In a genre filled with dryads and dragons, The Secret World emerges as a dark and thoughtful counterpoint to the enchanted forests of most modern online role-playing games. Even when the skies are bright, an emotional cloud hangs over your every action. Rather than rush you from waypoint to waypoint, The Secret World takes its time to tell stories and build tension. Instead of spelling out your goals, it makes you think about the reasonable next action hinted at by scribbled notes and cryptic clues. This is an unusual game, and like many unusual games, it demands patience and focus.
What makes this massively multiplayer game so unusual? To begin with, the setting is unlike any other MMOG. The Secret World doesn't whisk you away to a fantasy fairyland or a scorched sci-fi landscape, but occurs in an off-kilter version of our own planet. "Everything is real" a quest giver might tell you, and so it is: biblical plagues, haunted house horrors, and zombie invasions are threats--as well as symptoms of a greater power at play. Even the so-called "hollow earth" is real, serving as a central network of walkways that connect you to your various destinations, where police captains and academy administrators await delivery from their waking nightmares.
Some quests are doled out by objects you stumble across--a corpse sprawled across the road, or a computer terminal, perhaps. Most are provided by any number of mysterious citizens, who offer the most melodramatic of explanations for their needs. The writing and dialogue are notably self-conscious. "The city is a honeycomb of terror, each cell barely cognisant of the others" says one entry in your lorebook. And in a quest giver's monologue: "Men queuing up to cross over, animals guarding the threshold, returning gods and demons. Musical chairs of the soul." None of this writing sounds particularly natural, even though the excellent voice cast sells each and every alliteration and pregnant pause.
As belabored as the writing is, it works remarkably well in context, inviting introspection and analysis. The Secret World cultivates an oppressive tone in almost all of its aspects, including its wordy dialogue. After you choose a faction (Illuminati, Templar, or Dragon), the game introduces you to your home city, and the mysterious organization for which you work. After this lengthy blend of cutscenes and rudimentary exploration, you enter Kingsmouth, Maine, where you keenly sense the inspiration of authors Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe. The darkness is thick, and gnarly trees loom large over you. Iron fences and brick columns surround an abandoned mansion, its rising parapets ever-so-slightly askew.
The dejected atmosphere works hand in hand with the mythical tales that develop as you push forward. In New England, you learn of a league of young monster slayers, and the first girl invited into the fold. In Egypt, cultists worship ancient gods, and sand creatures roam the desert. In Transylvania, the locals tell chilling tales of the Draculesti. Each region is a bleak wilderness to be tamed, and there's a sense that frights and chills lurk just out of view. The bleakness can even get overwhelming, the nighttime becoming so black that you can't see an inch in front of you, making you long for an in-game flashlight to break the gloom. (Certain quests grant you a miner's helmet, but you may not get to use it once the missions are complete.)
For the most part, however, The Secret World's graphics engine serves the art design well, scattered visual glitches notwithstanding. Of special note are the layers of sound shrouding your adventure. You roam the halls of an abandoned asylum, where the trembles of a bass drum build anxiety, later released by the chilling howl of a tortured spirit. On the outskirts of al-Merayah, shimmering dissonant chords create an air of unease. Even the smallest of sound cues--the notification that you have earned ability points, the discovery of new lore--fit seamlessly into a remarkably cohesive sound design.
Some of The Secret World's quests can be boiled down to the kinds of kill-this, fetch-that tasks you've seen in countless other games. Even when this is the case, however, developer Funcom does its best to give your actions context and chain missions together so that even ordinary objectives are organic to that particular area, and fit within its ongoing narratives. If you enjoy online RPGs for the comfortable cycle of "take quest, arrive at waypoint, kill monsters, return for reward," The Secret World isn't for you. You can queue up only a small number of quests. The downside is that you perform fewer tasks at any given time and earn quest rewards at a slower rate. The upside is that you are fully conscious of why you are doing what you are doing at any given moment.
With that consciousness comes emotional investment and intellectual engagement. Your group's investigation of an amusement park turns to matters far more treacherous than most visits to the fun fair. Claiming ancient artifacts means confronting groaning creatures made of stone and sand. You disguise yourself in order to infiltrate a hideout, and even avoid trip wires and the roaming eye of security cameras to escape a solo dungeon unscathed. Such stealthy endeavors occur in car parks and claustrophobic mines, and in many cases, a head-on conflict means certain death. These are memorable quests, though it's too bad that you must leave any party members behind while you complete them.
Even better are quests that leave fighting and collecting behind and force you to sort out puzzles or even jump online (perhaps using the handy built-in Web browser) to do a bit of research. This might mean identifying a painting, sorting out a word-logic puzzle, or even figuring out the meaning of an Arabic scrawl. Such quests give you pause, particularly when you must piece together clues that provide your next destination. Make no mistake: many investigation quests are challenging, and bring your adventure to a halt as you sort through them. But when that "Eureka!" moment comes, elation kicks in as the game showers you with experience points for your mental efforts.
When you put in the work, you usually expect a game to fulfill its obligation to reward you--or at least provide proper feedback--but The Secret World often fails to fulfill its end of the bargain. Sometimes, this betrayal comes in the form of a small but basic execution flaw, such as the pixel-perfect exactness required when trying to click on certain items. You might stumble across the correct solution, but if you don't hover the cursor over an object in just the right way, you might never be able to interact with it. And then you move on, unaware that you were staring directly at the solution. On other occasions, other players can interfere, interacting with vital items and forcing you to start from scratch.
