I have, on record, lamented about the calcified state of the modern MMORPG, even as I continue to play The Old Republic (because Bioware). Old Republic turned out to be good enough from a story and setting perspective that I’m willing to overlook that at its heart it’s doing nothing new with its systems that Everquest didn’t start all those many years ago. There are classes, there are levels, and everything else waterfalls from that base.
So there I am going through my email when I find a note from Funcom that they’re having a free beta weekend for their upcoming MMORPG, The Secret World. I think I may have vaguely heard of something called that being in development, but I fully admit it wasn’t on my radar in terms of being anything special. In fact, the only reason I got this email was likely because I’d never turned off receiving Funcom offers after quitting Age of Conan.
Now the message is vaguely intriguing because it shows what looks like a very blatant, err… “homage” to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, along with the statement that this particular beta weekend is titled “Kingsmouth Calling”, and centers around the characters exploring a fog-shrouded New England hamlet that appears to be in some trouble from unknown supernatural forces. Pre-ordering the game supposedly unlocks access to this and all future beta weekends, but let’s just say that the idea of “Call of Cthulhu, the MMORPG”, no matter what it might be named, leaves me very, very skeptical. Fortunately, there was a semi-hidden alternative in that you could sign up for a test run through your Gamespot account.
I still had no pressing reason to dust off said account and go through the hoops, especially since last weekend was a double whammy of my main gaming rig being broken and my calendar being pretty busy. The laptop I’d been using likely wouldn’t have the chops, which meant I’d be dependent on my wife letting me have a few hours on her system. It could happen if I begged, but was that worth the trouble for just another MMO? After all, I’d recently checked out TERA and found it memorable only for how godawful my first impressions were, including that I now know there’s a playable race of supposedly ancient spirits who just happen to have the appearance and mannerisms of prepubescent girls, dressed in outfits that would give even a Toddlers and Tiaras mom pause.
There was a premise that managed to be both confusing and horribly trite at the same time, and an obviously console-based control system that wouldn’t let me remap any keys, but… yeah. South Korea just apparently has a different comfort zone than I do.
Also, it had classes and levels, just like nearly everyone else. I didn’t even get past the starting beach before I felt a powerful need to uninstall, and perhaps subject myself to a cleansing bath.
So given that sour experience, what caught my eye about The Secret World? Well, having no stripperrific children was a plus. In fact, the concept art I dug up actually seemed rather female-friendly in general, portraying a lot of fully-clothed and capable looking ladies. In fact I could call special attention to the art showcasing a representative of each of the three Secret Society factions players can pledge their allegiance to, because it actually reverses the usual gender aesthetic.
In case you’re not seeing it, maybe you remember this controversy regarding the Avengers posters that made the rounds recently. I have no idea if it was intentional, but there’s one man and two women in this picture, and out of them all only the guy is showing off his backside. Mind you I’m not going to argue the blonde’s outfit isn’t fascinatingly tight, but even she’s a far cry from the usual skinfest, and the gasmask gal just looks looks ready to enforce the quarantine.
It’s no secret I like even my fantasy/sci-fi warrior women to be wearing sensible shoes, so art direction like this pleases me. But here’s what really, really got me interested: the claim that The Secret World would be a completely skill-based game, where characters would have no classes and no levels.
Well, holy shit. Look, as I pointed out when I reminisced about Star Wars: Galaxies, this is not a new concept… but no one’s bothered to try it in this style of game again for a long, long time. I was sold right there, at least insofar as needing to give it a few hours of my time for whatever test drive they chose to offer. Wife begging ensued, and she graciously allowed some Friday night time, even going so far as to help me out by starting the download before I got home.
So, this particular weekend centered on two things: the town of Kingsmouth, and the Templars faction of playable characters. As you might guess from the Maltese Crosses on her leathers, blondie up above represents the Templars, who are based out of London and are carrying on the monster-hunting, defend-the-innocent schtick of people like St. George. Early on in the start area your Templar superior disabuses you of the notion that the organization is the same exact thing as the Knights Templar, particularly in the sense of some idiotic Dan Brown scenario. Yes, he actually puts it in those terms, and I admit I laughed. The background development and dialogue in this game are two of its biggest strengths, and I also appreciated that your superiors also tell you flat out, “You are not the only one, and you are not the Chosen One”.
As for the very beginning, it’s a bit esoteric. You create your character, then watch as some sort of insect comes into their apartment and crawls into their mouth as they sleep. Somehow this gives them magic powers, which they then spend a few weeks getting the hang of before a knock on the door leads to your invitation to join the Templars.
