The Secret World’s skill system is even better than I thought

As I mentioned in Friday's post about playing through Egypt in The Secret World, my character started off with a pretty standard build. Hammer and sickle in hand, I could smash a single target pretty quickly and had a few AoE tools for when the enemies came in 6-packs.

But I quickly grew bored with it—it was a fine build, but a little simple for my tastes, so I decided to create my own build from scratch. And then the heavens split open and my mind was exposed to the nigh-unlimited options and combinations that Secret World's incredible do-it-yourself skill system allows.

Just to be clear up front: I am a theorycrafter--one of those nerdy people that congregate in communities like Elitist Jerks and tinker with talent specs and spell rotations for hours to find a 1% increase in efficiency. Personally, I think I inherited the love of number-crunching from my father, who's an accountant. But whatever the reason, I love to toy around with new builds in MMOs—and rarely stick with a single class or spec because of it.

So you can imagine my initial excitement when, years ago, Funcom initially announced The Secret World's ambitious goal to not have set classes in the game. Instead, they planned to give everyone access to every ability in the game, and let them mix and match to their heart's content.

In line with the latest trend, The Secret World gives you access to only a small number of abilities active at any time, but lets you pick from a deep arsenal of varied abilities to create your active set. Of course in games like DCUO and Guild Wars, you're not quite picking from 588 abilities, like you do in Secret World. Those abilities are tucked away into different cells of a giant ability sphere, which breaks abilities down into three different groups: Magic, Ranged, Melee. Those three are each broken into nine subgroups: Elementalism, Chaos, Blood Magic, Shotguns, Pistols, Assault Rifles, Blades, Hammers, and Fists. Then each of those is broken down into seven more skill trees each.

About half of the abilities are standard activate-to-use abilities, and the other half are passive, which modify active abilities or provide straight bonuses. You choose seven active and seven passive to equip at any time. The main restriction on your combinations of abilities is that you can only wield two weapons at a time (which correspond to the nine main subgroups).

If I had a hammer…

The build that my character came pre-loaded with took from the Hammers and Swords trees and had passives that boosted my damage and defenses in pretty simple ways (”Your hammer attacks do 10% more damage”). In combat, the hammer attacks felt great. The sense of power from smashing a sledgehammer down and seeing everything fly back is addictive. The animations make you believe that hammer is heavy and packs a punch.

There's no auto-attack for melee characters in the game, which is a growing trend that I'm personally not a fan of, but I know many people prefer their combat that way. My pre-made build was meant to be pretty dummy-proof, but spamming the sword basic attack to build up combo points to unleash a finishing move got old really fast when I only had one ability to build Sword points and one to release them. AoE fights were a little more interesting, but it was still basic stuff. I craved more.

My goal in creating a new build from scratch was to make an awesome magic-user focused on critical hits. I did a quick look-up in the convenient search bar for “crit,” which filtered the entire 588 ability list to show me every Magic ability related to critical hits. I wrote down the names of a couple trees that seemed to focus on it and made note of a few outliers tucked away in other trees that might help.

I hastily threw together my set and took it out for testing on some scorpions. I grabbed a passive that made every seventh attack of mine automatically crit, and my basic lightning attack (free to cast and generates combo points) could be spammed insanely quickly to get to that 7th crit as often as possible. In combat, I built up points and then dumped them with an AoE lightning storm guaranteed to crit on everyone around me. It was beautiful. If I got in a pinch, I could always active another ability I grabbed that made my next ability free to cast (and guaranteed to crit, thanks to a passive I picked) and follow it up with massive hammer summoned from the heavens to reduce my enemy to pasty goo.

My damage output was incredible, and I had a lot more variables running for my mind to keep track of and balance for maximum effectiveness. I felt even better about it because I'd dreamed it up and built it myself. Plus, I'd only scratched the surface of this type of build. The potential of looking at 400+ other abilities to try and see if I could squeeze 5% more effectiveness out of this build makes me woozy with happiness.

It's never enough

My first shift was tossing a few ability points (earned once every time the xp bar fills up) into Blood Magic to get myself a single healing ability. It made me sturdier, but where's the fun in sturdiness? I ditched the Blood Magic and grabbed some Elementalism abilities to get that sweet mystical Hammer-of-heaven spell in my hands again. Once again, the ability wheel's search box showed me just what I wanted, including an AoE cone attack guaranteed to crit after killing something.

The animation and spell effect on it is just so cool, too. My character steadies his feet and slams the Hammer forward hitting everything in front of him and sending a ripple of dust and debris scattering from the force. So my character was now half Zeus, half Hephaesteus, hurling lightning bolts and smashing everyone with hammers. You can run while casting a spell in The Secret World, which led to a lot of dancing around during combat—just what a spam-happy player like me likes.

Even better, I realized at this point that the two weapons maintain different combo point systems, and that the Hammer one starts fights at full (5/5) and lightning starts empty (0/5). Even more (ready yourself for a corporate-shill buzzword) synergy! I could rush in, slam my heaviest hitting Hammer attack, then build up combo points on both simultaneously and dump both of them, one right after the other for 2 massive, guaranteed crit attacks.

The best part about the system is that it makes you feel smart. It reminded me of how I felt playing Portal: the developers set me in front of tools, but it was up to me to figure out how to make them work for success. That first moment when you dream up an idea for a build—“I wonder if I could use DoTs to boost my crit attack and then have my crits put on more DoTs”—and then find out that you can actually make it work with careful selection and testing, you feel like a god. (By the way, I actually did that DoT/crit build—it fed itself amazingly.)

Thankfully, Funcom confirmed that players will be able to save full builds (skills, abilities, gear, etc.) and swap between them at any time, and even share them with friends. For lesser tweaking, you can also swap out skills and abilities individually any time you aren't in combat. It's incredibly conducive to brainstorming and testing things out on the fly.

After having my fun as a DPS machine, I was coaxed into adopting a full Hammer tanking build to run dungeons with the developers and other press at the event. My thoughts on those runs will be on the site tomorrow.