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The Not-So-Secret Secret World

I think one the greatest events in any gamer's life is that magical moment when he knows that he has discovered an original game universe, one that he intuitively knows he will be exploring and enjoying for a great many years to come.  Such moments are unfortunately uncommon.  Gaming is no different than other media, be it books, television, or movies: works of true genius are exceedingly rare, so such magical movements are few and far between.  For me, I've only had two such gaming moments: when I first discovered the fantastically grim military science fiction setting that is Warhammer 40K,and now that I have belatedly discovered the wonderful Shadowrun universe (thanks to Harebrained Schemes fantastic PC translation).

When I first heard about the Shadowrun setting I was not all that interested because it seemed like such a weird mash-up of differing genres....

Shadowrun initially seems like your classic cyberpunk setting: a near future, a high tech dystopian world where mega-corporations rule with an iron fist due to their vast wealth and power.  What is more, it is world where trans-humanism has become the norm, where people replace entire body parts with cybernetic enhancements, and can "jack in" and experience virtual reality in the same way as Neo experienced The Matrix.  And, of course, it wouldn't be a cyberpunk setting without the crucial element of small time hustlers who run missions - "shadowruns" - for corporations, missions that can involve everything from corporate espionage, to outright hits on competing executives.  Needless to say, these seemingly simple missions usually go very wrong for the runners in classic noir form, leading to some entertaining and grim scrambling for all involved.  Good stuff!

But where Shadowrun throws a curve is by introducing a healthy dose of Tolkien into the mix.  In 2011 "the Awakening" occurs, where a portion of humanity slowly mutates into the archetype fantasy races of dwarves, trolls, elves, etc.  However, unlike their somewhat trippy portrayal in fantasy media, in the world of Shadowrun these races basically blend back into society as would any other racial subculture (I particularly like how trolls often come across as goombah Italians. LOL!).  In addition to the genetic mutations, magic has also started to come back into the world, something that makes for a fascinating contrast with the setting's cyberpunk high technology.  Of course, if you have the reappearance of the fantasy races, and you have the return of magic and wizardry, well, you can count on the reappearance of dragons, ancient horrors, vampires, and even the confirmation of urban legends like the existence of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Like I said: "a weird mash-up" that never seemed like it would work.  Let me tell you: it DOES!  And in a big, addictive fashion!  The world of Shadowrun is one of of those things that is simply greater than the sum of its parts.  By taking such disparate genres as science fiction and fantasy, and by putting them together into the same Petri dish, you get a mix that is absolutely volatile with fascinating potential!

And I am now a rabid fan.

Since discovering this wonderful setting I have since learned that its generic name is "urban fantasy", a catchall term that denotes a modern city-based story that contains the elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror.  It is, in short, a smorgasbord of imagination and escapism.  I guess in retrospect it isn't a surprise why it has become so popular seeing how it spans so many genres.  And popular it is. A quick search on Amazon reveals a growing library of urban fantasy titles (with a surprising number involving romances - I guess that is the Twilight phenom at work?).  In fact, one of this year's Hugo Award winners is the urban fantasy title, Warbound: Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, by conservative author Larry Correia of the famed Monster Hunters International series of urban fantasy.

It looks like urban fantasy is here to stay.  Huzzah!

Well, as it often the case with me, I am never just content to have fun with a single game.  No, I immediately become restless and demand "more, more, more!" (in internet speak: "MOAR, MOAR, MOAR!").  And that is how I stumbled upon Funcom's MMORPG, The Secret World.

Well, "stumbled upon" might not be the precise term because this game had snagged my attention from the moment it's first teaser was unveiled back in 2011.  It is a good one:

Truth is, as soon as the "dark days are coming" tag line appeared I was hooked.  That is, unfortunately, my gut feeling too concerning the state of the world.  I mean, when Ivy League universities offer a satanism major, when bloodthirsty heresies are on the march, when professors of the dark arts encourage the slaughter of the innocents, and when cadavers  walk the earth to instigate mayhem, happy days are most definitely not ahead of us.  Dark days indeed....

