It may be a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying game, but there’s plenty about The Secret World that makes it very appealing to an adventure gamer: its modern fantasy/horror setting, a major emphasis on story and puzzles, and of course a heavy dose of Ragnar Tørnquist. That’s right, this is the brainchild of The Longest Journey’s renowned creator, so if that doesn’t warrant our attention I don’t know what does. There have been attempts in the past to marry the social shenanigans of an MMO with the puzzle-solving of an adventure game, but the limited audience for games like Myst Online sealed their fates early on. Yet if there’s one company that can make this seemingly unholy marriage work it’s Funcom, a company that have found great success in both genres. Welcome then to The Secret World, a different take on the MMO that could well be an answer to our prayers.
Although this article is arriving nearly a year after the game originally launched, there is good reason for the delay. As a diehard adventure gamer, I can’t leave a story half-done. Thus, the ongoing story arc that runs through The Secret World had to be finished before I could even consider writing about it. That story took me ten months, I kid you not. This is primarily down to two reasons: the first is there’s a huge amount of content in this game for a story-hungry gamer to gorge on, and the second is that you can do a lot of it on your own. I’ve always had reservations about teaming up with other players, but I managed to play the majority of this game solo – right up to the end of the main campaign, in fact, with only the occasional meet-up with a friendly fellow player to advance my character past the difficult bosses. So if the notion of playing with others is daunting then worry not, as you can dip into the social side as much or as little (to a point) as you like.
You start the game by building your character; he or she can be designed however you wish but their final appearance has no bearing on the game itself. You can tweak all sorts of details like hair colour, face shape, clothing and accessories, which lets you create your own doppelganger or your ultimate adventurer. What does alter the game is your next set of options: picking your society. You have the choice between the London-based Templars (a set-up familiar to any Broken Sword fan), the New York Illuminati, and the South Korean Dragon. Whichever faction you choose dictates the city you start in, the action in the opening cinematic, and the contacts you’ll meet. These differences are still fairly cosmetic, as the overarching story plays out the same way for all three, so you can base your decision more on the city you prefer or the costumes you like. There are a few different side missions that are specific to each faction, however, so the completists out there may want to create several characters to try all sides.
Once you’re primped, plucked and ready for action, it’s time to enter The Secret World (you’ll need to create an account with Funcom, but there’s no monthly charge anymore so no need to worry about handing over credit card details). A pretty epic opening cinematic sets up a certain amount of the story, but mostly introduces a mysterious foundation for your character: as your avatar lies sleeping, a small glowing bee burrows its way into your mouth. Waking up with a start, you find strange powers are coursing through your veins. These powers are kept nondescript to begin with, but gradually they grow and finally manifest as glowing auras and bursts of electricity. Before long, after nearly exploding in your apartment, you attract the attention of your chosen faction and are visited by a mysterious representative. This is one of the times when the faction you’ve chosen directly affects the storyline. Haunted by visions and dreams of a world beyond ours, you follow your rep (either willingly or unwillingly) to your society’s headquarters to be fully briefed on the secret world.
As I’m a Brit, I chose the Templars so my experience details the game from their perspective. You soon find out you’re a chosen one who has been recruited to fight for the society. The factions compete with each other over the mysteries of the secret world. As the game is set firmly in the here-and-now, you’ll find references to Google, Wikipedia and various other modern and pop culture phenomena. The eponymous secret world refers to all the weird stuff that happens on our planet that we normal folk are not aware of: zombies, djinn, vampires, draug, trolls; you name it, they exist here. So whilst your starting city acts as your main hub and home, the real drama happens in particular action zones around the globe. So far there are three such zones that make up the bulk of the missions, with each split up into two or three smaller areas. There’s the Lovecraft-inspired Kingsmouth – a damp New England sea town complete with soggy disfigured sea denizens and zombie hordes; the Scorched Desert – an Egyptian nightmare full of cultists and false gods; and finally Transylvania, which speaks for itself really.
You move your third-person avatar using the WASD keys and pan the camera with the mouse or arrow keys. Important features like your quest journal, inventory, map and combat abilities have their own distinct keys. Yes, combat. As this is an MMORPG, you do indeed need to fight to advance your character and the story. If you try to skip ahead you’ll find enemies are too difficult and thus impossible to progress past. This is the main reason for such a long main story arc if you’re playing on your own, as you can’t just run your way through the main quest.
Encounters are frequent, but I found the fighting easy enough to get my rookie head around, so I’m sure most players will have no problem. If you’re spotted by a monster, you can stand your ground or run away with your tail between your legs. You attack by first locking onto your target with the Tab key then repeatedly tapping keys 1-8, which unleash the abilities you’ve previously mapped to them. Small melee attacks can be repeated ad nauseam (like slashes with a dagger or swipe of a sword), but bigger attacks require you to wait between uses (a hail of thunder and lightning, for example), and you're free to move around to dodge return attacks. The EXP (experience points) you gain from quests and kills are translated into SP and AP that can be used to improve your equipment and attacks. If the current encounters are too difficult, you can go back and try some of the easier missions (marked either ‘easy’ or ‘normal’ as opposed to ‘hard’ or ‘devastating’) to improve your ability. If you die, you’re resurrected in spiritual form at the nearest Anima well and must run back to your fallen body before you can continue with the game – this can be quite a trek sometimes, but at least you don’t have to fight past the sections you’ve already completed.Continued on the next page...