Funcom isn’t the most prolific MMO developer – to date, it has two MMORPGs under its belt, Anarchy Online and Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. But the Norwegian developer has been at it for over a decade now, weathering economic storms and evolving online communities yet still staying competitive. We’d describe the build up to the release of The Secret World as ‘tentative’, not that there hasn’t been the usual marketing flurry associated with a new launch, but there has been little mention of genre-busting or breaking the mould, not from Funcom anyway. And yet, The Secret World is the only major MMO in these turbulent times that could come close to making this claim without shuffling its feet nervously and crossing its fingers behind its back.
It’s distinguished by its setting, a world of cabals and clandestine groups where a surreal multi-dimensional backdrop of magic and monsters meets modern society in a remarkably Phillip Pullman way. Its nine-year development is evident in its lore and detail: we’re running around a contemporary metropolitan street, replete with pop-culture references and swearing natives, but The Secret World seething with nefarious magic and otherworld creatures that surface elsewhere. “You’re not the chosen one,” you’re told by one of the three main factions in the game and sure enough, whether you’re aligned with The Templars, The Illuminati or The Dragon, the glowing bug that flew into your character’s mouth in the opening credits will dutifully familiarise itself with your gob and somehow impart its powers. The three factions are ostensibly on the same team anyway, having set their differences aside to tackle the supernatural creatures that have popped up all over the planet.
Faction headquarters are based in London, New York and Seoul for Templars, Illuminati and Dragon respectively and after little bit of being nudged from pillar to post, generally being taught to suck eggs, we eventually found ourselves at Kingstown. This southern-US backwater has been overrun by zombies and it’s up to us to cut our teeth ticking off fetch and kill quests for the locals… except something was different. For a start, it has detail unlike any other MMO we’ve encountered: there’s a bespoke feel to the books and notes we read, surprising environmental accessibility, many more objects in the world can be interacted with than usual and as a part of a new generation, DirectX 11 visuals challenge the limits of what we’d credit an MMO as capable of achieving.
We approached with a blasé attitude to what we thought would be a formulaic grind, well-armoured as we were with a decade of MMO experience ourselves to the trials modern MMORPGs can pose. Sure enough, combat saw us hitting skill buttons, managing cooldowns, reaping XP and dragging trains into safe zones whenever the odds were overwhelming, but we didn’t seem to be levelling up. So poking around our character tab to try and get a sense of our progression, we fell down the rabbit hole.
The Secret World has no levels, in the traditional sense, at least. Gaining experience fills a bar that releases a skill point when filled and an ability point when one third full, which are used to purchase new skills and abilities in your character’s ability wheel. This experience bar is fixed in length and doesn’t grow exponentially as per MMO standard, so you can stay in your favourite grinding spot or chain repeatable quests ad infinitum and, as your power grows, it will become easier to farm experience in that way. But the cost for skills and abilities increases with development, so eventually you’ll see sense in tackling a higher-level area that offers greater experience and thus, faster AP and SP rewards.
The advantage of this system is that a high level character that is maxing out in a certain area can choose a new skill and take it through rapid development with a relatively small amount of work in a high-level zone. Although you are limited to a small number of skills and abilities you can equip, because The Secret World doesn’t bind you to a class, all skills and abilities are available to every character. It means that alts are somewhat redundant (though a standard account allows you three character slots, potentially one for each faction) and a single character can switch roles to suit whatever mission they’re embarking on or party they’re a part of. Funcom has even templated a dozen or so classes you can switch to in case you’re at a loss, and you can save favourite skill/ability loadouts to access them any time in the future.
It’s a remarkably elegant solution to a problem that developers have wrestled with for years: there’s no getting away from the grind but this seamless compromise gives control over the reward to the player, rather than backing them into a corner where they’re bored of their high-level character yet are unwilling to invest hundreds of hours into a new class. That’s when people start sniffing around for a new game to play.
The Secret World’s weakness (if any) is the paranormal hub world of Agartha, which links the different parts of the planet together via dimensional portals and a sort of, treetop roller coaster, the novelty of which gets old quickly as you realise it’s not a patch on Alton Towers. Agartha breaks The Secret World into smaller chunks, so you lose that sense of scale you might have had staring across to the next horizon. It’s a step-back to the old Everquest generation where ‘zoning’ was necessary, only it’s being forced by a concept rather than limited technology.
This is probably something Funcom will try to smooth out over the next year – there’s room for much improvement in The Secret World, as there often is with any new MMO launch, but this has far more promise than anything Blizzard or EA have had to offer recently.