Now, even though I was interested in this game from the start, I never actually bothered to check it out.  The primary reason is that I just don't care for MMOs because I often find the premise to be sabotaged by the restrictive nature of a MMO design (more on that later).  What is more, when The Secret World first launched, it was the standard MMO dealie of needing to purchase the base game followed by a reoccurring monthly membership fee.  Not gonna happen.  A game developer will get one out of me, but not both. So this game just dropped off my radar.

Now, however, things have changed.  Fueled by my new found love of urban fantasy, I recalled this game and eagerly sought it out.  Sure, it is not a cyberpunk-themed urban fantasy as is Shadowrun Returns (too bad), but it is definitely of the same vein what with its theme of a contemporary setting where "every myth, conspiracy theory and urban legend was true".  Close enough for me!  Even better, I discovered it has since gone down the Guild Wars route of ditching the monthly subscription.  Great!  Excited by the game's prospects, I requested a free three day pass from the community and off I went into The Secret World....

....And landed smack in a by-the-numbers MMORPG.  Darn it.

The game starts off interestingly enough with a compelling cutscene where your custom designed character has a weird dream about being forced to chose a side in a coming conflict.  Upon awakening, he discovers that he has acquired magical powers...powers he can barely control.  Days pass and your character is seen mastering his new gifts.  Eventually a knock on his apartment door is heard and depending upon which faction the player has chosen during the character creation process - the Templars, the Illuminati, or the Dragons - a messenger summons the player to the HQ of his specific faction where he is to be briefed on the new reality of monsters and magic becoming part of the world once again. All of this is executed very well.  The cutscenes are nicely rendered, the dialogue is sharp, and the voice acting is quite excellent.

This solid introduction comes to an end and the player is off on his first assignment to combat "the Filth" (great term!) that is slowly corrupting the world.  Tragically, it is here that I first felt my enthusiasm for the game slipping.  In a bizarre move, The Secret World, a game that describes itself as being about vampires hunting "for mortal blood in London nightclubs" and about demons "lurking in the shadows of Seoul", incongruously decides to deposit the player in the decidedly un-urban Maine city of Kingsmouth, a classic small New England town that is thematically as far removed from an urban setting as possible.  In fact, it isn't all that far removed from the typical medieval villages players usually encounter in a MMORPG, one of the cliched settings this game was supposedly going to buck.  I really was dumbfounded by this choice.  Now, that is not to say that the game doesn't do a good job of realizing this setting - Kingsmouth proves to be brought to life with vivid detail - but New York it is not.

Kingsmouth...decidedly not "urban"
This disappointment was quickly followed by another: the typically dull "gofer" (aka: "Fed-ex") missions that are part and parcel of the MMO genre - this is where you need to go someplace, collect a certain amount of something and bring it back to the mission giver.  Boring. However, even here there is some nice chrome on hand as each story mission gets its own fully voiced cutscene, something that does serve to make these threadbare missions seem as something more important than just pointless grinds for XP...which is what they really are.

So my character sets out on his first gofer mission and discovers another tiring MMO convention: the large packs of monsters - in this case, trite zombies - roaming the countryside.  Again, this is a failing of the core MMO design:  if you are going to have potentially hundreds of people playing the game simultaneously, you need to make sure there are plenty of baddies hanging around so everyone gets a chance to play the part of the hero.  Same thing here.  Even worse, these packs usually respawn quite quickly, too, so as to further ensure no shortages of moving targets, a convention that I have always found counteracts any sense of progress in clearing out the bad guys.  Sigh.

The triteness of packs of roving monsters is particularly bad in TSW due to the nature of the game itself, and here's why:  the early part of the TSW goes to great lengths to try and convince the player that he is standing at the threshold of a new reality, one that the rest of the world is still largely oblivious to (albeit, a recent "terrorist attack" in the Tokyo subway system might change that).  Fine.  But judging by the massive amount of beasties roaming the Kingsmouth / Solomon Island locale, this isn't the beginning of a gradual infiltration by the Filth, but rather it is a full-on invasion that is anything but secret!  I was really disappointed by this because I was hoping my character was going to be involved in an gradually escalating investigation into a paranormal presence - indeed, that is precisely how this initial mission was described.  But upon entering Kingsmouth, it is clear that you are just another grunt in a battle for an entire town under open assault by paranormal forces!  How is the "Secret World" remaining secret when entire towns are being overrun with otherworldly armies?!?

