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Recently I had a chance to play Funcom’s new MMO The Secret World (TSW henceforth) during their free to play one month celebration weekend. The results were beyond my expectations to say the least. I had heard about TSW almost 2 years ago via a co-worker; I saw the video and brushed it off, after all it was just a teaser anyway. Somewhere between then and now I lost track of the title altogether, it slipped through the cracks with me I suppose. Fast forward to a week or so ago I saw a story on one of the many game news sites I follow that there was a free weekend coming up.  I was already visiting a friend to get some games (legally) that I can’t download myself because of bandwidth restrictions. I asked him to pop it on my hard drive as well to give it a test drive. Come this past Friday I created an account and jumped in.

Before I delve into the details of my experience, let me give you some background on exactly what TSW is. The setting is modern day and you are a new recruit to one of three major secret societies (Templar, Illuminati, and Dragons) that deal with the things that go bump in the night that we like to pretend don’t exist. Zombies, Vampires, The Occult, Demons and more. In this game it’s all very real and your job is to not necessarily to exterminate it but to figure it out via investigation and keep it in check along the way. The conspiracy theories you know and love, these are the groups behind them. All of them. Honestly the only other thing I could compare it to is The Dresden Files novels but I’m afraid that I may lose some of you there.

Though my time was fairly limited with the game I made sure to make one of each faction to see their story introductions. In the end I put the most time into the Templar, leaving the Illuminati and Dragons storylines for a future free weekend or eventual purchase to explore . The game starts you out regardless of faction choice by having a scene of a strange dream followed by you awakening to find you have new special powers. Based on your faction choice one of their members then comes to ‘recruit’ you. You’ll be taken to your faction city and experience a brief tutorial on combat (with a shotgun) and movement from the eyes of another person in a Tokyo event which is related to the greater story overall, however I couldn’t see how in the limited time I spent with it. After your out-of-body experience/tutorial you are sent to a weapons room in you faction’s home base to choose your starting gear. There are nine choices in total divided into 3 major styles: Guns (Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Pistols) , Melee (Blades, Hammers, Fists/Claws), and Magic (Elemental, Blood, Chaos).  I personally chose a blade to start with as I just love swords in general and go for that option in any game when given the choice. You have the opportunity to try out the first 2 abilities of all nine weapons so you have no excuse for a poor choice. After you grab your weapon and starting gear they send you on your way to the lovely and zombie infested town of Kingsmouth.

Now lets take a moment to explain a few systems which are some of the biggest reasons I really enjoyed my time with the game. Combat is a mix of old and new to the MMO space. Abilities have cooldowns on a hotbar just like the majority of MMOs but the implementation is a bit more action oriented like The Old Republic with a mix of your classic ‘tab-targeting’  The game seems pretty good about acquiring a new target for you when necessary so as to keep the action fluid and fun. You have seven active attacks or abilities at any given time bound by default to 1-7 as well as another 7 passive abilities that can augment and compliment those active abilities to create a better synergy for your build. Two weapons can be equipped at any time and their respective abilities mixed and matched to your personal tastes along with seven other pieces of gear called talismans. Combat resources are a sort of combo point system and you only ever have up to five of each . There is one resource type for each of the three styles. Melee and Magic are built on yourself. Melee is slowly regenerated and built by using certain moves and magic is only built that I saw by using abilities. Guns build resources on the target that expire after it is defeated much like a rogue in WoW.  Any style can build points for the other, making a variety of weapon combinations that much more flexible.

In TSW there are no levels. Yes you read that right. None. Only XP. Every time you fill a quarter of the XP bar you get 1 AP and every full bar fill gives you one SP. AP is spent on your active and passive combat abilities on the weapons wheel. The inner circle covers your basic abilities that get you started, the outer wheel is more advanced techniques for each major combat style. SP is spent on upgrading your core skill of each style and allow you to equip a higher quality of gear. Weapons increase damage and either survivability, support, or healing. Talismans (your gear) increase your HP and resistances. Beyond all this you do have a “rank” in your faction based on your total XP but this only seems to grant you access to certain vendors such as the NPC who sells sprint upgrades and clothing sets that look like uniforms. There is only one drawback to the AP/SP system: once you learn an ability you can only refund it before you leave the selections screen. After that it’s set in stone. I get that on a certain level because it sort of forces you to pick something and stick with it enough to have a proficient skill set of some form. This makes it that you hopefully aren’t getting your butt handed to you constantly because you don’t know what to do with a new set of skills.

