I've said it before and I'll say it again: you probably ought to investigate The Secret World. It's an MMORPG like no other, a thought-provoking, deeply atmospheric and peerlessly-written experiment that flies in the face of everything you'd expect from the genre. A twisted version of our world where everything is true, every fairy tale, conspiracy theory and horror story, where a working knowledge of sheet music and ISBN numbers is just as important as a deadly skill rotation. Not to mention steely nerves and a willingness to actually flex your grey matter.
Shame about the ending, though. The Secret World closed like a TV season finale, promising grand revelations and a triumphant return to Tokyo: the horrifying ground zero that kickstarted the game's events. Two years and a shift from subscriptions to 'buy once,-play forever' later and I'm finally in a position to say "konichiwa" from Kaidan. Promising a new playfield, horizontal progression system and the beginning of the end for the current story arc (if time is actually linear in The Secret World... goodness, there's a whole separate article in there), this is the descent into madness we've been waiting for.
Was it worth the wait? For both hardcore and lapsed fans, Issue #9 is arguably the pinnacle of the experience thus far. A terrifying, chilling, haunting, deeply referential lungful of filthy air.
My wisdom flows so sweet. Taste and see.
Arrivederci Venice, Hello Tokyo
Assuming that you've already pocketed the Council Seal (a quirky barrier to progression that we'll discuss in more detail at the end of the article), you'll likely be champing at the bit to charge straight through the Kaidan portal, but there's some unfinished business to take care of first. Upon returning to Arturo Castiglione in Venice, who still exhibits some of the most deeply inconsistent voice acting I've ever witnessed -- is he Italian? Welsh? Scottish? -- some light investigation quickly escalates into a desperate race against time, snipers and crackling lasers. It's a lengthy and enjoyable mission that forces us to think about the level as a physical 3D space, boasting some platforming and light environmental puzzling, but ultimately it's just foreplay before the main event.
Emerging through the Kaidan portal quickly reveals Funcom as a developer at the height of their powers despite their limited resources. We meet a familiar character from the very start of the game, bringing us full circle, blurting out disturbing dialogue that impossibly manages to turn the original tutorial into a horrible, guilty, canonical mind assault. The nowhere mouths! You... you're one of them! Yes, we were. We all were.
A tense crawl of the station follows, introducing us both to the AEGIS system (more on that later) and a swathe of impeccably-written lore, including a new and deeply sinister new voice that oozes seductive slime and arrogance from practically every sentence,
This section engenders a genuine fear of the unknown, of the terrors ahead, and sets the tone brilliantly for the moment you blearily step into the district of Kaidan itself.
The new Kaidan zone is artistically and thematically unique, both in terms of The Secret World and practically any other game I've ever played. I expected to find destruction but instead encountered desolation, a city unnaturally pristine, skyscraper lights and perversely cheerful billboards still flickering, sterilised of human life and corrupted by filth-drenched burbling unlife patrolling the streets. Their streets. A cool colour palatte of muted greys and blues, alongside a haunting minimalistic soundtrack, lends the city a soulful quality, isolating you in a district that should be bustling with activity yet feels preternaturally, disturbingly wrong.
Most impressively of all, the art direction forces you to think deeply about the Filth and its motives. It's easy to understand an enemy bent on mindless obliteration, but the Filth want something... worse. Something more terrifying, content to corrupt and sterilise, not destroy. We can hate a foe we understand, but fear stems from realising that we may never truly comprehend what this implacable ancient menace actually wants from us.
A profound feeling of emptiness doesn't equate to actual empty space, however. Tokyo is very much alive as hardened (if not utterly insane) individuals cling to life in the metropolis, granting us moments of reprieve and brought to life by more examples of Funcom's peerless writing. A clan of latter-day samurai sally forth against the menace from a noodle bar, while a deliciously depraved gangster rules over his empty empire from a functional Pachinko parlour. However, a hedonistic Oni overlord steals the show, operating a clan of demon assassins grown fond of Tokyo from a steamy bathhouse. Packing some engrossing cutscenes, memorable personalities and plenty of optional dialogue to pore over, they're a joy to interact with.
In terms of challenge, the new roaming enemies have been balanced well. Evolved Filthy bipeds put up a stiff fight due to their new regenerating shields (again, we'll get to that) and punishing attacks, yet won't prove an insurmountable challenge to relatively casual players clad in QL10-10.1 gear. As per usual, there's no such thing as a 'trash mob' here, making evasion and avoidance a perfectly viable alternative to combat. Better yet, new Oni foes prove to be the most entertaining enemies in the entire game to date, capable of abusing teleportation abilities and asymmetrical telegraphs to keep us on our toes. Nightmare dungeon veterans may find themselves burning through mobs relatively quickly, though.
Having taken in the sights, you'll naturally want to indulge in some missions. A handful of entertaining sidequests are up for grabs, ranging from traditional kill and fetch objectives to a surprisingly hectic tower defence variant that organically pushes solo players into cooperative groups, but the new story quest line is quite honestly one of the most engaging, innovative and atmospheric adventures I've ever encountered in an MMORPG. Or, in fact, most RPGs of recent years.
Spoilers will ruin the experience for you, so I'll keep it brief. Even the most conventional missions challenge you to warp between the mudane and hell dimensions to circumvent obstacles, engage in demonic power struggles or desperately try to keep your footing in a booby-trap infested tenement. They're fascinating, but pale in comparison to two genuinely terrifying exploration missions steeped in classic Japanese horror conventions and curated as tightly as any top-tier survival horror title. The sound direction, art design, jump scares and continually-increasing sense of dread is palpable, enough to reduce me to burbling aggressive nonsense in my abortive Let's Play, and profoundly brilliant.
