Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Levels? Where we're going, we don't need levels...
Zombies are so last year. Vampires and werewolves? They haven’t really been cool since the last Underworld movie. But zombies, vampires, and werewolves all at once? With some Illuminati and Templars thrown in? Oh, and a light helping of Viking ghost ships, and hell, who knows—maybe a few mythological creatures scattered in between? Now that’s a recipe for… well, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s got a cool factor of eleven.
With all this crazy stuff, you might think The Secret World is a dark, moody, psychological-thriller single-player opus, but (with the exception of the dark and moody part) you’d be dead wrong. The guys over at Funcom thought it would be prime material for their next MMORPG, fresh off of their experience with Age of Conan.
It’s hard to describe The Secret World because it is such an amalgam of concepts, designs, and ambitions. The gameplay is primarily that of the modern MMO formula, mixing up questing and group dungeons and even throwing in extra voice acting for that same extra storytelling oomph that Bioware is going for in Star Wars: The Old Republic. But that’s where the familiar ground ends; Funcom is going out of its way to make The Secret World different from its competition with two pillars that hold up that design goal.
The first is conceptual—this ain’t your granddaddy’s MMO. Funcom’s throwing out the whole fantasy world trope and setting their new game entirely in the present, with modern technology and weapons to play with. But something’s gone awry in this alternate version of Earth. Monsters born of mythology and science fiction have sprouted up to throw the world into chaos. In The Secret World, all of the fantastical creatures from mankind’s stories and legends are fair game. You’ll see weird and freaky things, from biblical beasts to contemporary horror stories, from almost any culture and any time period you can think of.
The second pillar is the approach to character progression. In a bold move, Funcom has chosen not to have any levels or classes in the game. Instead, all players have access to over 500 different skills, and it’s up to the individual to decide what skills to emphasize over others. You could put most of your skill points into melee, or go for magic, or some kind of balance in between with neither being terribly stronger than the other.
We’ve seen a very early build of a dungeon where a standard five-man group has to investigate the appearance of a crashed ghost ship. Even at this early stage the environments look beautiful, haunting, and scary, getting some amazing power out of the Age of Conan engine. There was a slight bit of puzzle solving along with a healthy amount of combat, of course. Apparently the ship was possessed by ancient and angry Viking spirits. The group had to battle zombies in murky water amidst scattered shipping containers, occasionally scrambling onto them to avoid electrified water from certain boss attacks.
There will be three factions in The Secret World—the Illuminati, the Dragons, and the Templars—because hey, you might as well pull out all the stops in a game as stuffed full of crazy shit as this one. Each secret society is trying to stem the tide of creatures appearing on the planet, while at the same time vying against each other for control of the world once things are back to normal. Well, as normal as you can get in a world where werewolves hang out in the sewers beneath Seoul, Korea, I guess.
This very ambitious MMO is still a long ways from completion, with a very broad release window of 2012. But if the end of the world doesn’t get us before then, we’ll all have a chance to try out the beginning of this strange new one.