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TSW's skills are arranged in a circular interface (called "the hive") that starts with the basic types (melee, ranged, magic) in the inner-most ring. These are broken down into more specific skill categories (swords, hammers, fists for melee; pistols, shotguns, assault rifles for ranged; elemental, chaos, blood for magic). From there, you must buy skills sequentially to unlock more powerful skills and related tiers or rings. For the demonstration, only the first tier was available, but Funcom promises over 500 skills when the game launches, allowing for deep specialization and devastating attacks. Skills have no ranks; instead, they scale with gear, so more powerful weapons or chakras will allow the same skill to be much more potent.
I was impressed by the synergy between skills and schools of damage. For example, I started playing with blood magic, which provides nice offense along with shields and healing. When I acquired enough points to purchase a skill that allows me to damage and stun an opponent, TSW's senior producer and creative director, Ragnar TÃ¸rnquist, pointed out that I could also train up in hammers and use a skill that guarantees me a critical hit when my opponent is stunned. The results were spectacular but not unusual; many skills are built to that effect. And even in an unfinished product, the attack animations are gorgeous and entertaining. After using a blood attack that is akin to chain-lightning that triggers a corpse explosion, I just had to try it again, and again, and again, just to see weak packs of enemies turn to mush. It's Star Wars' dark side's force lightning meets Diablo's Necromancer's corpse explosion. That's how cool TSW is.
Then we move on to MMORPG:
The origin story is told through a series of cutscenes featuring your character in Tokyo hiding in a dingy hotel room or apartment and slowly becoming aware of your strange new powers. The story introduces the first of the legion conspiracy theories the game will showcase including such ominous things as (what is the Japanese government hiding) and (bee problems plaguing the earth) and more. Your player fades in and out of consciousness. You finally awaken for good to a stranger who reveals the first hints of the Templars. You are given and envelope and told, (We're the Templars. We've been around awhile.) From there you are told to head to London and to find the headquarters of the secret sect of guardians.
Once the initial assignment is given, players head off to get to London but need to complete several stages of the origin quest. The game's movement mechanics and combat are taught through a series of quest tiers. One of the most important things new players will learn when entering The Secret World is that movement in combat not only is encouraged, but is necessary in a big way. Monsters don't simply charge at you and stay there in front of you. They move in random patterns, throw projectiles and incendiary devices, and hurl spells and more. Movement is quite literally the way to stay alive even in these earliest phases of the game.
With most MMORPGs, you can typically expect to meet stronger enemies as you level up. Since The Secret World does away with leveling, you need a new way to determine whether or not a bad guy is in your league. Here's what you do: just look at your enemy. Take a good, long look. The uglier and more threatening your foe seems, the likelier it is that you're going to need a bit more firepower to take it down.
If that sounds like an obvious tactic, keep in mind that the powerful baddies mingle readily with the lesser threats. One of the game's settings is Kingsmouth, a north-eastern seaside suburb that is one of Stephen King's fictional towns come to life (wholly intended by the games' developers, as in one quest you are instructed to fetch medicine from "Flagg's Pharmacy"). Kingsmouth has a zombie problem. Once you gain the courage to step outside the safe zone, you build your confidence by shooting up textbook examples of the undead: ragged clothing, shuffling, growling, the works.
Toward the end, some of the developers and my fellow journalists huddled around my computer to see if I could solve the code before we started another segment of the presentation. I admit that I had resorted to asking, "Is this right?" before making a move at this point, but their reluctant answers of "no" and "maybe" represented the most help they were willing to give me. At last I figured it out. It may have taken longer, but my three years of Latin in college saved me from having to look up the answer in Google and I completed the questline at the very last minute. Most strangely of all, I felt a sense of accomplishment that felt more like it sprang from a Myst title than a contemporary MMO.
Bylos hopes that quests like The Kingsmouth Code will bring players together and foster a sense of community. "I'm really hoping that people will reach out in global chat and say, 'Hey, I'm doing the Kingsmouth Code and I don't want someone to spoil it for me, but could someone put me on the right track here because I'm sort of stuck?' And then you make a friend because you talked to someone," Bylos said. "And that's kind of the goal of MMOs, right?"
Only a billboard advertising '˜English Football' breaks our suspension of disbelief, and only momentarily. Funcom's London is one of the most believable locations we've seen in a game and is immediately refreshing next to the generic fantasy and sci-fi worlds more typical of the MMO genre.
