Nothing is as it seems. That seems to be the central tenet guiding Funcom’s The Secret World. Everything you see, everything you believe, is a lie concocted to keep you blissfully unaware of the hidden war brewing just under the surface. It is a war between secret societies -- The Dragons, Templars, and Illuminati -- and a war for reality as we know it. Except the balance has shifted. Horrors half viewed from the corner of the eye have slipped into being. Creatures once reserved for storybooks now march on quiet towns and frightened villagers. That’s where you come in, a soldier in one of these armies, and one part of the thin hope our world has left.
You have to admire The Secret World. Even though it launched with a whimper instead of a bang, it quietly carved its niche in the MMO market and collected a ravenous cadre of fans. For a brief moment, it was the talk of the blogosphere. Those days were quickly washed away when Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic launched mere months later. For many players, The Secret World was only a stop along the way to its bigger budgeted, better marketed cousins. Few players and fewer journalists really took note of just how well Funcom pushed the boundaries of MMORPGs.
Actually, wait. I can do better. If SWTOR was the Ferrari stopping to let everyone gawk, The Secret World was the Toyota Camry leaving it in its muddy dust. Now, that’s not to say that SWTOR is a bad game, because it’s not, and I actually rather like it. But let’s be honest, in the context of 2012, it’s a travesty that such a deserving game got passed by for the P2P Titanic.
Take full voicing. When I play The Secret World, I can’t help but be reminded of Grand Theft Auto. Not only is every quest voiced but Main Story missions even feature narrative cutscenes. This isn’t the “choose good or evil” stuff of conversation wheels. It is core, draw you into the experience and don’t let go, storytelling. The voicing isn’t just the same drivel over and over again. There are real characters and, by and large, the actors do a stand up job. Story delivery in The Secret World holds a special place in the pantheon of MMOs -- mainly because it’s better than most of what’s out there.
The stories themselves aren’t half bad either. Now granted, you have to be into the modern day, world-within-a-world, conspiracy theme to get the most out of it, but I would say horror and even urban fantasy fans would find a lot to love too. The Secret World has the distinction of being the only MMO to ever creep me out. From the hanged men only visible when you’re dead, to the haunted house of a burned witch, the game drips with atmosphere. If you can extend disbelief even a little bit, it’s easy to slip into the world Funcom has created. More so if you’re willing to read some lorebook entries.
I won’t bore you by rehashing quest structure or other basics. Suffice it to say that there are multiple types, from kill quests to investigations which require you to solve puzzles and do outside research. The skill system is leveless, endless, and lets you craft a character with specialities in guns, swords, magic, and anything in between. These characteristics add to a unique feel that could best be summarized as unsafe. The Secret World took risks in its design and leaves you flying without a net more often than not. It is one of the few games where you can unwittingly gimp your character. I did but still love what I wound up with.
Now I’d like to talk about what it’s actually like to play The Secret World. All aspirations and lofty goals aside, the game is pretty daunting. Things open well enough -- a magical firefly flies down your throat because you’re just that awesome and then you’re inducted into your secret society. The minute they introduced weapons, though, I was paralyzed. You’re given the option of half a dozen or so with little explanation as to how or why they work. I chose a sword and machine gun, then switched and switched again until twenty minutes had gone by and I walked out in exasperation. This is a running theme until you find your feet.
Getting out into the world, I was confused about which currencies I would use. I was confused about the crafting materials I looted. I was confused about relative difficulties and how I would know where I to be without levels. I was confused about crafting. And you’d better believe I was confused about Skill and Ability Points. Did I mention I was confused about the story and all of its references to bees? That too.
All of this makes for one steep learning curve. I hadn’t played the game for an hour before I was scouring the internet for guides and tip sheets. Stick with it.
One of the beauties of The Secret World is that it reveals itself over time. Like an onion. (Or an ogre). It feels very classic in that sense. It is a large enough game to be steeped in (sometimes unnecessary) mystery but small enough that everything isn’t explained away on some database. Joining a cabal, asking for help, and teaming up with other players to uncover some of the deepest, most unique quests in the genre is a slow-burning joy. As I played, I found that loot and gear and money really didn’t matter to me. I was driven by a desire to know what would happen next, to get at the root of the terrible events of Kingsmouth, and to find out why the restless dead were suddenly stalking the streets. I wanted to experience the game, not undermine it.
And I have to say, even though the amount of freedom did make me second guess myself, I really came to enjoy how open character development is. Since there are no levels, earning experience rewards Skill and Ability Points which can be used to increase your stats and purchase new active and passive skills. Here you can craft a character that supports how you enjoy playing. Swords and elemental magic didn’t just fit my playstyle, they also fit how I imagined myself in this world. TSW’s system let me embody urban fantasy and I loved it for it.