It’s been a hard week for you. As if swallowing a bee in your sleep wasn’t bad enough, the invasive insect seemed to grant you the gift and curse of supernatural power. You won’t be getting the security deposit back on your apartment, but after much trial and error, you seemed to get it under control. Just as you began to feel in control, a knock at your door heralds a messenger, intent on ruining your day by informing you that you’re now part of a hidden, secret world that exists in the shadows of the everyday world. As an employment bonus, you’re given an all expense paid trip to a small town nestled along the New England coast, where an otherworldly mist has turned the residents to zombies and drawn all manner of vicious beast to the cozy hamlet. By this point, you and your character are undoubtedly sharing the same thought: what have I gotten myself into?
For a veteran MMO player who’s explored every inch of World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, tackled the tallest towers of Everquest’s Norrath, cleaved through the frontiers of the Old Republic, and fondly remembers the twelve days that Tabula Rasa was live, The Secret World all at once rekindles familiar notions and defies long-held conventions.
Now, if you’re a jaded online gamer who’s old enough to remember when polygons were all the rage, you’ve heard that before. Nearly every MMO since World of Warcraft sets out to destroy Blizzard’s behemoth, sometimes going so far as to cite the game directly in its ad campaigns. It seems the main strategy many companies decide upon as a path to Blizzard’s defeat is to copy World of Warcraft as much as possible. As fallen flops like Aion can attest, the strategy has about as much success as a PUG raid.
Funcom has a history of innovation in the MMO genre, with varying degrees of success. Anarchy Online, released in 2001 just two years after Everquest, was the first MMO to feature a sci-fi setting, as well as the first to offer a free trial. It’s also well-known for having one of the most problematic launches in MMO history, yet is equally famous for its remarkable recovery, stabilizing it as a major contender at the time. Anarchy Online is still live to this day.
It would be seven years before Funcom’s next MMO offering, Age of Conan. Once more, the company built a game around innovation, providing a unique and visceral combat system, a remarkably detailed world, a full range of voice acting, and the first M-rated MMO for violence and nudity. Though Age of Conan lacked staying power and saw its popularity quickly fall due to content issues and the lack of social depth, the game remains an enjoyable and unique experience. Sometimes, the simple act of physically mounting your horse rather than having it poof from a cloud between your legs can add much-needed immersion to an MMO, and is indicative of the kind of detail Funcom can create.
Right from the start, it’s obvious that The Secret World continues Funcom’s precarious legacy of innovation and experimentation. After the comfortingly familiar steps of creating an account, signing in, and choosing your faction, you’ll notice a few expected items absent from the character creation screen. Firstly, there’s precisely one race to choose from: human. This game does take place on modern Earth after all and, despite the daydreams of countless gamers, scantily clad elves aren’t an option. Secondly, you’ll move your mouse around to find and select your class only to find there’s no class list to choose from. Cautiously, you click “Finish,” wondering if perhaps you missed something.
The only gripe I feel that bears mentioning is the sparse pickings when it comes to customization. One race to choose from aside, what you get to work with is a handful of faces, a spartan display of hairstyles, and a selection of clothing items that make even my closet look like Macy’s. I understand that the game may be trying to establish the character at first as an everyman or everywoman, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of customization for the body in general, which lacks even a basic height slider.
You’re then treated to a cutscene that, following your involuntary bee ingestion and subsequent empowerment, takes you to a hub zone dependent on your faction. Let’s talk about the factions for a moment.
No matter which of the three factions you choose, you essentially play the same game, progressing through the same zones and the same quests, and obtaining the same powers. Your faction is just, essentially, who you’re fighting for. Your training area, certain clothes, and a handful of faction-specific missions are all that depend upon faction, as well as your “team” in PvP scenarios. You can group with any other player you wish, regardless of faction.
First are the Templars, based in London. Before you conjure up images of cackling, hand-wringing villains from Assassin’s Creed infamy, rest assured that the Templars of The Secret World take a different approach. Obsessed with law, order, and tradition, the Templars take the fight to supernatural threats in the name of balance and preservation. They’re no Boy Scouts though; often, you’ll be reminded that helping every needy soul in your journey is a waste of effort next to the bigger picture.
If morose contemplation on the nature of right and wrong isn’t your thing, the Illuminati are looking for members as well in New York City. You can hardly hear the phrase “secret society” without the Illuminati popping to mind, and The Secret World makes them a major player, always on the hunt for more power and more influence. If you don’t mind bloody hands, questionable ethics, and an unrelenting demand for power, sign on up.
And that just leaves the Dragon, hailing from the South Korean city of Seoul. Perhaps the most intriguingly obtuse faction, the Dragon embody chaos, relishing in its reign over every aspect of life. Unlike the other factions, which fight for material purpose, the Dragon seek only to continue the universe’s inherent legacy of chaos. And with the sorts of crises popping up all over the world, there’s plenty of chaos to be had.
