We jumped into The Secret World's media beta for some extensive hands-on time to see if The Secret World is close to ready for its big debut in June.
While there are hundreds of thousands of players champing at the bit to get into The Secret World's beta testing weekend (that's today!), I'll begin this article by dampening the mood: the press beta began a few days earlier! Everything new you discover will be tarnished by the knowledge that I may have seen it first! Jokes aside, media beta access did begin just a little bit earlier this week, so I've spent the past few days re-introducing myself to The Secret World (TSW) and the wonderfully atmospheric town of Kingsmouth.
Before I get to my beta experiences, I'd like to highlight the difference between playing a game during a studio visit or at PAX East versus playing it within the comfort of your own home. Dress code aside, I typically look at studio visits and media events as opportunities to talk to the developers as I try to clarify design choices or understand their thought process. Some journalists who attend these events try to get an unbiased experience, but I just don't think it's possible when the studio has had weeks to prepare (and occasionally rearrange) their content in a complimentary way. These past few days in the media beta, however, have been completely under my control, so this time around you can expect me to focus more on my personal experiences with The Secret World and, with launch almost a month away, if I think TSW is ready for the spotlight.
I'll admit that my beta play started off on the wrong foot as one of Funcom's first caveats was that their character creator wasn't fully stocked with customization options. Their male character customization wasn't too bad, but I was rather disappointed in their female character creator. Perhaps I'm feeling spoiled from games like TERA and Guild Wars 2, where it's almost impossible to make a bad looking character, but I was a little discouraged that most of the random presets started out unappealing and only got slightly better from there. My general concern here is that even when more customization options get added, if they all carry that same tired look, then I think some players will have difficulty really connecting and taking pride in their character at launch. As this is something of a big concern to me, I will definitely keep up on this when character creation gets updated, so expect more on this topic down the line.
On a happier note, the in-game UI is remarkably slick, and Funcom has done an incredible job of conveying the tone of the game through its minimalistic HUD. Even when it comes to navigating some really deep content, like the game's robust skill wheel, TSW's UI still feels like a natural extension of the game and not just a pop-up menu that is a necessary evil to communicate the right information. Quest conveyance has also taken a significant upgrade since I last played TSW, as intractable objects now highlight in red when you walk close enough. I think this was a great choice by Funcom, as it allows TSW to retain its difficulty (no object shines at a distance, so you still need to know its general area) without straight baffling some players who don't want to move their mouse over every possible object. I was worried that TSW's involved quest system might turn off some less observant players, but so far I think there have been marked improvements in conveying the right information without spoon feeding the quest seeker. I also can't stress this enough: being able to separate bags into lockable UI hotbars is a genius idea.
Character animations were also a big concern for me in previous hands-on sessions, and I wish I had solid news to share, but I believe some new animations are in the works and will be deployed later. For now, all I can say is that the animations do feel a bit stiff, especially jumping, running, and when performing certain attack animations. For a change of pace, I decided to pursue the "Gunslinger" deck with a focus on Pistols and Elementalism. For my main pistol attack, however, even when I'm planning to shoot several bullets in a row, my character always seems to insist on lowering her guns to her hip before raising them again to fire. In short, my arms always look like jackhammers when I'm using dual pistols, because they're constantly flicking up and down before firing each bullet.
Underwhelming character aesthetics and some stiff animation might seem a little harsh for a game coming out in a little more than a month - and I think they're important! - but I'll be ending this on a high note, because what I noticed was that all my negative thoughts stopped after an hour of playing. Once I got engaged with The Secret World, immersing myself in its murky atmosphere and wonderful writing, all my problems faded to background noise. Putting this in comparison to TERA's nearly non-existent story or Guild Wars 2's somewhat mechanical NPC interaction, The Secret World is a tremendously immersive experience that will invite you in to stay.
Ultimately, if there's anything I'd want you to take away from this preview as you enter the weekend beta test, it would be this: there are rough edges that are being worked on, but if you're looking for an MMO to submerge yourself into for some time - and Funcom is a veteran at polishing content over time - then you really should consider making The Secret World your new home. Now it's time for me to get back to Kingsmouth!
Chris "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief