Review

The Secret World

New World Order

The Secret World delivers a conspiracy-laden alternative to World Of Warcraft.

By Gus Mastrapa • July 11, 2012

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.

The Secret World

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.

The Secret World

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.

The Secret World
Developer: Funcom
Publishers: Electronic Arts, Funcom
Platform: PC
Price: $50
Rating: M

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  • George_Liquor

    So this is what Funcom is doing instead of wrapping up The Longest Journey. 

    Balls.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      It’s not like Ragnar Tornquist has been consistent, but he just said he’s pushing this game for the next few years, too.  So, 2015, BEGINNING of development, maybe?

      I’m not the series’ biggest fan, but 10 years is a long time to leave fans hanging.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/GO6LT43POFOMBYMMZIAVL5LGWA Lucia

      ++++++ Four wheels carry the body, two wheels carry the soul. I am a biker woman and i remain single because i am always on the road. Now I need a man who can give me real love, so i joined___seekingbikers___, it is the best place for bikers to seek Friendship, Love, and Romance! Come in and give it a shot, you will find your biker match to share the passion for motorbikes. :)

      • CyberneticOrganism

        NO

        • George_Liquor

           But… Love!

    • AngryRaisins

      Somewhat amusingly, the AV Club’s original (2006) review of Dreamfall notes it being a long-delayed sequel, and sarcastically suggests the series will be wrapped up “as a neural implant around 2012″.  Optimists.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    Nice work, Gus.  I rarely feel the need to jump into games to catch a community at its height, but it’s a treat to marvel at something with this little secret society.  I don’t like debating fighting tactics with a group of nerds (most games).  Doing strategies (Eve), social events (Final Fantasy), or puzzles (The Secret World) is my speed.

    If Uru hadn’t already failed, I’d be more confident in them exanding the thinking part.  I don’t think the combat is that flawed, but I don’t need endless grinding or traditional quests.

    • The Guilty Party

      Well… it’s not all puzzles. I’d say it’s maybe 15-20% puzzley, with the rest being combat-y. They’re mixed in together sometimes.

      That said, the quests are presented in an amusing sort of … rambling monologue on the part of the NPCs that is a lot better than it sounds. There’s often subtle hints/tips in the monologue for the quest, and the vast majority of the time the quests are disguised as something more than ‘kill 10 zombie badgers’. At root, they *are* kill 10 zombie badgers, or collect 5 whatsits, but you’ll feel better about them because they’re security cameras to help out the survivors. I.e., there’s a bit of story going on.

      They also lead you around better. I always grow weary when I enter a new quest hub and see half a dozen glowing ‘!’ to pick up and churn out. Here, you pick a quest, see it through, and then there’s almost always a new something there to investigate. It’s cosmetic, but sometimes cosmetics make things pretty.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        That’s what I mean.  Basically, why I enjoy those 3 series can be summed up by, “I actually enjoy reading quest text.”  I don’t know anyone who reads World Of Warcraft text anymore.

        Tornquist has said that he wants to expand the puzzle aspects, but think about how the “new investigations” you mention disappear; they go quickly, from what I’ve played.  Eventually, he’s going to have to populate his world with “5 pelt” quests.

        • dreadguacamole

           I’ve only seen one investigation quest after the first area. Tornquist is saying they are planning on adding at least one investigation quest per month to fix that, among other content, but we’ll see how that pans out.

      • dreadguacamole

          Those rambling monologues are often amazing; If anyone reading this has access to the game and hasn’t created an illuminati yet, I’d strongly urge them to do so. The first couple of characters you meet in the Illuminati induction quest feature some truly funny, witty writing, and made me fall in love with the game almost instantaneously.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           I play Templar, and there are some pretty great characters in our HQ. I think the good characters are spread around more-or-less evenly.

        • dreadguacamole

           @green_gin_rickey:disqus: I agree in that they’re just as well written (I’m playing a templar with my wife), but they’re nowhere near as funny. I’m finding the Templar experience to be a bit stodgy and boring compared to the lumies (and I recognize it’s that way completely by design).

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    I have never played an MMO in my life, it is in the fact the one video game genre I’ve never tried, but for The Secret World, I think it’s time to change that

    tell me though, do you have to pay a monthly subscription? 

    • The Guilty Party

      Yep. Well, unless you buy the lifetime sub for around $200.

      • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

        damn, I don’t like that, how much is it?

        and also where the hell can I even buy the damn game? since EA stopped putting their games on Steam and I refuse to use that Origin, so I guess Amazon?

