Last week we ran my second hands-on preview for Funcom's MMO The Secret World which took a look at the genres the team is picking away at and referencing in their own design. This week we're looking into the innards of the game – the mechanics that set it apart from the other Massively titles. The "not your average MMO" marketing line is alive and well in the slurry of previews that have landed online, but this two-part piece exists to show how the game's colder, mechanical systems actually work for that title as much as its creative elements do.
It comes down to freedom of expression. This is built straight into the game at a systemic level.
If you've kept an eye on the game over the last year you're probably aware that The Secret World has rid itself of typical character levelling in favour of a more free-form style of progression. So the studio's solution to the question of how to actually maintain some clear sense of character progression has always been its skill system. You might remember Funcom's take on a skill tree as that thing you once looked at in a slack-chinned daze, staring into the hulking, circular mass - the Skill Wheel, it was called - of 588 abilities.
Well, it's changed slightly. This is the Ability Wheel, as it's now called. Previously progression was based on accumulating Ability Points which users gain as they kill enemies or hand in quests, and which could be used to unlock active and passive powers. The system is equally as complex as before, revolving around the same baffling number of potential character abilities, only now it is buffered by the addition of skill points. Alongside the Ability Points, users can earn skill points which are used to augment the base effect of your weapon or chakra.
The latter gives you certain increased general stats on your character, with additional HP and defensive bonuses granted if you focus your skill points down that path. The former lets you specialise in either DPS, healing or tanking, by offering defensive or attacking bonuses depending on where you're pouring your skill points.
Despite the lack of levelling in the game an experience bar is still relevant. This gets split into segments, with the completion of a segment triggering a skill point. The completion of an entire bar triggers an ability point on the other hand.
So what does that actually mean? Well, you can custom build a character on the fly, change out builds regularly out of boredom or for the sake of experimentation, and essentially play what you want, when you want. There's a whiff of Anarchy Online or Guild Wars in this recipe, but it's something that's not offered nearly often enough in the slushpile of MMOs on the market.
The issue so far that rises up in response to this, however, is that it's just bloody daunting.
To deal with the inevitable complexities of the system, pre-made Decks are getting introduced – although at the time of play they weren't available to press. Think of Magic the Gathering, we're told by one of the developers. Pre-constructed decks offer users a combination of abilities built to compliment particular play-styles, and they're likely to be beneficial for users who are either looking for a simpler way of tackling the game, or alternatively just a way of testing out weapon combinations in the first place. However, build experimentation is still encouraged, and going hand and hand with this users will have access to a profile manager that essentially allows them to save equipment, weapons, and abilities in a profile to share online.
The game also gives you control over their avatar's look, something that even World of Warcraft has given in to with their introduction of transmogrification. In this game it's possible to get items that modify the look of a weapon without changing its stats. In terms of features, this is about as close to WoW as it wanders. Crafting, for example, takes a different turn entirely. Rather than being based around the accumulation of ready-made crafting patterns, in order create an item you first have to find and disassemble that item. This is the Secret World's "real world" take on crafting systems. To make something you must first understand it, open it up, analyse it, and only then can you recreate it.
And more generally it's Funcom's philosophy to developing characters. Why develop a class-type without testing out exactly what it can do to begin with. Open it up, analyse the abilities, then build that character. Few MMOs put that much faith in their users, and hopefully the userbase will be able to handle the often intimidating responsibility.