How The Secret World ignores the rules
Somewhere between All Points Bulletin and the Flagship Studios dud Hellgate London is that pervading sense that giving up on the fantasy formula is a sure-fire way to get your studio shut down in record time. APB in particular, that Realtime Worlds MMO that tried to bring the modern world to an MMO, is still a shadowy edifice warning any developer who thinks it might be a good idea to break out of the tried fantasy market what can happen. The modern world is dangerous territory, somewhere even Funcom hasn't handled in its own history with MMOs.
The studio has gone from the early (and brilliant) sci-fi setting of Anarchy Online to Age of Conan, staying in safe proximity to the genre's fantastical roots. So the idea of them trekking into the failure-strewn territory of real world environments really should raise the alarm – at least if it weren't for the fact that despite the danger The Secret World has the best depictions of a modern setting of any MMO.
So welcome to New York, then. On our hands-on tour of The Secret World, the city is the starting point for the Illuminati factions. Beginning with a near-identical cutscene from what we saw on our first outing as Templars in the game's version of London, your avatar is awoken by swallowing a bee, finds he has contracted a set of powers, and is tracked down by his faction's headhunter who sends you to the belly of New York to continue your training.
The challenge of taking the real world city and translating it into a game is a big one considering how much NYC has become psychologically linked to games like Crysis 2 which mock up the size and scope of the place in starkly realistic detail. Funcom's New York on the other hand could be seen as oddly minimalist. It is a smaller affair, not a skyscraper jubilee, but it focuses on what many games miss – not the size and scope, but the feel of the city.
The questlines are paranoid, neurotic, and funny, mimicking the NPCs who hand them out through the zone. This is a place with a cultural identity of its own, feeling particularly different compared to our earlier experience hands-on in London.
Hitting a mark somewhere between the paranoia of Jacob's Ladder and the comedy leanings of Bill Hicks, the voice of NY is situated in a nearby Laundromat in the form of your first quest giver, Dave Creed. Like SWTOR, Secret World works its magic with mo-cap cutscenes for every quest-giving NPC – and it's worth pointing out that despite this being BioWare's bag Funcom succeeds in making this a far more incredible product. Its writing is spectacular, for one, and in a genre often devoid of personality the game shovels charm and brains in front of the user.
Dave serves up metatextual references to other games, he waxes philosophical about Pac-Man, while additional dialogue is available in the form of questions you can ask him. Where it lacks the moral ambiguity of TOR, it so far succeeds in painting a finer, far more interesting group of NPCs to interact with.
Each quest giver has roughly four or five subjects they can continue to talk about after handing you your quest, meaning it's possible to listen to at least a few pages of conversation if you really wanted to squeeze out every drop from these NPCs. This doesn't seem like an MMO tendency; in fact older fans will be reminded of Funcom's history with adventure games or script-heavy point-and-clicks of yore.
Yes, it's a script-driven, dialogue-heaving MMO in which skipping quest text is entirely a thing of the past. This niche quality, however, also means it may be a tough sell for MMO purists, particularly in how Funcom handles the quest objectives. Riffing off of this design history even the quest lines often follow a puzzle-like structure found in these old games.
To find evidence of the Illuminati in town, for example, you are thrown into a labyrinthine building with no further instructions. The clues are visual then, not textual – signs of hands are painted onto certain walls at different angles, hinting at the direction you should follow through the maze. Secret World asks you to work according to its own internal logic, often with disregard for MMO tropes.
Occasionally it can wander too far out of sync with these traditions however. After their experience in New York, users are funnelled to Egypt – a danger zone of possessed cultists, mummy NPCs, enormous Starship Troopers-esque locusts, and some of the most creative boss designs you'll see anywhere in the genre. A black filth has spread across the area and corrupts the zone, while fanatical worshippers of the god Aten are working to irrigate fields in the zone with the poison. In part because of the secret cultist context of the zone, the quests can be wilfully obtuse. Users are asked to find some of these hidden cult enemies, but it's left up to the player to deduce they first need find "suspicious villagers" and follow them through the city until they reveal their actual identity.
The Secret World forces its users to think outside of the standard quest structure, and while the traditions of "Kill 10 X" missions are still healthy in its world, the game will regularly try to subvert the old tried and true formulae in the genre and develop its own rule-set. Its attempts aren't always successful but even this early on it's clear The Secret World is one of those rare MMOs in the industry that has a sense of individuality.