If I had to sum up the setting for Funcom's massively-multiplayer supernatural role-playing game The Secret World in one sentence, that would probably be it.
Theodore Wicker studied the occult and demonology for years before taking a trip to New England, renting a room at the Overlook Motel, and disappearing through a portal of his own creation. That's what happens when you open a doorway into hell.
His story would have ended there, but now there are such portals opening up everywhere, transforming the once-peaceful New England coastline into a demon-infested wasteland. Obviously that needs to stop.
So last week I was joined by a pair of fellow game journalists, Funcom communication specialist Tor Egil Andersen and, as a special surprise, lead designer Martin Bruusgaard, on a journey into Hell Raised the first of three infernal dungeons that follow the exploits of Wicker, the man that doesn't know when to leave Hell enough alone.
Our adventure began with an infusion of ability and skill points for me and my fellow journalists; all of us had been far too busy with other things to level up to the dungeon's recommended power level ourselves.
It immediately struck me that, while convenient, this was no way to build a character in The Secret World. Slowly gaining AP and SP is the way to go, feeling your way through the game's weapons-based combat system and learning new skills as you go. It's a deep and somewhat convoluted system that can't be cheated by game master power-leveling.
What made things more confusing is that The Secret World has no pre-defined classes, and no class-specific armors. The only way to tell who was playing what sort of role was based on weapons — my character uses a Chaos Focus, which is mainly an up-close melee weapon. He also wears a t-shirt and jeans. I felt a little under-dressed.
The Overlook Hotel isn't much to look like in the real world. Pass though the portal to hell, however...
...and things get a whole lot fleshier. There's fire, brimstone and random pointy protrusions, all amidst a landscape crafted from human flesh. At one point Bruusgaard pointed out a nipple, but I missed it. I was mildly disappointed, but there would be more nipples.
Hell Raised isn't your normal MMO instanced dungeon. Where other games prefer to make the players slog through endless "trash" enemies to make it to the boss, my first stumbling steps into hell consisted of but two small encounters leading up to the main event.
Dancing with trios of shambling flesh-colored demons was more of a learning experience than a nuisance. During the second encounter we came across a series of towers that randomly lit with crackling purple energy, deadly to the touch. As it turns out, this was the game's way of introducing us to a much larger problem.
Minutes into the dungeon we encountered our first boss fight: the Antimony Ministrix. This demonic creature inhabited a circular arena dotted with the towers we had learned to avoid before. As we charged in to do battle those towers began lighting sequentially, forcing us to dance the boss around in circles, always staying one step ahead of death.
Mistakes were made, and several of us perished, but we got the picture. There is no standing and tanking in this dungeon.
That picture came into sharper focus with the dungeon's second boss. The Corroder was a nasty customer, spewing area-of-attack poison requiring players to get up close to him on the curving path he calls home. As the fight progressed a wall of flame slowly crept towards us, forcing us to battle against the clock to take him out.
Some of us died. That should just be assumed from now on.
Actually things got better from that point. The next boss monster, Fleshtank, danced us across molten lava, safe platforms disappearing in gouts of flame. We came out of that singed but alive and feeling pretty good about ourselves.
And then came Recursia.
This sexy succubus queen resides in an enclosed arena, which at first seemed like it offered plenty of room to maneuver. And then the first thing she does is cover the entire floor with an area-of-effect damage spell, forcing everyone to get nice and cozy within the small circle of safety around her.
Periodically Recursia would span minions along the outer edge of the arena. These would slowly move towards the center of the room where, as Bruusgaard informed us, they would explode, killing everyone. It was during these moments, desperately attempting to whack apart these tough creatures before the entire group perished, that I truly felt the intensity of Hell Raised. This was a harrowing experience, a race against time in the depths of hell.
And we all survived. At that point it was as if there was nothing we couldn't accomplish. We were the infernal A-Team, and we loved it when a plan came together.
And then we met this guy.
The Machine Tyrant is the ultimate boss of Hell Raised, and he hurts. A lot. We're talking the entire play field filling with explosions, targeted bombs and massive physical damage. The beast regularly spawns an impenetrable shield, requiring players lure him into random energy fields to briefly cancel the effect out, all so we can get a few swings in before all hell breaks loose again.
We did not beat this guy; not in the traditional sense. I died three times over, each time teleported back into battle thanks to our GM pals' special powers. I would die, Bruusgaard would port me back, and I would die again immediately.
And then the special press sever disconnected us all.
Eventually The Machine Tyrant fell to the mighty powers of the game master kill switch, and the first chapter in the Wicker trilogy came to a close. We spoke briefly with the infamous scholar, and were sent on our way.
The Secret World's Hell Raised was a wonderfully chaotic and challenging MMO experience, requiring the sort of group coordination and tactics you just can't slap together a the last minute. My characters powers were new and confusing, my skills untested, and as far as I am concerned the outcome was inevitable.
Next time I'll be ready. I'm booking room 13 in advance.