Sadly, I wasn’t given the option to try out the other two factions, or even play their “recruitment videos”, so I don’t know if the introductions are the same. The Dragon is a shadowy organization based out of Korea, and the Illuminati in this world are cast as a “particularly American” phenomenon with its headquarters in New York. All I really could find out about them was from conversations with NPCs, but I must admit the Illuminati intrigues when it has mottos like “Sex, Drugs, and Rockefeller” and the Templar honcho describes them as “The American Dream, freed from responsibility or dignity” (of course, he’s a bit biased).
So as I said, from what I was able to experience the writing and voice acting are really good. The most basic premise of TSW is not so much Lovecraftian as it is a world where every myth, every legend, exists in fact, though hidden away from modern mortal eyes. I had a conversation in a park with a man claiming to be Galahad of the Round Table, for example… although I use the word conversation loosely, this isn’t the sophisticated stuff of Bioware, it’s more that you have a list of topics you can silently question people on and hear their responses. It’s still well-written enough I was finding those responses enjoyable, though.
Partway through the starter area, my character collapsed and apparently hallucinated being someone else in a different time and place; in this case, a Tokyo subway which was reported to be a disaster scene several weeks back. Well, okay, yeah, there’s writhing black tentacles sprouting all over the place and flesh-eating zombies. This is your introduction to the combat, as you and a multi-factional strike team of NPCs try to stem the tide of whatever’s causing the disturbance, which I believe is colloquially referred to as “The Filth”. So you pick up your shotgun and start blasting.
This is, alas, the part that felt most like the MMORPG same ol’ same ol’ of button mashing and cooldowns. It probably didn’t help that the whole experience was rather jittery on my wife’s computer system, even on Medium detail, but getting through wave after wave of zombies was less horrific, or even satisfying, than just tedious. On the bright side, it was fairly short. On the not-so-bright side, if this was the best showcase they had to offer, it could be trouble.
But anyhow, I pressed through, found the Templar HQ, had my chats with the boss, and moved on to the training room. This is where I discovered how Funcom has decided to end run the idea of classes and levels, which is basically to have a bunch of different skills that are “tool-based”. What you’re allowed to do here is try out several different classes of weapon, from fighting claws to assault rifles to magical talismans, and you start unlocking skills and “anima points” to spend based on your choice. Choose a sword and you’ll be gifted with some starting active and passive abilities based on that weapon, i.e. various ways to slice and dice. Choose an elemental focus and you’re throwing around lightning and fire.
This is also where you can start specializing in certain roles, for instance the sword has a tree for damage and a tree for survivability, while I believe the pistols had damage and support. Therefore you’re still going to get that tank/dps/buffs & heals division that MMORPGs use as their bread and butter. If you want to tank, you probably shouldn’t choose the assault rifle… but then again if you’re going for a gun it’s probably because you don’t want to be up in a creature’s grill anyhow. So I think it works, theoretically. It’s also still unique in that once you get out and adventuring you can actually buy or find new weapons and spend points on other abilities to use with them, which means right out of the box you can “dual-spec” (or spec as many ways as you earn the points for, really), and changing your abilities is as simple as swapping out your shotgun for your sledgehammer.
And yes, I did spend a large amount of time playing with all this before I ever set foot in Kingsmouth. But eventually I did get there, and… more zombies.
Don’t get me wrong, if zombies alone were a dealbreaker I’d be mighty guilty of hypocrisy… but the nature of this being a newbie area means that the walking dead are basically practice dummies that even in a horde aren’t much of a threat. You eventually work your way along the road into town where you find the Sheriff’s station under siege and learn about a mysterious fog which rolled into town and made most of the townspeople walk into the sea.
Again, the story stuff here is suitably creepy and the voice acting remains strong, but I was continuously reminded that trying to do moody horror in an MMORPG setting is not a good fit. The mechanics just aren’t right. When you see the Deep One stand-ins just waiting in stationary poses on the dock for you to come into aggro range, that’s not very scary. When you’re exploring an abandoned town hall and other players keep jumping by you on their way to raid the same filing cabinet, the sense of mystery loses some luster. It’s not a fault of the environment, which is gorgeously realized, but the sad truth that even without classes and levels gone, things felt largely the same as any other MMO.
I’ve heard that there are some refreshing differences that come into play later on, such as quests that rely on some investigation rather than pure brute force, but alas, what little time I could spare was up, and what I’ve seen so far isn’t enough for me to risk the pre-order that would get me access to further betas. Also, if there’s any terror and unease I experience it’s in the thought that Age of Conan seemed really, really good throughout its whole introduction (at that time the free trial area), only to fall off in quality rapidly once Funcom had your money.
If you can successfully separate the MMO mechanics from the mood and background the developers want to establish, TSW could be worth your cash. I mean, at least we’re not dealing with Cthulhu’s minions having levels, so their hearts are in the right place. But if you don’t look “under the hood”, from what I can tell the engine still runs mostly the same.