When you play this MMO, as you most assuredly should do, it will serve you to remember it is not World of Warcraft. It is not Rift, or Champions Online, neither Age of Conan, nor Star Wars: The Old Republic. It is not for end-gamers or raiders, grinders or power-levelers, PVPers or dungeon runners.
Rather, it is The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, Broken Sword and Syberia, Gabriel Knight and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. It is for seekers and journeymen, detectives and discoverers; it is for explorers, and it is for adventurers.
Consternation likely surrounds the reader who is also a seasoned MMO player at this point. Is The Secret World a game they will enjoy? Familiar MMORPG trappings are apparent; there are definite systems and mechanics at play that one could use to thusly label this game, but close examination quickly reveals this style of MMO is not one that will appeal to a mass market. If this already disappoints, and the games in the second paragraph above generate no recognition, glance at the below score, subtract four or five from it, and turn the page.
Still reading? Good.
Beyond the limited character customisation options, the somewhat hasty justification of your avatar’s situation and subsequent induction to their chosen faction, lies an entire parallel universe to be explored. The scene set is present day, with the twist that here in The Secret World, all conspiracies, myths, and legends are true.
Dubbing this universe created by Funcom “rich” is like trying to explain Bill Gates’ wealth with the same term; technically true, hardly adequate. The Secret World delivers a definite sensation that there is nothing here that does not exist through explicit design, be it the name of a town or the colour of the flowers planted in someone’s front yard. It feels as though every constituent is grounded and has a weighty history attached, as though understanding the lore is but an Internet-search away.
This is highly appropriate given the game’s Investigation missions, but perhaps I should take a step back. The mission (quest) structure is unlike any you will have encountered before. There are several types of mission, and a small limit on the number of each that can be active at any time. The translation of this is that one cannot race wantonly through hub areas, collecting missions with gay abandon, to turn-in simultaneously for experience rewards broaching hedonistic quantities.
Neither can missions be discarded once acquired, and though it is possible to pause them to resume later, it’s not an efficient method of churning through content. Of course Funcom doesn’t actually want you to be churning at all, but to be instead involved in your actions, and to see missions through their multiple tiers and increasing difficulties to their satisfying conclusions.
Investigation missions then. They are challenges to tax the brain. You thought The Longest Journey’s inflatable rubber duck puzzle was mystifying? Well, let me put it this way: there’s a reason why TSW has a browser with Google as its default home-page, built in to the game interface. Your level of tenacity will not dictate whether you use it, but how many times you use it. I’d love to provide an example, but I don’t want to spoil anything; they’re that good.
Some missions require a rethink of your entire MMO approach to date, and this time I can provide an example. An escort mission of sorts mandated the continued living status of my accompanying NPC. After failing twice, I resolved to level a bit and come back later, until I remembered there are, in fact, no levels.
Experience does still accumulate, but its effect is to unlock more skills and abilities. True, some of these are more powerful, but it doesn’t have the same impact as levelling in other games. So I re-examined my equipped skills, and decided a change of weapon was in order – something with more spread to draw greater ire away from my ever-so-squishy charge – and succeeded first time. Tactical skill-based combat is important.
It’s time now to address the Cthulu in the room, the creator whose name is fused with The Secret World. Ragnar Tornquist’s influence is felt rather than seen in the game world. It’s thematically inherent in the narrative and design, a ubiquity that won’t be bound in a single element or facet. Those familiar with The Longest Journey and Dreamfall will immediately recognise his presence. I’d even go so far to say that anyone still longing for Dreamfall Chapters would be well served playing this in the interim.
It would be unfair to reduce an entire studio’s work to one man’s name however, and despite its slightly rocky start, I have not encountered the game that matches The Secret World for raw writing talent. Its story is engaging, its lore intriguing, and characterisation of its NPCs sublime. Its only downfalls are concessions made to appease and appeal to the larger MMO crowd.
I lament the restriction of space that necessitated the brevity of this review. There are many elements of the game not really covered in detail, and I hope to rectify this through State of Play in future issues. For now, I must leave you with this: The Secret World is a breath of fresh air in a stale genre. It is the adventure reimagined for a new era. I love this game, unequivocally. And I sincerely hope you do too.