        • The Guilty Party

          I believe you can buy it direct from them, thesecretworld.com . No need for origin. Or you could scrounge up a box somewhere, yes.

          It’s $15/mo, first month free. Probably minor discounts if you buy a few months at a time, there usually are.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          He says it will become free-to-play somewhat soon.  If the game still appeals but you don’t want to commit, it’ll still be there in a year.

        • The Guilty Party

           @GhaleonQ:disqus I don’t think free to play is ‘soon’. At least not within the span of most people’s patience. From the rockpapershotgun interview: “Five years from now, ten years from now, will Secret World be
          free-to-play? I’m sure of it. But that’s a long time. For the time
          being, we’re committed to this business model …”

    • blue vodka lemonade

       It’s the first MMO I’ve played (not counting trying a bunch of free-to-play games for about a day each, then deciding they were crap) and I’m really happy with it. It helps that I lucked into joining a cabal/guild with some cool people, but I’ve sunk a ton of hours into the game and am not even a third of the way through the launch content. It’s kind of an MMO/adventure mashup, and while the controls took some getting used to (it helps if you played a lot of tank-control survival horror games back in the day) it plays well, looks decent, and is plenty scary/funny/clever.

  • rvb1023

    I won’t lie, this game looked fantastic and I will probably get into it after I upgrade my computer.  I tried running the beta and my poor laptop couldn’t do it.  I have to say the setting seems awesome and I am all for any MMO not trying ape WoW at this point.

    • dreadguacamole

       It really is a system hog, even on lowered settings. My wife’s laptop was high-end only two years ago, and she has trouble running the game at an acceptable framerate.

      • blue vodka lemonade

        I haven’t cracked why, but whether I’m on low settings/low res/low everything or ULTRA HIGH OMG, I always get about 15 fps. Which is to say, it’s playable, but not smooth or nice or silky-delicious or whatever. One in a while it slows down to .5 fps, or 2, or 4, and then it just judders about for a bit. It’s really annoying, and this is on a laptop that’s a year old and fairly high-spec.

        • dreadguacamole

            On my wife’s computer, we found that Direct X 11 graphics were enabled, despite her video card not being able to run it; setting it manually to DX9 helped quite a bit, even if it didn’t make any difference at all visually. (I initially thought that it’d be ignored if your hardware didn’t support it)
           Having said that, if you can crank up all the settings, the game looks stunning. It’s got the best use of tessellation I’ve seen yet; if you look at a field of pebbles, each individual one extrudes from the ground. It’s pretty amazing.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           @dreadguacamole:disqus Tragically, I get bad performance even with DX9.

          I do, however, really enjoy staring at pebbles.

  • frogandbanjo

    Great idea for a setting; I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one, even though budget constraints force me to be a sidelines-observer for subscription-based games. I’m sure the internet will keep me well informed.

  • Xtracurlyfries

    “Deep in a Lovecraft tome” is right. Kingsmouth is clearly taken from the Lovecraftian towns of Kingsport and Innsmouth. Though putting Kingsmouth in Maine instead of Massachusetts was clearly a masterstroke :)

  • The_Misanthrope

    I always had thought that it was a good idea to blend real-life research with game research when it comes to modern conspiracy RPGs, since sifting through all the many rumors, myths, and legends would make for a good way to draw the player into that obsessive, paranoid mind-set.   Whereas other RPGs are steeped in their own particular setting, this is our world, so the player already has a good sense of the world. 

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Memoriam_(s%C3%A9rie)  I feel bad for people who didn’t play the In Memoriam series when it came out, and I can’t believe there more games haven’t followed in its alternate reality game footsteps.  It hit that paranoia spot perfectly.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GO6LT43POFOMBYMMZIAVL5LGWA Lucia

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    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      That is a beautiful sentiment… and very true!  Thanks for posting this, Lucia.  I only wish I were as lucky in love as I am in finding rebuilt Honda CB550 engines LOL!

      • dreadguacamole

         Motorbikes, and the men and women who love them.

         And their horrifying centaur-like, half-human, half-machine offspring.

         Coming to The Secret World in ’13!

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

       I’ve never given time to an MMO, but this looks pretty damn cool.  I give Funcom credit alone for deviating from the Pink Floyd light show high-fantasy template.  Especially after APB folded so quickly.
       For y’all who do play MMO’s, what’s your main draw?  Is it the social element?  The carefully doled out upgrades?  Some sort of intangible that transcends the nuts and bolts of the system?

