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The Secret World's Strange Lack Of Levels

Aberrant Psychic Signals

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“Situational Analysis”. That’s what Funcom are calling the crackling radio reports that reach characters in their upcoming MMO The Secret World, as they make their way through instances like the one unveiled (the first so far) at EA’s recent summer showcase at their Redwood studio. Warning of “aberrant psychic signals” in the wreck of the container ship Polaris and “a highly volatile biological mass” (though I could have sworn I cleaned that up), the transmissions seemed to serve more as glaring signposts reading “Boss fight this way!” than any kind of actionable tactical intelligence.

A missed opportunity?

Maybe, though perhaps not a big one. Funcom have gone out of their way to build ample room for choice into TSW’s character progression system, which eschews classes and levels in favor of the kind of everything-on-the-menu skill progression featured in games like Eve Online. With over 500 skills and abilities that are focused on the versatility of “horizontal progression” rather than the ladder of levelling up, TSW will encourage players to “hybridize”. And with players able to switch out skills at key points in the midst of a dungeon, encounters are meant to be more about “effect requirements” than about builds or classes, according to Lead Content Designer Joel Bylos. Want your tank to bring the anti-magic-missile missile that will get you past that baddie? Fine. Or have your crowd controller bring it. Or heck, even your healer. Anything goes! The Secret World is your oyster!


What remains to be seen is just how versatile a range of playstyles the horizontal progression will support. The five-man party on show at the showcase featured — you guessed it: a tank, a healer, a ranged damage-dealer, a DPS build, and an AoE/crowd control spec. The versatility comes in just how you fill these very traditional roles. Vertical progression is through collecting better and more focused items, while the many-spoked and multi-tiered “skill wheel” that’s featured lets players specialize in one or another branch of magical, biological, psychic or other powers — without locking them out of any others.


“In the beginning of the game, players start out as generalists. They end up as specialists,” says Lead Designer Martin Bruusgaard. Gear helps lead players down the specialist path. “Players will be making their builds more versatile, so equipment is more focused,” says Bylos. “For instance, the best fire damage gear in the game will be really focused — but only on fire damage.”


Not that that means you’ll be forced to sport flaming shoulder pads. Weapons and armor have no cosmetic effects, and character clothing has no stats. Funcom are “still evaluating business models,” but that last sentence screams “cash shop!”, if nothing else. Funcom will also be adding to the skill wheel in the form of DLC after the game is released, according to Bruusgaard and Bylos, which raises interesting possibilties as well.


With TSW’s skill system bearing such a strong resemblance to CCG deck-building, it’s in the PvP “mini-games” (why not just call them battlegrounds?) that unusual builds could have the greatest impact. The three factions (the Illuminati, the Templar, and the Dragon) have a gentleman’s agreement in place not to do battle while at large in the world (and so may group together for quests and instances), but have set aside places where they’ll carry out the nastier work of their ongoing struggle for control (in secret, needless to say). Each faction will foot the bill for any damage done its members, presumably: one Secret World NPC makes player characters sign a liability waiver before he’ll send them off on the quest he needs done.

For more – SO much more – on the The Secret World you can check out John’s massive preview, and then have a read of part one and then also part two of his sprawling interview with Funcom creative director Ragnar Tørnquist.

An MMO we’re actually excited about? It’s the End Times!

[Mark Wallace, the author of this article, is a San Francisco-based writer whose blog you can see here.]

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