing people from a sticky end.

  19. Miltrivd says:

    Damn, this keeps looking better and better. Even tho combat needs to be experienced to find out if it’s good or not, can’t trust other’s perspective when it comes to what you find fun or not. Sadly, subscription makes it incredibly expensive in this side of the world, I will have to pass on this one.