ZAM Editor-in-Chief Chris Tom lays out his ongoing experiences with Funcom's The Secret World.
We've also got a faction t-shirt / dog tag giveaway for The Secret World! Tell us why YOUR faction is the best, and we'll be giving out a prize to the three best entries!
It's no secret that, in the past few months, we have been playing a lot of The Secret World (yes, those are all separate links). That being said, however, once the closed beta weekends began back in May, I decided to lay out some of my thoughts before taking a step back to watch from afar. While it would have been enjoyable to experience Funcom's development process as they tinkered away in between betas, I wanted to come into TSW's launch day with fresh eyes and an improved experience.
Let's get on with it.
From Beta to Beauty
There's a common saying in the MMORPG industry that closed beta tests are now considered the "new" launch day for MMO titles. While this might refer to the huge impact that beta testing opinions can have on a game's reception, the more cynical part of me wants to say that it's because a lot of MMORPG developers just don't listen to their beta feedback. More often than not, the buggy experience that I forgave back in closed beta ends up being the very same experience on launch day - all because the developers just wanted to test their server loads without actually iterating on the game. It's a depressing problem and, without raising (for the hundredth time) the launch day woes of Anarchy Online or Age of Conan, it's a problem that Funcom ought to be well versed in.
Well, it seems like the third time really is the charm, because The Secret World has made such startling improvements since they began beta testing back in May that I feel it's necessary to commend them before I get to anything else. I noted way back in my first beta preview that combat animations were stiff and character creation was lacking, but both of these were significantly beefed up for launch day. A majority of combat animations got polished (when firing dual pistols, your arms no longer pump up and down with each shot), and weapon sound effects got some significant bass added to lend more weight to combat. Additionally, character customization has opened up quite a bit and, while I still feel that 70% of the options leave you with an exhausted looking chain smoker, I was able to scratch out a good looking avatar of my own.
While these improvements might not seem like large undertakings, the real reason I bring them up is because I want to highlight just how much Funcom has evolved in its years. Back when Age of Conan was gearing up for launch, Funcom was also revving up the hype machine to full power, shouting about all of the innovative features their game would have. With The Secret World, however, we have a more mature development team; one that prefers to show rather than tell, and one that listens so thoroughly to player feedback that they pushed back launch day multiple times to continue polishing.
Brave New Secret World
Having experienced both the Illuminati and Templar opening sequences thoroughly (thanks to multiple media events and beta experiences), I decided to go back to my roots to officially play as a member of the Dragon. One little detail I enjoyed during this play through was that a lot of the conversational sub-dialogue for the Dragon is fully voiced in Korean (and from what I could tell, the accents were decent!). For example, when you gain a new rank in your secret society, you actually hear this information in Korean via a phone call.
Choosing my weaponry was a bit of a struggle, as the new sound effects and polished combat animations were enough to make me want it all. Ultimately I settled on my original plan of packing a Shotgun and Rifle, but Blades and Chaos Magic were both very tempting with their upgraded looks.
The one new feature that impressed me was the effortless connectivity of Funcom's proprietary DreamWorld technology. I chose Cerberus for my server, but once I arrived at the sleepy little zombie-infested town of Kingsmouth, I realized that I was playing with a variety of players from other servers. It seems that TSW's PvP crowd is restricted to your server (to promote consistent rivalries and alliances), but the PvE portion of the game simply lumps you into a general chat while spreading you across dozens of different dimensional shards. It's an interesting system that makes you feel immersed in the player population, although I suppose it comes with the reduced chance of running into a familiar face while wandering the countryside.
Stacking the Decks
One of The Secret World's most innovative features (and its most widely discussed) is, of course, its enormous skill wheel of 500+ unique abilities. In The Secret World, players gain ability points at an exponential rate with the option to invest those ability points into skills in any way they see fit. For more traditional MMORPG players, Funcom has also provided some pre-made "decks," which basically offer guided skill archetypes for players to pursue. Should you purchase all of the abilities in a deck archetype, you also unlock a unique outfit that suits the theme of the deck.
In this regard, The Secret World is unabashedly a game that rewards the thinking gamer. Where developers like Blizzard are pushing for more streamlined and simplified skill systems (Diablo III's rune system, Mist's of Pandaria's binary skill specialization system), Funcom has sprinted off in a completely different direction.
On a basic level, you choose two weapons out of nine, and you use these weapons via seven active abilities and seven passive abilities. Getting a little deeper, your abilities tend to come in three flavors: cooldown-based, resource builders and resource consumers. Cooldown-based abilities are exactly what they sound like, while resource builders are essentially combo abilities that build up points for your consumers to use as finishing moves.
Moving deeper into attack variety, there are: attacks that inflict weakness, attacks that hinder, attacks that add afflictions, attacks that impair, attacks that penetrate armor, attacks that critically hit, blast attacks, chain attacks, focus attacks, strike attacks and burst attacks. On an even deeper level, each of these afflictions and attack types interact with each other in a variety of ways to provide unique bonuses or to exploit weaknesses. Now imagine this level of skill interaction multiplied to five friends trying to create the perfect PvP group. That's when things get a little hectic.