Is The Secret World so great when it isn't secret anymore?
I just got done playing The Secret World (if the title of this article didn't give that away). If you're not aware, it's a modern-day MMO about conspiracy theories and...that's really about all I know. Basically every conspiracy theory you've ever heard is true. There are three secret organizations of people - the Illuminati, the Templars, and the Dragons - that are in a constant state of contest. It's actually an interesting idea for an MMO. And to be honest, it doesn't completely fall apart in translation.
That said, once the veil of mystique is pulled some aspects of The Secret World starts to feel less impressive. Combat isn't too terribly different from what you've seen in other MMOs. Other than the fact that you can - and should - move while fighting (and casting), you're still basically building and spamming a rotation of abilities until the enemy or enemies drop dead. There's no real sense of impact in the combat; there aren't even real animations of the enemy responding to the hit, so the only way to even know you've landed a blow is to watch the numbers and text over the enemy's head. It's a forgettable combat system that, when book-ended by Tera and Guild Wars 2, feels more than a bit archaic.
Character development is one of the game's strongest points. There are no classes in The Secret World; instead, you'll spend your time acquiring and spending AP (ability points) and SP (skill points) to develop your character. In order to spend your AP, you have an ability wheel. The wheel is broken into melee, ranged, and magic. Melee is further broken down to blades, hammers, and fists; ranged is further broken into shotguns, pistols, and machine guns; magic is further broken into elemental magic, blood magic, and chaos magic. Within each of these categories you have nodes, and each node contains a list of abilities (both active and passive) that increase in cost, each node ending with an elite ability. The skill points are broken up in similar fashion but not in a wheel format. It all sounds very confusing (and it is at first), but you'll quickly pick up on how it works and have no problems making the build you want. And, in theory, you can grind to max AP and SP so you can have every single ability and skill maxed. Of course you wont have to do so in order to be able to engage in the game's end-game content, but it's good to know your development isn't really capped.
Once you acquire the abilities, there's still a caveat: You can only have seven active and seven passive abilities available to you at one time. Picking and choosing the right combination of active and passive abilities becomes something akin to a trading card game and can be incredibly addicting. The developers have also offered some handy pre-designed templates (called decks) that you can use assuming you have all the necessary skills available to you.
The story and atmosphere are, to me, the game's best points though. The first and only zone available during this beta weekend (Kingsmouth) is overrun with a zombie plague. The small New England town has a realistic feel and vibe to it. Just walking around in the thick fog with cars crashed and flaming or bellowing smoke, you actually feel like you're in a horror movie. At times I actually found myself so caught up in the atmosphere that I jumped a little when something started attacking me.
The questing helps with keeping you immersed in the world. There are very few of your traditional MMO-style quests where you go kill a certain number of something to loot a certain item. Some quests are a twist on the common quests of fantasy MMOs, but they always have a little flavor that feels logical and consistent with the modern-day setting. One quest, for instance, had me going around town grabbing security cameras from businesses so that I could place them in areas around town for the police sheriff. The fact that there was a real logic to what I was doing and why I was doing it made the quest so much more enjoyable.
Instead of using a traditional gear system, The Secret World uses a talisman system for stat-modifying items. You have seven specific talisman slots to equip, and these work like gear in other MMOs except that they're not visible on your character. Your outfit is separate altogether and strictly cosmetic in nature. Not only does this fit the flavor of the setting, but it allows every player to create their own style without being bound to a particular look based on their class or build.
Overall I had a lot of fun with the Secret World beta, although it's important to remember that it is a beta. Things can and will go wrong. There are bugs that need fixed. There are design issues that should be addressed. Much of what we saw animation-wise (if Funcom is to be believed) was placeholder art. But from what I've seen so far, most of the gameplay is engaging and immersive and interesting. So while I don't expect the final product to be a radically different game (and wouldn't honestly want it to be one), I do expect to see many more improvements made in the coming month leading up to the game's release on June 19th.
If you want to check out The Secret World for yourself, you can pre-order it from Funcom's site, Amazon, or your local Gamestop and enjoy the beta weekends that will occur every weekend until the game's launch.