The Secret World: Early impressions
The last couple of days I’ve been playing The Secret World, the new MMO by Funcom that is published by EA. I’ve put about 10-12 hours into it, and while that’s not enough to do anything like a “review” of the game, it has still left me with a lot of impressions I feel compelled to share, so brace yourselves.
Also, I had some issues with not figuring out that F11 was the screenshot key before I got into the game itself and was able to check the key bindings, so any screenshots I tried to take in the very beginning before they gave me control are sadly non-existent. (I went back in to snap some shots of the character creation screens, but for some reason it wouldn’t let me snap anything before the faction selection screen.)
And if you don’t feel like reading, you can check out the video (at the bottom) from the guys over at Blue Screen of Awesome.
Let’s start with the beginning, the character creator. The first thing I noticed is that there are only 3 character slots. That’s total. Even though it seems like you can bind different characters to different servers (dimensions as the game calls them), you can still only have 3 altogether. This seems a little curious right off the bat, but it makes more sense as you get into the game (though it will probably still disappoint altoholics).
After picking your dimension, you next get to the faction selection screen: Illuminati (starts in New York), Templar (starts in London) and Dragon (starts in Seoul). Since everyone is human, and there aren’t any classes to pick, faction choice only seems to affect which city you start in, the main story questline, which side you’re on in PvP, outfits you can buy and flavour text after mission completion. There might be more, but I haven’t spotted it yet.
Then you get to the character creator, which I found a little disappointing. You have two categories: Head and Outfit. No body options. There is a pretty wide range of options for how you want your face to look, and a decent selection of hairstyles, though certain facial bases seem to be restricted in skin colour options. There’s also not a whole lot of hair colours. Like I couldn’t find a brown I liked, so I decided to go for pink instead.
Outfit is just that. You get a decent wardrobe of starting clothes to pick from, though it’s nothing impressive. I believe you can buy more clothes at shops around the game, but I haven’t really gotten as far as to play with the vendors yet. What is interesting is that your gear does not affect your outfit at all. In fact your weapon is the only thing visible. The rest is talismans that you can’t actually see. They provide all your stat increase, while your outfit is purely cosmetic.
I picked Dragon and made my Rita “Varewulf” Wulf, then set off for the opening cinematic. A magical bee came in my window, found my room and crawled down my throat. Then two people had an argument in my head (I believe they were supposed to represent the angel and devil on my shoulders as often depicted in fiction), a whole lot of bees flew into me and I woke up coughing, and spent the next week thrashing the apartment and playing with magical fire until The Dragon found me, kidnapped me and dropped me in a back alley in Seoul.
I followed the yellow brick road to a hotel where I met a strange man who gave me another cinematic before revealing himself to be the first chattable NPC in the game. See, certain people in the gameworld have a red square with a white text bubble inside. Clicking that brings up conversation options with the person in question, and you can pump them for information. I only learned later that I could click an option several times until it is marked by a green √ sign to get even more information, so I had to come back and interrogate him further.
After heading upstairs and meeting mister Tattoo Pants and the pretty Dragon lady who showed me a tutorial vision via the medium of orgasm, the world opened up and I was free to run around on my own. After finding my first lore bit, which are like floating, square honeycomb things, I immediately ran around Seoul looking for more of them, trying to get a glimpse into the secrets of the world. Then I walked down into Dragon HQ and got told to pick a weapon.
The weapon system works most similarly to that of Guild Wars 2 with abilities being reliant on the weapon rather than just the person. However you have to purchase abilities with Ability Points (AP) to actually get new attacks to do. There are nine weapon types, and each start with two abilities: one combo point builder, and one combo finisher. There are three magic focuses (Blood, Chaos and Elemental), three ranged weapons (Pistols, Shotgun and Assault Rifle) and three melee weapons (Fist Weapons, Hammer and Sword). I went for a hammer, and I’m having fun with it, though I kinda wish I felt a bit more impact with it. The animations do their job, but little more. I’ve yet to find anything that truly looks impressive. Well, some of the attacks kinda do, but not the animations for them.
When it comes to abilities, the game provides you with a massive ability wheel accessed by pressing N. It looks quite daunting at first, but I just went for the hammer section and started buying up abilities from there. You can have a total of 7 active and 7 passive abilities equipped at one time, and while the game forces you to unlock the 14 starter abilities for a weapon, it branches out into 6 different lines from there, and you’re free to look through them and go down whichever you find interesting. The experience needed to unlock new AP seems to be fixed, so the cost for unlocking new abilities escalates rapidly.
See, the game doesn’t have a standard level progression. Gaining experience only unlocks AP and Skill Points (3 AP per SP). Your gear and weapons have levels, Quality Levels as the game calls them, and to use higher-level gear you have to spend SP to unlock higher ranks of either weapon or talisman skills. The weapon skill upgrades seem to be split between damage/survivability, damage/healing or damage/support, and while you’re free to mix and match only the highest-upgraded of the two determines what Quality Level of weapon you can use. There are three talisman variants (Head, Major and Minor) to upgrade, but they all have just one line. Upgrading skill will also provide you with a permanent passive bonus, depending on what you upgrade.
