I've been waiting to post this story for a week and a half now. Bloody embargoes. The first studio I had an appointment with at GDC was FunCom about their upcoming MMO The Secret World. Once I figured out that it was being held at the Zeum Museum and not the Zune Museum (enunciate, Drand, enunciate!), I facepalmed and then met up with Henshin A Go Joe to see this game that I had previously heard nothing about. Gaymers, you need to hear about this game.
I had never heard of FunCom before, quite possibly because I occasionally have my head in the sand as their portfolio includes major titles like Anarchy Online and Age of Conan. These folks are no newbies to the MMO world and the quality of the demo reinforced this fact. Though presently in alpha, the game looks very polished with some excellent graphics, good voice acting and an intuitive interface.
In the promo trailer we were shown, some of the one-liners thrown up on the screen included: City on the moon; the Earth is hollow; portals in time and space; bees are returning; Solomon's key opens hell; Atlantis rises; Stonehenge is a beacon; end of days are here; filth will corrupt us all; dreams whisper; we have dug too deep; Pandora's box is opening up; everything is true. That last one encompasses the whole premise of the game. EVERYTHING is true. Set on present day Earth, you join one of three secret societies - the American Illuminati, European Templars or Asian Dragon - to combat forces of darkness whose origins are based in traditional lore, wives tales, cryptozoology and conspiracy theories. This is a highly original concept for an MMO, and anything to get away from the swords-n-sorcery cliche gets major points in my book so they had my full attention.
The scenario FunCom used for the demo was from the Illuminati campaign that had the player dealing with a zombie outbreak. Gameplay seemed pretty standard: you select a target and have a row of powers (with buttons that have beveled edges and a glossy sheen; very Web 2.0!) keybound to the number row that you click or press to use. To change things up a bit, the player can use things in the environment to affect battle. For example, FunCom took a page from Left 4 Dead and scattered abandoned cars on the roads whose alarms would attract zombies, at which point you could blow up the car or light a gas can on fire to create a fiery zone to deal damage-over-time. Additionally, it acted as a player-induced spawn point, so if prior players cleaned out the zombies in the area, activating the car alarm would force-spawn more so that you don't have to sit around and wait on a timer.
FunCom also really wants to work with the idea of cooperative play and have made it very easy for players to jump in and help out. Say you're in the previous scenario, but the zombies are proving to be too much for you on top of your flaming Durango. A passing player can immediately jump in to help out as you don't "claim" targets like you do in other MMOs. What's better is that the passing player benefits from helping out by gaining xp and possibly items without taking away from your xp earned, items dropped or interfering with quest completion. Helping out other players is only beneficial for everyone involved, which is a fantastic way to promote cooperative play. This does open up the potential to twink out or powerlevel lower players, but FunCom made the point that they're working on ways to prevent exploits without negatively impacting the player experience.
Another interesting idea that they're working with is a puzzle-solving quest system. In addition to earning experience through killing things and crafting (which we weren't shown at this event), there are also quests that require puzzle solving. Actual puzzle solving. As in, you have to use your brain, not have a high INT stat. Part of an example they showed had the player talking to a priest who was in the Illuminati in the town of Kingsmouth, and after this conversation was made aware of the Illuminati symbolism all over the town. The church had a symbol in the stained glass, a manhole cover had a symbol etched into it and so on. These things exist in the game world whether you've accepted the relevant quest or not, so the quests prompt you to observe the world around you. They even require some outside research and they showed us that to find the answer to a couple of puzzles you had to head out to Wikipedia to reference historical artists and religious literature. This is something I haven't seen since Dungeons & Dragons Online, and even then it was nowhere near to this extent. They did assure me, though, that asking other players for help is always an option and that these puzzle quests could be avoided so players don't have to worry about being stonewalled and having their game grind to a halt.
Character Creation, Customization, and Progression
Character creation and progression is nothing groundbreaking, but it is a deviation from the norms of MMOs. First is character customization. There will be customization for the physical aspects of your avatar, but humans still tend to look a lot alike, especially in large groups. So how will you distinguish your Illuminati gunslinger from a Templar magic-user? Clothes. An exact number hasn't been released, but I was told that there will be hundreds of clothing options that can be acquired throughout the game to give your character a distinctive look, including hotpants. Dunno why they made explicit mention of hotpants, but I'm sold.
Level progression takes an interesting bend. You don't pick any class and you never will. Instead, as you earn xp you pick out seven active and seven passive skills from a massive wheel of 500 to suit your play style. The tech wheel is progressive and more advanced skills have prerequisites, so despite the staggering number of skills available the skill selection is quite manageable as you only have to focus on a small section of the wheel at once. If it's still too overwhelming, there will be a list of templates that you can choose from that outline the skills you should pick if you want to play like a warrior, a ninja, a gunslinger and so on. Lastly, you are not locked into the skills you choose. What I mean is that you can buy more than just 14 skills and between battles you can swap them out to suit your needs so that you can be a sturdy tank with decent damage to solo (and they've assured us the game is solo-friendly) and then swap out to be a supporting healer when you're in a group. I forgot to ask about being able to "respec" your character in case you wind up buying skills that you never ever use, but given how common that feature is it wouldn't surprise me if it's an option in the final build.
The last feature I'm going to touch on - and this is requiring restraint as there's a LOT more I want to gab on and on and on about - is story. The devs at FunCom want The Secret World to tell an active story that immerses the player in the world, which you can't really do from a box of flavor text for a quest. NPCs will instead offer quests via voice-acted in-game cinematics (which are skipable, btw) which is a great step to make the story more front-and-center. Additionally, the game world itself is supposed to tell a story. To illustrate this, they showed off a monster, whose name I stupidly did not write down, who spawns where ravens congregate. You encounter it early and it only fights a little bit before fleeing. The monster is substantially more powerful than the players when they first encounter it, so a small story of foreshadowing is being told when you try and chase it down.
The Secret World is still a ways from being released for PC, and even further away from the Xbox 360 release, but if the game looks this good and is this engaging in alpha, I can't wait to see what it's like when it goes gold. The folks at FunCom are trying to create a highly-polished product for a more focused audience over a boilerplate appeals-to-everyone affair and the effort and thought they're putting into their title shows. I haven't been this excited for an MMO in a long time and I honestly can't wait until the game gets released, and Henshin seemed even more excited for it than I. We'll keep y'all updated on everything that FunCom keeps us updated on, so in the meantime you have two things to do: 1) save up for a new graphics card, and 2) figure out which cabal you belong to. Choose wisely, as there's no turning back.