Confession: When I started playing Funcom’s The Secret World I wanted to hate it. I really did. The chip left on my shoulder from Age of Conan was enormous, not to mention my preference for sandbox MMOs over the themepark variation. It seemed absolutely impossible for me to like The Secret World. Ultimately I was wrong. That said, you’re not about to read a love letter to Funcom. TSW is a mixed bag. It just so happens that the bag in question is actually very interesting.
“What is this the %&$*@#% remake of The Wicker Man?!” Those were the exact words that came out of my mouth as a glowing bee flew into my avatar’s. After building one of the ugliest characters in my 17 years as an avid MMO player I was promptly molested by an equally ugly cinematic (I’m talking purely about aesthetics here). At this point I wanted to decapitate a black rooster under a new moon in the hopes that the art director responsible might be haunted for all eternity.
I created an Illuminati character figuring they’d be some sort of hybrid between Grant Morrison’s psychotropic comic series The Invisibles (1994 – 2000) and Patrick McGoohan’s subversive TV series The Prisoner (1967 – 1968). That’s not exactly what I got. Unfortunately the Illuminati do not send a flesh golem disguised as Rod Serling to collect their new recruits, they send a really annoying used car salesman. Perhaps that wouldn’t have bothered me if it all didn’t look so plastic and awkward.
The Secret World’s worst enemy is its character models. A lot of the overall aesthetic is preserved by the solid voice acting and sound design. And when I questioned other MMO players about their opinions regarding TSW they all said nearly the same thing. They loved the world, the monsters and the narrative design. Animations, combat and particularly the character models were most often cited as being deficient. I’ve also learned that the avatars we have now are a serious improvement from their “simian” ancestors from previous betas. For that I’m thankful.
MMO veterans will be familiar with TSW’s basics. The Secret World is a leveling based content progression game. Traditional character levels have been replaced by gear quality levels (QL). Quests display difficulty levels derived from your character’s current QL average.
Players journey along a trail of breadcrumbs to what I imagine will be a cliffhanger of sorts. A revolution in narrative structure this is not. However, TSW does a commendable job of forcing you to stop and think. That’s incredibly different in contrast to new-school MMO games’ philosophy of constant hand holding.
Within the first 30 minutes of play I was solving indirect mysteries that not only rewarded me with game currency and loot, but also made me feel really clever. That feeling of accomplishment isn’t the result of some game designer’s brain hack. If you’re not cheating you’re legitimately solving riddles, puzzles and in some truly evil cases MATH PROBLEMS.
All of this material is masterfully blended into the setting. At no point does TSW feel like an unwelcome pop quiz. The content, especially the investigations, are geared for collaborative problem-solving. Just be aware that general chat is often filled with spoilers. I turned mine off almost immediately and sought out a static group to play with.
Of course players can cheat by looking up walkthroughs. But they’re just cheating themselves out of a challenging experience. Players actually need to use google in order to look up specially crafted web-pages that hold clues regarding investigation missions. The urge to stray off those pages and directly to a walkthrough can be tempting at times. But mark my words, you will regret doing this.
“The Kingsmouth Code” investigation was perplexing. Fortunately for me one of the members of my group had already completed it. I’m pretty sure that without her hint (and my cultural background) I would have been stuck for hours. It’s been a long time since a themepark MMO had crafted material like this.
Now, I’m fully aware of Funcom’s statement regarding combat and progression. Apparently the game-play vastly improves as you advance your character’s deck (class builds). I’d be somewhat OK with this if TSW were free-to-play. But it’s not. You’re effectively saying give us $50 and 15 hours of your time and we’ll unlock the “feel good” (that’s roughly where I started to enjoy playing my grifter). To be fair, combat might have felt better sooner if I had picked another deck. I acknowledge that.
It seems every time I found myself frustrated over a random feature I’d be greeted by a particularly interesting NPC (words I do not say, or write, very often). Sure if it was a woman her breasts were in the wrong place, while the men…well let’s just say they all sing like angels. But enough of that, TSW’s story was actually winning me over. Here I was playing a massively multiplayer game for the PVE. The content is so compelling I started to overlook the flaws I still have serious problems with. Strangely enough I was happy about that (it’s good to be playing an MMO again). There’ve been too many online RPGs that have failed this past decade. And, I learned a long time ago, that just because an MMO has been released it doesn’t mean it’s finished. That might sound a little paradoxical but it’s the truth. There will be patches and expansions. Inevitably some of these issue will be dealt with.
The Secret World also offers faction based PVP and as far as I can tell “All your base are belong to Templar.”
Each PVP map offers different rule sets hypothetically enforced by the Council of Venice. Aside from finding the faction uniforms unforgivably lame, I had a good time… I think. Most of the game-play took the shape of zerg VS zerg. But when I did make a kill It truly felt good. So after experimenting with my build a few times I ended up actually contributing in Fusang. I still have a great deal to learn but that too is exciting.
Problems aside I’m actually enjoying the game. It’s as if TSW represents the first thaw in a decade of continuous blizzard. Many would agree that the MMO industry has stalled while waiting for its fabled “WoW killer” to manifest. And while The Secret World is not that game, its designers were smart enough to realize it didn’t have to be. TSW might be a long way from perfection but it’s quirky nature and exotic content are well worth the price of admission.