Other times, The Secret World pushes past "challenging and thoughtful" into "frustrating and time consuming." A puzzle based on Morse code is one thing; having to translate fast-moving audio, or to download a smartphone application capable of doing it for you, is a step too far. Less forgivably, it might be a bug that gets in the way, preventing you from knowing if you are in the wrong, or if the game is. In one case, you must activate a staff that in turn lights a series of fires that guide you to your goal. Yet the fires may not blaze, and you are left staring at the screen, wondering where the clue to your destination might be.
The Secret World rarely suffers from online issues, its bugs more often limited to "annoying" rather than "crippling." Questing issues aside, most glitches relate to elements like chat channels and visual communication. And in some cases, feature execution is simply lackluster rather than outright broken. The in-game browser is a real help, for instance, but there are moments when you wish you could save bookmarks, or at least have the browser remember the last page visited when you reopen it, since you might need to refer to it multiple times. For that matter, opening the browser can lead to a full game crash, making using a laptop or tablet a better option.
Meanwhile, the excellent storytelling might have you seeking out glowing icons that represent morsels of lore that form a larger narrative. The riddles and mysteries are worth piecing together, given the intriguing tales they convey. And yet discovering these tidbits (and completing certain quests) sometimes requires jumping to higher ground. That wouldn't be such a bad idea, were jumping in The Secret World not so inexact and unsatisfying. In fact, the two most basic elements of most games--movement and action--don't feel quite right. The floaty animations and inconsistent collision detection keep you from feeling like your feet make real contact with the ground, or that your weapons make real contact with your enemies. Enraged cultists fall before you see the sword swipe that kills them, and damage and status effect notifications appear before your grenade lands.
And so the most fundamental aspects of moment-to-moment interaction fail to engage, and this is the unfortunate first impression that could push players to a more immediately fun game. Sadly, the wonderful flexibility and challenge of the Secret World is lost on anyone that quits early on. In the vast majority of RPGs, you level up; here, there are no levels. You do earn experience and reach milestones, however, so while there is no number assigned to your level, you still have that sense of progress associated with it. You frequently earn points that allow you to purchase new abilities and improve your handiness with certain weapons, and ultimately, the idea of a "no levels" system is neither as aimless as you might think--nor as groundbreaking.
More refreshing is the lack of specific classes. In The Secret World, how you fight is determined by the weapons and abilities you equip, and you can mix and match within the game's framework. There are a number of weapon types: shotguns, assault rifles, magical focuses, katanas, and so forth. You can equip two weapons at a time, along with seven active and seven passive abilities. It's a free-form system, and in time, you could potentially purchase abilities from multiple trees, allowing you to take on the right set of abilities for any occasion. In fact, it's best to have multiple sets of gear on hand, should you hit a roadblock.
If this freedom sounds intimidating, The Secret World includes prebuilt "decks" of weapons and abilities that more or less correspond to classes--and fulfilling one's requirements nets you a nice new outfit. Outfits are purely cosmetic, but after you see some of the stylish threads on others as you pass, you may find yourself in London, browsing aviator sunglasses and trying on pinstripe suits to see which looks most dapper. You can even spend real-world funds on clothing, titles, and other inessentials. Such microtransactions are a free-to-play staple, yet The Secret World sells at retail price and charges a monthly fee. A real-money store thus comes across as a cash grab, though to be fair, you can safely ignore the nickel-and-diming.
As for in-game currency, you spend it on more inventory space, upgrades to your sprint speed, and items such as talismans. Talismans are accessories used to enhance your attributes to best suit your play style. They impact such elements as your hit points, defense rating, and healing prowess. You earn talismans as loot as well, though you might be better off crafting them. By breaking down items into raw materials, you can then upgrade those materials and combine them into talismans and other craftables. You can do this at any time using the crafting interface, which has you dropping these materials into a grid in a particular pattern, Minecraft style. Just be sure to take notes: the game doesn't make it easy to refer to these patterns, though in time, you might remember them.
Alone or with others, some encounters require you to be aware of your surroundings. Many creatures perform area-of-effect attacks, signaling the danger zone with a visible cone or halo. You need to dodge to avoid them--and do so without getting the attention of any other giant bugs buzzing nearby. The game requires situational awareness in other ways too: avoiding flaming crevasses during a boss battle, luring foes from objects that render them invincible, and so forth.
Five-player group dungeons require even greater acumen. You fight more powerful creatures than you do small ones, so each encounter is dangerous if you aren't smart about it. Once you're locked into a boss battle, there is no battlefield resurrection: either enough players remain alive to defeat the shrieking horror, or you all respawn and try again. Navigating environmental hazards while determining creature behavior and the proper ways to attack is part of the fun--as is rearranging your abilities to best suit the needs of the group. Sadly, finding a group is harder than it should be: there is no group finder tool, nor is there a way to queue up for a dungeon from the world at large.
You can queue up for player-versus-player matches from anywhere, however. There are three maps in play, one of which is a persistent tug-of-war in which each faction struggles to retain control over key points. The other two are one-off matches of finite duration. There is some entertainment to be had as you roam the persistent map with bands of brothers, shooting up mobs of other players en route to your destination, where a hectic fight against a towering monstrosity awaits. The Secret World isn't a proper home for a PVP enthusiast, however. The auto-grouping tool on the Fusang map is barely helpful, and the skittery movement and combat are front and center here. And on the non-persistent maps, getting into a match can take longer than you would wish.
And so The Secret World isn't a game for those craving a quick and satisfying player battle. Instead, it's for those who seek uninviting crevasses and insidious conspiracies. It's for those who want their intelligence challenged--not to mindlessly battle monsters lifted from the Book of Generic Fantasy Creatures. You must still endure a fair share of annoyances, broken quests, and uninspired fundamentals. The Secret World requires you to dig more deeply than you might have expected. But when you do, you find a fascinating game willing to divulge its secrets to anyone ready to listen.