|Pub: Funcom, Electronic Arts|
|Release: June 19, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence|
by Shelby Reiches
The Secret World ran beta events on each of the past two weekends, allowing gamers worldwide to get a peek into the cloak and dagger world of shadow governments, clandestine organizations, and ancient evils. Unfortunately, I was saddled with prior obligations on each of these, and only had the opportunity to pop into the first one, which limited its players to the Templar faction, for about fifteen minutes. This was long enough to make a character (options were fairly limited, though appropriately shadowy, featuring at least one trench coat and a pair of sunglasses) and sit through the opening cinematic, which I think involved my character getting magic powers from ingesting a bean, torching his apartment, and then spending a few days acclimating to his new abilities after a brief period during which he was curled in the fetal position against a wall, clearly a broken individual. Eventually, while he was toying with his abilities, a woman arrived from the Templars and invited him to join them.
He accepts this invitation, in part because she makes it clear that the alternative will put him in excessive danger, but also because the game doesn't give the player a choice. Did I mention that this cutscene is voice-acted? In fact, the Templar representative wouldn't stop talking, coming across as appropriately pushy for someone trying to make the hard sell to an individual who doesn't even know what he's trying to buy. It's worth noting that the voice acting and graphics during this sequence were both well done, but a little off. The Secret World is not going to win any beauty pageants, at this stage, but it can look nice when it wants to.
As strange and abrupt as the opening cinematic was—the game was clear that this is likely only a placeholder—just to give some context to those in the beta before the storyline is finalized. It's also worth noting that my time with the game ends there, and so we'll pick up with my friend, Dan, who played a bit longer, and whom I asked for details on his experience.
After gaining control of his character, he proceeded to talk to a homeless individual, rambling to himself or whomever would listen and, while talking to him, was transported into a memory held by someone else, fighting through the underground in a far off country (Japan, he wagered, from a mention of Tokyo). And, yes, as this was fighting, he received his first taste of combat. Both here and later in the demo when he'd had a chance to engage foes with his own character, he found that the combat was par for the course as far as MMOs go, with hotbar skills engaging abilities that then cool down. In a neat twist, there were abilities that built charges as well as others that consumed them, but this is nothing that hasn't been seen before in either World of Warcraft with the Rogue or Diablo II with the Assassin (the aforementioned Rogue's inspiration).
From there, it was off to training, during which the skill system was introduced. Two types of skill points allow for advancement either through the three main trees—Melee, Ranged, and Magic, each of which is split into three smaller trees that further specialize a character—or along a supplementary route that strengthens abilities tied to one's core tree, without counting toward that tree's advancement. It sounds fairly complex, but complexity is a welcome thing in a world that seems increasingly insistent that we streamline games down to the point at which personal agency is mostly foregone in favor of a smooth experience. The rough edges that strategic point allocation begets aren't for everyone, but for those who can appreciate them, they're a tremendous enhancement to the experience, making those players feel like a character they've created is really theirs. When they're well implemented, that is; it remains to be seen whether this is the case over the course of The Secret World's run.
Dan's next task involved talking to survivors around town. A foggy, derelict town, crawling with the shambling undead. As he slew zombies and sought survivors, he found that the lack of specific direction on where to find these beset upon individuals, combined with the area's expansive map, led to a gradual loss of interest on his part until, fed up, he finally exited the game and ignored it for the rest of the beta weekend.
Does this serve as a cautionary tale, to warn developers against the dangers or providing too little direction, an experience that doesn't railroad one along? I think that, instead, this speaks to the unfinished nature of the game, which has core elements that a player such as Dan finds enjoyable—intuitive combat, an intriguing setting, and a skill system that allows for intensely malleable character building—but all of that falls flat if the game doesn't back up its atmospheric world and idiosyncratic nature with compelling narrative and the devices to enable players to readily experience it.
Again, this is the game in an unfinished state; think about how much TERA changed between beta and release, or Diablo III. Funcom has done well by the MMO genre in the past, and The Secret World is, like Anarchy Online before it, an ambitious project that appears to be maybe a little rough around the edges. That might, however, allow it to carve out its own niche with a distinctive identity.
Date: May 29, 2012