The Secret World: The MMO BioWare couldn't make?
24th Feb 2012 | 11:00
It's funny; Bioware spent a banker's bonus trying to make
They partially succeeded, they made something a committee makes, like Friends, polished and full... but ultimately soulless and derivative; a good boy, safe and cautious. And over in dark Oslo, Funcom is quietly crafting what all that money and morality couldn't achieve; the Secret World.
The Secret World is Funcom's attempt to unify various modern mythologies into a totally-accessible action-heavy but smart MMO. The writing team (headed by Ragnar Torquist, writer of The Longest Journey) has dug deeply into the portentous 19th century fiction of Poe, Verne and Lovecraft; has mined the Dan Browns and Umberto Ecos of the world; has followed Deus Ex and Hellboy in unearthing the games' factions, the Illuminati, The Templars and The Dragon.
It's the world beneath ours, metaphorically in the sense that it's all around us, hidden by conspiratorial news stories; literally, in the case of Agartha, the hollow space inside the Earth that's accessible from anywhere in the world, but is closely guarded.
Each character's plot starts three weeks before the game begins, in a montage triggered by a glowing bee he or she swallows in their sleep, while the radio plays news of a disaster in Tokyo. Gradually, like a classic Rocky montage, they gain power before being visited by their chosen faction's recruiter, who sends them off to the faction's headquarters.
The character creator isn't in place yet, but all the character designs we saw were very normal human types, if awfully fashionable. Much of the game's feel is like Angel or Buffy without the high school and cheerleaders - as far as we've seen.
Key to the game is that, like Planetside or Guild Wars, players have no classes. Instead, the experience system is used solely to buy abilities, from a huge selection (588 at the last reckoning). As you explore the world, fight and finish quests, you gain experience that can be used in literally any direction; the early levels of every archetype are very, very cheap, but as you get further into any specialisation it becomes more and more expensive.
Right from the start, therefore, players can play together and specialise apart. The levelling structure is divided into melee, ranged and magic, each with further sub-divisions (so melee fighters, can specialise in hammers, swords, and knives, and then further specialise in these.)
There's nothing to stop players taking all of these, given that your current build can be saved and loaded at any time and, of course, this ability to play together means that you'll never feel left behind when playing the secret world; there's always someone to group with and parties can re-specialise on the fly depending on the skills everyone has available.
The settings are beautifully sculpted too, with the Templar's London headquarters and the Iluminati's New York-based labyrinth feeling somehow more true than the actual places. The wide open desert area we played, the Scorched Desert area of Egypt, is more believable than the real world, combining open desert, magnificent tombs, a sprawling tourist hotel, and a small hill village, with its map represented playfully as a tourist guide.
Similarly, Kingsmouth, the Lovecraft analogue, is a small US coastal town covered in a mysterious John Carpenter-style Fog that's zombifying its population.
Into these areas the game pulls monsters from all mythologies; mummies, golems, trogoldytes, brainwashed soldiers, giant scorpions, sand giants, mad scientists, Deep Ones... as well as conjuring a few of Funcom's own (frustratingly, we're not allowed to talk about some of these, but we'll be able to say more shortly.) Combat with these creatures is solid - the usual World of Warcraft hotkey structure, though slightly quicker, more mobile and, of course, featuring modern weapons.
The Illuminati story element we played started us in the New York streets, where we had to track down the organisation's headquarters, to prove our worth. Following instructions from a paranoiac laundry clerk, we tracked the Illuminati's surveillance network to a warehouse, and then through a labyrinth to an underground base, complete with G-men.
Our character woke to find herself being experimented on by a wonderfully amoral doctor, who put us into a tranceto role-play the Tokyo incident - the game's tutorial. Here you revive as a survivor of the incident, fighting her way down through the subway, past corrupted humans, to the platform - where the wall is gone, and the subway trains are floating in space near what appear to be multiple pulsating suns. And then we passed out again.
Once we'd awakened, spoken to the frankly terrifying Illuminati CEO and chosen our initial specialisation, our mission took us to the Scorched Desert, where we encountered and allied with the Marya, freedom fighters battling the cult of Aten, a long-sleeping Egyptian god. A fellow sinister organisation, called the Orochi, is involved in the area. It's implied that their meddling has contributed to the god's gradual reawakening and the return of the biblical Plagues of Egypt, which are ravaging the land.