And then I came to the combat.  Ugh.  I hate MMO combat.  I hate the button-mashing, I hate the stilted combat animations, and I hate the repetition.  And it is all here.  It did help a little that unlike fantasy-themed MMORPGS, The Secret World's modern setting permits the use of all sorts of firearms, from pistols to assault rifles.  That is cool, but it would have been all the more "cooler" if the combat was skill based, if the player could aim and fire the weapons himself like in a third-person shooter, instead of just hitting a button and watching the game roll some dice and produce a scripted combat animation.  Still, being able to go into combat with duel pistols makes for a nice change of pace.  Other weapons are available too, like bladed instruments, war hammers, and magic, of course, and players are free to mix and match as they see fit by using earned skill and attribute points to unlock new weapons and increase their deadliness.  Again, nice...but still not the MMO revolution I was hoping TSW would deliver.

After an hour or two,  I was quickly tiring of the stale MMO conventions that I had experienced in the game so far.  The Secret World promised to be something different, but it wasn't.  It was the same formulaic MMORPG I have played and abandoned many times before.  If only this title was a single player RPG, something that would allow it to break free from the tired necessities of the MMO template!  Then this setting could really shine as Shadowrun Return shines. Then we would truly have something special.  But it wasn't, and we didn't.  Sadly, I resolved to uninstall the game the next day.

But I didn't.

Instead, I found myself logging back in...for some reason I couldn't quite explain (witchcraft?).  And once again I quickly found myself gritting my teeth as I suffered through the banal MMO conventions that littered this game.  But why couldn't I stop playing it?

I decided that it was those darn missions. Those introductory cutscenes were really well done, and served as a preprandial treat to the actual meat of the quest.   But more so that that, some of the quests were actually interesting in their own right.  Sure, there were a bunch of those boring gofer quests, but even some of them were suitably spooky and fit in well with the "end days" theme of the game, leading me to actually looking forward to their final resolution.  Not only that, but I eventually discovered that the game includes some nice artwork to compliment these quests.  For example, when I uncovered a newspaper article relevant to a certain quest, instead of getting what I expected -  a pop up window with a transcription of the article - I instead got an actual picture of the article.  In another mission I located a cell phone and was treated to an actual in-game image of the phone with relevant text message.  I was happy to discover that TSW didn't take the lazy route of just text, text, and more text, but incorporated the sort of art assets one usually encounters in an old school point and click adventure.

Now, in addition to these rather straight-forward gofer quests, I discovered two other types that did add some nice variety to the game.  For example, The Secret World has some very interesting investigation missions.  In these quests, the player is presented a mystery that he must solve.  Now, solving these missions breaks with the linear nature of the gofer quests by usually requiring the player to go outside of the game and research topics on wikipedia, or even visiting some faux webpages created especialy for the game, to find the necessary bit of info that advances the story.  Frankly, this is something I have wanted to see in a MMO for a very long time (I mean, the player is forced to be constantly online anyway, so why not make use of the internet in the game?).  While I do think that these investigation missions can be ridiculously hard, largely because the game sort of dumps the player at a narrative dead end and expects him to pull his hair out until he finds the right course of action (thank the maker for the helpful wikis out there!), the mere existence of such puzzle quests really adds a sense of novelty, and mental challenge, to TSW.

Then there are the sabotage missions.  Like the investigation missions, these made for a refreshing change of pace to the standard gofer missions.  In fact, these missions are much closer to what I hoped would be the norm for The Secret World:  quests that don't involve simplistic "kill this" or "fetch that" quest templates, but involve doing something much more suitably convert for a secret society operative, things such as infiltrating a facility, or needing to disable a security system, or even hacking a terminal.  What is more, unlike the other quests, these missions involve isolated instances, something that slows the pace of the game and narrows the focus to just one player at a time - you!  Because you are alone in these quests they are much more creepy, especially since they usually involve a boss monster of some type hiding in the shadows, awaiting its final battle.  This is something that definitely adds to the "dark days are coming" paranormal feeling.   Again, these sabotage missions are much closer to what I had hoped to find in TSW, something much more representative of a slow paced investigation into the paranormal rather than the open warfare, you-are-late-to-the-party nature of the main game world.

