“It’s an MMO, set in the Modern world. Conspiracies like the Illuminati and stuff, it’s all true. And the Secret World is spilling out into the real world. That’s where the player exists.”
That was the first description I heard of the Secret World. It was at least 3 years before the game came out. I was interested.
“It’s like Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King had a love child, and they made a game about it.”
OMG, this game is going to be awesome. I started to follow the game voraciously. Every tidbit. Every video. Every screenshot.
When the game finally launched in June, I had already made my pre-order of a lifetime sub. I not only wanted to play this game as much as I could, but also wanted to support it as fully as possible.
The intro tutorial quest was very… odd? Discouraging? Combat felt odd to me, and I really didn’t like the aggro mechanics. But I persisted.
And boy was I rewarded. If you do nothing else, get Secret World and play through Kingsmouth. It’s the first “zone” of the game.
Kingsmouth is a small coastal town that feels very New England. There are mines, junkyards, the shipyard, the old forest, and even a small municipal airport. The first thing that really struck me about the town, just on the surface, was how well a “real world” location actually felt to run through. As someone who started playing WoW when ground mounts weren’t available until level 40, I am well aware of what it feels like to run through MMO games. The town made sense, and the more I moved through it, the better I understood it. Normally I am one of the first ones to call games out for being “jogging simulators” where you are forced to backtrack over and over again. It took me about 4 hours to realize I had run back and forth across this small town at least a dozen times, and it STILL didn’t feel old. It just felt good moving through the world, jumping over trashcans, fences, and barricades.
Then I found it. The best quest ever put in an MMO. Funcom wanted to make Secret World different. They wanted it to be unique. And they succeeded 100%. The quests in Secret World are broken down into Main Story Missions, Action Missions, Investigation Missions, and Side Missions. Main Story are obviously varied missions that move you through the game’s main plot. This actually works quite well for keeping a coherent lore thread. Action Missions usually involve alot of killing. That’s fine, although I will get back to combat in a bit. Side Missions are pretty much fedex or fetch quests, nothing really standout. Investigation missions are what makes this game so.much.better. than all the rest.
The Secret World comes with a Google browser built into the game. Why does it need it? Well obviously, they didn’t want people alt tabbing while doing investigation missions. The Kingsmouth Code was the first quest where I really began to understand what Funcom had done. Most games, when presenting the player with a puzzle, include the answer in the game. In most modern games, the answer is 2 feet from the player at all times, outlined in yellow, and so simple even a 10 year old can get it. The dumbing down of games is a holy war I don’t want to get into, but regardless, Myst wouldn’t make it today, purely based on the insanity of the puzzles. Secret World went the complete opposite direction. Not only was the answer not in the game, but they actively expect you to use Google. (Best part, one of the NPCs responds to you and says “I don’t know! Google it!”) You have to pay attention to the most minute of details in the world. They will give you hints that really only get you about halfway there. Don’t know Latin? Better just keep a Google Translate tab open.
At one point in the quest you are given this clue: “Time is the province of Kings and Gods. The hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. The path is open to the enlightened.” That’s it. I immediately looked around for the clock. Sure enough, there’s a clock with the time set at 10:10. I am a bit sad to say that it took me another 20+ minutes to figure out the next part. Did you already? Words of God. The Bible. Kings 10:10. Of course, this verse talks about a woman giving talents to King Solomon… How does that apply? It just gets more convoluted from there. In the end, the entire quest chain took me about 2 and 1/2 hours. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Seriously though, Kingsmouth Code (and by virtue it’s extension, Digging Deeper) are amazing quests. Almost worth it alone, if you can get the game for $20 or so. The other investigation quests are just as fiddly, deeper, and mind bogglingly obscure. (Do you know who composed the Four Seasons? Cause if so, you are going to do better than most.) The best part is, unlike games like Myst, where the puzzles are just obscure, the investigation missions in Secret World are all based on fiddly niche knowledge. Do you know where old churches list the hymns you will sing that Sunday? Do you know how to translate Morse code? Do you know how to dig into a company’s website to find info on their employees? When you know the answer, you quite possibly feel like the smartest person in the world. When it takes you three hours to figure something minor out, you feel like the stupidest person in the world. And it’s ALL AMAZING.
