I normally kick off my reviews by writing about the story that drives the game. This time I’ll do something slightly different and I’ll tell you a story: It’s the story of a writer (yours truly) that tried the beta of The Secret World and was convinced that the game had very little to offer. The beta builds I tested, for some reason I still have trouble identifying, simply didn’t click with me. At all.
Most of the elements were there, but they failed to interact with each other in a way that would generate enjoyment. The feeling was so compelling that I got to the point of considering letting someone else in the team review the game. Then I reminded myself that passing judgement on an unfinished product would be highly unprofessional, so I decided to stick with it. While I’m normally rather stalwart in my opinions, I do admit when I’m wrong: this is one of those times.
The Secret World is based on a rather simple (but not simplistic) premise. All the legends, folklore, fairy tales and horror bedtime stories are true. Zombies, Vampires, Ghosts and all those supernatural creatures that haunt our darkest dreams are real enough to kill people and to risk to lead the world towards its untimely end. Even that crazy pumkin head of Jack o’ Lantern is as solid as a punch to the face. To keep all those otherworldly threats at bay equally legendary secret societies like the Templar, the Illuminati and the Dragon are collaborating under a shaky truce guaranteed by the ancient (and fairly useless) Council of Venice.
The player starts as a recently inducted junior member of one of those secret societies that, after acquiring an uninvited immortality on top of magical powers due to swallowing a mysterious bee, is sent to investigate a terrible zombie outbreak in the fictional city of Kingsmouth on the equally fictional Solomon Island (crossed by a river named Miskatonic…) just off the coast of Maine. That investigation chock full of Lovercraftian innuendo will show that local zombie problems are only the proverbial iceberg tip of a much more global threat.
Story and atmosphere are probably The Secret World‘s biggest selling point. Funcom’s writers went to great lengths in gathering what’s probably the most varied and diverse collection of legends and lore to ever appear in a video game, mix it up wisely with a sizable amount of pop culture, sprinkle it with a handful of witty writing and actually create a very coherent and realistic primordial soup that not only makes perfect sense, but is also very enjoyable and thought-provoking to play through.
It feels delightfully “mature” and dark in its themes despite treading waters that can often be defined a tad juvenile in their origins (like the “slightly” overdone zombie fad) and without sparing some much welcome humor to lighten the mood. It really hits a sweet spot in a careful balance that I honestly didn’t think could really work. Fact is that it does. Everything is true and it often doesn’t take itself too seriously. You might instinctively think that people on the brink of annihilation wouldn’t resort to humor that often, but it does make a lot of sense if you think about it, especially when the things that want to annihilate them would drive most people to sheer insanity even before touching them.
As soon as the player logs into the game it’s hard not to notice its extremely rich visuals. Funcom has always been one of the rare MMORPG developers that furthered the idea of supporting DirectX past version 9 in its games, and the DirectX 11 client definitely helps The Secret World in setting itself apart from the rest of the MMORPG market.
The engine is an updated version of the one that powered Age of Conan, giving the two games a distinctively similar visual flavor. Everything looks organic and the representation of nature and vegetation is absolutely astonishing, creating some of the most beautiful vistas in a MMORPG to date.
The attention to even the smallest detail and a masterful environmental design, complemented by advanced effects like tassellation and normal maps really deliver, enhancing the sensation of walking through a realistic world made of actual solid materials, that you’re almost tempted to reach out and touch, instead of a bunch of polygons wrapped in their textures.
Funcom’s environmental designers really went all out in recreating the vision of the art team, filling the game with small, lovely details like business signs, graffiti, hidden wards, random (or actually not so random) eye catchers and Easter eggs, turning our Secret World into a world that compels you into exploring every little corner, not just because you want to discover every quest, but simply to see what hidden visual delights have been tucked out of plain sight.
One small discordant note comes from the fact that the engine is so highly specialized in displaying organic materials. Urban models, especially when made of very plain materials like concrete, may seem comparatively a little flat, probably because the engine is not as efficient in rendering that kind of texture.
Luckily that problem is made less apparent by the absolutely lovely lighting design, that gives every object volume and dramatic substance, contributing in an even more determining way in creating a world that feels immersive and disturbing (in a very good way, given the setting) at the same time. The dark and eerie atmosphere is absolutely unique and delightful.
The same level of detail comes into play with character design, especially pertaining to fashion (about which I’ll go more in depth later). There are a few small flaws here and there, mostly concerning hair and eyebrows, but nothing major. The world is populated with believable and varied NPCs that have no trouble “popping” out of the screen, even more so during cutscenes.
Since nothing is perfect, the visuals of The Secret World do have a rather weak link in some of the animations, especially combat-related ones. The problem lays in the fact that movement is a key factor in the game’s battle system, so every skill is designed to be executed while on the move. This creates a rather disturbing effect in which the upper and lower parts of a character’s body seem to animate independently in ways that don’t look very natural. Luckily this is limited to player characters, as monsters and NPCs are animated in a much more believable and natural way.
