Massively multiplayer online games tend to fall into two categories: Either they're some generic brand of off-the-shelf fantasy (barring a few exceptions) or they pull heavily from the collective science fiction milieu—especially if it's covered in dust. But few games stand out quite like Funcom's The Secret World, which not only manages to blend fantasy and science fiction rather seamlessly, but adds a third, completely untapped aesthetic vain to draw from: contemporary horror.
This week, The Secret World players will get a chance to sink their fangs into the first part of Issue 12: The Dark Tower Below, the next expansion in The Secret World's roughly biannual update schedule. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of that content, and, honestly, I came away pretty impressed.
For the uninitiated, The Secret World is one of the more unique MMORPGs released this decade. Its modern day setting is only an anchor to its more absurdly fantastical elements— while your hero might don aviators and wear a track suit, they also battle against beasts that, until now, only existed on the pages of an HP Lovecraft novel. The Secret World is a place where conspiracies are all true, mythology is very real, and behind the reality of what we can see is the often nefarious string-pulling of powerful secret societies. But the unique premise extends beyond just the visual, The Secret World deconstructs many of the time-worn tropes of MMORPGs.
Issue 12, however, seems to step more towards the familiar elements of the genre—and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Arguably the most exciting feature of Issue 12 is a smattering of new dungeons and other forms of group content that players can experience, the first of which is meant to help bridge the gap between hardcore and casual audiences.
The dungeon that we got to experience was my first taste of group content in The Secret World. While I've certainly poked at the game since becoming free to play years back, I never got a chance to experience any of the instanced content. The Manufactory—the dungeon we were walked through—made me rethink my decision. Set beneath the Orochi Tower in Tokyo, this dungeon is intended to help players earn the gear they need to tackle The Secret World's tougher content. But judging from what I saw, The Manufactory isn't exactly a cakewalk.
Stylized as a top secret production facility, the Manufactory was home to all manner of sterile-white technology and cold, robotic threats. Like most dungeons, the Manufactory breaks up challenging boss battles with more digestible content, but everything I saw was pretty impressive. I won't dive into the specifics of each fight because finding that out is half of the fun, but I will say I walked away impressed with what Funcom can do with their dungeons. While there were a few groups of monsters that we simply burned through without much problem, each boss encounter (and a few notable mini-boss fights) each boasted layers of complexity that is sure to challenge even the most coordinated groups.
Part of that complexity is aided by the AEGIS system, a recent addition to character progression in The Secret World. An AEGIS is a dynamic piece of gear that you can use to guard against specific types of damage or tailor your weapon to deal damage that an enemy is weak to along with a staggering amount of utility customizations. Before a fight, teams will need to devise strategies for who will set their AEGIS shield to protect against what type, and who will prioritize certain enemies. If you're familiar with running dungeons in other MMORPGs, you'll be intimately familiar with the drill, but the emphasis on the AEGIS system really spices things up.
Even the fundamentals of each fight were complicated and thrilling. Though we were made to be invincible in order to progress at a rapid pace (we most certainly would have wiped countless times on the first fight alone), it was easy to see that there is something really interesting going on in Issue 12's new dungeons. One fight in particular saw us battling enemies that couldn't be permanently killed and instead required us to coordinate diversions and even prevent a counter-attack. It was refreshing and exciting, to say the least.
But dungeons aren't the only big change happening to The Secret World. Issue 12 will also see the release of a new Challenge Journal which, in essence, acts like daily missions. Each day, players will have four daily challenges to work through, as well as several more weekly challenges (with extra bonuses if you complete a total amount of challenges in a given week). While the system is hardly revolutionary, I can see how its inclusion will be beneficial in keeping players motivated.
The challenge log is also one of the best places to earn the new currency that is being introduced to The Secret World. By incentivizing players to take part in various challenges as their time allows, Funcom hopes that more casual players can see meaningful progression instead of being excluded because they don't want to raid or don't have the time.
A new group finder should also help keep players organized and focused. Now expanded, the group finder allows players to make notes on exactly what they're looking to achieve and give more details on who their character is. Hopefully its inclusion cuts down on the archaic use of shouting for group content in The Secret World's hub zones.
We also got a taste of one of the new world bosses, a massive hulking skeletal horror, as well as a massive bird lovingly nicknamed Flappy who will pose a threat for 10-man raids. Both encounters were pretty fun, but the world boss seemed incredibly simple compared to the others. Because the skeletal horror is meant to be challenged by dozens of players at once, he doesn't seem to possess the intricate mechanics of other bosses, just soaking damage while putting out sweeping attacks. But since the event is intended to bring players together for an opportunity at earning some loot, these bosses are likely more about the collective social experience than anything.
There is a lot coming in Issue 12—some of which I can't fully measure the gravity of due to being such an inexperienced player. For example, the plethora of currencies are now being consolidated into one, Black Bullion, with a new currency being added. But Issue 12 definitely seems to have the focus of providing even more group content for The Secret World's hardcore elite, while making smart moves to make sure that everyone else isn't left behind. In that sense, Issue 12 feels like a refinement of the progression rather than an exciting foray into bold new territory. In a lot of ways, it seems like Funcom is taking a few pages from the big book of "Tried and True MMORPG Design" to help accent their already unique formula. That's a good thing, as far as I can tell, because The Secret World seems more approachable than ever.
If Secret World piqued your interest at one point or another but never managed to grab it entirely, now might be a great time to give it another shot. This many years after launch, the experience seems better shaped to funnel you towards the parts that make The Secret World really tick. Though I reinstalled it this weekend to get reacquainted and prepare for the preview event, I suspect that the game will remain on my hard drive for months to come.