    • blue vodka lemonade

       TSW is my first MMO, so I’m not an expert on Why People Like MMOs.

      I really like how big and open and detailed the world is. There’s three big zones right now (Kingsmouth/Egypt/Transylvania) and then each is broken into three sub-zones, and each sub-zone is a realistically scaled, authentic-feeling place. It’s not like in Oblivion where the capitol city has about 30 total residents in 30 total houses. Having other players running around, even if you’re not interacting with them, helps to populate the world and makes it *feel* like a social experience.

      Upgrades are something I generally don’t like dealing with, though in TSW they’re not that hard to manage. It’s fun to spend a bunch of unused skill point and go from dying all the time to tossing out lightning bolts from your fingers (or my personal favorite, summoning the Thor’s Hammer to smash a zombie in the head.) There’s that primal loot-collecting rush when you get a new weapon better than the one you have.

      I like being able to dress like some kind of militant Goth businesswoman, talk over voice chat with a bunch of other weirdos, and kill Cthulhu with lightning bolts.

  • http://twitter.com/marlowespade Chris Holly

    As a Lovecraft geek I’m loving this so far. The modern-day setting, the different skill progression system, and general feel are all just so refreshingly different than any other MMO I’ve played. It really feels like a mash-up between an MMO and an adventure game.

    What really makes the game shine though is the writing. The NPCs are almost uniformly terrific, and in even a few lines of dialogue manage to become pretty fleshed out characters. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RYKQV654UCTVSPZ5DTVQUDHUWU BrianP

    It’s hard to get a bead on how or why this is an MMORPG. It sounds like it could just as easily be a single player experience.

    • The Guilty Party

      Well, because money.

    • Shain Eighmey

      Unfortunately, I agree. This sounds like yet another MMO that I really wish was just an RPG. 

    • blue vodka lemonade

       I enjoy the dungeons–they’re actually interesting, and varied–and I like being able to help/ask for help from the guys in my cabal/guild. It *could* be a single-player game without a ton of changes, but…

      You can always play it as a single-player game. Two months is about right to chew through the launch content, and it would cost $65, which is pretty much what any new game costs. Collaborating/socializing is helpful/fun, but pretty much optional. It’s not hard to ignore the multiplayer aspect.

  • Meatwad_of_the_NJ_Meatwads

    Does anyone remember the adventure game “Missing: Since January”? You had to solve puzzles involving looking up fake website they put up for the game AND real websites. It was fucking impossible, especially because once it was ported to America, the number of websites in existence had grown and a lot of “game” websites were down. Also you just had no idea what to do at any point in time. “Hmm, here’s a photograph. Seriously, what do I do with this?” Ugh.

    • http://twitter.com/marlowespade Chris Holly

       I do! I also played the sequel, In Memoriam (which was much better all around). Secret World’s investigation missions remind me a lot of those games, but with more direction (and thankfully, a reliance more on wikipedia than custom sites).

    • JohnnyLongtorso

      Yeah, my spouse and I played through that, mostly with the help of walkthroughs since, as you said, it was nigh impossible otherwise. Really, really great atmosphere, though. I remember there being a part where you have to assemble audio clips of a terrified girl singing a song in the correct order. That was creepy as hell.

      • Meatwad_of_the_NJ_Meatwads

        It had good atmosphere, but I was basically reading the walkthrough with no hope of getting through it any other way, just physically. So I stopped playing it pretty quickly while I normally see terrible European adventure games through. I can’t blame them for trying something new, it just didn’t work in this case.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      *points up*  I wish they had the cash to maintain it.

  • hcduvall

    So really, I’m the only one who reminds of White Wolf and the World of Darkness? Specifically the Mage: the Ascension line? I know Vampire was the most popular of their pen and paper rpgs, and I don’t want my comment to be interpreted as a “they stole this from” thing, ’cause I don’t mean it that way, at all, I’m just wondering.

    Oh well.

    • dreadguacamole

       Nope – It’s exactly the way I describe it as to my friends – as the World of Darkness crossed over with the Illuminatus trilogy.
       I’d say it most closely resembles Mage: The Ascension and Hunter: The Reckoning, but there’s plenty of elements from Werewolf and Wraith in there (I know there’s a Faerie bit in-game, but I doubt it’s anything like Changeling).

       You probably know this, but CCP (they of EVE fame) have merged with White Wolf and are making an official WoD MMO.
       From what (very little) I’ve seen of it, it looks very Vampire-centric, and with a heavy focus on inter-player politics and pvp.