It’s always disappointing to see a new MMO stick religiously to the framework forged by previous games. To its credit, The Secret World pushes further than most, departing from the norm in its setting, its systems and its objectives.
It aims high and doesn’t always hit the target, but it’s where it falls back on tried, tested, but unoriginal ideas that it does itself the most harm.
Whether you choose the power-hungry Illuminati, the evil-vanquishing Templars or the chaotic Dragon faction, the story starts when you swallow a magic bee. Gaia is on a recruitment drive, sending these insects on a suicide mission to the oesophagus and granting the recipients access to a secret world of ancient myths, urban legends and devastating power.
It makes for a limp superhero origin, but fits the game’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to its story. Throughout, there’s a resigned pragmatism to the characters you meet – the tonal equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders and a “meh, just go with it.”
Each main mission, whether integral to the central plot or your chosen faction, or specific to a particular character, is introduced with a cutscene monologue. Each scene has a wit and flow that keeps it engaging. Broad horror caricatures are given the chance to grandstand in an environment where, whether they’re waxing philosophical, crazily conspiratorial or just generally unhinged, their fears and paranoia are all real.
The game is never precious with its fiction, and it’s refreshing to see a zombie apocalypse that isn’t afraid to namecheck Left 4 Dead. While Funcom definitely front-load their best characters for the opening town of Kingsmouth, I’m yet to hit the point of wanting to skip past the dialogue to get on with the quest.
What doesn’t quite work is the silent protagonist you play. It’s an understandable omission given the amount of voice-acting already in the game, but as with everything else, the script continually draws attention to your silence. This constant lampshading only serves to alienate you from the experience. More problematic is your complete lack of expression. Your avatar is a wooden stump, standing blankly in scene for people to talk at. I had a moment of genuine shock when my character accepted a mint some 35+ hours into the game. She didn’t accept a second. That would have been much too exciting.
In places, The Secret World has some of the best mission design I’ve seen in an MMO. Your main quests are broken up into three basic types: action, investigation and sabotage. You’ll also find plenty of side-missions littered around the map, taking the form of fetch quests where you have to examine your surroundings and explore various places, hunting for the objective.
It’s the investigation missions that frequently provide the most fun. They’re puzzles, often realised as mini-Alternate Reality Games that require you to step out of the game world and use the internet to find clues to your next goal. (A web browser can be brought up in-game with the B key.) I’ve studied Bible passages that pointed me to the right Secret World NPC, found real websites using in-game business cards, and deciphered Morse code for clues. OK, technically my smartphone did the last one.
There is the occasional instance on the dreaded adventure-game logic, where the goal is more working out what the developers intended than what the clues point you to. One bizarre mission could only be finished by me killing my character and completing it in anima form, the state you exist in before respawning.
Despite such occasional quirks, there’s an immense satisfaction to be gained from solving these puzzles. Communal puzzle solving, moreover, is a clever way to encourage friends to group together in a more meaningful way than a straight series of fights. Assuming of course, that you don’t simply Google directly for the quest solution, negating the whole investigation.
Sabotage missions, meanwhile, are light on the puzzles, but tend to lean heavily on exploration and discovery. They also include stealth sections. These at least attempt something different in the MMO world, but are too wonky in execution to succeed. Set in basements full of security cameras and laser traps, the premise of these missions is that triggering either will cause the room to explode. The problem is that the detection AI is erratic: cameras fail to realise they shouldn’t be able to see through the box you’re hiding behind, and blow the room anyway.
Mission-breaking bugs can also halt your progress by not triggering the next stage of a quest. These bugs seem to exist only on specific servers, with Cerberus, the server my main character lives on, being the most frequently affected. It’s a rare problem, but one that clashes with the natural speed-bumps of the puzzles. Is a quest bugged, or in need of solving? For the moment, it can be hard to tell.
It’s the action missions that provide the weakest link. There’s some variety, but for the most part they’re taken straight from the MMO kiln, moulded as usual. Head to a place, kill some things, trigger a unique variant of that thing. Typically these missions make up the bulk of your game time, and as you progress to new areas, you’ll receive the same objectives, just with different monsters.
That the locations are so interesting goes a long way to make up for the padding. Secret World’s warped yet real-world setting makes a big difference to the tone and atmosphere of a genre typified by elven treehouses and twee medieval villages. Instead, you’ll visit brooding forests, haunted theme parks, infested mines and many more horror-inspired locations.
In its own peculiar way, the environment is often extremely colourful: apocalyptic reds, infected greens, septic blues and a whole host of neat art design choices straight from Cthulhu’s own Crayola collection. That The Secret World forgoes the usual cartoony MMO design does take its toll on the technical side, however. Each of the areas, even the later stages in Egypt, are covered in a dense fog that does its best to hide low draw distances and enemy pop-in. It can’t help but dilute the experience.
Perhaps most disappointing is that some areas feel like wasted opportunities. Throughout the second map, The Savage Coast, a shaft of light rotates overhead from the lighthouse in the bottom corner. The main mission when you finally arrive at this ever-present landmark? Trawl the surrounding area killing five of this, ten of that and fifteen of the other.