Slightly less secret, but still very much keeping us in the dark. Funcom have been very careful with releasing information on The Secret World over the course of its long pre-production and development. At GDC we got to see the game running in live with developers manning four computer and showing off a few sections of the New England/Kingsmouth region, we were also given the very first information on how player vs player will work.
Many gamers are probably still wary of Funcom after the botched launch of Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, and despite constant reassurances that lessons have been learnt I can't help but doubt whether they have what it takes to complete and fully realise the brilliant and ambitious vision that is The Secret World. Therefore, I thought I'd write this preview in a slightly different manner to that which you are used to. I've identified three critical areas where Funcom will need to deliver fully in order for The Secret World to live up to its enormous potential.
The combat in The Secret World is very different from other MMORPG's. Different can be good, but it also puts higher demands on the developer when it comes to easing players into a new way of thinking about their choices, how they equip their characters with skills, and ultimately how you experience the game. Given the real-time and rather frantic nature of combat in The Secret World, you will likely sit on the edge of your seat for most of your session in the game. Another question mark is how performance, latency issues and such will impact the game. While combating the environment this may not be an essential issue, but for player vs player this will be key. Then again placing pvp in smaller arenas may take care of any such issue.
Without classes and levels, I'm sure it will feel quite daunting for many players to get into The Secret World. You will be able to use guidelines for certain pre-determined types and progress your skills along that route. But nothing stops you from spreading out your skills all over the place and "waste" your credits buying skills and abilities that don't combine well. Learning how to deck out your character with active and passive skills will be absolutely vital to your success in the game, and while an extremely attractive proposition on paper, it's uncharted waters in the world of MMO's and Funcom have a mammoth task in making it accessible to players.
Directly tied into this is the problem of directing and guiding the player. Constantly holding a carrot in front of the player to lead to the next major objective. Funcom showed off a number of ways where visual hints or events are tied into the story. In one section you followed a flock of ravens, until they transformed to reveal the raven boss seen in trailers. Another example was how the zombie invasion in Kingsmouth was tied to drowned vikings, and how you fought your way to the root of the problem culminating in a fight with a Cthulhu like sea monster.
While it liberates the player to not have levels, class, or a long laundry list of quests to think about it can also leave the player wondering what to do next. It will be interesting to see how well Funcom manages to solve this in game. We've seen some examples, and it does show promise, but it's still a question mark.
At the GDC presentation we were given some further insight into the storytelling mechanics in The Secret World. It cannot be overstated how ambitious this part of the game is. Following clues through the town of Kingsmouth, taking us from the founders "Town and Hall" (you can look them up on wikipedia, they existed), onwards to the townhall (simple clue there), and ultimately ending up in a Illuminati hideout. This story telling device puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of the player. It will probably be easy to "cheat" and jump straight to that Illuminati cellar and it's hard to see how the developer can control how these clues are experienced and how the story is told. Perhaps, Funcom are happy to leave it in the hands of the players. Knowing MMO players there will be guides on how to get all the clues in the various locations within days of the game's release. It takes away something of the special atmosphere they game looks to create in my opinion.
The main problem with the deep and ambitious story Funcom have created is that as any MMO developer will tell you, the game is going to change a lot up to release and after it. The ambitious tag line of how everything fits together is something that while worth our admiration also may cost the development a lot of sleep. Where do you cut content you don't have time to finish, when everything is tied together with story? Funcom will have to make some hard decisions from here on in, but hopefully this is something they have taken into account when designing the game.
As I hope you get from reading this text, The Secret World is an incredibly ambitious and promising title. It's one that really challenges our perception of what an MMORPG is. If Funcom can properly adress every issue mentioned, we're in for something very special indeed.