Storming into Hell (again) in The Secret World

A couple months ago, I talked about my hands-on time with The Secret World and its hit-and-miss Illuminati starting area , the frustrating-yet-awesome open-world Egypt zone , its Minecraft-like crafting system , and the brilliant character customization system . But today, we're getting into the really good stuff: the no-frills, fast-paced dungeons.

First up, we step through "The 13th Gate" and go straight to Hell. That's right, the burning lake of fire where demons use liars for chew toys.

We revealed the first dungeon of Hell in our January issue cover story (US), and this is the follow-up dungeon, called Hell Fallen. I'm a tank with a full Hammer build, designed to take a beating and keep aggro on me, instead of my squishy companions. Like everything else in The Secret World, I would soon learn that this was not an easy task.

We start in a large open area of orangish-red rocks with industrial piping and scrap metal heaped all over. Hell is surprisingly industrialist. I spot a few demons roaming the desolate valley and make my charge at them. They hit me once and immediately run for my healer. That's okay, I have a few abilities to taunt the enemies, making them return to me. Why is nothing happening. A quick glance shows my skills are greyed out and unusable. My healer is dead. Crap.

Hell ain't pretty, but at least there's no ironic torturing.

Hell ain't pretty, but at least there's no ironic torturing.

With a little nudging from the developers, I realize that the high-speed winds blowing through the area (very noticeable visually) lock out my skills. It was my job to get the enemy's attention and drag them behind the large pieces of scrap metal or the crumbling ruins littered around the valley, which would block the winds and let me tank to my heart's content.

Boss #1

After four pulls and quick fights, we were at the first miniboss, a hulking demon labeled Archaeomachinist. Every boss in the game is given a personality, like cowardly or brute or defensive, and this particular guy was a coward. As soon as we engaged him, he threw down a couple turrets that draw red lines in their targeting direction, much like Portal's goofy tin can shooters. Players have to constantly move to stay out of the crosshairs of these little guys--a fun minigame to keep you active while focusing on the big guy. The big guy that ran to hide behind the crumbling walls of ruins whenever he could. Trying to tank the cowardly demon was tough to do without breaking line-of-sight on my healer, but it added another fun element to the fight. On top of all that, he called in artillery strikes that showed up as red circles on the ground before exploding anyone standing inside it.

Boss #2

I run around the corner ready for some more trash mobs, and instead find another miniboss waiting just ahead: a fat demon standing in a small valley pass surrounded by large cylindrical machines. We rush in and he responds by activating an energy shield on himself and calling in minion demons to protect him. As we kill waves of minions, his shield drops temporarily, giving us a chance to hit him hard. About two wave in, I suddenly realize that the machines have slowly been turning on behind him. On both edges of the valley, they're starting to emit green smoke that doesn't look healthy, and more and more are activating. The poison cloud is quickly closing in on us, and we're now on a timer. I work to bring the boss to the dead center of the valley, hopefully buying us enough time to take the boss down before the gas strangles in on us. Our group's damage output is solid and we succeed--but by the end, we had only a few feet of open air to fight in.

Two heads are better than one, except when they're on a giant demon maiming you.

Two heads are better than one, except when they're on a giant demon maiming you.

We climb out of the valley and work our way up the industrial paths that climb up the mountain, and I take a moment to enjoy the view of asteroids burning down through the sky all over. And then I realize my friends have just aggroed a giant two-headed demon monster that I should probably go tank for them.

Boss #3

I drop into a makeshift arena and charge straight at the Engine Tyrant Alpha (the big nasty dude in the screenshot above). He comes with two spirits that seem to be healing him from the edges of the arena, so I throw taunts on the boss and try to grab the attention of the spirits as my teammates work on burning them down. I continually lose aggro on the spirits, but our healer's a pro and keeps everyone alive despite my messy tanking.

The large demon is throwing out cleaves that hit everyone in front of him, so I drag him to a corner of the arena and keep his damage all to myself. And then, just as I'm starting to feel good about myself as a tank again, a second giant demon identical to the first jumps down into the arena and grants a protective shield to the one we were fighting. For the rest of the fight, I play catch-up trying to keep aggro on both beasts as we alternate killing the one without the shield. It's by far the most challenging fight so far, and I resign myself to simply not being able to keep aggro 100% of the time. But, again, my healer seems to be doing an awesome job and keeping us all alive as we kill one demon and then the other.