Character customization is pretty nice in TSW overall. Gear as I mentioned is only weapons and talismans. What clothes you wear has no effect on your combat whatsoever. A growing trend in more and more MMOs these days that I personally welcome. Clothing choice at the beginning is fairly limited on what you create your character wearing. London, the Templar faction city has a large boutique that sells many different types of clothing you can purchase at a later point for in-game money. Clothing is also available via “deck” completion. The game recognizes ‘decks’ as either a specific combination of abilities you unlocked in different weapon styles or the full ‘base’ abilities section of any given weapon set. During my playtime I managed to finish the Blade starting set and was rewarded with a familiar bright yellow track jacket with a black stripe on it. Mixed combo decks have a theme or name to them that gives you a full set of clothing. I was working on the ‘Paladin” set myself which combines blades and pistols but it seems a lot more time would have to be put in before reaching that mark. Finally you can purchase gear, as well as other customizations such as titles and pets to follow you around via a real money store.  I did find the actual character creation a bit lacking in that you had a very limited selection of preset choices to choose from and I had a hard time finding an “American” look for my character. Everything felt very European or Asian looking or like a shaved monkey from Planet of the Apes. Not that there’s anything wrong with those choices I just felt a bit boxed in. My goal was to create as close as possible to the Templar female on the box art but the ability just wasn’t there. (Ed: Since publication The Secret World has hit Steam with revised box/cover art.) The characters themselves don’t look bad but by comparison to the other visuals and the overall gameplay leave a bit to be desired for me. Which is really disappointing because the character art I’ve seen is so good. Once I managed to get a few different pieces of clothing, I did start to get over it; it really seems to make a large difference.

Questing, the make or break of any MMO’s ‘leveling’ experience is done very well in TSW. Yes you still have your run of the mill kill X of Y things and fetch A, B, & C items for me, even escort missions are there. However the stories, flavor of the NPC voices, the little things they’ve added to them makes them still feel fresh even though you can repeat most quests it seems up to once a day. Story missions I would assume are the exceptions but I didn’t finish the first one of those as it’s exceptionally long and seems to use the entire first zone. The real kicker is in the quests that make you read and investigate.

Sorry to spoil, but that’s a necessary evil so I can give you an example:

I met a kid who was all about conspiracy theories at a skate park. He swears up and down the MIB have been in the area and he saw one of their vans parked and wants me to go confirm it for him so the local authorities will believe him, which is funny considering they have walking dead running amok in the town how hard is it to buy MIB being real. Turns out kid is right. In TSW the MIB are an organization called the Orochi Group. I go over to see the van which is actually wrecked, only to find a laptop in the back of it. When you power it up you’re prompted for a password. Your only hint is “my wife” so I take to exploring around the van a bit. A little further away I see two bodies in black suits that are clickable for more info. Upon investigation you’re shown an image of each of their organization ID cards.  One is a man and one is a woman but different last names so they’re not a couple, I need to find out the name of this guys wife it would seem. The only thing the two ID cards have in common is a website. So on a hunch I power up the in-game browser (real world WWW mind you) and check out the site. Turns out I can look up employee information via ID numbers so I punch in the guys number and bam, there it is. His wife’s name. Seems a bit complicated to have us go on real world internet scavenger hunts, but then again, it’s different and fresh and I absolutely love it. I encountered another similar puzzle-quest later on and have been told there’s even more out there. Take that traditional MMO questing! A big fat wrench of awesomeness to throw in the monotony of the established repetition we’ve been led to believe is the only way to quest!

Now back to the starting area, Kingsmouth a small New England coastal town, is a very interesting zone. I ran into a slew of different zombie types, Draug which are in my opinion water zombies that look like the stuff from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, as well as some other mechanical construct type monsters. Based on their achievements list that’s barely any of the monsters available to smash for loot in this game. NPCs were quite lively as well, they all have their own personalities and it sings true through the wonderful voice acting and script writing.  Your character never talks themselves and it works, something that many RPG groups can’t seem to get right anymore. By the end of my time I had figured out there was a reason behind the zombies and draug attacking the town but hadn’t quite narrowed it down yet. Regardless I can’t wait for an opportunity to go back and figure it out.

Unfortunately my time was quite limited. I did not get the chance to check out PvP or any instances while playing. I remained focused on the single player aspect and the story, one of the most compelling I’ve encountered in an MMO to date. On par with The Old Republic for sure and maybe even better I daresay. One final note I did notice is while there are three factions, those don’t restrict you it seems beyond PVP. You’re allowed to talk and group with them whenever you like. I’m not sure if there are restrictions on the Cabal (guild) system or not as I didn’t try to join or create one again due to limited time.

If you have any other questions for me concerning TSW please feel free to ask them in the comments section below and I will do my best to give you an answer.