Okay, we have to admit that, when â€śThe Secret Worldâ€ť beta code hit the NZGamer.com desk, we were a bit sceptical. The industry is fair awash with MMOs at the moment and it often seems there is little difference between them. However, it turns out we were in for a surprise when we fired up this new game from Funcom. These are the very same people who bought us Anarchy Online, Age of Conan, and The Longest Journey, so there is a lot experience involved in the game's development.
What strikes you first is the game setting. No ancient fantasy setting, or far future themed game environment. This one is set firmly in the present day. A present day that has gone very much awry. Right from the beginning the game leaves you with more questions than answers...is this chaos due to Alien invasion? Zombie apocalypse? Only time will unravel the story of whatâ€™s actually going on here.
The first task is choosing your faction and character. There are three secret societies to choose from (Dragons, Illuminati, and Templars), with their own storylines and quests. Each are fighting the rising shadows of evil that are sweeping across the world as much as they are in competition with each other.
After the fairly typical MMO character creation (facial features, colour etc), our young London lad - clad in chequered shirt and camouflage jeans - is off to join the Templars. The scene-setting combat and video sequences are both exciting and weird at the same time â€“ we can't say much more or we will give away one of the more interesting game openings we have seen in a while. After the drama of the opening ends, weâ€™re off to find the headquarters of the Templars.
After a brisk walk around the back streets of London we come to HQ and presumably the chance to choose our character type. However we soon discover there are no traditional MMO character types. Just skills. Lots of skills. So many skills that the combinations seem as endless as the character types you can construct.
There are three main combat fields that you can mix and match. These are hand to hand combat, firearms, and magic. You get to try them all in the training hall as you unravel the nuances of a very deep skill system. The ability wheel, as they call it, is multi segmented, with additional tiers opening as you unlock more abilities. It's a bit daunting at first, given the number of variables, but each has an excellent description that helps you work out the effective combinations.
Ability wheel conquered, itâ€™s time for the first mission. Being London, we take the underground (of course), although here it's an underground that looks and feels more like the roots of the earth, and involves travel across oceans... After one of the weirdest train trips we have ever had, we pop up just outside of town... the lively little seaside town of Kingsmouth in the good old USA. That was some ride!
We have no idea what to do and where to go. Armed with our assault rifle and unlimited ammunition, we make our way into town. A normal day, albeit a bit gloomy. Plenty of crows flying about and groups of undead citizens feeding on corpses. But other than that, a typical day.
It's not long before we catch the attention of one of these groups of diners and we find ourselves in combat, and the zombie hunt is on! The combat system is quite intuitive with two basic abilities: building points or consuming points. In our case, short bursts from our rifle to build points and a mad spray of bullets to consume them.
After a few more of these encounters we finally reach town. It's town feast day, with the lovely townsfolk top of the menu. The only place that seems safe is the Sheriffâ€™s office. It's barricaded and surrounded by the slavering mobs. Now the game becomes really interesting. Just like you, most of the live population are in the same boat: they know nothing about what is going on.
Initial quests are purely about surviving, trying to get supplies, and finding out the fate of key citizens. As you venture into the town you discover more and more disturbing quests and storylines that add to the dread and foreboding. Where the zombies were easy kills, the constructs and shambling bipeds are much tougher.
Unlike most MMOs, the quest descriptions and map pointers are not exact, and only give a general idea of where and what you are supposed to do. Itâ€™s quite a change from the norm and at times, quite challenging.
Although the game is still in beta, the graphics are already well detailed, with just the right amount of gore and blood effects. The sound is creepy and chilling. Walking the streets and roofs of Kingsmouth is quite scary at times and more often than not lethal. Corpse runs were common until we unlocked more abilities and started to get the hang of using the combinations. Zap 'em with an electrical charge, spray them with bullets, zap again, and then combust them. Barbecue, anyone?
The voice acting, again still in beta, just blew us away. Not only the near perfect accents but the humour and characterisation was something we have not seen done to this level in an MMO before.
At one point we did a quest that had us following a flock of crows through town with some strange combat encounters along the way. The mystery of what was eating all the shrimp from the delivery truck was something we would have preferred not to know. And did we mention the axe wielding zombie fireman?
This is a very hard game to describe. It is full of some really good and innovative features and a story that has you wondering what the hell is going on at every twist and turn. We liked it a lot even though in places it creeped us out.
Scheduled for release in July, this is a game to keep an eye on.
The Good: Creepy and innovative
The Bad: Some may be put off on the magic/modern weapons mix
The Ugly: It's another MMO