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The Secret World has had me intrigued for a great many months now. Between the contemporary-fantasy setting and the promise of a level free and freeform character building system, the potential for something truly different to the standard MMO fare has never been more evident.
The setting for The Secret World is modern day Earth, but a version of our reality where all the myths, conspiracies and secret societies actually do exist. Magic is very much real and, unsurprisingly, you slip into the shoes of a previously unremarkable individual who has just discovered their true potential.
At least, that's how the Templar storyline begins, without giving too much of it away. During this first beta weekend only the Templar starting experience was open so it's possible the initiates of the Illuminati and Dragon factions start their life in a different fashion.
That's one thing that really makes The Secret World stand out from some of the other MMOs I've tried recently. There's a real sense of being part of the Templar organisation, a sense of purpose to your activities in the world beyond just swatting aside a few inconveniences on your way to the level cap.
It's only once you start digging beyond the grand overarching structure of the game that the holes start to appear.
While it is true that the game does not feature a levelling system like most other RPGs (kill 100 zombies, advance from Level 1 to Level 2, gain 20 more health and mana) the developers are being a little disingenuous in their assertion that it is entirely level free. You still need to accrue a certain amount of experience points (via smashing monsters and completing quests) to hit an ever-increasing total in order to unlock extra skill points to spend.
Filling up the experience bar doesn't give your character any extra health, just the points for you to distribute as you see fit. Then you need to get a slightly higher amount of experience points to unlock your next skill point. And so on.
The system is clearly not the same as that used by World of Warcraft, for example, but there is still a progression through a series of tiers which result in more skills being made available to you.
They're available, you can pick and choose which ones you want to unlock, even collecting them all in due course. You can unlock all of the ranged, melee and magic skills the game has to offer, if you have the time.
But you can't use them all at the same time. You're always limited to just 7 active skills and 7 passive skills and may only equip two weapons at once. Each active skill requires a specific weapon (or magical focus) to use, so you typically only have skills equipped that correspond to your weaponry selection, while the passive skills are often a lot more lenient. A claw-weapon brawler has a passive ability that heals him each time he attacks, but it isn't tied to the use of claw weapons, meaning an Elementalist can get that same small heal each time she throws a fireball.
This is where The Secret World's system could really shine. While we will certainly see the emergence of certain "Flavour of the Month" builds, the freedom and ease with which players can swap things in and out of their character's makeup is a dream come true.
Combining sword skills with chaos magic and a bunch of ranged weapon passives might not be the "uber" combination favoured by min-max gamers, but if that's what you want to do, the game will never tell you no.
It also won't tell you that you should probably be taking copious notes while completing the game's many quests. And maybe have a laptop or secondary computer on hand to make accessing Google a little more convenient, though the game features a built-in web browser for precisely this purpose.
You see, Funcom has decided to shy away from the standard quest system seen in other MMOs, too.
In The Secret World you're going to have to pay attention to everything you're told about a quest, in case some detail is particularly important. It might be a number you need for a security keypad or directions to a location that isn't marked on your map or even knowing which compass points require a reagent and which do not.
This is fine. Intriguing even. A lot of people will appreciate the attention to detail required and the lack of a leash dragging you to where you need to go.
Where it becomes a problem is in some of the more obscure investigations. One of the particular lowlights of my weekend in the game was being required to crack the password on a computer. The only hints you receive come from the computer's security system, the first being "Music of the seasons" and the second being "1723".
I'm sure there's some of you nodding your head and thinking "Vivaldi!" right now and, well, good for you. It sure didn't spring to mind for me, so I needed a quick trip to Google to try and ferret out the meaning behind these cryptic clues.
Note: This is what Funcom actually wants you to do.
The company fully expects players to surf the internet and find quest information (people do it for every other MMO) and chose to embrace the idea, making investigating via the internet part of the... "fun".
Generally players only resort to such measures when the act of trying to figure it out for themselves has ceased to be fun, so I'm not sure what possessed Funcom to make this a key feature of certain quests. I would have much preferred the developers stuck to in-game cues the player must glean from the environment or dialogue with NPCs. Having to essentially stop playing the game and start doing "work" makes me want to stop playing entirely and go load up something else.
With about five weeks until launch the game is still plagued by a number of technical issues that Funcom will have to sort out if it wants to ensure a solid release. Missing text is a relatively minor concern when it's the description for an achievement. It is inexcusable not to have something in-game to explain the complex, but promising, crafting system.
(The game also doesn't inflict any damage on characters who fall from a great distance. I would complain about this appalling oversight but mostly I'm too busy leaping off tall things with gay abandon to really care one way or the other.)
There's a really solid and fun foundation here. And part of the beauty of MMOs is that once released, development doesn't stop.
The Secret World may be heading for a rocky launch but it's a refreshingly original MMO at a time when many have been clamouring for something new. It deserves more attention than it's been getting from a lot of gamers.
And, if you're Facebook-inclined the Templars deserve a lot more support in The Secret War. We are getting thrashed!