Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Review: Secret World (PC)

Secret societies?  Balderdash!  The idea that any sort of secret society can survive in this day and age is utter nonsense.  The purported power of so-called mystical sites like Stonehenge and [REDACTED] boggles the rational mind with yclept of fantasy that yclept yclept [REDACTED][REDACTED][REDACTED] filth [REDACTED][REDACTED].
Good, the text scrambler is in place and operating normally.  We can talk, if only for a short while.  It's important to pass along this information with a minimal amount of interference.  Maybe they're allowing it come out, just enough truth to salt the field of lies.  Or maybe they've slipped up this once.  After all, even in a secret society, people are only human.  Mostly.

There's a whole other world you don't know about.  This world you see around you, it's a movie, Plato's Cave writ large, and there's folks moving around behind us that are making all the shadow puppets.  They use the names of secret societies long thought discredited and defunct because it's easier that way.  Who would believe that there really is an Illuminati?  Or the Templars really are still around?

And if you think that's hard to swallow, get ready for some real next level shit: all of those mystical places that people talk about and never find, those are real.

Shambala, El Dorado, and places that nobody has ever seen before, let alone named.  And across the world, even between worlds, are people who wield magic.  Real magic.  None of this Lance Burton/David Copperfield “smoke and mirrors” stuff, but things that defy the laws of physics, powers attributed to gods and demons, and occasionally mythological heroes.  And the people out there who have these powers are fighting a war we never really see or hear about.  It's not a war about money, or resources, or even power, though those do get mixed in from time to time.  They're fighting a war for reality, to keep the Universe from being destroyed.

The Secret World is Funcom's latest MMO, and it's a rather different animal from their previous effort with Age of Conan.

Set in the present day, players roll up the appearance of their avatars and pick one of three secret societies.  A couple of short cutscenes introduce you to your new bosses and leads you into the tutorial section of the game.  From there, you're off on a journey to build your powers and your reputation within your organization that will take you from the nicest little island in New England ever go to Hell, to the sands of Egypt and a crazed cult ready to burn up the world, to the dark forests of Transylvania for a showdown with creatures of the night that put Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. to shame.  But if you need to take a break from saving the world, you can always duck into El Dorado or Stonehenge to challenge other agents and take control of the mystical sites which help your particular society when you decide to go back out into the field.

One radical departure from the usual MMO conventions is the lack of a leveling mechanic.  You're not making a run up to 50, or 60, or 80, or 100.  Instead, power is relative to what you know and how well you know it.

As you gain XP, a pair of counters are running along the bottom of the screen, seeing how close you are to earning your next Ability Point (AP) and your next Skill Points (SP).  APs are earned pretty quickly, and as you go through quests and dungeons, you'll earn them in multi-point blocks.  As the name might suggest, APs are used to buy abilities such as attacks, buffs, debuffs, and passives.  Meanwhile, SPs are applied to the various weapon and equipment categories, improving your proficiency and allowing you to equip more powerful gear.

There are no classes in the game.  Your role is determined by your gear and your equipped skills, both active and passive.  Weapons are the base from which you build off of.  Thus, it's possible for two players to be using the same weapon family, but have considerably different roles when going through group missions.

It's possible to max out all the gear categories and the abilities, but it's going to be a slog.  One of the nice things about The Secret World, however, is the ability to re-do quests you've completed previously.  More often than not, finishing one area isn't enough to bump your abilities and skills to a point where you can tackle the next area effectively.  That makes the repeatable quests useful for building up XP, APs, and SPs, though it can get a little dull if you've done the same quests over and over again.  Of particular mention are some of the puzzle elements in quests.  Some of them are easy to figure out, based on the environment and the clues scattered about.  Others are brutal mental challenges that give you scant information and expect some major efforts put forth if you want to solve them on your own.  Or you can use the built-in web browser to hit Google or special web sites built especially for the game.

Visual information in The Secret World is more important than it would be in other MMOs.  Clues for quests are scattered about everywhere.  Being able to read your environment, not just your powers bar, is a skill to be mastered in this game.

Beyond the informational side of things, the general art style and attention to detail just completely suck you in.  Sweeping vistas are easy to find if you go high enough, but it's on the ground that you feel the setting.  Mist-shrouded woods, caves illuminated by phosphorescent mushrooms or the occasional lantern, burning deserts, and seashores all have a heft to them visually, even when they're overrun by nightmarish creatures that by turns are fascinating and repulsive at the same time.  Even in urban settings, it doesn't feel like a simulation, but an alternate reality.  As if you could step out into the streets of London, duck down the right back alley, and find yourself in a marketplace with humans and fairy tale creatures haggle over the price of oranges.  Or walk down the semi-deserted streets of Kingsmouth and feel the desolation of a small town under siege.  There are all manner of particle effects and lighting tricks which are used to maximum effect both in and out of combat.  The level designs are excellently done not just from the way they're laid out, but from how they're lit, striking the right mix of spooky and realistic at the same time.

As with the visual, so with the audio.  Sound cues are always important, particularly if you've drawn aggro from a mob, but it's the use of sound in quests and puzzles that make it a step above the norm for MMOs.  Finding the signal in static, the right tones to unlock a door, even tracing a siren's song back to its origin point, there's all manner of clever uses for sound in this game and some of them will get you killed in short order if you're not on the bounce.

Equally impressive is the voice acting in the game.  The storyline and main quests all have voice-overs for their introductions, and the actors sell the characters with gusto.  For myself, it was worth rolling up an Illuminati character just to hear the voice work from Jeffrey Coombs and his utterly demented doctor helping you get accustomed to your new life.  With all the good stuff that went into the audio design, the music actually comes up a little short.  It's not bad, but it gets very repetitive very quickly.  The music stumbles when it needs to be creeping us out or pumping us up.

It's a blast to see an massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing gmae that doesn't go straight for the high heroic fantasy genre.  Funcom has done an excellent job creating a world that is both relatable and mysterious for players to explore. The Secret World delivers an MMO experience that's distinctly different from its competitors, and it's likely going to remain the standard for future games in the horror/supernatural genre.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
Excellent atmosphere and setting
Gear-based system is flexible and unique
Great voice acting

The Bad:
The grind does get wearing at times
Music is OK, but needs more work
Puzzles are occaisonally very obscure

Score: 9.0 / 10