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PAX 2011: The Secret World preview: not so secret anymore

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It has been two years since Funcom showed off The Secret World PAX in 2009, but now the genie—not to mention a hoary host of mythological terrors and Things from Beyond—are well out of the bottle. Lead Designer Martin Brusgaard presented the game at PAX 2011—and it’s no secret this MMORPG from the makers of Age of Conan is set to make a big splash when it arrives next spring.

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What it is
The Secret World is an MMORPG set in the modern world and based upon the idea that every myth, legend, monster, and conspiracy theory ever put forth in the last 5000 years is basically true in some respect. Essentially, it’s a mixture of themes drawn from mythology, various horror movies, legends, and television shows such as The X-Files andSupernatural (the Hellboy comics/movies also come to mind).

You play as a member of one of three factions—the Templar, the Illuminati, or The Dragon—each of which is dedicated to battling the evils of The Secret World. Unfortunately, the factions also tend to battle each other because they have very different philosophies about the best way to conquer the evils plaguing the world—not to mention conquering the world itself in all likelihood.

Briefly, the Illuminati represent the corporate power-hungry types, the Templars are disciplined, self-righteous warrior-zealots with a very black and white perspective on things, and the Dragon are something akin to the middle ground between the two, taking a more patient 'zen-like' approach in their fight. (I bet they know kung-fu).

A game without class
Regardless of which faction you choose to play, one of the interesting things about The Secret World is that there are no classes and no levels in the game.

Instead, your role in any mission is ultimately determined by the gear you have equipped. There are still traditional roles to be filled—tank, healer, controller, and DPS (damage per second) for example—but you can effectively play any one of them by simply swapping out your gear. In addition, there are more than 500 different abilities for you to learn and use in the game—and you can potentially learn every single one of them with a single character. (Anyone want to start a pool on how long it will take someone to do that?)

And if that’s not enough flexibility for you, you can essentially “respec” your character (i.e. change you special ability loadouts) in a manner of speaking at Anima Wells—special portals/rifts scattered throughout the world (and conveniently right around instances). The gear-based roles and massive array of abilities mean you can change your character almost on a whim.

The bottom line? Although The Secret World may lock your character into a faction (it can’t be changed), your character is never locked down, so you should have ample opportunity to explore various roles.

Your character’s vertical progression is item-based (earning better gear), whereas horizontal progression comes from collecting abilities,” Brusgaard explains. “You can also earn rank within your faction to earn more recipes, knowledge, gear, and other perks.”

You can also look like whatever you want--so switching out your gear won't necessarily alter your appearance (much like DC Universe Online). "You can be fighting demons in a tutu for all we care," Brusgaard tells us.

Modern, fantastical world
The Secret World may be set in the modern world, but it still boasts some gorgeous, other-worldly visuals. This shouldn’t be too surprising since the game is built upon the Dreamworld 2.0 engine—essentially an improved version of the same engine used in Funcom’s Age of Conan MMORPG.

And Funcom has been hard at work recreating the game’s many real-world environments such as New England (always a favorite place for creepy stories), London, Hong Kong, and others. You can travel between global locations through the realm of Agartha (the Hollow Earth), which essentially provides special “tunnels” or “portals” that allow you to change zones quickly instead of the real-world alternative: sitting on long plane rides.

The game also makes good use of dynamic lighting—particularly because some of those things that go bump in the night prefer to stay in the dark. Some beasts will actually run away from light. Others will be more than happy to notice of your shiny flashlight because it advertises that dinner(i.e. you) is served.

Here there be monsters. And more monsters.
A lot of monster killing was shown at PAX 2011, including a level where the stalwart team of presenters squared off against various “water zombies”—a mission which culminated in a massive boss battle against the Primordial Dweller (a huge Kraken-like creature).

Through the course of the dungeon Brusgaard pointed out that the dungeons are designed to essentially teach game mechanics as you progress through the level. In other words, it slowly exposes you to new elements and mechanics you have to deal with. Take heed, learn well, or die horribly.

Another interesting bit about dungeons/missions is that they essentially tell the same story but from three different, intertwined perspectives depending on which faction you are playing in. For example, in one mission a Templar arrives on the scene to see the lights go out and nasty creatures start skittering about in the dark—apparently the aftermath of some nasty event.

But if you happened to be playing the same mission as a member of the Dragon faction, you would have actually been the one that caused the events leading up to the Templar’s arrival. And if you play the mission as Illuminati, you arrive after the fact and experience the mission from the ‘clean up’ perspective.

Can’t we all get along? No.

The PvP demonstrated at PAX 2011 was a large multi-staged and objective-based scenario. A team of infiltrators must first plant charges to penetrate a massive door. Once the door is breached they must fight through a series of objective points and ultimately reach a golem guarded by the enemy faction. The golem springs to life, but once it is defeated—if it’s defeated—it becomes captured, as is the zone—which reaps benefits for the faction (and all members thereof) holding it.

But don't expect it to last long. Three factions means chaotic PvP, and Brusgaard explains that this is by design to help ensure nothing remains static. If one faction becomes dominant, the other two will likely team up temporarily and take the dominant faction down, restoring the natural order of endless 3-way squabbling.

How much and when?
The Secret World is scheduled to launch in April 2012, and feature both subscription plans and some form of micro-transaction based system. Exact pricing hasn’t been established yet.

Based on my PAX 2011 experience, The Secret World is a fast-paced and intriguing MMORPG that will continue the trend of breaking old molds for the MMORPG genre and possibly establishing some new ones. It will also be one of the first major MMORPGs to enter the modern-urban-horror-themed arena, and I’m definitely looking forward to it. Keep your eyes on this one folks.

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