Massively multiplayer games used to follow the same formula--they'd start you out as some kind of elf and challenge you to go out into a huge, persistent world where your humble elf adventurer would use a rusty dagger to beat up a bunch of rusty skeletons to gain some rusty copper coins, which could be saved up to eventually purchase a slightly less-rusty dagger. But games like this have grown and changed and are now going in totally new directions, like The Secret World, from Funcom. We took an early look at what the game has to offer and have much to report.
The Secret World will be unlike any other massively multiplayer game that has come before it. No, really. Instead of taking place in some kind of far-flung future or a high-fantasy world, it will take place in modern times, or as game director Ragnar Tornquist describes it, "a world of contemporary dark fantasy." You'll begin the game as an average person living in the real world, starting out in one of the game's three starter areas (New York City, Seoul, or London), and you'll lead a normal life, until you discover that all the urban legends and old wives' tales that used to frighten you as a child are very real and, in some cases, very dangerous. Dark forces are looking to take over the world, and your character has been chosen to join the fight.
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Secret World is the game's fiction, which, according to Tornquist, "goes back 100 million years" and involves everything from the Knights Templar to Pandora's box to the Garden of Eden to the Fountain of Youth to the Freemasons, and just about every other myth that has ever been tied to a conspiracy theory or occult investigation. Your character will be a freelancing adventurer who gets thrust into the world to seek out clues as to who's behind each unexplainable phenomenon as well as to duel with vampires, ghouls, and other bizarre critters that go bump in the night.
Though Tornquist points out that it won't in any way be the only thing there is to do, combat will be an important part of The Secret World. Your characters will fight battles equipped with conventional weaponry, such as firearms (which could include various pistols, shotguns, and rifles), melee weapons that can be infused with mystical powers, and even martial arts. We watched two different cinematic sequences (which were prerendered animations, not in-game sequences) that each led to combat.
The first sequence showed a young lady returning home to her apartment in a run-down building while listening to her portable music player. After entering her apartment and casually blending herself a smoothie, she turned to find herself face-to-face with a ghoulish, sharp-toothed monster that lunged at her just as she drew a flaming katana sword to leap into battle. Another non-in-game sequence we watched showed a different female character apparently investigating an abandoned playground at night, scouring the sand for clues. There seemed to be nothing suspicious, unless you count the hundreds of crows that fluttered into the area, surrounding the young lady and eventually coalescing into a shadowy figure that lunged at her while she planted a crucifix into the ground with a flash of light before drawing a shotgun to go into battle.
So, your character definitely won't be involved in normal fights, nor will you be required to go about your adventuring in the same way as in other games. Combat will be an important part of the game, and yes, some of the game's tougher enemies will require more-developed characters in order to be conquered, but by and large, combat will not be the be-all and end-all of the game, as it is in so many other online games of this sort. Tornquist suggests that the game will have plenty of noncombat elements that will encourage exploration and investigation. Aside from fighting in battles, you can spend your time solving in-game mysteries and developing your characters' abilities in the process (that is, there will be more ways to advance your characters' progression beyond just fighting a bunch of stuff).
You won't need to worry about gaining experience levels in The Secret World--in fact, there won't be any experience levels in the game; instead, you'll develop your characters using an open-ended skill system that doesn't lock you into a single profession. Tornquist specifically cited the all-too-common issue in class-based games where you sink hundreds of hours into a single character in a certain character class until you start getting tired of it, at which point you can either stick with the character you've invested so much of yourself in or restart a brand-new character (and face another couple of hundred hours of new character development from scratch). The game director suggests that The Secret World's character system will be flexible enough to let you change your character later on, should you decide you're looking for a change--that you'll "begin at the end game," referring to how many games of this sort require you to hunt monsters for hours until you reach a high-enough level to enjoy the most interesting content a game has to offer. Since your character is simply a person in the real world, you'll be able to customize your appearance in many different ways, using the game's many clothing and appearance customization options to create whatever look for your character you prefer, whether that be goth, jock, nerd, indie rock guy, or just about anything else.
The Secret World sounds like an intriguing game that will do a lot of things differently. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates.