You remember how everyone hailed The Old Republic as a massive step forward for MMORPGs — before everyone realised it was actually just World of Warcraft in space, that is? Yeah. The Secret World actually is a significant step forward for MMORPGs.
Why, you ask?
Well, let’s consider its thematic content for starters. The Secret World is a lush, rich combination of all manner of influences, including, among other things, Illuminati/Templar/some Asian dudes conspiracy theories, The X-Files and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. The early stages of the game feel very much like what a hypothetical Arkham Horror Online would play like — you’re an “investigator” for one of the three factions in a town called Kingsmouth (which, in the “creepy American small town” stakes is in the unenviable position of being somewhere between Lovecraft’s Innsmouth and Silent Hill‘s, uh, Silent Hill), you wander around trying to get to the bottom of what has caused a zombie apocalypse (I KNOW, ZOMBIES, but bear with me) and the mysterious fog that has come in from the sea. Also, big slobbering tentacle monsters. And people going “a bit mental.” Apparently Cthulhu is involved at some point, but I haven’t got that far as yet.
So The Secret World eschews the usual fantasy or sci-fi tropes of the MMORPG genre in favour of a modern-day setting dripping with Lovecraftian atmosphere — at least in its initial stages, anyway. And it actually bothers to tell a fully-realised story (with full speech and cutscenes) rather than a limp, loosely-connected set of questlines. But it’s not just the theme and the strong narrative that distinguishes The Secret World from its numerous competitors. The game systems are also an impressive breath of fresh air.
Let’s start with the quests. While some quests do include objectives such as “kill [x] [y]s”, these are usually part of a longer chain of events. Where things get interesting are when you break away from what the game refers to as “action” missions and you get to take on “sabotage” and “investigation” quests. While “action” missions, as you might expect, involve killing things, “sabotage” and “investigation” challenges are a little different.
In a sabotage mission, stealth and environmental puzzle solving is emphasised. In an early example, you have to retrieve a number of security cameras from abandoned businesses around the town and set them up in strategically advantageous places for both the police and your faction. Many of the cameras are out of reach from ground level, necessitating a bit of exploration as you figure out how you can actually reach them. As the mission progresses, you eventually find yourself exploring an instanced “mini dungeon” in which you have to avoid security cameras and laser tripwires while working out a route to disable various control panels without being spotted.
Investigation missions, meanwhile, are a lot more elaborate. The current one I’m working on has 18 steps in it. If you consider that your average MMO quest has 3 steps at most (get quest, kill/collect shit, return to questgiver), this is pretty impressive. When you look at what some of these steps involve, it’s even more impressive.
In investigation missions, the fourth wall is broken slightly as the player has to put their own intelligence to the test. Clues are given for various challenges, and it’s up to the player to figure out how to solve them. An early, simple example involves working out the password for someone’s computer using a couple of hints they’ve left around the place, but later ones see you doing everything from deciphering morse code messages to making use of the in-game web browser to research real-world things. (Of course, you could just cheat using said web browser, but the community is already rather sensitive about spoilers, so you’ll be surprised at how few “answers” are out there already.)
This brilliantly diverse questing system is coupled with an excellent levelling mechanic. Players level up at a consistent rate throughout the game and can eventually unlock all the skills from all the disciplines — but it’s only possible to equip seven active and seven passive skills at once, much like how Guild Wars does things. It’s possible to save these “decks” of skills, however, allowing you to easily switch your character build on the fly according to the situation you’re in or what the group you’re with needs you to do.
Combat, too, is quite interesting. While it’s the usual “hotbar and cooldown” approach, there’s a much more “action game” feel to it here, thanks in part to the fact that positioning is important — particularly when baddies start doing area-of-effect attacks. You can take on a lot more enemies at once than in many other MMOs, giving the game a much more exciting, dynamic feeling rather than simply getting into the rhythm of pressing the number keys that titles like World of Warcraft offer.
In short, The Secret World is evidence that there is still some creativity among those who make MMOs. Not everyone wants to make a World of Warcraft clone, and Funcom have succeeded in creating an experience that is very much its own thing — and very much worth your time and money. C’mon. You can’t say the prospect of doing a raid on Cthulhu doesn’t appeal just a little bit.