I personally hold up two games as being the paragons of MMOs, especially when it comes to getting players quickly involved in the game’s plot, and feeling like they’re having fun. World of Warcraft, especially now, has really streamlined that early game feeling, and now front-loads a mess of skills and important decisions from the start of the game. On the other hand, Lord of the Rings Online weaves you into an intricate story of a betrayed Ranger, while also making you feel a part of the larger War of the Ring.
I continually come back to both these games, just to start a new character, and explore those early levels and regions from a slightly different angle.
It’s interesting, then, to look at The Secret World’s press beta – which I’ve now been playing for a couple of days. In a lot of ways, it’s a wholly fresh and unique take on MMOs, with an amazing interface, a new way to look at gear and character costumes, and weapon-based skill system that gives you a huge amount of choice in how your character fights.
But, at the same time, it also feels remarkably standard. It’s early days, of course, and we’re hardly seeing the game in the best light. Server pop is understandably low, and with just one global server much of that population are not even native English speakers. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first few hours of game feel more than a little bit theme-park-like.
How to make friends and influence world politics
There are three factions to choose from when crafting your character, though in the beta the Chaos-loving Dragons are unplayable. Instead, we get to choose from the rather toff Templars, and the one-per-cent and proud Illuminati. Both get unique starting areas – London and New York respectively – but soon enough converge once tutorial missions are out of the way.
As usual, you get to choose your character’s look, and this extends to clothing as well, which is usually a choice made for you. The choices aren’t wide – there are only three pairs of pants for men, for instance – but it’s enough to create something more or less unique to start with. Your build is set at something between a model and an athlete, curiously (I guess secret orders only want healthy specimens), but you can choose from a range of pre-sets for your face and hair. It’s not as robust as the slider-based character creator in Age of Conan )still the most detailed MMO character creator I know, though City of Heroes comes close), but gets the job done.
You then get to watch your fresh new character in a cut-scene which tries to show how you’ve become someone worth recruiting into the secret world. Essentially... you swallow a bug. Well, a bee, more accurately. At these point in the game, personally, all I could think of was a combination of Firefly (“I swallowed a bug”) and Black Books (“I ate your bees!”) quotes.
I suspect this might be lost on the developers, who hail from Norway.
So you swallow your magic bee, then follows a week of magical discovery, after which you’re contacted by your faction and casually recruited.
I picked Templar, and once we stepped out onto the London streets you really notice how much this game doesn’t look like the recent crop of more cartoony MMOs. The detail in the environment and many of the characters is quite high, and running in DX11 mode with every turned up, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a high-end shooter.
The tutorial levels are kind of interesting. There’s a mix of running about and finding places like the less than secret Templar HQ (Really? Banners? They’re not even trying!), and meeting the local Templar leader and getting some basic training.
The two neat things in this area are a dream sequence that sees you inhabit the body of another Templar, in the middle of clearing out a bad infestation of, well, inky black tentacles from a London subway, and the introduction to the way The Secret World integrates weapons into combat skills.