Regardless of the faction you choose, you soon discover that there’s a world existing beneath the façade of everyday reality, where angels and demons vie for control, monsters and ghosts stalk the unsuspecting, and gods seek to dominate this puny world. The Secret World brings together many elements of cultural myth and legend from all over the world, both folklore and fiction. The game is split into three incredibly expansive hotspots: Kingsmouth, a peaceful coastal village in the USA’s eastern seaboard that’s suffering from a severe sea monster infestation (heavily inspired by Lovecraftian Cthulhu lore), Egypt, where a bloodthirsty pharaoh is trying to reclaim his empire with the help of his cruel god, and Transylvania, where vampires prove they’re a lot more threatening when they don’t sparkle.
That’s all well and good, but what about the gameplay itself? Controls are straightforward and if you’ve played any MMO in the past ten years, you won’t have trouble picking it up. Left mouse button selects objects and enemies, right mouse button held down moves the camera. The controls are responsive and solid and your character’s movement through the world suffers very rarely by way of getting stuck or glitching. And you’ll need those responsive controls to survive The Secret World’s combat.
The first thing to note about combat is the powers themselves. Remember how you don’t choose a class when creating a character? That’s not because you choose a class later on in the tutorial. It’s because there are no classes. You won’t find other MMO conventions either, like creeping experience gain or levels. There are nine weapon types to choose from (and you can have two equipped at a time), ranging from assault rifles to swords to magic. As you kill enemies and complete quests, you gain Skill Points and Ability Points. Skill Points can be spent raising your proficiency with a certain weapon, from rank one to ten. Skill points are spent purchasing new powers from an extensive radial tree of options, and there is no limit to how many weapons you can choose from. Bored of shotgun and swords? Stick some points into elemental magic and pistols. If you’re devoted enough and play the game long enough, you can learn every skill for every weapon in the game. Talk about versatility.
Choose your powers wisely, though, because you have seven quickslots in which to equip them, much like Guild Wars. You also have seven passive slots (like bonus to blade damage or cause a DoT whenever you critical your target) to help balance things out between your powers. You can switch them out any time you want outside of combat and even save builds, so it’s not that much of a hindrance.
Combat itself is the familiar amalgam of damage, heals, DoTs, AoE attacks, status effects, and all the other fruits of an MMO cornucopia. Though not quite as busy as Age of Conan’s dynamic combat system – The Secret World still operates on target and attack mechanics – players will still need to possess situational awareness and keep light on their feet. Many enemy attacks can be dodged, and some even have helpful indicators that appear as an aid. To that end, players can double-tap a movement key to leap and roll in that direction. The added dynamics keep combat stimulating, though it lacks Funcom’s usual penchant for innovation. Functional and time-proven is acceptable, though I would have liked to see what more they could have done with it. The tendency to fight multiple enemies at once begs for a free-swinging combat system like Age of Conan.
But just as the combat lulls you into a sense of familiarity, you come to the quest system. Here’s where Funcom rebuilt the system and succeeded. Gone are the days of completing every quest in a town or hub then moving on to the next one and clicking on all the yellow exclamation marks before trotting off with your fifteen random tasks to complete. The Secret world has a story to tell, and a remarkably detailed world in which to tell it, and it takes its time urging you onward.
The primary focus of the game lies in the story quests, taking you through each zone from beginning to end. The best comparison would be the main questline from an RPG like Oblivion or Skyrim. Often, these quests will take you through other areas that hold side quests or important exploration areas. You’ll always have a story quest in your quest log, but, like Oblivion or Skyrim, don’t try to blow through them one after another or you’ll miss the real meat of the game.
Like many other MMOs, The Secret World is filled with people who are either in dire need of help or too lazy to go collect ten items themselves. Fortunately, a mute and heavily armed stranger who walks up to them and stares at them with unblinking eyes is enough to convince them that you’re the guy or gal for the job. “Action quests” comprise the bulk of the game’s missions, and you can only carry one at a time. After playing so many MMOs in which I couldn’t care less about what the quest giver had to say, I was initially skeptical about the fact that each action quest is preceded by a voice-acted and personalized cutscene in which the quest giver laid out what he needed. Though The Old Republic had already planted its flag in this ground, even there I found myself jaded after the umpteenth cliché evil Sith character with the same personality motioning with the same stock animations.
I haven’t yet skipped a cutscene in The Secret World. The voice acting is superb and the script is generally very well done. Each character is unique and interesting, rather than just some quest vending machine, and the quests they give are usually quite compelling, ranging from the humorous (testing out a homemade flamethrower for a junkyard McGyver) to the morbid (putting the risen corpses of mass graves back to rest). Throw in varied cinematography and an unpredictable world and you’ve got the makings for the most gripping quests yet seen in an MMO.
