Being the MMO junkie that I am, I have been following the development of The Secret World with some interest for the past few years, despite the fact that it seemed in many ways to be the polar opposite of the kind of MMO I thought I’d enjoy. I mean, it’s set in the present day when I love medieval fantasy settings, it’s got a horror theme when I avoid the horror genre like the plague, it’s an ARG when I dislike having to look up sources outside a game to progress, it’s gear-based when I’d rather bring my wits to a battle, and it’s got a raiding endgame when I’d rather gnaw off my own arm than partake. Oh, and it’ll have a monthly subscription fee, and I’ve all but sworn those off.
Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the ideas being put out there by Funcom, and I’ll be the first to admit that the first 30 or so levels of Age of Conan (yes, even the first few post-Tortage levels) were some of the best story and most memorable times I’ve had in an MMO. A level-less system appeals to the part of me that hates self-enforced leveling pacts, and Funcom’s eye for scenery, and gorgeously replicating such, can’t really be denied. So while I haven’t pre-ordered, I did get on over to Gamespot and nab a weekend beta key to try this out for myself. And even though I’d seen a ton of footage and read up on many of the game’s systems, I was still pleasantly surprised at how much I liked what I saw when I got to take the reins.
First, the bad, or maybe the “meh.” Character customization is limited. There weren’t very many female faces (or combinations of features) I could choose that made me feel I was looking at a real human, nevermind whether I felt they straddled a believable range of attractiveness. Skin color was inexplicably tied to base face shape. There were no varying ethnic hairstyles to correspond with the diverse (thank you!) ethnic facial features on display. No sliders makes a sad Randomessa. And I couldn’t see a way to alter my body size or shape, even to the degree that Age of Conan allowed it.
Character animations are… not very good, in my opinion. Running is pretty bad; jumping is quite awful. In-combat animations have no “oomph” to them; I never feel like I’m really hitting anything, just swinging my arms through mush. I couldn’t figure out how to emote, though in the case that I didn’t miss something obvious, beta is beta and that’s one thing I’m sure will be added in prior to launch. Quests, whenever they more closely resembled typical MMO quests, suffered from the same problems I have with them elsewhere: waiting in line for spawns, competing for interactable nodes, etc.
Quests, whenever they did not closely resemble typical MMO quests, were a delight. Being able to put a random bit of knowledge to use in cracking a password was amusing. Having to decipher notes and apply recipes and talk to all manner of crazy people really mixed things up for me, and having quest icons let me know right off the bat if what I’d be asked to do involved wholesale slaughter or investigative work of some sort was just the kind of quest hint I appreciate. As with Age of Conan, NPCs are fun to talk to about a wide range of subjects, and they all are injected with quirky personalities that make them memorable after the fact (I still remember the guy in Tortage who hid the pearl in his… hidey place, for example, and I’ll remember Kingsmouth’s Deputy Andy for a long time as well). I greatly enjoyed all the voice acting and the varied accents involved (being neither a New or Old Englander, I have no idea how cringe-worthy they might have been for one from those regions. I did guffaw with recognition at the fortune-teller’s southern Californian nasal drawl, though).
Once I actually got down to fighting, I quickly stopped minding the combat animations so much. This is not to let Funcom off the hook for not making them more impressive, but I did find myself more interested in the effects I could apply and exploit, and combining the skills of two weapons to be more effective. There were plenty of circles of doom to step out of, and big monster wind-up tells, which meant that animations or no, I felt I constantly had to be on the move to get out of hairy situations alive.
Scenery-wise, I couldn’t have asked for more, and I did muse aloud that I think The Secret World may have the best-rendered trees I’ve seen in an MMO yet. Having the in-game clock displayed as a cell-phone HUD is ever so fitting, and made me use the in-game clock more readily than I have in other MMOs that provide the same – it probably helps that sunrise and sunset are done so well here, with the light playing off structures in a really believable way. I’m reminded of LOTRO and Fallen Earth, but I feel TSW takes it just that bit farther, which makes sense given the release year.
Finally, I wasn’t sure how the “level-less” system was going to feel in practice, and I think it’s clear that you are still gated, in a sense, by how many skill/anima points you can put into building your skill trees; I’m sure you’ll need skills more than 2 points deep (and so on) to beat certain bosses in missions, etc. But from what I could tell, there was one very big gate missing for me as I progressed through the overarching storyline missions: at no time was it “suggested” to me that I be of a certain capability before proceeding, and I actually did skip most side missions just to see if I would be able to. Not only was I allowed to do this, I could also still keep pace with the monsters the game threw at me, even within story instances, which is more than I can say for the previous two heavily story-based MMOs I recently beta tested. I don’t know if this is indicative of the rest of the game or just a case of beta trying to make it easy on us, but I could not have been happier.
Oh, I’ll do the side missions – I have nothing against them – but being the story fiend that I am, if I had a common complaint to lodge against both SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2, it was that my major storyline was spread out over levels such that I had to engage in other activities before I could feasibly continue, and I hate being restricted in that way. Not having levels meant both that the early zombies were not quite trivialized, while still allowing me to see progress in my ability to take down harder enemies. Later I look forward to not facing down an exponential XP curve to acquire that next SP or AP (dare I hope?).
One riddle I can’t seem to crack about The Secret World is that of audience; that is, what is the audience Funcom is going for, and how big is it? On the one hand, I welcome the changes from the standard MMO, both genre-, mechanics- and content-wise, and I think this could be a really strong niche title with an amazing, helpful, tight-knit community if it gets all the technical issues ironed out before launch. On the other hand, with EA backing it, how happy would they be with a “strong niche title?” I just don’t see this going over well with a lot of crowds, from the open-PvPers to the action combat fans to the sandbox aficionados to the rush-to-endgame crowd. Yet it has the raiding and the gear progression and a subscription fee that seems to imply they expect more than a few folks to cross over from other games and make a home here. I can’t quite figure it out. What would constitute a success for The Secret World?
So now I find myself wondering whether the things I feel TSW does so well – story, interesting world and characters, variety and complexity in gameplay, stunning graphics – really do trump the things that bug me like the odd old-school resource competition, a raiding end-game with gear progression, subscription fee, and my qualms about the audience and success it may or may not achieve. I don’t have an answer yet, but prior to this weekend, I thought there was no question at all. I’m not convinced there isn’t some Illuminati mind control involved.