If you want to see more about the game’s visuals, you can, as usual, check out my flickr gallery – 300-some screenshots should be enough to give you a rather clear idea of what I’m talking about.
Storytelling in The Secret World relies heavily on cutscenes, and boy, they’re a joy for the eyes. As opposed to combat animations, during cutscenes everything is natural and fluid, and complex facial and body animation is well complemented by the display of characters in shiny high resolution and great photography, creating a lovely cinematic effect that will keep most players wanting for more.
Cinematics are made even more enjoyable by excellent and extensive voice acting that brings to life every single quest giver. Lines are delivered effectively by a wide variety of seasoned actors that almost always prove very appropriate and comfortable in their roles. There’s a bit of overacting here and there, but it very seldom feels out of place, falling in line with the fact that most people we’ll meet have been in contact with all sorts of horrors and their mental health isn’t exactly what it used to be. Remember Call of Cthulhu and Sanity Points? A lot of the NPCs in the game failed quite a few of those rolls, adding nicely to the depth of their acting and design.
Funcom didn’t limit voice acting to cutscenes. Every main character can be asked about himself, his situation and a variety of topics, allowing us to better connect with them and delivering even more lore and information to our doorstep. They aren’t just quest givers, as hours upon hours of voice acted monologues turn them into realistic entities immersed in a realistic world. They’re men and women that had lives, friends and loved ones before disaster struck, and have no qualms in talking at length about them, improving our immersion tenfold in the process.
Dialogue unrelated to quests is entirely optional for those that suffer from severe attention issues (even if often they offer information that proves valuable for the future, like identifying who would have knowledge about a certain topic that we’ll have to research about), but listening to those ramblings is extremely interesting and enjoyable.
The witty and effective writing and voice acting are made even richer by a very wide selection of accents that creates an even more varied world and enhances realism, ultimately turning every encounter into a very memorable experience. Whoever wrote Richard Sonnac (our “mentor” if we play as Templar) and his voice actor Jimmy Akingbola will forever have a place in my gamer heart, no doubt about it.
The only people that I can see disliking the writing of The Secret World are those that harbor a sheer hate for pop and geek culture, that permeates a quite sizable portion of the script. Ultimately, though, the game is set in the real, contemporary world, and people are supposed to share our pop culture, hobbies and passions. When you meet a skater boy that thinks he knows how to fight zombies due to all the hours he spent on Left 4 Dead, it’s hard not to smile.
Of course, generally amazing production values, even when complemented by one of the best looking minimalistic UIs I saw in a MMORPG, can’t create a good game by themselves. Funcom played it safe with a few elements of the gameplay of The Secret World, resorting to the usual tab targeting and hotbar combination for combat, but in some other aspects they took some rather commendable risks in order to break the slightly moldy mold (pun entirely intended) of the MMORPG genre.
The biggest risk, that I would go ahead and actually define a true leap of faith, was taken with questing. While there are still plenty quests in which your task will revolve around the indiscriminate genocide of assorted monsters, Funcom decided to introduce two rather innovative kinds of missions: Sabotage quests and Investigation quests.
In Sabotage quests you won’t have to fight at all. As a matter of fact, even trying will, in most cases, get you killed. You will, instead, have to rely on stealth and subterfuge in order to succeed. Sabotage missions normally focus on infiltrating a hostile zone without being detected, and often you’ll have to use the environment in a clever way to reach your goals, sounding alarms to clear rooms full of guards or injecting gas into air conditioning systems. The game won’t tell you how to get past every hurdle, and often you’ll be given multiple ways to complete the same task.
You’ll be given the chance to rely on sheer stealth after analyzing the patrol routines of the NPCs, or to steal a uniform to lower the chance of detection. Finding the right pass code won’t be the only way to get past a fence, as relying on platforming to jump over it will also be a possibility. That’s definitely a quite fresh approach to questing in a MMORPG, but the best has yet to come.
The true head turners, in fact, are Investigation quests. Forget the boring process of clicking through quest text as fast as possible and following easy quest markers while being spoon-fed the solution by the game. There are no quest markers here. You’ll be given nothing more than one or more clues and you’ll have to use your grey matter and your intuition in order to find a way to progress and ultimately reach the conclusion of your investigation. Often you’ll even have to resort to external information like the title of a song or the name of a painter. You’ll even have to learn to decipher Morse code. To facilitate that, Funcom went as far as building an external web browser to let you access the internet directly from the game.
The Secret World‘s Investigation missions are probably the game’s biggest perk, but also its biggest risk. MMORPG developers have been doing everything in their power to pander to the players’ laziest inclinations, making their experience as smooth and effortless as possible, reducing the need of actual involvement and thinking to the extreme. I can’t help but wonder how many of those used to have their path from mindless monster to mindless monster perfectly marked on their compass and mini-map will meet a very rough awakening from having to actually pay attention and figure their way to success.
Personally, I find this move against one of the genre’s most fossilized tropes absolutely fantastic. The fact that Funcom promised to shift the questing focus even more towards this approach in the future gives me a lot to look forward to, and quite a bit of confidence on the fact that The Secret World will keep my brain engaged for a while.