Everything Is True
If you want to play a massively multiplayer online game, you only really have two choices of setting: fantasy or space. Until now. Norwegian studio Funcom, which made MMOs Age of Conan and Anarchy Online as well as fan-favourite adventure game Dreamfall, is offering you a chance to join The Secret World.
This has a real-world, modern-day setting with a simple twist: every crackpot conspiracy theory and weird horror story you've ever heard is true. Some nameless darkness is rising, and it's up to three secret societies - the Templars, Illuminati and Dragon - to find out what's going on and stop it. Happily, a bunch of regular people - you, the players - are discovering they have superpowers and are ready to join the fight.
The setting is a fun grab-bag of pop culture references, from horror writers like Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe and H P Lovecraft to TV and film series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost and The X Files - and it's all backed up by a witty script and some memorable characters. But is it enough to get you paying a monthly subscription on top of the price of the game?
The first thing you do in The Secret World is choose your secret society. The Templars are an ancient order of holy crusaders, and they make their home in a beautifully realised London. The Illuminati is a decadent conspiracy of the super-rich, based in New York, while the anarchist Dragon hail from Seoul, South Korea.
You'll only fight the other secret societies in player-versus-player games. When you're adventuring out in the world, you collaborate with the other societies in an uneasy truce, and play through the same missions. But you get different responses when you hand in missions (over your mobile phone), which are often very funny and give your adventures a distinctive flavour - and of course it decides which capital city you call home.
After playing through a training mission - in the form of an out-of-body experience of a monster attack on the Tokyo subway - and selecting which weapons to specialise in, you're off. And it turns out it's not just the setting which is different from the MMO norm.
Yes, you'll be doing lots of grinding through monsters - zombies mostly, in the case of the opening adventures set in a sleepy New England fishing town that's been overrun by creeps and a mysterious fog. But there are other kinds of missions to take on too.
Investigation missions involve exploring, hunting for clues and solving puzzles and riddles to reveal some secret mystery. They might even send you out of the game to Google a verse from the Bible or a bit of world history (although your Google results will also be full of hints from players, so watch out for spoilers!). They can be head-scratching and illogical sometimes, but it's great to see a completely different gameplay style - more like an old-fashioned adventure game like Broken Sword, say - in an MMO.
You also get sabotage missions, which involve stealth gameplay and avoiding traps as well as a bit of puzzle-solving. These aren't that well suited to MMO controls it has to be said, but again, the change of pace is welcome.
You can only have one major mission active at a time (in addition to the main story mission), which seems an odd choice at first - but it helps keep you focused on enjoying the world and the storylines, which are introduced in well-written (if slightly overlong) monologues by characters who have a bit more substance than you usually find in games of this type.
Can You Keep a Secret?
The Secret World takes a different approach to character development, too. There are no character levels as such, and instead of picking a class, you put Skill and Ability points in a radiating "wheel" of abilities that includes every power in the game. You can then pick certain of these - seven active, and seven passive - to put into a "deck" of abilities to take into combat. You can have multiple decks, and the only restriction on what skills you can use is what weapons you have equipped.
These can be magic weapons, melee weapons (swords, hammers and so on) or guns. Within each of these ability sets you'll find skills that allow you to tank, heal and do damage, and skills that work against monsters or other players. If you spend long enough, you can in theory unlock the whole lot on a single character and simply swap your decks around according to the situation - or create a hybrid.
The freedom is fantastic - and the way the points system works, you can very quickly catch up if you decide you want to invest in a new set of weapon abilities later on. It's just a shame that the interface is rather confusing and the lack of character levels can make it hard to know whether you're powerful enough for a particular mission.
Otherwise, The Secret World offers some more normal MMO features, including some rough-and-ready but enjoyable PVP modes and some excellent dungeon encounters for teams of players. But you'll spend most of your time on your own; this is a particularly solo-friendly game, and sometimes you'll wonder why it's an MMO at all.
With only three major locations outside of the cities - you'll move from New England to Egypt and Transylvania - it's a bit lacking in variety, too, and you have to wonder if there's enough content here to keep players paying a subscription for months on end.
But for now, The Secret World is a blast - and with its fun stories, fine writing and modern setting, it's a very sorely needed breath of fresh air in the MMO world.
Our rating 8.0
- A striking, original setting for a massively multiplayer online game
- A witty script with fun characters, interesting stories and good voice-acting
- Intriguing, open-ended character development
- Not enough reasons to group or socialise with other players
- Character development can be confusing
- Buggy in places and may not have enough content for the long term