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June 26th, 2012, 02:43
I thought The Secret World was going to be an MMO set in a world much like the old Illuminatus! trilogy of books where pretty much every ‘power that be’ is involved in various world domination conspiracies. Not quite – or at least not the parts that I saw. It actually seemed a bit more Lovecraft like with lots of bizarre critters invading our modern world and making a mess of things. Opposing them are three ‘secret’ factions (that almost everyone seems to have heard about) with various magical and supernatural powers.

When you start the game, you’ll pick out one of these factions. That will determine where you start out and do your tutorial but, honestly, I’m not sure what else it might affect beyond your PvP experience. It probably affects how some of the missions play out but I only played one faction so I can’t say for sure. At any rate, the tutorial area will teach you how to move around, how to get quests, how to use powers, and all that good stuff.

Then you’ll get put in a room with nine weapons. In The Secret World there are no classes, just weapons. Even the weapons themselves can’t really be called classes as each one has several power sets linked to it. Some weapons can do certain things better than others (sledge hammer obviously isn’t going to be real big on ranged damage, for instance) but they all have lots of variety linked to them.

You can’t just use any weapon right off the bat, though. Each weapon has a pair of skills associated with it and you’ll need to advance these skills in order to use more powerful versions of each weapon. But in this special room, you’ll be given the points you need to wield the weapon plus a few of its initial powers so you can try all of them out. Once you leave the room, though, the skills and powers are locked in. Then you’ll find yourself scooted off to New England for your first challenge.

Now one of the major coolnesses in this game is the critters. The designers managed to dream up a lot of good ones that are oozing with originality (among other things). Not only do they look great, they fight in very different ways. So what does Funcom hit you with straight out of the starting gate? Zombies. Seriously!? I don’t know how many zombies you’ve “killed” in the past decade but I’m sure it’s far too many. I’m afraid you’re going to need to hack a few more up here, too. Don’t worry about it too much – after a few hours you’ll get to fight something more interesting. Feel free to head down to the town docks if you want a preview of better things to come.

Battles are pretty active. For most powers, you can only attack things that are in your line of sight, meaning in front of you. One thing those zombies will demonstrate nicely is that this game’s critters have no intention of just standing there and letting you blast them. They can run behind you just as your slow-to-activate power is ready to fire off, cancelling your power. Of course, you can (and will definitely need to) do the same to enemies that have powers that take some time to fire off. They have even added a dodge ability to let you quickly jump out of the way with the double-tap of a direction key. The end result is a heck of a lot of running around while trying to shoot. I liked doing this for the most part but I did find it frustrating to be launching a major power at some critter only to have it cancel at the last instant because the thing got a tad behind me.

The quests you get are quite well done. There are plenty of quests that amount to “go over there and blast a lot of slimies” but there are also a lot of original quests. Quests where you need to sneak by critters and/or security cameras, for instance, or quests where you need to solve a riddle. They actually provide an in-game web browser so that you can look things up to help you solve those riddles! One unfortunate problem, though – your character is silent. The NPCs do all the talking while you just stare at them. It’s not uncommon in RPGs but it’s still jarring, especially after The Old Republic.

The big claim to fame, though, comes from the skill wheel. Each of the 9 weapons has two initial power sets with 7 powers in each. You can advance in either set as much as you want but you are limited to buying the powers in order – you can’t just save up and buy the final power. Once you buy all 14 powers from the two sets, you then unlock the advanced powers for your weapon. Each weapon has 6 advanced power sets consisting of 7 more powers each.

As I mentioned earlier, though, you can just spend a few skill points and open up a new weapon. Adding more skill points to a weapon lets you use more powerful weapons so just putting one skill point in each isn’t a real good strategy unless you plan on staying in the starting area for a mighty long time. However, it is pretty easy to spend points on a few different weapons.

You can’t just use any power you’ve learned any time, though. You only get to have 7 active powers and 7 passive powers. You can only hold two weapons at once, too, so those powers must all come from those two weapons.

However, the game lets you save sets of gear and powers. Just set yourself up for, say, maximum AoE damage and save the gear set. Then set yourself up for max single target damage and save another gear set. When you find yourself facing a pack of zombies you simply click some menu options and POOF! You’re an AoE specialist! Then, when you find yourself facing a single super-nasty, just click-click a few times and you’re back to your single target setup! It’s not quite as easy as popping between forms in a City of Heroes Kheldian character but it is far more flexible.

All those added choices are indicative of another factor in this game: it’s hard. I got killed in the very first quest out of the tutorial and died plenty of times after that. The riddles they throw at you can be pretty tricky and sometimes are outright devious. If you try to fight by just clicking on a couple of powers over and over, you’re going to get creamed. When you’re ready to add another weapon and you open the skill wheel to try to figure out which of the other weapons will best match your first weapon’s 56 powers, you’ll know just what I mean.

Graphically, the game is pretty impressive for an MMO. It’s no Skyrim, of course, but it has some pretty advanced graphics options.

There’s one thing about the game that really worries me, though: grouping. Yes you can team up but the VAST majority of quests I saw were for a single player and the enemies do not scale up along with your team. That means even a ‘challenging’ quest is pretty easy for a team of two. Larger teams are going to need to do missions that are really tough to get a challenge. Unlike The Old Republic, though, they didn’t set all the quests up so they would have to be done in a specific order. It might be possible to do hard quests with a friend then switch to easier quests when nobody else is online. Your group could have quite a time if the quest hits a “solo instance” step, though.

That said, there are dungeons out there designed for groups. I never went into one so I can’t really comment on them. The first one shows up very soon after you zone out of the starting area, though, exactly like in The Old Republic.

I think that grouping thing is going to be the factor that gives Guild Wars 2 a big edge over Secret World. Secret World is good enough that it might be worth buying and playing just as a single player game. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing!
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