The Secret World is Norwegian developer Funcom's next game, and unlike the studio's other fantastical forays into the world of massively multiplayer games, this one will take place in a modern world setting. Except that every old wives' tale and every superstition you've ever heard of is actually true. The Holy Grail existed, witchcraft really works, and there are, in fact, secret societies controlling the world. In fact, your character will belong to one of them--either the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, or the Dragon, a secret society based in Asia. We recently had a chance to take another look at the game in motion in both player-versus-environment (PVE) gameplay and player-versus-player (PVP) gameplay.
The PVE section of our demonstration was a deft combination of live gameplay demonstrations jumping back and forth between video trailers showing off content in the same area. It once again took place in Kingsmouth, the American seaboard town that bears a strong resemblance to the sleepy New England burg from H.P. Lovecraft's horror story Shadows Over Innsmouth. As you may recall, Kingsmouth is besieged by a zombie outbreak as well as by eldritch horrors crawling out of the ocean. Your character arrives on the scene to attempt to discover what caused the outbreak and what, if anything, can be done to contain it.
Our demonstration began with a quick zombie-hunting session in the Kingsmouth backwoods after receiving a mission from a local militiaman. The Secret World will have a variety of different mission types, such as investigation, sabotage, and action--with the action in this case being "go kill some o' them zombies to make the roads safer." Though our character was kitted out with a sword in each hand, Funcom reemphasized that The Secret World will have a highly open-ended character development system that does not have character levels; instead, your character will collect hundreds of different skills and use them to build a "deck" of skills to bring into battle, not unlike the metagame of Magic: The Gathering or the first Guild Wars game.
Funcom representatives were quick to point out that stomping on abandoned cars in Kingsmouth sets off their alarms and that car alarms bring zombies running, which means that should your character ever have a quest to kill off some walking dead, or just a spare 10 minutes or so to do some old-fashioned monster-huntin', you can hop onto the hood of the nearest car, set off the alarm, and spawn some enemies. The demonstration also showed off another player's magical ability to hurl fireballs--explosive projectiles that cause the nearby ground to burn momentarily. Should your enemies (or your character, for that matter) walk through the fire, they'll change "state" and be considered "burning," at which point they may be susceptible to other effects or abilities that are particularly effective against burning targets. We also did battle with the "corpse gorger," a giant zombie boss made out of, what else, a bunch of corpses lumped together into one shambling form, though since our demonstration characters were all extremely powerful (overpowered for this area, in fact), they dispatched the brute with little trouble.
Our demonstration then skipped ahead to a meeting with Andy, one of Kingsmouth's last surviving police deputies. All major characters in The Secret World will be fully voice-acted, and while this fellow wasn't very well spoken (and didn't sound all that bright), he expressed his suspicions about the zombie invasion and its possible connection to the misshapen monsters, known in the game as "draugs," that routinely shuffle in with the tide and leave even-more-suspicious-looking sacs of what appear to be gigantic eggs on the beach. After getting debriefed, our character and her adventuring party headed directly to the beach to find several shambling sea zombies waiting for us, which she dispatched with help from her fireball-tossing, gun-toting buddies.
At this point, Funcom staffers pointed out that the sea creatures have their own ecology--female draugs lay eggs at sea and charge male draugs with dragging the eggs to shore to hatch into more male draugs. By killing off any landlocked male draugs and then destroying any remaining egg sacs, you can force the females to come out from under the waves (spawn into the world, in other words), at which point you can kill off the females, which will cease the spread of the beasts for some time. Unfortunately, killing off female draugs also raises the ire of the draug lord, the giant, yellow-eyed, horselike critter you've seen in the game's screenshots and trailers. The draug lord is essentially the race's wizardly boss monster, and it pounds its foes with psychic powers. However, even this fearsome foe was no match for a group of four overpowered adventurers, and it also shuffled off this mortal coil.
The developers then paused the in-game demonstration to discuss the game's character development system, which will, again, not be based on gaining linear levels. While your characters will, in fact, gain experience points for performing general and faction missions, crafting, PVP, or killing monsters, you'll use experience points to purchase skills for your character, though at any given time you can equip a maximum of seven "passive" skills (abilities that are "always on" and provide various bonuses for you and/or your companions) and seven "active" skills that you must manually activate. The studio plans to include more than 500 skills at launch, including anything from advanced firearms damage to melee weapon skill to magical powers. These abilities will appear on the game's "skill wheel"--a circular interface that sorts the game's skills into different sections based on whether they pertain to melee combat, ranged combat, healing, magic, or other miscellaneous skills.