(I think that cities in games are just portrayed horribly wrong,) says TÃ¸rnquist. (It's too easy to do the prettified version of Times Square, for example, but you don't want that. You want to find the soul of the city. That's really important to me.
"All that detail is part of giving this game a soul and I think good games have souls. Good games can be flawed and those that do have a soul have some value to them, and that's what we're trying to create here a world with a soul, characters with soul. gameplay with a soul. Something that is fresh and different and maybe not super-polished but with substance.)
Our escorted dungeon run is what you'd expect from an MMO, where your group consists of a tank, a healer (in our case, a buffed up healer played by a developer) and damage dealers to plow through enemies, mini-bosses and a final boss for glory - but most importantly, for loot. The Ur-Draug, a hulking Cthululike creature wasn't easy, even with our extra beefy stats. It has a deadly, electrifying stare when the battle switches phases, and if you happen to come across its gaze then you're out of the fight. During this alternate dimension phase, we'd have to run behind stone pillars and hope that it doesn't see us, or that its scouts don't find us. The tricky part was that it would disintegrate our hiding spot and we'd all have to scramble and find another means of cover. The plus side was that when we died (which we did, numerous times) we were able to start from the beginning of the boss fight so we didn't have to do the entire run again.
Finding specific powers to buy (or equip if you've already bought it) can be a struggle with so many available, which is exactly why a search and filter function is included in the powers window. Simply type in a word that you're looking for -- "fire" for example -- and any ability that contains the word in the name or description will appear, letting you seek out very specific attributes to slap on your character.
I was, for example, playing as an assault-rifle wielding Templar, a choice I made while going through training in the Templar home town of London. I found I had a good deal of range and killing power against single targets, but when waves of enemies began to swamp me or a single strong enemy began to close the gap I'd take a good deal of damage that I struggled to recover from. I entered the skill menu, searched "heal," and discovered a skill that would heal my character for small amounts every time I landed a "penetrating" hit. Penetrating hits are an attribute unique to ranged weapons like the assault rifle, and I had an ability that turned my standard strong attack into a weaker attack that would hit four times in rapid succession for essentially the same amount of damage. That meant more chances to score a penetrating hit. The end result? Much more sustainability. Enemy groups were far less intimidating from that point forward.
You get XP from just about everything you do in The Secret World, like crafting, missions, and PvP, but you won't be leveling up in the traditional sense. Instead, your reward for filling up your XP bar is a point to spend in the Power Wheel. Your progression is marked by the gear you can equip. The skills you equip scale with your gear, so finding or making newer, better stuff is key. But don't expect to be collecting the same old armor, because clothes in The Secret World are for aesthetics only. Funcom really wanted to make sure that your character was utterly unique, so clothes have no stats at all, leaving you free to dress however you like. Between the variety of powers, gear, and clothes you can select, you should have no trouble creating a character that is truly one of a kind.
PC Gamer is offering an interview in two parts (part I and II) and a video interview:
PC Gamer: The first thing that really stands out to me about Secret World is your faction system. It's multi-tiered, you've got three different sides. And you seem to be emphasizing it a lot, you've got the Facebook questionnaire, which is a really cool idea. So is there any inspiration there from the World of Warcraft, Horde-versus-Alliance thing? I don't really think they knew that was going to get so big, whereas you seem to hanging your proverbial hat on it.
Joel Bylos: I think to start with, we talked about three-sided PvP, it's much more interesting than two-sided PvP because you always have the joker in the deck.
Martin Bruusgaard: Everyone talks about Dark Age of Camelot.
JB: Yeah, Dark Age of Camelot is a massive influence in that regard You have the European, the American, and the Asian faction, and that's also very interesting mix, if you want. It doesn't matter where you're from, you can play Caucasian, Dragon, it's not a problem. They all have very different philosophical backgrounds, it's very interesting. Players really identify with parts of these different factions in their own way.
And they almost tie to certain people's attitudes as far as the way they play games. If you think about, you know, Sex Drugs and Rockefeller, they're in there for a good time, smashing things around. The Templars are more ruthless, they're focused, they want to take stuff down. And the Dragon are all about the chaos. I'm running over here, running over there, I'm an explorer. It almost ties to player archetypes in a way. But I think, yeah, it's definitely very intentional, to drive a wedge between these three factions. People can't form guilds with people outside of their faction. So you can't form a cross-faction cabal. That's part of our philosophy.
Finally, GameSpot is offering a video preview, while GameTrailers is offering a two interviews (I, II).