In many ways the massively multiplayer game market is at a crisis point. We’ve seen numerous games launched that attempt to ape World of Warcraft’s massive, enduring success. But more and more these games are falling by the wayside, a victim of a generation of gamers brought up on the WoW way of doing things and constantly hungering for bigger, better, more content.
Funcom’s The Secret World is one of the more adventurous attempts to step out of the WoW mode. There’s a lot in the interface and control scheme that feels familiar, but everything from the questing design to the setting to the levelling process is decidedly different.
The Secret World comes from the mind of Norway’s Ragnar Tournquist, a game developer who earned a cult following through the iconic adventure games Dreamfall and The Longest Journey. It is set during modern times, focusing on three secret societies that help contain outbreaks of evil stuff in the world. Rather than borrow from one particular horror or monster trope, TSW borrows them all, jamming together everything from Norse Mythology to the writings of HP Lovecraft.
Players take the role of initiates, in touch with ‘magic’ and selected by one of the societies. You are then sent out into the world, to the fictional Solomon Island in the USA, where not only are the dead coming back to life, but there is also something strange emerging from the ocean. Cue an adventure that eventually has one travelling to Egypt and Transylvania, as one attempts to uncover the wider story of what is happening.
Funcom has designed TSW as a ‘level free’ experience, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t skills to learn and tangible ways to progress your character. As you kill monsters and complete quests you earn two kinds of resources. The first are skill points, which are used to raise the level of weapons and gear that you can equip (this acts as a gating mechanism – you need higher quality gear in order to move into new areas of the game). Also key to this is the fact that clothing is purely cosmetic – power comes from a set of talismans that you equip. This makes finding a great look separate from improving ones abilities.
The second resource is action points, which are used to buy active and passive weapon skills. The intent is that you can mix and match these weapon skills to create your own unique build (and later in the game you’ll need a few tricks up your sleeve to counter certain monster abilities). You’ll always want two weapons equipped – by being smart about where you spend your AP you can gather skills from both trees that complement each other. While it is a nifty enough system, one of the major issues for newcomers is that it is somewhat opaque, and the use of two weapons isn’t immediately obvious.
Combat itself can feel both tough and repetitive, especially when moving on to new zones within the game. If you don’t have your gear up to scratch you will struggle to move on, and the game really does encourage doing every quest you can find in an area before leaving.
This questing system is quite different to other MMOs. There are several kinds of quests – at any point in time you can have an overarching story quest given by your faction that spans multiple zones, a ‘main’ quest and three side quests active. If you pick up a new main or side quest you’ll pause the progress of the one you are currently on.
While this strictly limited number of quests can feel frustrating at first, one soon finds the inherent rhythm to questing in TSW. Most quests will end close to the start of another one (when you finish a quest you phone a report in to your faction, so no need to return to the questgiver), and while you’ll ultimately find yourself revisiting areas over time, following the flow of the nearest quests keeps the experience fluid.
The quests themselves vary from run of the mill kill and fetch quests to TSW’s more unique additions to the genre – investigation quests. These involve following clues both inside and outside of the game in order to solve a mystery. To this end Funcom has created several fake websites with information crucial to questing, as well as encouraging the use of Wikipedia and other resources through an ingame browser.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the WoW model of MMO design is that TSW is built around the journey rather than the endgame. Every zone has hours and hours of gameplay, designed to get the player immersed in the characters and the overall mystery. Funcom promises to continue the story through regular content updates, although plans for the frequency and complexity of these remain a mystery.
Having only launched this week, the bulk of gameplay in The Secret World remains a mystery to us. However after spending some time adventuring in the first two areas of Solomon Island we are interested enough to keep exploring, and enjoying the mashup of everything from zombie invasions to creepy carnivals. But to date it feels like a very different, engrossing MMO experience, and one that we want to spend more time with over coming weeks.