The Secret World Beta Weekend #1 Impressions

Many zombies were destroyed to bring us this information.

This past weekend marked the first Beta Weekend for Funcom’s forthcoming modern MMO The Secret World. Anyone that pre-ordered the game was automatically granted access and if you hadn’t pre-ordered there were a few places giving out free keys, including Gamespot and I can tell you, being an MMO fanatic this game has been on my radar for a long time and I was eager to see if it at least met some of my most basic expectations. The bottom line? Its good…and brimming with potential.

[pullquote_left] The bottom line? Its good…and brimming with potential. [/pullquote_left]This first-of-many beta weekends gave us only the option to play as a member of the Templar faction. For those of you who have not been following the game as closely as others, the Secret World is an MMO that takes place in the modern “real” world and centers around the conflict between three major secret societies: the Templars, Illuminati and the Dragon. Every conspiracy, myth and legend is real and each society gets involved in these random strange events for their own motivations…which often come at odds with the other factions and their goals. After being treated with an opening cutscene showing your character coming to grips with their emerging magical powers you are recruited by the Templars and whisked off to London.

London is one of the three “hub” cities in the Secret World and home to the Templar faction. Hub cities are neutral areas, so you are not restricted to merely the city where your chosen faction is based. However the other two hub cities (New York and Seoul) were not available in this particular beta weekend. I was immediately struck with the level of detail throughout the London hub city. This attention to detail is consistent throughout the game so far making the world feel alive and lived in. You don’t actually get the entire city of London, just a large section called Ealdwic…but believe me, its big enough. I imagine the other hub cities are also just these sizeable chunks, not GTA sized worlds. Which is a good thing, as the hub cities are just meant to be places to get quests, socialize, buy items and clothing, bank and auction. I think it would be terribly frustrating if the cities were full sized and it took forever to get anywhere or run into anyone else.

After being directed to seek out a prophet my character passed out and entered a dream sequence where I took on the persona of another character during the “Tokyo Incident” in a subway station infected with dark shadowy tendrils. I was teamed up with three NPC’s all representing one of the three factions as we traversed the subway station, fighting off civilians infected with the dark substance known as “the Filth”. This little episode not only serves as an introduction to the Secret World’s overarching storyline, but also acts as a tutorial for many of the game’s systems, including the mission system and combat. Once the sequence was over I was directed to meet my contact at the Templars HQ where I got a chance to enter the “Crucible”, a training area where I could try out all the different weapon abilities before settling on one.

There are no classes or levels in the Secret World. Although you get to pick an initial weapon ability, you can eventually learn all of them and then mix and match which skills you want to use. You can choose seven active and seven passive abilities to equip at any time and this level of customization is pretty exciting…if just a little bit overwhelming. For my first character I chose pistols and after another briefing from my Templar contact I was directed to head to Kingsmouth, a town in New England besieged by zombie hordes. The world transportation system, Agartha, was one of the most visually stunning places in the game. A series of branches on the “World Tree” that allow you to traverse the world in seconds. I saw portals for many of the other places in the full game (Egypt and Transylvania), as well as portals to the other hub cities…but of course, none of these were available. [pullquote_right]this level of customization is pretty exciting…if just a little bit overwhelming.[/pullquote_right]

Kingsmouth was a blast to explore. A small New England town overrun with zombies, as well as a plethora of other secrets and mysteries. The town itself was evocative of a Stephen King novel and there were references to his work all over the place (Flagg Pharmacy, a bookstore called “King of Books”). There were also references to other horror staples. The tentacled nightmarish creatures that came from the sea were right out of a H.P. Lovecraft story and there was even an “Elm Street” in the town where I discovered the residents had held a vigil awaiting the capture of a murderer. The town also seemed to be full of secrets regarding one of the other secret factions, the Illuminati and this afforded us the chance to explore one of the most interesting aspects of the Secret World: Investigation Missions.

Investigation missions have you solving a mystery by examining clues, which in turn lead you to other clues…and so on and so forth. Many times we had to actually to consult with Google to find the links between certain clues to determine where to look next. Doing these missions was probably the most fun I had with the beta, although I was disappointed with how many people were just asking for the answers in general chat. Their loss, I suppose.

Combat in the game feels very console like, with you constantly activating the skills on your hotbar. I wished I could play this with a controller, but there doesn’t seem to be any built in support for that at this time. The skill wheel that you access and spend your ability points in had many sections locked off for beta and it didn’t take me long to max out a couple of weapon categories (pistols and hammers). You also get skill points which can be used to upgrade your overall proficiency with a particular weapon type. Although there are no levels, there is an experience bar at the bottom that would fill up as we received experience from killing monsters and completing missions. At different points we would get awarded more ability or skill points. There are templates to fill called “Decks”, but as advanced abilities were locked for beta, we didn’t get to finish any decks. It was still fun to mix and match different active and passive abilities to find the most effective combinations.

At the end of it all, I found the game to be a great deal of fun. The modern setting, the freedom of choice as far as abilities, the horror theme (we even had one mission that we had to complete while dead), the attention to detail. Graphically its generally very pretty to look at, especially the environments (character models and animations are a bit hit or miss). Character creation offered very limited choices and we were told that this would be expanded before launch on June 19 (I couldn’t even change the height or build of my character). Also, there were clothes to purchase in town but they were way overpriced and there was no working bank or auction house. But again, its all just meant to give us a taste of the game. Next weekend we’ll be once again playing the Templar faction and returning to Kingsmouth with many of the more advanced quests that were locked this weekend opened up for us. Stay tuned to the Game Fanatics for continuing coverage on the Secret World!

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