Combat in MMORPGs has been a point of contention for as long as the genre has existed. Technological limitations in the early days of the genre meant that combat had to be mechanically simple – a matter of dice rolls – and despite technological advancements, combat hasn't changed a great deal until recently. Some MMOs are shirking many of the chance-based mechanics for more responsive action combat, while others are sticking with the tried-and-true formula. Funcom's The Secret World is using a strange sort of hybrid, but isn't sacrificing any depth for it.
Most abilities require you to target an enemy, which should be familiar to anyone who has played an MMO in the last decade. Depending on the ability triggered, there may be a cast timer or it may be instant. It may also be channeled, requiring you to remain stationary as the ability is used. A lot of the attacks can be used on the run, though. However, many of these abilities, such as the basic attack for anyone with a Shotgun, have some sort of splash damage or spray. This means you can take down a lot of foes at once, but risk accidentally pulling that giant demonic golem.
Where The Secret World's combat differentiates itself is in the way you can customize your character and create a cluster of abilities all your own through the use of the Power Wheel: a giant circle of 588 earnable and usable abilities. I've discussed in the past how it works, but actually putting the functions into action is a different matter entirely. I primarily used a Hammer and Sword-wielding character, capable of dealing decent area-of-effect damage as well as single-target damage. The build was centered around my ability to knock enemies down, and another ability that used weapon resources (which are generated through various attacks and abilities) to do a cleaving attack around me. For every knocked-down enemy I hit with my cleaving ability, I generated more weapon resources, meaning I could use it several times.
It was a build that worked quite well in general use, but my knock-down abilities had long cooldowns, and I felt gimped when they weren't available. So I began to experiment. I found an ability called Molten Hammer, which would consume all of my weapon resources to deal a large chunk of damage, and would actually deal more damage upon a critical hit than normal. I used the Power Wheel's built-in search function to find other abilities that might synergize well. One passive increased the damage dealt by all critical hits by 20%, and another increased the chance for Molten Hammer to critically hit by 10%. I found other abilities that would generate the weapon resources I needed as well as deal a debuff to the enemy, and attacks that would add a chance to critically hit against debuffed enemies. I'd also deal damage-over-time to any enemy I critically hit.
The end result was a series of attacks which, when used in order, gave me a good chance to deal upwards of 4000 damage with a Molten Hammer critical hit with trickling damage afterwards, as opposed to the 1500 or so from other standard critical hits. Suddenly, I had an insanely powerful nuke with very few restrictions, but at the cost of any sort of true utility. I had no crowd control, and little in the way of area-of-effect damage or self-preservation abilities, but there was very little that I couldn't kill in about ten seconds.
That's the real strength of The Secret World's incredibly flexible ability system – if I'm struggling in virtually any situation, there's probably a way to change my character on the fly to deal with it. And it felt really good to see a build of my own creation perform its role so well. The freedom that The Secret World's ability system afforded me was impressive. Hopefully the rest of The Secret World is just as impressive when it launches in June this year.