Boss #4

The Executrix is not a name earned lightly, so I knew we were in big trouble when we ran into this guy. We made our way out into the cratered ruins, and were promptly ambushed by wave after way of demonlings as massive artillery rained from the sky all around us. This is The Secret World's equivalent of "trash mobs" that exist in other MMOs' dungeons--almost all are tied into the boss event and only take 3-4 minutes.

After taking out the waves, the female demon Execturix (screenshot above) swoops in and starts mass-ressurrecting the corpses of the adds we'd killed. Luckily the resurrected soldiers are fairly weak when they return, but the mechanic is enough to keep things interesting as we swap between targets to keep the little guys under control. As a tank, this was a really fun fight to throw around my AoE attacks to keep the little guy's attention without losing the big guy.

Boss #5

A trio of lava golems are trying to break down a gate for some reason. I would've voted to let the lava golems do their things and raid the demon pantry or whatever they were up to, but they apparently didn't like us spying on them and sent one of them to smash us while the other two continued their work on the door. It seemed simple enough at first, and then the golem starts melting himself down into a massive pool of expanding lava that's deteriorating my legs at an alarming rate.

I'm able to barely outrun the slowly-widening lake of lava, but I'm helpless without being in melee range. My ranged counterparts are still chipping away at the golem's health. Thankfully (sort of) the other two golems decide their brother is taking too long to kill us and rush over to help. We've now got three giant golems that periodically liquify into giant pools of health-sucking lava (all at different times, mind you). It makes for a crazy fight where you're constantly bouncing between three golems, attacking whichever one is moving and punching while avoiding the pools of lava constantly growing around the field. After awhile I notice a tell: when the golems lift their legs up, they're readying a massive stomp in front of them. I alert the group and our healer has a bit of an easier time keeping us alive without as many face-stomps coming in.

There are a few trash mobs lining the path up to the final boss, but even these mobs are interesting fight as they teleport around to different members of the group, leaving a small lightning field wherever they teleport from.

I'm glad the devs introduced the "you shouldn't like wind" mechanic early on in the dungeon, because this final boss brings it back with a vengeance. The boss hangs on the edge of the platform, periodically summoning massive winds that shut down your abilities and damage you, if you don't take cover behind one of the few pillars around the edges of the circular platform we're fighting on. At the same time, two of those assassins are teleporting around, leaving lightning fields in their wake and grenades are falling from the sky.

As a tank, I felt pretty helpless. There was no way to contain all this damage. At one point, wind had forced all of us to hide behind pillars, but our choice of pillars had separated our group: i could see my healer across the large platform, getting pummeled by an assassin. As I'm weighing the pros and cons of braving the damaging wind to help her, a pile of grenades fall in front of me, blocking my path and the other assassin teleports away from us, dropping a lightning field at our feet thats zapping us relentlessly.

It's frantic, it's crazy, and it demands split-second decisions from you one right after another the entire fight. Before I can be a hero and race into sheer death to save my healer, the boss teleports to me and knocks me out into the open, over the grenade field and safely onto the other side. I hurry through the wind to get the assassin off my healer's back and our DPS finds a way to cross the grenades without blowing themselves to bits. We're back in business and within a few minutes the big guy's fallen.

Closing notes

The almost complete lack of trash mobs kept this dungeon moving along. Every fight felt important because there was a big guy with a unique mechanic involved. But even boss fights can often be boring in MMOs--TSW's stood out to me as particularly fun, mostly due to their insistence on keeping you guessing and forcing you to work to accomplish your role. As a tank, it was REALLY hard to keep aggro, but the game is balanced with that in mind. People don't die as quickly as they do in most MMOs, so me losing aggro didn't mean our group would wipe. Instead, my job seemed to be to struggle and improvise to hold aggro as much as possible. My allies can take hits from time to time, but they can't hold it forever--so there was still pressure to regain aggro as quickly as possible. It's a hardcore design in line with Funcom's desire to make TSW a difficult game that refuses to hold players hands. The result is a dungeon that consistently delivers those fast-paced shots of adrenaline that any tank will be familiar with: that feeling of panic when you lose aggro and have to improvise to get it back before someone dies.