The Secret World Preview - first hands-on

The horror stories and eerie urban legends that would keep you awake at night are now a reality in The Secret World. Funcom’s latest venture is an ambitious project that not only leads the charge in creating an MMORPG set in a modern day real world, but it also removes the class and level system that has been a staple of RPGs for as long as anyone can remember. The Age of Conan developer, Funcom, has been talking about and showing various aspects of The Secret World for a while now, but at a recent press event at their studio in Montreal, we were finally able to get some hands-on time with some early zombie-slaughtering missions, a run through one of the first dungeons and a PVP match in El Dorado.

With more than half a million people signed up for the beta, it’s no surprise that people are looking forward to The Secret World. Of course, World of Warcraft is still boasting more than 11 million subscribers, but that doesn’t mean that MMO fans aren’t looking for something fresh and new that doesn’t involve elves. The Secret World offers something unique, and a chance to move away from the typical fantasy setting while still giving you an arsenal of special abilities to customize your character.

If you haven’t been following The Secret World and didn’t read our last preview, here’s a quick summary. It’s a MMORPG that revolves around three factions: The Dragon, the Templars and the Illuminati and is set in real world locations. It’s a story-driven MMO, inspired by myths, legends, pop culture and conspiracies that you may be familiar with. Creatures like vampires, werewolves and zombies are involved, but with a twist. No, not the sparkling vampire kind of twist, but Funcom has borrowed known stories and characters from our universe and transformed them in The Secret World. One of the most interesting key features is that there are no levels or classes, so progression is entirely skill-based.

So how does it all work? While you may not be leveling in the traditional sense, you’re still gaining experience by doing a variety of things which include taking on missions, crafting, playing in PVP matches, and killing anything that gets in your way. Along with experience, you’ll earn anima points that you can spend to buy skills from your power wheel. The wheel is broken up into cells and may seem intimidating at first, but as you upgrade your powers, you’ll gain access to another layer of skills. You can always jump around the wheel to see what other abilities you want to learn and become a hybrid weapon-wielding spellcaster. This is where you can customize your character to your play style and decide whether you want to use ranged weapons like pistols, assault rifles or shotguns or get up close and melee with a sword or other pointy objects. If you prefer to take the more mystical route, you can stick to powerful spells, but how you divide your points is up to you since there will be more than 500 unique powers to choose and build from at launch.

This eliminates the need to create a new character if you want to play with guns more than swords or be a tank instead of a healer. To boost your stats, you have magical items to equip called chakra that you’ll find on enemies and as you face tougher foes, you’ll likely come across chakra with better stats. It may seem strange in terms of determining what “level” you might be at and whether or not you’re ready for a dungeon for example, but we were told that enemies will get increasingly complex and larger, so you’ll have some kind of visual idea of whether or not you can take them on. When you’re being shown a new mission/dungeon, the difficulty is represented by the number of skulls displayed, so if there are a lot, you might want to grab a few friends (up to five in a party) to help you along.

As an action RPG you can move around and cast at the same time instead of having auto-attack kick in while waiting around for your character to land a hit. A bar at the bottom of your screen is reserved for up to seven active abilities that are used in combat and you can equip up to seven passive abilities to boost your character’s performance. Our PVP character was set up for us, but there are an endless variety of ways to play, depending on your goal and your play style. The PVP match we played was on a map called “El Dorado,” a Mayan-themed area where all three factions (with 30 players, 10 on each team) would spawn in the middle and head out to find their relics (flags). It’s similar to other capture the flag games, where your team needs to snag the relic and protect it to earn points. If your team can hold onto four, the match is over in two minutes otherwise you have 30 minutes to come out on top.

Our escorted dungeon run is what you’d expect from an MMO, where your group consists of a tank, a healer (in our case, a buffed up healer played by a developer) and damage dealers to plow through enemies, mini-bosses and a final boss for glory - but most importantly, for loot. The Ur-Draug, a hulking Cthululike creature wasn’t easy, even with our extra beefy stats. It has a deadly, electrifying stare when the battle switches phases, and if you happen to come across its gaze then you’re out of the fight. During this alternate dimension phase, we’d have to run behind stone pillars and hope that it doesn’t see us, or that its scouts don’t find us. The tricky part was that it would disintegrate our hiding spot and we’d all have to scramble and find another means of cover. The plus side was that when we died (which we did, numerous times) we were able to start from the beginning of the boss fight so we didn’t have to do the entire run again.

As for the story, we were warned ahead of the time that it wouldn’t make much sense. But it does unfold in frequent cut scenes and you’ll learn more about what is happening around you as you complete your quests and missions. Our demo had us playing as a Templar and we were told that the storylines would be very different depending on what faction you start off with. As one of the Templar’s newest recruits, we quickly went off to Kingsmouth, a fictional town on Solomon Island that is overrun with zombies and other creatures that were once among the living. Those who know of Agartha may know that it is a legendary underground city, but in The Secret World, it is your means of fast transportation. When you enter Agartha you will be greeted with an intricate network of pathways and portals, taking you to various locations around the world. An interesting system for sure, and it beats walking across the continent or taking a boat.

While we did spend several hours with the game, that’s only a sliver of what this MMO has to offer and what we were allowed to see. It does look extremely promising though in terms of the story, setting and gameplay and we thoroughly enjoyed our time with it. There are still many aspects to the game that we haven’t explored yet (like crafting and the other factions) but it looks to be heading in the right direction and we’ll keep you updated with any new information. The Secret World is set to come out on the PC in April of 2012.

Sophia Tong
Sophia is a transplanted Canadian who loves video games, dogs, poutine, snowboarding, photography, food, and naps.