It's very much a case of quality over quantity, however. Despite their exceptional design and writing, the story quest runs straight into a cliffhanger, while the number of optional quests is decidedly limited without buying a new mission pack. This would be unacceptable for a premium expansion, but a little perspective works wonders. Roughly eight British quid grants you more replayable content than we've ever received in an issue before, alongside an entirely new zone and a new progression system to pursue. Speaking of which, I suppose it's time we discussed...
AEGIS: Three Colours Out Of Space
It's here! It's finally here! Oh frabjous day! After a year of teasing and titillation, Funcom have deployed AEGIS, a new gameplay mechanic and progression that threatened to completely change the way we play. As such, I fully expected to need a whole new article if not a series of videos to fully comprehend its horrifying arcane depths.
So colour me pleasantly surprised, not to mention slightly relieved, that I can sum it up in a single paragraph.
Every enemy in Kaidan is completely protected from regular damage by a shield that comes in three tasty colour-coded flavours: Daemonic, Psychic and Cybernetic. In effect, an extra HP bar that needs to be depleted before we can hit them directly. Thankfully we're summarily provided with a corresponding trio of AEGIS Controllers to slot into either our primary or secondary weapon, which allows a percentage of their damage to deplete an enemy shield of the same colour. Just match the colour of the controller to the colour of the foe's protection, then fire away.
And... that's it. This is a review, not an FAQ, but beyond a nervy global cooldown for switching controllers mid-battle (mapped to the 9 and 0 keys) and a handful of bosses with multiple layers of shield to scythe through, AEGIS is as straightforward as it gets.
Despite its simplicity, AEGIS succeeds at making us think more carefully about our abilities and how they're optimised. I was dismayed to discover that my crit-dependant Elemental Strike build couldn't be relied upon to strip down shields quickly enough (Lady Luck is ever fickle) but quickly scratched a sustained DPS Assault Rifle/Shotgun deck together to complete a quest. Followed by a chain-and-manifestation build designed to quickly annihilate the shields of entire enemy squads in a decisive blitzkrieg of lightning, ice and debilitating crowd control effects. Crucially, I never hit a brick wall, only new opportunities to think my way around problems. My mind is my greatest weapon, ruinous magical shotguns and millions of volts of sizzling electric death notwithstanding.
What is clear, however, is that the system feels slightly vestigial in its current state; fun yet lacking depth and a reason to sink time into an currently unnecessary (and glacial) progression system. Funcom has big plans, that much is clear, but will need to expand on their current foundation in order to prove AEGIS' worth to hardcore players.
First, though, they may need to address a bigger problem for an entirely different demographic.
Content Gating: One Does Not Simply...
...walk into Tokyo. Trite, yes, but definitely appropriate since Funcom doesn't want inexperienced players bumbling into Kaidan and experiencing the storyline out of chronological order. To this end, you'll need to acquire an item called the Council Seal before unlocking access to the quest chain and the new content. The problem with this setup takes a little explaining, which I'll endeavour to cover as quickly as possible.
It all started last year in Issue #8, which introduced 'Scenarios' in an attempt to give hardcore players a reason to keep on fighting the good/manipulative/chaotic fight. Subscribing to the Arena DLC formula we've seen in the likes of Borderlands' Underdome and BioShock 2's Protector Trials, these infinitely-replayable Virtual Reality skirmishes didn't advance the story in any meaningful way, but contained a new horizontal progression system, ability-boosting 'augments' and separate currency, with which you can buy the aforementioned Seal after spending a considerable amount of time grinding away at context-less mini-missions.
Not an issue (no pun intended) for die-hard Bees, but unfortunately Funcom failed to account for an important and potentially sizeable proportion of their audience: lapsed fans who completed the story campaign, but stopped playing regularly before Issue #8 released. I personally know plenty of gamers who've been waiting to return as soon as the Tokyo content launched (including our own Carl Phillips and even editors of other gaming websites), but they'll effectively have to spend several days grinding away in order to finally unlock access to content they've already bought with real money.
This makes Issue #9 slightly more difficult to recommend than it ought to be, especially since the Tokyo arc has the power to pull back a lucrative slew of old hands. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'd urge Funcom to consider retooling the current status quo by awarding players the Council Seal for successfully completing any single scenario. That way, the story remains intact and players get a chance to taste the Augment system, but can then move on or continue running Scenarios because they want to.
At least there's a happy ending. You can alternatively spend a cool one million PAX (the in-game currency) on a forged Council Seal, but to purchase it, you'll need to spend more real money on a premium mission pack and complete a lengthy investigation mission. Laying down even more cash to experience content you've already paid for seems abhorrent on paper, but in practice, the quest in question is utterly, recklessly, astonishingly stupendous and worth the price of admission by itself. Spoilers would run everything, so I'll simply say this: don't get eaten by a Grue.
- Haunting, soulful and astonishingly atmospheric
- Masterful writing, art direction and mission design
- Superb value at roughly £8
- A solid start for the functional AEGIS system...
- ...but AEGIS progression feels underdeveloped at present
- Troublesome content gating for lapsed players
- Arturo Castiglione still can't decide what country he's from
The Short Version: Expansive, entertaining, chilling and even profoundly terrifying in parts, The Secret World's first foray into Tokyo is a resounding success. Quality cannot be denied, while its premium quantity is still impressive at a budget price point.
I agonised over whether it was appropriate to award Issue #9 a score, lacking previous benchmarks for comparison, but ultimately we've played plenty of similarly-priced DLC packs over the last few years. Only a scant few have offered this much meaningful content, and in such sensational style.