Today’s post is by Vajra, new Secret World player and occasional guest of the Cat Context Podcast.
Maybe this isn’t true of all MMO players, but of the ones I know (and I include myself in this group), we tend to have a favorite game that is our “home” in the virtual world. You know the one. The game where you know how everything works, where everything is, and by and large you feel pretty comfortable and settled in. Home.
Well to follow that analogy, if your favorite MMO is home, picking up Funcom’s The Secret World is like spending the weekend at your weird but cool uncle’s house. Nothing is quite where you expect it to be, the view is different, and you have to follow someone else’s set of rules while you stay. Oh, and don’t touch Uncle Funcom’s King Crimson records. Those are vintage.
That’s the first standout impression one gets of The Secret World – the different set of rules bit, not the King Crimson bit. Funcom has a totally unique world to share, and makes no bones about it. The central premise is that every cryptic, every myth, every conspiracy is real, true and waiting in your closet to eat you. The Illuminati does pull the strings from the shadows. The world really IS hollow. Cthulhu really IS sleeping off the Atlantic coast. From the moment you make a character, you are hurled into a bizarre world almost devoid of explanation or hand-holding as you learn the ropes of being a sort of latter day superhero. In a way, the lack of protracted explanation of systems in the game reflects the narrative arc the character is living out – a totally mundane city dweller given incredible powers by mysterious forces to prevent an equally mysterious apocalypse.
The second notable standout is the lack of traditional classes. Instead of picking a class that determines what gear and abilities you can use, everyone can use every weapon, every ability. Given enough time, a player can master every weapon and spell in the game. At any given time, however, you can only equip two weapons, and these two weapons determine everything about how your character plays. Want to be a wizard-like glass cannon? Use an assault rifle mixed with Elemental or Blood magic. Want to be a front-line slugger that can take and dish out big hits? Try Hammers and Chaos magic. At Uncle Funcom’s house, you get to play with ALL the toys.
Questing, another standby of the MMO genre has also been given an overhaul. Gone are the overflowing quest journals of WoW and its many would-be successors, peppering our mini-maps with a constellation of skulls to collect, panthers to slay and missing wives to find. Instead, The Secret World gives players a smaller number of cinematic multi-stage (or “tier” in game terminology) quests that play out with distinct narrative arcs. Oh, and aside from side missions, small localized quests picked up often literally off the ground, all quests begin with an animated explanation from the quest giver, with fully-voiced narration, many of which are genuinely funny, poignant or downright creepy.
Speaking of quests, one particularly interesting feature of TSW is the Investigation quest type. When I first started playing the game, I noted a fair amount of complaining from the forums and message boards that Investigation quests are, by all accounts, to be dreaded and avoided. When I got one, I found out they’re my favorite part of the game. Investigation quests don’t ask you to kill 20 fishmen (though some missions do) or collect a lost spring-and-sprocket assembly from a randomly generated monster – Investigation missions ask you to be the goddamn Batman.
Each investigation requires the player to locate some well-hidden information or location in the game, using clues from the quest-giver’s narrative introduction, the game environment, and oftentimes websites set up by Funcom for the express purpose of players using Google to research a mystery. They even provide an in-game web browser for the players to whip out at a moment’s notice. Okay, maybe not World’s Greatest Detective material, but when you work out a certain quest (no spoilers here!) has just given you a clue in MORSE CODE, you will feel like one hell of a sleuth nonetheless.
Last of all, and perhaps most importantly, is the ambiance. Funcom has dug deep and wide to come up with enough urban legends, conspiracy theories, ancient mysteries and other phenomena that can be grouped under “shit what be creepy” to make a world that is dark, menacing, and fascinating. The writing throughout the game is a stand-out feature. The dialogue is witty and snappy, the lore is robust and hints at far more horror than even the players see, and one is never given any doubt that we players are at the front line of the unraveling of the world.
This is where the game shines – while you only physically visit a relatively small number of locales across the globe, the game’s writing does a fantastic job of hinting at there always being more around the corner, that what we see is only the tip of a truly hideous, mind-shredding iceberg. For a game about a secret war going on all around us, I wouldn’t have it any other way.