The game holds up through the second zone, the Savage Coast, but after that it starts to go downhill. The Faction Missions you get every so occasionally are superb and well worth the time, but once I hit Blue Mountain, it was like smashing into a wall. Which brings me to my big complaint.
Combat and the over abundance of choice. In Secret World you don’t pick a class. You pick a weapon. You earn AP points, which you can then spend to get skills in any weapon you want. There are 9 possible paths right from the beginning. I picked Blood, as it appealed most to my Warlockian nature. Turns out, you can’t solo as Blood. In fact, you really can’t do anything as *just* Blood. So I had to go back and pick up another weapon. So I snagged Shotguns (seems like a solid choice yeah? Zombies + Shotguns == always fun!). Only shotguns, being short range, really didn’t fit in well with my ranged magic. So then I switched to Blades. How? Well, in Secret World, you can’t respec, you just need to earn more AP. So they let you redo quests you have already done, and you get the same reward. I just had to go back and re-grind Kingsmouth’s quests until I could level my Blades skill up to match the monsters in the area I was fighting. The thing is… as much as I loved doing the Investigation Quests, they weren’t the quests you could re-do. It’s the Action ones… which require you to kill things… which I was having trouble doing… which is why I picked up a new weapon… which I couldn’t use effectively because I didn’t have the AP… that I needed from the Action Missions. Oh dear. For you WoW players out there, imagine getting to level 50, as a priest, realizing you really want to be a Shadow Priest instead of leveling Holy, and instead of just respecing and changing some gear, you have to go back to Westfall and relevel from 10 to 50 to gain access to your Shadow Spec. Seemed like a great idea on the surface. Fails in reality.
Once I got my blades up to skill level, I noticed something very disheartening. I was mowing through enemies like one of those oversized lawn tractors. Blades was *significantly* more powerful than Blood or Shotguns. Enemies I barely beat by the skin of my teeth before were dying from a single slice of my katana.
I never really appreciated the balance that goes into WoW class design. Yeah, I can argue that my warlock does twice the work of mages for half the dps, but in the end, I rarely feel as if I am just completely playing a wasted class. I felt that way with Blood vs Blades. The options seemed so numerous at character creation, but in reality they were few, you were just very likely to pick the wrong choice.
I am currently at the Egypt zones (having a child really cuts into the gaming time), and starting into them, but I can already tell the slow degrade of polish through the second two Solomon Islands zones is going to continue through the game. It’s very clear they worked very hard to nail the first zone, Kingsmouth, and as a result the other areas did not receive as much love. The Faction missions, which are scattered based on how much overall experience you have earned are clearly in the Kingsmouth polish category and do some really amazing things. (The first one sends all three factions to the same location, but each tells a different side of the story. And each are scary on Silent Hill levels.)
The Secret World doesn’t hold your hand. The community tools like Wowhead and Wowinsider don’t exist. Figuring out powerful solo specs requires a great deal of work and number crunching, as opposed to just stopping by Elitist Jerks. It’s a game that makes you work for it. In some ways that’s good. In others, it makes you realize how much WoW has spoiled us as gamers (I am looking at you Random Dungeon Finder). It makes me realize that any MMO that wants to compete with WoW can’t compete with WoW at launch, they have to compete with WoW as of today (or rather the day the competing game wants to launch). And that is an exceptionally tall order.
On the up side, it costs me nothing to take long breaks between playing. There have been small content patches, with bug fixes and new quests, every month. The game will keep getting better, and I will keep coming back. The Secret World is just as engrossing and enthralling as I had hoped. It just doesn’t feel like an MMO. It feels like a single player game. The social aspects weren’t vital to the game. (In fact some of the missions required solo instances and thus actively prohibited group play.) I can’t wait to see where they take it. I can’t wait to see plot threads picked back up and extended. And I can’t wait for more Investigation Missions.
Secret World is one of my games of the year and very much worth the initial investment, provided you can give it the time to play through Kingsmouth during your free month. Watch for sales on Amazon or Steam, and pick it up for under $30. The first zone is worth that much.