Scattered around the haunted landscapes are item quests, of which you can hold three at a time. These quests are usually given by an item on the ground or an out of place corpse or anything else that catches the player’s eye. They’re short and sweet and usually act as deviations to help flesh out the world.
But perhaps the most innovative element of The Secret World comes in the form of investigation missions. Let’s face it, games these days hold your hand. The utterly unforgiving nature of titles like Everquest likely won’t be seen again, outside of hidden gems like Demon’s Souls. Investigation missions provide a unique and intense challenge, but demanding a little cerebral exertion rather than physical. The only way to get through these missions is to think, deduce, and flex your mind. To give any sort of spoilers here would be to undo the fun to be had with these missions, so I’ll keep it vague.
Don’t expect the game to give you anything to help with these missions. No location markers, no hints, nothing but what it wants you to do. Unless you’re a savant and have memorized things like Morse code, Arabic, Hebrew, fictional code ciphers, and 17th century Dutch painters, you’ll need a little assistance. Funcom expects you to do a little research and has even included a button to pop open an in-game browser window so you can search. These puzzles can be extremely difficult to figure out, but therein lies the fun and an immense sense of accomplishment once you hear that ding that signifies you got it right. I’d take that victory over a raid any day.
Sabotage missions are similar to action missions, but require you to be stealthy in rather high-risk areas. Fortunately, enemies in these areas have a vision cone that makes Metal Gear Solid baddies look like Hawkeye, so they’re not too difficult.
Finally are the dungeon quests. Accommodating up to five players, dungeons are exactly what they sound like. You and four group mates tackle a challenging instance and take down a boss at the end. Funcom’s detail and the inherent creep factor of The Secret World are alive and well in these raids and make them fun to go through. They feel like a real assault of a five-man squad rather than a bunch of people piling on a big bad monster with tons of hitpoints. But if that’s not enough of a challenge for you, a Nightmare mode opens up once you’ve gone through a dungeon once. You and your team better be geared up and bring your A game if you want to survive that.
But if even that isn’t enough of a rush for you, then dive into the secret war, Funcom’s version of PvP. While there’s no open-world PvP, there are a few options for taking on the other factions in some rough and tumble action. Popping open the PvP map lets you select from two battlegrounds where capture and hold is the name of the game. The first tasks you with keeping control of a central area while the other has you keeping a hold on a number of relics. With three factions going at it, new tactics can be employed, such as waiting for the other factions to weaken each other, then moving in for the kill.
Lastly is a persistent warzone where numerous locations are under constant contest. Armies of Templars, Illuminati, and Dragon clash to take control of these temples, and the battles can get very hectic very quick. Upon entering the zone, you’re able to pick up three PvP-specific quests for killing enemy players, taking over spawn points, and taking over a temple. The latter causes a bit of an issue with this zone. There really isn’t much in the way of reward for defending a temple that your faction owns. In fact, if you own all the temples, you WANT the enemy to take over one so you can reclaim it and complete the quest. In the end, it feels less like a war for domination and more like a dance to get the most reward. Special currency earned in PvP combat can be used to purchase some of the game’s top gear and weapons.
After playing through The Secret World, I find myself with few complaints, but the problems I do have can potentially be significant. For one, I just said I “played through” the game, and that should never be said about an MMO. However, with the linear and story-driven structure, the game feels less like an open-world MMO and more like a multiplayer RPG. The replayability suffers immensely from the fact that you can only choose one race, there is no variance in quest zones, and you can master any and every weapon with one character. If you make a new character, he or she will follow the exact same path as your last one. I’m a self-avowed victim of altitis in every MMO I play, and I believe creating different and unique characters extends an MMO’s longevity more than anything. I haven’t created even a second character in The Secret World yet, nor do I intend to, unless I seek to play the same game again. That said, Funcom is constantly adding in new quests to the game (and they’ve said that they might remove some as time goes on too), so we shall see.
Customization continues to be limited, despite clothing stores in London and an in-game cash store. The problem isn’t so much lack of clothing as much as lack of variety. Funcom has added more items and will continue to do so, but more options right from the start would have been nice. Additionally, all cash store clothing items are per character (instead of the much more common per account), making you think hard about buying anything because of it.
Ultimately, The Secret World offers a unique, challenging, and immensely enjoyable RPG experience. From the eerie setting to the compelling story, it’s a world in which you may find it easy to lose yourself for hours at a time. Once more, Funcom has focused not on emulating other games nor trying to topple them, bur rather on delivering an exceptional RPG bristled with its own style, flair, and innovations. Time will tell whether it has the legs to keep up with more traditionally-styled MMOs, but for what it is, I’m certain that the gaming world will always have room for experiences like The Secret World.