(That You Probably Should Be Playing... Shhh!)
Massively multiplayer online games are all the rage these days, but MMORPGs are in a very interesting place. There are countless options to choose from and many are fantastic, but even some of the biggest guns are content to recycle the same old settings, levels and classes; afraid to break step with that Blizzard game. You know the one. The one with the Kung Fu Pandas. So it's probably time for an MMORPG to kick down the door, grab the genre by the lapels and shake it up.
All eyes are currently on The Elder Scrolls Online (erm... good luck with that) and Wildstar (now we're talking) to be the next big thing, but it turns out that one of the biggest and most disruptive MMORPG events already happened back in 2012. I'm talking about The Secret World.
Funcom laughed at high fantasy, elves and castles, setting the action in our world... or at least a hyper-realised underground version of it where everything is true. Every conspiracy theory, every fairytale, every Lovecraft novella, every demon, angel, urban myth and bible story actually happened in some capacity - only we don't know the details. It's fiercely different, defiantly unique and challenges traditional notions of what MMORPGs are supposed to be at every turn - and that actually feels more relevant a couple of years on.
This is a game in which Nyarlathotep and Sasquatch could be hiding in the next menacing cavern or back alley, and in all likelihood probably are.
Everything exists to serve this world, to fuel it and flesh it out, with quest design being the secret weapon in its arsenal. Sure, there are kill and fetch quests aplenty, but the boring chores that usually turn me off the genre sit next to outrageous, fourth-wall breaking, innovative and frankly superb missions that force us to use parts of our brains that MMOs rarely tap into. Sometimes the key to a puzzle relies on a working knowledge of sheet music, morse code or latin, more surreal and involved than any adventure game. Often Amazon.com and various real websites holds dark secrets, smashing the boundary between game and reality. Stealth missions make us look at the levels as real physical spaces, despite usually proving too ambitious for its awkward and clunky traversal. At least it tries, never accepting its limitations.
We actually have to think for ourselves, genuinely investigate, explore and improvise, constantly asking questions and collaborating to prevail. And admittedly swing by Unfair.co for a walkthrough in our more embarrassing moments.
The Secret World does atmosphere better than practically any MMORPG I've ever seen, let alone played. It's dark and brooding, cloying and claustrophobic, hitting you square in the adrenaline glands with creepy sound design, effective use of total darkness and uncanny real-world settings that have gone horribly, preternaturally wrong. Playing in a darkened room can be genuinely tense, skulking through misty woods full of awful things or pitch-black caverns where you can hear the insane mundane babblings of people-that-aren't-any-more somewhere close by. By day you'll bake in the desert sands, by night you'll slink through the shadows of twisted sphinxes. It looks and sounds like nothing else out there.
Its story, too, is superb. Though your character is mute, The Secret World crams more memorable characters into each zone than many top-tier RPGs manage in their entire campaigns. Everyone has something interesting to say, from smooth-talking mummies to jaded mystery writers and a sensational pair of tomb-raiding gay Oxford professors who desperately deserve their own tie-in, regaling you in lengthy cutscenes that are as compelling as they're somewhat overwrought. Some ropey accents are overshadowed by sensational cameos, indeed, Tuvok is upstaged by the freaking Re-Animator. A sentence that I wish I could write more often.
Better yet, it's our story, to the extent that key events kick us out of groups into solo instances. This antisocial and counter-intuitive practice shouldn't make sense. It shouldn't work. Sometimes it doesn't, and yet I always feel like the star of my own Lovecraftian horror show. With a little Twin Peaks, Steven King, Poe and The Mummy thrown in for good measure. What sometimes seems antisocial tends to feel right on message in the big picture, with players pursuing our own agendas and faction missions, yet occasionally agreeing to set aside our differences to complete a common cause or lead an assault into hell. Do be sure to actually ask people if you need a hand - chances are they'll tag along.
It's so rare to see an MMORPG willing to slow things down, to make us want to revel in its impeccably written lore and peek through its darkest corners rather than sprinting to the next objective marker. It's slower, more staccato and more involved than we're used to, an acquired taste that grows sweeter the more you put in. Hell, this is a game that doesn't gloss over the reasons why we're somehow able to respawn after being killed; rather The Secret World embraces it, explains it, even makes bosses moan about it. How we love those magic bees.
A part of me hates that this fantabulous world-building is often overshadowed by traditional MMORPG thinking. Rather than saying "I need to become stronger to defeat this force of monolithic evil wielding a sword capable of putting Gods to rout," I'm actually saying "I need to tweak my PBAoE rotation and replace a redundant builder" -- to the extent that I often wish that The Secret World was actually a tabletop RPG setting or smartly-directed TV series. But then again, that would be ignoring Funcom's greatest achievement: making MMORPG mechanics one huge elaborate puzzle in and of itself.
Whereas most MMOs lock you into classes and levels, The Secret World presents us with a wheel. That wheel. Like everything in The Secret World, it's terrifying, overwhelming, implacable, nightmarish and utterly wonderful: an enormous configuration of symbiotic skill trees scattered throughout numerous weapon types, that lets us experiment and create our own characters specifically for the role we need and the enemies we face. It's the MMO equivalent of Lemarchand's Box, just as deadly and pregnant with dark secrets. Instead of simply honing one playstyle, we'll mix and match from weapons and abilities, constantly tweaking and experimenting to finally discover the solution to a difficult problem.
There's no such thing as 'trash mobs' in The Secret World. Everything will give you a stern fight if you're not cunning enough to avoid it... or smart enough to outgun it.
I spent much of the game cultivating a curious mix of close-range shotgun blasts with the elemental power of lightning and fire, each hit fuelling various passives and causing me to hit harder, while slowing my foes down. But then I ran into enemies who laughed at my crowd control and tore me to pieces. Some even became stronger when I attempted to lock them down! Suddenly I was forced to think on my feet, looking into the interesting interplay between 'strike' abilities and hang on those hammer skills look tasty and maybe the fluid defence passive could be useful and what about a rocket launcher ooh it has a separate questline oh bugger it's four in the morning.
Having to unlearn much of what we know about RPGs can be tricky, and can lead to intense frustration (if not a week spent fuming), but the payoff is fantastic. And that's barely scratching the surface.
So why isn't The Secret World the MMORPG on everyone's lips, then, and why do many gamers still seemingly not know or care about it? A combination of factors, really, from a fairly low-key and buggy launch (well done EA) to the underwhelming PvP and, frankly, that many longtime MMO fans couldn't break their habits. A few mis-steps didn't help, including skimpy premium cosmetic outfits that don't fit the setting at all (*cough*Snake Charmer*cough*). There's still plenty of rough edges, many of which still haven't been ironed out and never will be.
Not to mention the elephant in the room: the subscription fees, which kept out griefers but also felt a little too ambitious for a world that was pleasingly dense yet undeniably rather small.
Thus many ignored it or didn't take the plunge themselves. I should know, because I'm one of them! Carl reviewed The Secret World, and I fell in love with the videos of its investigation missions, but simply couldn't bring myself to lock into a credit agreement.
But then it went Buy To Play. I took the plunge when it did and, frankly, I hate having to come up for breath. Too recklessly innovative, left-field and counter-intuitive to exist by conventional logic, yet too wonderful and disruptive to ignore, The Secret World is nothing less than the MMORPG revolution I was waiting for. And, perhaps, that you've been waiting for too.
I'll let you know when they run a deal for the massive edition. Maybe you'll join me.