So I played a bunch of missions that second night and discovered some I really liked, many that were completely forgettable, and a handful that were just plain weird, but still concluded that The Secret World just wasn't my type of game.  I would delete it after logging out.

But I didn't.

Instead I found myself logging in once again the following night.  And I still didn't know why!  What kept drawing me back?!?

This time I thought it was the oppressive nature of the setting of Kingsmouth - it really put its hooks into me.  As I wrote earlier, this locale is something less than the exciting urban setting I was initially hoping for.  Really, it is just a pastiche of the many small towns that have graced countless horror movies (particularly Antonio Island from The Fog - a deadly fog even haunts TSW's Solomon Island!).  Be that as it may, Funcom has nonetheless managed to bring some real horror to this in-game setting.  Despite the ridiculous amount of zombies and other creatures plaguing every nook and cranny of the town, not to mention the many cliched horror plot points borrowed by the various missions, the setting nevertheless becomes a very disturbing place after awhile.  I didn't really appreciate this until I left Kingsmouth to return to my HQ back in London (I was in search of some cosmetic improvements - TSW seems very stingy with clothes and gear).  While there, I found a local pub where I was able to listen in on a conversation between two long time Templars.  As with much of the game, the writing was very good, and the tale they told was interesting as well as being informative of the game's backstory.  But what really struck me was how I was relaxing for the first time in a long while.  The background noise of happy patrons chattering away, not to mention the pleasure of not seeing a single filthy monster anywhere in sight really was a breath of fresh air after my time on Solomon Island.  When it finally came time for me to depart this cosmopolitan slice of reality, I actually found myself dreading the return to the hellhole of Kingsmouth.  It was then that I realized that The Secret World, despite all the limitations attendant to a MMO, actually had achieved something of what it promised to do: give us a chance to experience truly "dark days".

This realization of just what an unceasing horror show Kingsmouth actually was made me even more committed to following through on the quests to rid the town of its curse and restore some normalcy - despite the fact that my Templar supervisor warned me that my purpose was to investigate and not save; there are no conquering heroes when confronted with such evil.  So I set out with gusto exploring Kingsmouth, now more determined than ever, but soon discovered something disconcerting:  Kingsmouth is significantly bigger than I had first thought.  While most of the initial missions take place within the reasonably sized town itself, the entire questing area of Solomon Island is at least three times bigger, with entire sections locked off until...who know when? This was going to take longer than I thought!

For the first time, I didn't log out of the game with the idea of deleting my account.  Instead I planned to return the next night to uncover some more of the horror plaguing my first assignment.

But I never returned.

My trial had ran out.

Will I return to The Secret World?  Incredibly, my answer is an unexpected "yes!"  Even though this game suffers from all the frustrating shortcomings of the MMO genre, in the final analysis TSW managed to deliver on its (urban) fantasy premise in a very entertaining way.  And let's be fair here: I've only sampled a handful of hours from the starting location of a game that has been under development for two years now.  Having safely launched the game with boilerplate MMO content (this starting slice of TSW just screams safe game design), hopefully Funcom has since added material that is more daring.  And even if they haven't taken that more adventurous step, I still have to say that what is in the game so far seems sufficient to keep me entertained for...well, certainly a few hours more, anyway.

Having said that, I should point out that I haven't actually purchased the game yet.  Even though I am hankering to get back into The Secret World, I decided to put it on ice for a bit yet because, frankly, TSW is going to make for some fine Halloween gaming (especially seeing how Kingsmouth is decorated with jack-o-lanterns; apparently the dark days of the secret world arrived with the dark days of autumn).  Of course, if a sale happens along I will not hesitate to jump on the game (TSW often sees 50% price cuts), but with that exception I will be content to wait until at least summer is officially over.  The Secret World is so dark at times that I fear I will tear a hole in the universe and spill demons into our reality if I play the game in the sunlight of summer.

Well, that is the plan, anyway.  When it comes to The Secret World, anything is possible.  The game certainly made that clear.


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