The woman in the subway isn't speaking with much sense. Her name is Sarah, she says, and I have the sense that I've seen her before. She's tormented, clearly trying to convince herself of her own sanity and identity before her eyes glaze over and another voice escapes from her lips. Sarah is no longer herself.
"I thought the dragons survived on chaos," Sarah drones in a deep baritone, the woman now a mere host to other entities living within her. Another voice, another line: "They're saying a bomb. It's never just a bomb. Something worse. Something that brought The Filth with it." Ah yes, The Filth--the parasitic black goo that infects living hosts and turns them into distorted monsters. The Secret World may have just launched Issue 9: The Black Signal, but some things remain constant, The Filth's omnipresence and lots of enigmatic dialogue chief among them.
I recently joined several developers from Secret World studio Funcom for a walkthrough of some of the new content. During the issue's opening scenes, I couldn't shake the feeling of deja vu. I've been in this subway before, and I have seen this woman before. As it turns out, I wasn't suffering long-term memory loss; Sarah is the young woman you control in the game's opening tutorial, where you experience mysterious events within the Tokyo subway through her eyes before she collapses. Intrigued by this return to the game's early days, I asked game director Joel Bylos how Issue 9 takes The Secret World's story full circle.
"Now, players actually arrive in the flesh and they meet Sarah--and she is messed up," says Bylos. "The secret societies have been willingly abusing her memories and allowing thousands of new recruits to trample through her head, using her as their own psychic training machine. Hopefully this highlights to our players just how willing their own bosses are to use and abuse people, perhaps take a moment to reflect on how they have been used throughout the game."
"Of course," Bylos adds, "apart from the nostalgia value of the subway, the new version of the subway introduces the new aegis system. It ironically acts as a tutorial for the new system and teaches players these new mechanics, this time with Sarah by their side."
The aegis system is The Secret World's newest combat-related addition. The grotesque enemies you face use aegis shields, which effectively block damage unless you adjust your weapons to account for them. There are three aegis types--cybernetic, psychic, and demonic--and each is color coded so that you can quickly change tactics. Aegis are slotted into your weapons and armor, and switching from one to another takes your weapons out of commission for a few seconds. But you must switch to a matching aegis controller to have any hope of bringing down your foes, some of whom employ multiple types of aegis shields.
Says Bylos, "Moment to moment, [the aegis system] asks the players to think tactically about the way that they approach encounters, which fits into the original philosophy of the game with deck building. It sidesteps some of the power growth problems seen quite often in the MMO genre by allowing players to convert a percentage of their vanilla damage into a specific aegis damage type. The player with the best gear in the game will be powerless without the right aegis."
There's a lot of combat flexibility as a result. You can create aegis setups that use directional damage, utilize multi-layered aegis, and so forth, and those setups in turn can disrupt and transform group tactics. My group's battles versus the subway's filth hulks gave me only a taste of what was in store. By the time we reached the streets of Tokyo, The Secret World's new zone, we were frequently switching between aegis types to make short work of the infected that dogged us as we rushed to our destination, an arcade run by a man called Daimon Kiyota. "I roll in the wake of black cats," says this eerily calm figure, clad in a purple shirt and striped suit. "I see the tilt in the game, and I keep rolling." No one in The Secret World can ever be direct. "Brevity is the soul of a smart ass," Kiyota tells me, as if reading my mind. Apparently, then, The Secret World is not home to many smart asses.
Kiyota is one of Bylos' favorite characters in the new issue. Bylos calls him "a Japanese mix of Tyler Durden and the Joker. He peppers his speech with 1920s New York slang and ruthlessly drives his underlings to do his bidding--but his craziness is infectious and you can't help but get caught up in the maelstrom." Kiyoto is not the only character likely to have an effect on you, however. Says Bylos, "Some characters have a profound effect even though they never appear on screen. In one of the missions, players collect journal entries from a young girl who has been drawn into a cult known as the Fear Nothing Foundation. Through her journals, players experience the events that occurred in the Fear Nothing Foundation which led to a mass suicide. She is a real person by the time you have finished the mission, somebody you know and empathize with."
Our travels led us through the dark streets of Tokyo and to the grounds of a bathhouse, where we had to rush past burning embers and pockmarked craters before we found respite along the main path, which was lined with beautiful pink- and purple-blossomed trees. The Jigaku no Yu bathhouse was not an ordinary one, but a hellish sanctuary, populated both by humans and demons. The demon in charge was another memorable Secret World personality; he was clad in a tiger-striped robe and Beats By Dre-style headphones, and his growling demonspeak was translated by a mask affixed to his purple-horned face. He gyrated to the rhythm of the tune blasting into his ears, dancing around a blond-haired mannequin fixed in a suggestive pose. In a game filled with freaks, this is one of the freakiest.
The freaks continued their assault in the subsequent investigation mission, which ditched combat in favor of the kind of thoughtful gameplay that makes The Secret World so different from its fellow MMOGs. This wasn't the first time the game had led me to a pitch-black carpark, but it was the first time I was dogged by young women with long hair and blank stares, the kind often associated with Japanese horror tales. To avoid succumbing to blackness brought on by their icy stares, I had to keep them within my field of vision, for turning my back on them resulted in sudden death. This was a puzzle dungeon made horrific by haunting imagery and a soundtrack simmering with dissonant chords and indistinct rumbles.
It's only fitting that this vision of Tokyo be so steeped in cultural mythology and modern-day tropes; The Secret World's primary draw is how it appropriates conspiracy theories and urban legends the world over. "Japan is rife with mythology and lore to draw upon as well as a very robust pop-culture aesthetic," says Bylos. "We always draw our influences from across the spectrum, both for characters and locations. So players will visit a pachinko parlor and run missions for the Yakuza, speak with Oni and fight Gaki. There are characters drawn from the Edo period and characters drawn from The Grudge. It's an eclectic mix."
Not every inspiration for Issue 9 is quite so macabre, however. Says Bylos, "In one mission we borrowed a mechanic from Portal, sending the player back and forth between the real world and the hell dimensions in an attempt to get past obstacles. This means using a portal creator to flip between the two worlds at will. In another, we take a cue from Home Alone. The player needs to get past many obstacles like marbles on the floor and being smacked in the face by a flying can of paint or dealing with a rogue potato gun. It was interesting to see how people reacted to this--some people were sending me angry emails about the marbles knocking them over constantly--and my reply with the solution was 'use the walk key.' Most MMOs have one but how many times have you ever had to use it?"
I couldn't accuse The Secret World of lacking for ideas, certainly--not after discovering that yet another mission requires you to fold origami shapes in the real world to discover the fate of two star-crossed lovers. I don't think that the game's ever-so-slightly clumsy combat is the draw to Issue 9: The Black Signal. No--it's that sense that in The Secret World, anything can happen, and usually does. And in a genre too often content to play follow-the-leader, I'm glad to see that Funcom continues to hew its own path.