The Secret World, Log One: A World More Gaiman Than Tolkien

It all begins with a bee. You are not an elf or a troll or some sort of mystical creature. You are a human man or woman, an ordinary soul living in a stylish, IKEA-inspired, thoroughly modern apartment.

One night, while you sleep, there comes a bee. And not an ordinary bee. It comes to you, and when you awake, you are... different. Changed. Suddenly aware, in a way that you had not been before.

A few days later, there comes a knock on the door. A mysterious man or woman, in red, blue, or green has taken notice of your powers. You have attracted attention — some positive, some not. And now, your life is permanently changed.

Welcome to your secret society. Welcome to The Secret World.

My young, silent character found herself whisked away to London to join the ranks of an ancient organisation. Proud and bold, the Templars wasted no time demonstrating the opulence and disciplined hierarchy that form the backbone of their society. I was given a chance to play around with the weapons in their training room and choose the starter set that suited me best. And then I was off to a wild adventure.

One thing that truly sets The Secret World apart from any other MMO I've played its its mundane modernity. Players report the results of their missions to their society contacts by using a smartphone. When something is unknown, NPCs tell players to Google it. And visible gear consists of such exotic items as jeans, hoodies, business suits, and track pants. In the year 2012, acknowledging in a game world that it is, in fact, the 21st century should not feel revelatory. And yet, it does.

Setting the game in the "real world" places it firmly into the area of "low" or "urban" fantasy. This isn't a Tolkien-derived world. This is the real of human myths and human monsters, even when it veers into the fantastic. Which is not to say that The Secret World doesn't pull influences from literature. For example: I've wished for a decade now to see an MMORPG based on Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere. While wandering through an underground corner of London that time forgot, I wistfully thought that this game was the closest I was ever likely to get.

A moment later, I blundered into an NPC who complained about the neighbourhood, "These days, London Below is practically indistinguishable from London Above." The Gaiman influence was clearly intentional. And as I left my humble training and origins in London behind, I stepped from a Neil Gaiman story into the modern update of an H.P. Lovecraft one.

All players funnel from their origin cities to the fictional town of Kingsmouth, in New England. (It's pretty seriously a Maine town, although it wouldn't be entirely out of place in Rhode Island. But really, Maine.) Kingsmouth has a problem: the fog came, and now the dead don't stay dead. Also there are creepy, horrible monsters in the water. And, in fact, everywhere else. There are a few barricaded bastions where survivors cling together.

What the hell happened to Kingmouth? And how does it related to the world having gone so weird, and you and everyone else getting all powerful? That's what you're here to find out.

You learn the basics of combat in your origin city, but Kingsmouth is where you learn how to fight and, more importantly, how to level. As you start to branch out and explore the world, you begin to gain both skill and ability points in rapid-fire succession.

Skill points are about as close as The Secret World gets to standard, vertical levelling. Skill points, when allocated, provide passive buffs and skills that increase the player's power in certain areas. The ones at the bottom, talismans, are stat-altering gear. The more points placed into each area, the better the gear a player can equip. Other lines can enhance a player's combat abilities. Adding points to Fists/Healing, for example, has made my little DPS machine very hard to take down. I like it.

The ability wheel provides what we'd think of as skill progression. Players can mix and match however they like and swap out ability sets at any time. The freedom allows for some excellent experimentation, but can also be overwhelming early on. The game does provide pre-built "decks", suggestions of complimentary sets that will play off each other and make the character balanced and powerful. I took my inspiration from one of the decks, though I'm not building to it exactly, and have fist melee weapons paired with chaos magic. The effects are rather phenomenal.

I am one half of a two-gamer household, and we were both playing The Secret World this weekend (at least, as much as our significant internet outage would allow). As a duo, we zipped through quest content — and zombies — in a delightfully quick and brutal way. The game split us up when one or both of us went into solo instances, but didn't de-group us, and so we were able to continue questing together very easily.

Combat, though, isn't the most interesting part of what The Secret World has to offer. Its best quests so far are called Investigation quests. They're puzzle-solving missions that require thinking not only outside of the box, but outside of the game. And while many are designed to be solved solo, like any kind of problem-solving, working together makes the process easier and more pleasant. Our moment of teamwork triumph came when suddenly, we each solved a different half of a riddle that required players to look up a Biblical verse. He realised that the answer came from the Bible; I figured out which book, chapter and verse. Working together on solutions, whether in group chat, over voice chat, or in the same room, makes the "multiplayer" part of "MMO" satisfying and fulfilling.

We didn't always play together. At one point, we were comparing notes on what each of us had done during our solo time. "I went and talked with the fortune teller," I said. "I didn't feel like taking her quests yet, but I really liked her so I went through all her conversations."

"When's the last time you liked an NPC in an MMO enough just to stand around talking with them?" he asked me.