After that I was led to the Head of the Dragon, where I spoke to the Mouth of the Dragon, who told me I was the claws and fire of the Dragon, and I got my smartphone. (I might remember wrong, but I think that was when I got it.) This is the coolest little thing. You use it to send reports to the Dragon after mission completion and receive feedback from them as well, and also you can use it to check Google. Hit B and it brings up the in-game browser. You can only have one tab, but it’s still very handy. I have not checked if you can actually look up porn on it, but I would imagine not. All sites that I tried seemed to work normally though, so I assume that if you get tired you can sit down and watch Youtube without needing to alt-tab.
After this I spent the next 90 minutes or so running around Seoul, London and New York (or at least the small neighbourhoods the different factions start in) looking for lore bits, talking to NPCs and taking in the sights. See, once you get into the Agartha, you can turn right around and access the other starting cities instead of going out to find new areas.
The graphics are not amazing, but the art direction is pretty good and once I turned up the graphical settings to High (it seems to default to Low) and upped the resolution a bit, it didn’t look half-bad. It’s definitely one of the better-looking MMOs out there, for what that’s worth.
I learned a fair deal of lore, though really only enough to get a vague impression of how big the scope of what I don’t yet know is. The voice-acting is hardly spectacular, and the writing could have been tighter, but I still got sucked into the mythos, probably partly because of the novelty of having a modern-day setting with loads of our own mythologies from around the world mixed into it. I personally squeed when I found my first Draug, because they are a thing from Norwegian folklore.
After all this faffing about I was ready to tackle Kingsmouth, and holy Lovecraft inspired area, Batman. I still keep an eye out for lore bits, but they seem to be more rare, or I’m just rubbish at finding them. Also, there are now quests, or missions if you prefer. You always have your story mission up (it says you can have only 1, but I sort of doubt you’ll be offered more than one at a time), and in addition you can have a dungeon mission, a main mission and 3 side missions. I have yet to try out a dungeon mission, but a main mission seems to typically have 5 or 6 tiers (stages) that you have to complete before you can send in your report and receive your reward. They are given by NPCs, and can often be repeatable (after you wait a while). (Again little icons hovering by them that you can click.) Then there are little side missions spread all around the place with just 1 or 2 tiers. They can be stuff like “hey, you found a letter, go deliver it” or “hey, that trail looks suspicious, let’s follow it”, and might give you a little additional backstory on the area, or just be fairly meaningless, but a nice source of money and exp.
Now the really interesting part is the Investigation missions. These count as a main mission and don’t really give you clear instructions or markers on your map. You are given a hint, and expected to use your brain to figure it out. They can be really obvious, or deviously deceptive. The ones I’ve tried so far haven’t been too bad, but I expect they’ll get trickier as I progress (or at least I hope they will). For all their awesomeness in allowing you to play detective, I do detect one flaw with them. There is no replay value there. Once you’ve solved the mystery, why would you go through that mission again with a new character?
This ties into the feeling that it doesn’t seem like they want to encourage making alts in this game. I mean… it isn’t strictly necessary. With the way the skills and abilities work, a quick respec means you can completely change your “class”. You can just switch gear to accommodate that. Heck, if you only equipped basic gear and weapons, you’d more or less be down at “level 1” again. Maybe you’d like to check out the other factions for their storylines, but since Dragon is objectively the best I don’t see why you’d want to.
The combat itself is nothing special. I’d say it’s closest to what Guild Wars 2 does, what with encouraging that you move around and position yourself to avoid attacks and even giving you a dodge move (though I think GW2 implements it better), and while some of the attacks feel satisfying to use, I sadly can’t say that for all of them. It works. We’ll see how fast it becomes tedious.
While it’s refreshing to see someone take a slightly different route with an MMORPG, it does make me worry about the longevity of the game. Tørnquist has said they’re planning to put out new content every month to keep players happy and going, but a friend pointed out that Bioware said the same about SWTOR, and look how that turned out. (And I’m sure that either way it means we’re not getting The Longest Journey 3.)
There are a lot of little touches in this game that keep me engaged and smiling though. Like that Arcadia/Stark poster in the new character intro, the nicely drawn maps, the fact that while checking the local phonebook for clues I saw that one of the businesses in Kingsmouth is named “HP Arts and Craft”, and how you figure out the password on locked computers by being given a hint and then you’re expected to figure out the rest yourself (or just google it if you’re feeling lazy). The first one I did was really easy, since I’d been mostly paying attention up to that point, but the second was actually a little trickier, and I felt kinda proud when I solved it.
The game is not without its issues, especially since all MMO launches are plagued by bugs and technical issues, and as I’ve mentioned I fear for the ability of this game to retain its playerbase once people start running out of things to do. The ones really engrossed in the mystery might stay around to keep hunting for clues, and those like me who play rather slowly might hang around for a while, but the rest? I’m really not sure.
For now though I’m having a great time, and it has certainly sucked me in a lot more effectively than Guild Wars 2 has so far. The familiarity has helped the immersion, but let’s hope it won’t turn into contempt, as the old saying claims. If you decide to check it out, come say hi on the Cerberus server.