The grand dream of the massively multiplayer online game was that we’d find second lives, loves, and grand adventures in virtual spaces. But what World Of Warcraft and its many competitors really managed to deliver was a multiverse of theme parks where gamers go to cosplay as elves and orcs and kill dragons alongside friends and barely tolerated strangers. The Secret World, a new online role-playing game from Swedish developer Funcom, doesn’t reinvent this particular hamster wheel. But the ambitious, conspiracy-rich mystery does tweak conventions enough to feel lively and a little dangerous.
The Secret World’s setting is its best selling point. It’s a milieu informed by the wise-assed anarchy of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy and the sci-fi nerd paranoia of The X-Files. This subtle sidestep from the usual space operas and Tolkien fare does much to make this treadmill feel inviting.
A paranormal attack on Tokyo’s subways unleashes the undead (and worse) on our world. Everyday schlubs find themselves imbued with mystical powers and then recruited by the cynically manipulative Illuminati, the noble Templars, or the chaos-embracing “Dragon” in order to find and destroy the root of the encroaching evil. The first clues point to Kingsmouth, Maine, a sleepy coastal town with one foot in a Stephen King novel and the other deep in a Lovecraft tome. The village is beset by zombies, but that’s the least of its problems. A strange fog has brought monsters in from the sea. Myriad human meddlers, like a hippie death cult and a shadowy corporation, seem involved in the misdoings, too. Black helicopters fill the skies.
Your first tasks are predictable—help kill the undead and save the living survivors. But before long, you can engage in some more substantial detective work. Puzzles of varying intricacy are peppered between The Secret World’s main courses of combat. The answers to many of these posers are found online, and rather than force players to crack a laptop or exit to the desktop, the game provides a web browser that’s bookmarked to Google. The solutions to many puzzles are embedded in fake websites. A corporate stooge’s online profile reveals personal details that are key to cracking a shoddy password. Others, such as a hidden treasure whose coordinates can be derived from the length of the pop songs “Safety Dance” and “Don’t Stop Believin,’” only require a visit to Wikipedia. These moments aren’t terribly tough to crack. But as acts of role-play, these bits of problem-solving provide a fine simulation of sleuthing.
The Secret World feels slightly more flexible than your average World Of Warcraft clone. Players aren’t chained to a rigid stepladder of progression or pigeonholed into the classical roles of fighter and wizard. Rather, they’re invited to develop their characters at will, picking abilities from a vast smorgasbord. This latitude provides more than enough rope with which to hang yourself, but it also gives more developed characters the freedom to hop from the role of healer to damage-dealer with the push of a button.
Of course, more could be done to make The Secret World stand out. Dungeons still demand an inconvenient five-player configuration. Nobody ever seems to want to play the medic. And the vagaries of the world’s parallel dimensions can make it difficult to communicate with friends even if they’re standing right in front of you. Most games of this ilk launch a little rough around the edges, so glitches and quirks are expected and often remedied during prolonged evolution. But trying to predict the future of a game, service, and collection of technology this big is a sucker’s game.
Right now, The Secret World skates by on charm, wit, and ambition. Where so many pretenders to World Of Warcraft’s throne are afraid to stray too far from the template, there’s an appealing air of newness here, and the lively community reflects that. The venue, where every myth, legend, and crackpot conspiracy exists side-by-side, feels wide open and full of possibility—like a season of Lost ghostwritten by Alan Moore. I find The Secret World a pleasant place to take a virtual vacation. Whether we’ll all want to live there is a mystery that merits further investigation.