In the online role-playing game The Secret World all your worst fears are now walking nightmares. As one of the three factions--the Illuminati, Knights Templar, or Dragon--you fight to suppress the beasts or at least point them at your enemies. At this year's Electronic Arts Studio Showcase, we got the chance to see this game in action as developer Funcom's Martin Bruusgaard, lead designer, and Joel Bylos, lead content designer, took us through the game's first dungeon in a hands-off demonstration.
Our character's first order of business was a meeting with some mysterious individuals in dark suits working for an even-more-mysterious corporation. They were monitoring a cargo ship that had recently run ashore; a ship that had also gone missing years earlier. Our hero, a bleached-blond Southern tomboy, wasn't deterred by the less-than-ideal conditions and accepted the corporation's complimentary helicopter ride to the crash site. After touching down, she met the rest of her party: a healer who specialized in blood magic, two high-damage characters using melee weapons and magical powers, and a sledgehammer-wielding tank.
The area itself was a rocky coastline beset by undead horrors and set against an overcast sky. And we're not talking about mere zombies but the mutated spirits of enraged Vikings. The Secret World pulls its foes from all corners of supernatural lore, from vampires and werewolves to the unspeakable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. Back in the action, the first fight went off without a hitch, with the tank initiating the fight and the support characters bringing up the rear. The second encounter wasn't as simple.
At the center of the fight was a large, female Viking spirit who electrified the shallow water at the feet of our heroes. Now, the characters had to hop from island to island if they wanted to avoid a deadly shock. To us, it looked like the ranged characters did most of the work in finishing this encounter. Without missing a beat, the group turned from the fresh Viking corpse and ascended a cliffside. Along the way, they spotted an organic, quivering pod. Not one for mysteries, our tomboy ran up to poke at it (oh, like you wouldn't do the same), and the pod exploded. While initially unpleasant, this knowledge would come in handy later on in the dungeon.
Our Funcom pilots then skipped ahead in the demo to the dungeon's first boss encounter. This was against a monstrous half-man/half-crab that had a bad habit of summoning zombies to its aid. To help even the odds, our character called up her skill wheel, which was a series of concentric circles. Each circle was divided into different sections, each tied to one of The Secret World's roughly 500 skills. Players can mix and match their skills at will to build the type of character they want to play as using an elegant interface reminiscent of an Apple product. Our hero switched out her melee-centric skills for some magical spells to deal with the upcoming threat.
Back in the battle, the crab-man fought in phases, alternating between attacking the group directly and hiding underwater to let his zombie minions do the dirty work. Even with such tactics, the boss was eventually overwhelmed. After sending the monster low, our character spied a glowing green crate inside a shipping container. While enticing, it required a code in order to be opened. A string of numbers was labeled on the side of the shipping container, and we were told that, with a little out-of-game investigating, we could use those numbers to track down the needed code to open the crate.
Leaving the crate behind, our pilots skipped ahead again to the dungeon's final battle. What awaited them was the primordial dweller, a massive creature of immense psychic power. Using its supernatural abilities, the creature tested all the tricks our heroes had been exposed to thus far. Remember those explosive pods? Now, they were being hauled by kamikaze zombies that needed to be put down at a distance. It was a hard fight, but our side ultimately emerged victorious.
At this point, in a normal massively multiplayer online role-playing game, our character would have likely leveled up. However, in the Secret World, characters don't have levels. They advance in power by collecting stronger weapons, and their experience points are used to purchase new skills that give them more variety. Our demonstration ended with a bang when, during its helicopter flight back, our group was attacked by a creature that looked not unlike the slumbering god, Cthulhu. The Secret World is showing a lot of promise, especially with its incorporation of alternate-reality gaming elements. Its release date, however, remains a well-guarded secret. We'll be sure to keep you updated as we learn more about this game.