20 hours with The Secret World – A pre-review [Feature]

3 Jul 2012  by   Tim McDonald
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I should be straight up with this: split across both the closed beta and the early access period (I’m writing this right before the game officially launches) I’ve played Funcom’s modern-day fantasy-horror MMO, The Secret World, for quite a lot longer than 20 hours. But, much as I’ll be drawing on that experience to elaborate on some of the points I intend to make, this isn’t a review.

Our preview focused on explaining what’s different about The Secret World, while this article is all about describing what your early-game experiences will be like, in the hopes of giving you some idea as to whether this is your sort of MMO. Why? Because, honestly, this isn’t really cut from the same cloth as most of the genre. For the most part I’ll be trying to avoid spoilers; there will be descriptions of the opening and the first few quests, as well as some talk about the game’s first instanced dungeon, but by and large I don’t want to ruin any big surprises. Still, consider yourselves forewarned.

First experience, then: you listen to the lovely title screen music, log in, and choose your faction, your looks, and your server. But wait! This isn’t as big a deal as it is in most MMOs, for two reasons. First, your faction choice only changes the guilds (“Cabals”) you can join, and which side you’re on in the three-way PvP – in the actual game world itself, you can group up with anyone. Secondly, Funcom are using some sort of arcane and mysterious server technology which means that you can pretty much play on whatever server you like; if your friend signs up but joins a different server to you, simply invite them to your group and they’ll pop over to yours until it disbands. Chat goes across all servers; you can apparently join guilds cross-server; and these servers span all regions, so you’re not locked away from friends on other continents.

Anyway. With that out of the way you wander around your home city for a little while, marvelling at the fact that you’re actually playing an MMO set in locations that look somewhat familiar, and then find your way into the Tokyo Flashback tutorial, where you have invincibility and get a rough idea of both how to play and what you’re up against – as well as a healthy dose of plot-based weirdness at the end.

Then, after picking your starting weapon (think “class”, which is a wildly inappropriate term for this game) and having a brief meeting with one of the higher-ups of your particular faction, you’re sent off to investigate the ongoing weirdness on Solomon Island, Maine… by going through Agartha, an extraordinarily beautiful area inside the planet with portals to your questing zones. And then, once you stop marvelling at how lovely it looks and finally make your way to Solomon Island, you’re presented with this:

That’s the in-game map of Kingsmouth Town, the first of Solomon Island’s three zones, and it’s where you’re going to be spending a fair bit of those first 20 hours (unless you’re speedrunning, which is a singularly bad idea, but we’ll get onto that.) As you can probably tell, those little markers that look a bit like people are quest-givers.

This is where a little confusion may arise, so:

  1. No, they’re not all clustered around one or two central hubs.
  2. No, you can’t run around the map picking up all of the quests. Your mission log has a maximum of six – one story mission, one dungeon mission, one “main” mission, and three side missions, which aren’t given by people but instead are lying around in the environment.
  3. No, you don’t usually have to run back to the quest-giver to complete a mission. You have a cellphone, so clicking “Send Report” is usually sufficient.

As such, you’ve got a fair degree of autonomy and freedom, and the quests themselves are usually a bit more varied than the standard kill-ten-beasties-and-collect-their-ears-that-only-30%-of-them-have-for-some-reason MMO jobs. Within the first few hours you will, most likely, have tested a series of improvised explosive devices against the zombie incursion; you’ll have gathered supplies by looting shops; you’ll have rigged up a security system for a fortified police station by stealing security cameras from ruined businesses. You might’ve had a go at cracking The Kingsmouth Code, the first of the game’s Investigation missions, which has you following a series of Illuminati symbols around town and gives you no real help other than a mention of Google and a series of increasingly cryptic clues.

You’ll probably have tried to continue the story mission, too, which is a fair indication of how well you’re going to get on with The Secret World. These missions lead you through each of the game’s zones in turn as you try to stop whatever calamity is befalling the area in question, and generally give a fair indication of where you should be going at any given time. Tier 2 of the Solomon Island story, however, causes some trouble.

Tier 2 tasks you with talking to the survivors to get more info about what’s going on, and refuses to give you a waypoint. At this stage, you will likely do one of two things. You will either take this as a sign that you should probably wander around visiting the quest-givers and doing some quests, as you’ll likely stumble upon the person you need to talk to at some point, or you’ll immediately go to General chat and ask how to solve Tier 2 of the story quest, possibly complaining that it’s bugged for you and that you don’t have a waypoint for some reason, and that you can’t believe the game has been released in this shoddy condition.

If you are of the latter group, this may well not be the MMO for you. If you were just surprised by this then fair enough, but if you dislike the autonomy and don’t like having to think about quests then you’re basically screwed, because you’ll be doing that a lot. If, instead, you’re of the former group, the fifth time someone from the latter group asks General Chat for help on this will probably be the point at which you’ll disable General chat, and you may well hate yourself a little bit for not having done it sooner.

By this time, you’ve probably also been surprised by the game in a number of ways. Having to think about what to do and where to go is a start, but the quality of the writing, the voice acting, and the general atmosphere took me by surprise, at least. Most quest-givers are actual characters, often memorable in their own right, and I have to admit to rather liking the villain of the Solomon Island arc, which is saying something considering how utterly moronic most MMO villains are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For the next few hours, you’ll continue exploring Kingsmouth and doing quests. You’ll probably start levelling a second weapon and plotting out what abilities will synergise well with each other; you might even decide to try a third and start hoarding tanking or healing equipment. Eventually you’ll stumble upon the quest leading to the Polaris, a wrecked cargo ship that forms the game’s first dungeon.

It’s a reasonable starting dungeon, though possibly a little harder than you might expect (particularly if you’re still not fully used to the game’s combat system). The plethora of bosses within require careful positioning, a little add management, the usual stay-out-of-the-fire, and even a fairly original final boss (who definitely isn’t Cthulhu; he’s got a totally different name and everything) that involves running and hiding every now and then. Nothing too out of the ordinary for veteran MMO players, but you’ll likely want either a group that’s done it before or superior gear if you’re going through it for the first time and don’t want to die repeatedly. A very good healer is also recommended.

Within those 20 hours you’re likely to make it to the second zone, the Savage Coast, which is where you may start swearing at the game’s tuning. Moving into a new area can be a deeply hazardous experience, with enemies who will kick the shit out of you unless you’ve either got top-notch gear from the last area, have done some crafting, are lucky enough to get through a few quests and gear up without dying too much, or are in a group. Co-operation is the name of the game in PvE, even with members of other factions; quest completion and experience is usually awarded to all players participating in a fight regardless of whether they’re grouped or not, but it can be a bit iffy at times. Grouping’s never been essential in my experience, but it has minimised frustration.

The Savage Coast is also where you might bump into IncGamers editor John Robertson. I have no idea why he’s a zombie in a haunted amusement park; I can only guess that he takes some seriously weird holidays.

You’re unlikely to have made it this far in one sitting unless you’ve done this before or are playing for a seriously protracted period, so you may also have noticed repeatable quests at this point. Pretty much every single quest is repeatable after 24 hours, so it’s easy enough to get more experience if you want to upgrade your skills or try out a new weapon; you’ll get the same rewards, too, which is certainly useful if you’re building up, say, some tanking gear. Currently this seems a lot less annoying than repeatable quests in other MMOs, if only because everything is repeatable – you can cherrypick quests that are quick to finish or give loads of xp, if you’d prefer.

As, by now, you should be drifting into the pleasant cycle of killing things, completing quests, moving on to new zones, and possibly spending absurd amounts of in-game cash to buy clothing in London’s trendy apparel store (or quitting in disgust, if you don’t like it) we’ll go a bit more abstract and quickly deal with how the early access period has been going, as well as how some of the other concepts seem to be working out.

I think it’s fair to call the early access launch a success. It’s entirely possible that the actual game launch (which should be happening around the time you read this) will be a catastrophic failure, but for the most part, early access has been pain free. There were a few bugged quests (now largely fixed) and a few issues when multiple people try to do certain quests (not fixed, and frankly a bit shocking) but these are easily the minority; by and large, everything’s been working marvellously.

For many, though, I think the big thing about The Secret World will be how well the whole “no levelling, no classes” system works. I haven’t fully made my mind up on this, but right now I’m feeling fairly positive about it. The emphasis is absolutely on your build, and while gear is of massive importance, a character with endgame gear can still die in Kingsmouth Town if he or she gets overwhelmed in one of its tougher areas. That’s far from definitive proof, but it certainly implies that gear and stats aren’t everything, and that the game isn’t just a straight progression line of power.

And that’s kinda why I said, back at the start, that speed-running to the endgame is a bad idea. There are two reasons for this: for one, I’m not sure how vast the endgame is. At present I don’t believe there are any raids, which are due later (there are hard-mode and elite-mode versions of the dungeons, though I have no idea how hard these are), and you can do acceptably in PvP without needing end-game gear so there’s little reason to rush in that sense. Later powers aren’t necessarily “better” than earlier powers – they just offer different functionality, and give you far more options when constructing a build.

Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of the joy in The Secret World seems to stem from the journey rather than the outcome. Right now I’m of the impression that it’s really about the atmosphere, the story, the writing, and playing around with your builds, rather than taking part in max-level raids. In short, if you’re the sort of player who believes that any MMO really begins at the end-game, I don’t know if this is currently for you. I can’t be sure, as I’m not there yet, but that’s certainly the impression I’ve had.

Inevitably, I’d suggest waiting a week or so until I’ve had a bit more time with the game and can construct a full review and address the questions that I still have outstanding, but you’ve hopefully got some idea as to whether this is your sort of thing. In summary, though? If you like tweaking builds, thinking about quests, and exploring a world that’s got plenty of atmosphere and feels rather different to most MMOs out there, this might be worth a shot. If you just want to rush through, skip cutscenes, and be the number one on the server, though, you might want to think twice.

Or you can just wait for the review. Yes. You should all do that.

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