This is also a fine place to illustrate how good the creation of the NPCs is - it's the first MMO writing for a long time I've wanted to avoid skipping dialogue to catch the wordplay. In the Scorched Desert, there's a three thousand year old mummy, Sayed, who's desiccated and shrivelled, but attired in the finest silk suit and hat and sporting the plummiest English accent since Steven Fry.
He's been working with the Orochi as a smuggler, but has become concerned about their aims and wants you to investigate them. The way he recruits and deals with you has the lacksadaisical manner born of three thousand years of cynicism, and his dialogue is sharp, fast patter. He's just one of a handful of fantastic characters we saw during our short time in-game.
Still on the writing angle, one of the most notable elements in the Secret World are true puzzle quests. The team has struggled to make these work just like they do in adventure games, with players having to observe the world around them, gather clues, and move onwards through multiple, non-combat missions. For example, we had to hack into a computer, having found a clue stating that the password was linked to both the user's surname "Glass" and his rank "Gold-Bug".
Googling this, using the game's in-game browser, produced an Edgar Allen Poe short story "The Gold-Bug" featuring a lump of cryptography - which includes the word Glass. Then we just had to reverse the cryptography... the puzzles have been made in a way that encourages people to work them out for themselves rather than resorting to Googling.
Though we didn't experience the game's PvP, we did get to try out two dungeons, though we're only allowed to write about one here. It's a laboratory run by Dr Klein, a stereotypical German mad scientist, who's involved with much of the game's plot, notably the Tokyo incident. His lab / lair is covered with smooth black viscous growths and is almost entirely vertical - though we don't know the full backstory, it appears to be a shaft that's been excavated. The feel of this area is totally Resident Evil: The MMO.
Despite that, this was the most traditional part of the game that we played; it was pure PvP with the puzzles as part of the combat - and , god, was it tough. Funcom has made a conscious decision with its dungeons to avoid 'trash' enemies - so every battle is a challenge and interspersed with set-piece battles against key bosses and mini-bosses.
There were two tough fights on bridges as we descended into the slime at the dungeon's base; one had us facing off against Klein, as he hurled chains of glowing explosives in unpredictable patterns; it was like a multiplayer bullet hell shooter.
The second bridge fight showed that the classlessness of players is a huge advantage when it comes to MMO game design. We'd gone into the dungeon on normal mode with a traditional game set-up; a tank, a healer, a melee DPS / tank and two ranged DPS guys. The second bridge involved a revenant giant trudging slowly towards us, while we simultaneously tried to get rid of the smaller enemies at its feet, knock down gates on the bridge and kill the boss.
But the tanks, once they had demolished the gates and small enemies, normally would have nothing to do - the giant could kill them in one blow. Thankfuly, given The Secret World's build structure, like Rift, they can shift to a ranged class or include a ranged attack in their tank build, so the problem should never come up.
There are detectable flaws with the Secret World; firstly, a conspiracy game needs resolutions and they obviously don't want to give them in this, because they want to keep updating it; secondly, the ghost-running body recovery mechanic is surprisingly old-school for such an innovative MMO; finally, it seems weird to make players create three characters to get all three sides of the story, when they'll have the same exact powers for all three sides - why not let them change faction or do some sort of rebirth/amnesia/reincarnation/flashback thing, where they get to start from scratch with their existing powers?
That said, this is genuinely the first MMO for a long time that I want to play, and it's hard not to list its strengths: The underused classless structure, meaning all players can always play together. The superbly scripted story, which is entirely skippable for those who hate stories.
The working puzzle quests which are genuinely taxing. The ambitious dungeon design, halfway to WoW but not afraid to pull in other influences. The levelling system meaning players have a genuine choice as to how they specialise, without ever committing themselves to a path permanently. Finally, they've made a fantasy modern world believable.
Secret World's release date is June 19 - pushed back from April for extra polish. When it finally does come out, SW:TOR needs to watch out.