Locked away in a hotel during GDC this year, Funcom, the developer behind Age of Conan, was displaying the very first gameplay footage of their upcoming massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), The Secret World. Today, we can finally talk about what we saw.
For those who haven’t been following TSW, it’s a gear-centric MMO with three factions, no leveling up and no classes. Instead, players earn new skills and abilities to use, in a similar manner to Guild Wars. Set in real-world locations – New York City, Seoul and London – as well as pseudo-real-world locations – the fictional town of Kingsmouth, New England, for example – Funcom’s focus for this game is to deliver a very story-driven, very open MMO to the masses. Their technique for this, at least in part, is to give each quest a certain amount of significance, by delivering it through an in-game cinematic.
“We’re really trying to do something new here,” Martin Harsheim Bruusgaard, lead designer for TSW told us. “Story and MMOs have not always been the best of friends.” Few would argue. While it’s true that there will be your standard MMO quests – Kill X monsters, gather Y objects etc… – having the quest instructions coming from a voice-acted character, with spiffy camera angles and neat scripted events makes what would be a standard grind feel more important to the world of the game. Of course, whether each actual quest can continue that feeling of importance remains to be seen.
The example we saw showed a flannel-wearing, gun-toting character standing near a truck, somewhere in the fictional town of Kingsmouth, giving us some…suggestions. Something had swept through the town and slain the majority of Kingsmouth’s population, and that same thing was causing the dead to rise as zombies, driven for whatever reason to kill the few that survived the initial wave of deaths. Killing zombies seemed to be easy for the townsfolk, but keeping them dead was another matter entirely, for they rise again only hours later. This armed individual near the truck asked the player to seek, and attempt to destroy, a number of zombies, in the hopes of finding a way to keep the dead dead. Or making them deader. Or maybe less dead.
Which leads us nicely into the way combat works. Players can have seven active and seven passive abilities equipped at any one time. The passive abilities play a large part in determining what kind of role you’ll play in a group, as these are the kinds of abilities that alter the amount of damage you take or deal, and give special tweaks to your active abilities to make them a great deal more potent. A spell that might normally heal a person could be enhanced to also raise them from the dead, for example. Abilities are also “state based”, meaning certain abilities will check for an enemy’s (or ally’s) status, and may act differently depending on what it finds. A caster-type character dealt a fire attack that set a group of zombies alight, while the healer-type character used an ability that dealt damage over time on one of those same zombies. If this damage-over-time ability kills an enemy that is on fire, it causes that enemy to explode for large damage. In this way, the two characters were able to maximize their effectiveness, but there’s nothing stopping one character from having both the damage-over-time ability and the fire ability.
The combat was shown mostly from the perspective of the caster-type character – a goggled teenager in urban clothes. Much of what we were shown involved this character running backwards as he kited zombies into his spell-radius. In his team were two others, a healing female character, and a male “tank” style character, built for withstanding damage while keeping the enemy focused on him. Interestingly, the tank was equipped with a shotgun – traditionally, tanks are close-range. We have to admit that the combat seemed a little confusing and overly chaotic, but the game is still pre-alpha (meaning it hasn’t even really undergone internal testing) and has a long way to go before it’s even close to being complete. It’s a fair assumption that combat will be the focus of much polish before the launch draws near.
That said, it may also simply be the types of enemies they were dealing with, as later, when the group took on some bosses, combat seemed tighter and looked, well, more fun. We saw three bosses in total; an enormous draug with two beefy crab-arms, and a less-beefy man-arm, a mechanical junk-yard monster that , although it was killed, managed to also take out one of the group members, and my personal favorite, a Cthulhu-esque sea monster that shot orange goo and was capable of floating into mid-air to release what we could only assume was a powerful area-of-effect attack. This particular guy you can actually see at the end of this teaser.
Despite all the grouping we saw, most quests are designed to be completed on your lonesome. You won’t get penalized for running around together of course; they’re just tuned for the solo player. Quests aren’t the only means of storytelling in The Secret World. Funcom are employing a rather interesting technique wherein players enter “mini dungeons”, which are basically instanced dungeons designed for the solo player. These dungeons allow the designers to make intricate scripted events that push the story forward for the player, and allow for scripted battles that would become clumsy or overly easy in a group.
Talking to non-player characters and quest -givers is reminiscent of Everquest 2, in which dialogue and options appear next to the character, as opposed to in a dialogue-window. In The Secret World, the options are made to appear sort-of iPhone-y, as though players are looking through an overlay. The effect is actually quite neat, and will feel immediately familiar for a lot of people.
With no levels, characters grow solely through the abilities they choose to train and their gear. Bruusgaard tells us that there are literally hundreds of unique abilities, and for players who feel overwhelmed, the game will suggest which powers you should use if you know what kind of role you want to fill. Alternatively, players are free to choose whatever skills they want and have no specific role at all. Abilities don’t “rank up” at all – they only grow more powerful with your gear – so players will be hunting down every powerful item they possibly can. It also means, however, that players could theoretically sneak into the later stages of the game as a group and take down foes more powerful than they should, as most MMOs use levels as a way of limiting players from skipping content.
Choosing one of the game’s three secret societies or factions – the Dragon, the Illuminati, and the Templars – determines who is an ally and who is an enemy, and according to the fact sheet we were given, players can rise through the ranks of their secret society, though this was never really touched upon. All three factions progress through the same areas in the same order, which could potentially lead to either awesome or horrible Player-versus-player combat. The size of the world will likely alleviate PvP headaches, though, as a fly-through of a small portion of Kingsmouth showed us just how enormous that single zone was. Players will have plenty of room to frolic and slay the undead.