In an MMO? I realised the implications: never. Madame Rôget was a first. I didn't want quests or items or rewards from her. I just wanted to chat. That's happened plenty to me in singleplayer RPGs (*coughGarruscough*) but never, that I could think of, in an MMO.

And that, right there, is what makes me eager to dive back into The Secret World: the work of Ragnar Tørnquist and the rest of the writing team at Funcom. Tørnquist was previously best known for The Longest Journey, widely considered one of the best adventure games ever made, and its sequel Dreamfall. Both feature compelling, diverse characters in meticulously crafted worlds, and The Secret World, so far, appears to be doing a fine job continuing that streak.

Kotaku's MMO reviews are a multi-part process. Rather than deliver day one reviews based on beta gameplay, we play the game for four weeks before issuing our final verdict. Once a week we deliver a log detailing when and how we played the game. We believe this gives readers a frame of reference for the final review. Since MMO titles support many different types of play, readers can compare our experiences to theirs to determine what the review means to them.


Comments

    Wasn't this game going to be Free to Play?

      subscription mmo with pricey micro transactions

    no.

      Probably will be within 12 months. That's not a slander on the game, mind you: just seems to be where the wind is blowing these days.

    Not worth the $60+ dollars and monthly ($15USD) fee.

    Decent ideas, its not yet polished however, the interface is clunky and massive learning curve. You've also got to like the world it creates, very sort of Horror filmy which gets a bit old quickly. Theres a lot of reading as well.

    Animations need work but will probably be fine within a couple of months

    Would be an excellent f2p game however, I'd happily spend a few bucks on it. Don't buy this game if you want to give it a try, wait a few weeks for a trial.

    I'll give it a few months till it goes F2P, doesn't stand a hope with GW2 and Mists of Pandaria.

      'Theres a lot of reading as well.'

      'Mists of Pandaria'

      Pretty much sums up why certain audiences don't like it. Short answer - if you're lazy and like a game that hand holds, it's not the game for you.

      If you enjoy a deep, engaging story (that requires reading, and god forbid, puzzle solving) then it's more than worth the entry price.

        +1 my friend

        This is not WOW or GW2 or any other MMO you can name....is it totally different from every MMO, in some parts YES. Like mentioned this has puzzles, and mystery - wrapped up in a world that has fantastic atmosphere. It doesn't hold your hand like mentioned, but that's a good thing. This game isn't about rushing to the finish line (even though you can)...it's about losing yourself in the world and discovering more then just stats and L33t items (but it lets you do that if you want).

        The asking price for all this goodness? 49$ - which includes 30 days. That's easily worth it. Since I started playing this game, I've caught myself thinking - this is more like a single player game then an MMO...the best thing is, you can solo or hook up with mates/randoms and have fun either way.

    I'm playing the game myself and very much enjoying it. There is a lot of reading but it makes sense for the game, it's about researching and finding knowledge.

    If you are lookig for a game to play PVP and to click and level your way through endless battles, then this game really isn't for you.

    There have been a lot of people in the ingame chat and it's very divided from "This game is awesome!" to "This game is boring".

    I think the game is very different from other MMO's and I think that's why there are a lot of people going into it expecting one thing and not happy that they have another.

    I beleive that this game will get a good solid base of followers and I for one am very interested to see how this is going to grow and develop as time goes.
    I especially love how thought provoking it is. Becasue of how puzzles are shaped you dont take anything for granted.
    It is a little clunky and some things need adjusting, the inventory and crafting system for one. But it's still early days yet, I beleive it will lend itself to change well.

    Playing it and loving it. I've never been a storyline person before (well until SWtor hooked me on the story for the class quests) but I like the stories in this one. If I don't want to watch the cutscene I don't have to, if I want to I can. It doesn't provide information you NEED, that's available elsewhere.
    The gameplay is amazing. The healing and support actually require you to think - no one button macros thank god (omg are we sure this is an MMO). There are mechanics to manage, resources to manage -your health, as well as weapon resources you build by attacks (I guess best described as combo points which you then spend on finishers) as well as other players health if you're a healer. The healing is done in many different ways and there's one to suit everyone.
    I personally haven't enjoyed a game this much in a long time. I think it's well worth the purchase price and well worth the monthly fee. If people seriously complain about the $15 monthly fee... think about it this way. Let's say you are a casual gamer and only play a max of 10 hours a week ... for whole big 37c per hour. Tell me where else you can get entertainment that cheap? Obviously the benefits of this just continue to scale the more you play.
    Some will say it's "too hard", and sure for the lazy MMO'er it may be. You have to think, that rules out half the gaming population who can't even get out of a void zone unless an addon tells them to do so. You can absolutely skip the investigation missions if you want to, but I think they add to the game.
    Sure it's got it's bugs, but they are few and far between (there is a lot of general talk about quests being bugged, but it's usually people who just can't figure out how to do it). There's work to be done but it shows the most promise of any recent MMO.

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