Funcom concedes that the totally open-ended skill system might seem overwhelming to new players. This is why The Secret World will also have a "template" system that associates certain skills together as a preset group. Over the course of your adventures, as you gain certain amounts of experience or perform certain missions, your character will unlock up to 10 different preset skill templates for your convenience. Unlocking templates will also play into the level of prestige you have with your faction--more-accomplished players who have unlocked more templates may gain access to better guild-related missions or content later on, so it'll be worth the effort to try to unlock all 10 on your character.
We then jumped back to our in-game presentation, in which our adventuring party, having cleared the beach, had headed to the local church to discuss the source of the invasion with the priest. The soft-spoken, sweater-clad clergyman, Harry Hawthorne, spoke at length about his own obsession with conspiracy theories and how he'd extensively researched the outbreak's possibly occult origins both in books and online in various secret blogs and forums. Harry gave our party an investigation mission, to seek out locations in town marked with an Illuminati pyramid symbol, and this led our party to explore town to find manholes, library books, and other objects engraved with the insignia. Which then led us to discover a plaque engraved with the names of a deceased Kingsmouth painter and a deceased Kingsmouth poet. Which then led the party to jump out of the game and onto everyone's favorite Internet search engine, Google, to look up the two men's names for possible leads. Which led to the mention of a specific painting depicting both men together, housed in the town's museum. Which led to the location of a hidden Illuminati treasure cache behind a museum bookcase.
Funcom plans to include plenty of far-reaching investigation missions that will, in fact, challenge you to visit information resources outside of the game. Representatives for the developer seemed surprisingly welcoming of online game resources (such as fan sites and game strategy sites), which will undoubtedly chronicle these complicated quests and boil them down to walk-throughs. The developer's staff suggested that there are simply certain types of players who will want to finish quests as quickly as possible, so they'll reach for the walk-throughs, and that's fine, while there are other players who will want to try to puzzle out the solutions themselves. Funcom intends for such missions to "take months to solve" and plans to incentivize mystery-solving by including onetime rewards for the players who complete a new investigation mission first.
We then jumped back to the game for one last mission, another action mission given to us by a fortune-teller character who advised us to "follow the ravens" because "they lead to dark places." This mission required our group to follow a small flock of the black birds as they flitted this way and that. Funcom's staffers pointed out that this mission had no onscreen flags or map pointers to guide players. The best indicator to follow was simply the birds, who appeared in the world and would periodically take off for new ground--and periodically land near the revenant, a shadowy figure draped in rags and surrounded by ravens of his own. Attacking the creature directly didn't seem too effective--after taking a few hits, it would turn itself into a flock of ravens and fly away until we tracked it down to an abandoned playground, at which point a cutscene showed the creature perched on a slide and preparing to attack our templar character who was armed with a shotgun bearing a Templar holy symbol. This is the same encounter that has been depicted in one of the game's earlier video trailers.
After watching this last mission unfold, we then shifted gears to watch a series of additional video trailers depicting the game's PVP gameplay, which includes both faction-based battles and free-for-all tournaments. Our demonstration revealed three different battleground areas with three different modes, each of which has its own rules as established by the "Council of Venice," a mysterious neutral faction that has established gentlemanly rules of conduct for conflict between the game's factions. The first battlefield we saw was Stonehenge, the mysterious English site, which will act as a team-based, king-of-the-hill-style battleground for two five-player teams. Funcom staffers explained that since the defending team will be required to hold the location against the attacking team, success in this matchup will depend not only on player skill, but also on proper selection of player skills--defensive abilities such as healing and protection on the defending side, and assault-focused abilities on the attacking side.
The second PVP battlefield was Shambala (also known as Shangri-La), which will house ranked arena fights for serious competitors who wish to earn higher rank levels and the exclusive equipment and other benefits that high rank carries. This will be a "pure PVP" battleground with last-man-standing rules, and matches should be fairly fast-paced, but hopefully also fairly fair, since teams will be matched against each other based on having similar ranking points. The final PVP battlefield was El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, which will appear in the game as a huge pyramid level with four key objectives, ancient idols, that act as control points that must be held for as long as possible (similar to conquest mode in the Battlefield series). El Dorado will not be a symmetrical map; some idols will be easier to capture (or to defend) than others, and the level will have numerous nooks and crannies for you to use as hiding places for ambushes. PVP will work a bit differently in The Secret World than PVE play, in that you will be required to wear a uniform that clearly identifies your faction allegiance, at least in the faction-based modes, to let players clearly distinguish friendlies from foes.
The Secret World has a lot of intriguing new ideas for a massively multiplayer game. We'll bring you more updates on it in advance of the game's launch date, which, incidentally, still hasn't been confirmed.