The Secret World is a one-time payment plus payment for additional content (with subscription option) modern fantasy/horror/supernatural/mythology-and-urban-legend based RPG–clearly there’s a lot going on here but it all makes sense mostly–where you do NOT play the chosen one.
History and Development
Funcom, also responsible for Age of Conan which is apparently hugely popular, developed The Secret World. The idea came about sometime in 2002 and went through a million changes; apparently it was originally set in the 1920’s which actually would have been super cool and I’m sort of upset it’s not now that I know that, but I’ll get over it. The goal was to make a game without classes or levels, with massive amounts of freedom for character and play style, and a great smorgasbord of mythologies, ideologies, monsters, locations both real and imaginary, and cute mission notes from NPCs.
The Secret World was “announced” to the public in 2007 when they released a poem–a goddamn poem, wait, though, it gets better–in like five languages that when solved led to an internet treasure hunt ending eventually in the official forum, because in The Secret World, nothing can be simple, or in English. From there they liked to leak all this weird shit over the next few years that made you look at things and go “What the fuck are they playing at in there?”
I first saw a trailer for The Secret World in 2009 in my friend’s dorm room and we watched it six times in a row. It was incredible and for those of you unfamiliar with it, I really recommend seeing it because it was mind-blowingly cool looking. It had no fighting, really, no story, no chiseled white dudes with guns blasting away at aliens. All it had was one tattooed skinny Chinese girl making a milkshake, but it was probably the most atmospheric thing I’d seen or have seen in years.
And then shit got real
I was immediately in love.
I had to wait three years or so, of course. The Secret World was released in June of 2012. At first it was pay-to-play but within a year it had ditched the subscription fee and ran instead on a system where you could get the free game for an A experience and pay for any expansions that came out, or you could subscribe for an A+ experience and get points every month to pay for the expansions, plus some other cool stuff including the super important experience boost milkshake. I’ve played TSW with and without subscription and they’re both fine. There’s no difference in game play or anything and which I do like to support them when I can, when I’m in my periods of unemployed writer-dom and I can’t afford the $15 a month, it’s just fine to go without. You can go on and off whenever you’d like and the points stay with you after you unsubscribe. It’s all very fair.
There has been one major complaint that the masses have put in about character creation in this world; people aren’t pretty enough. Sorry, boys and girls and non-binary individuals, but this complaint is a bullshit complaint. Sure, like, I’m not going to deny that people can look kind of odd, but it’s human odd, not like, the graphics are fucked up odd. They have options for multiple races and ethnicities–like, programmed in, not “lets futz with character sliders until they look not-white,” a lot of fun hair, and NON-SEXUALIZED CLOTHING. Player Characters in TSW look like normal people and dress (mostly) like them, so there’s no “oh no, this armor has better stats but makes me look like a fifteen-year-old’s wet dream.” You just put on a fucking turtle neck and go to Romania.
There are, of course, some…other opinions on clothing…
(I was going to include my friend’s character here, who wears a purple Hawaiian shirt, a kilt, and flip flops, but it didn’t work out and also it’s nearly too painful to live)
Because there are no classes, the only thing you chose about your character other than physical appearance is your faction, what secret society you belong to. You choices: Templars, not as douchey or holier-than-thou as they’re cracked up to be, but pretty douchey; Illuminati, the original frat but with more guns and murder and spike heels; and Dragon, hanging out in the corner flapping butterflies at each other in an attempt to creature storms on the other side of the world. All three are super cool in their own ways. Some people have preferences. I do not. They are all great.
The Secret World comes with three areas, each with a major story. Additional content, which comes in “issues” introduces new missions, new areas, new parts of the story, and new crazy fucking shit. There are currently ten issues in addition to the original game.
I have no idea what this game is about.
Look, this is my favorite MMO of ever (whoops, spoilers) and I honestly have no idea what’s going on the vast majority of the time. The Secret World does not like to give you information. It likes to string you along with riddles and confusion and absolute pants-wetting terror until you just give up trying to understand the master plan and just let yourself be swept away in the atmosphere of it. Trying to comprehend the story or apply normal black-and-white good-vs.-evil game logic to this is impossible. Even Bioware’s games, famous for making you make moral decisions, still have SOME big evil that has to be dealt with. The Secret World does not.
Here’s an example: The first area is an island in Maine being slowly overrun by zombies from the ocean due to Lovecraftian influence and something called “the fog”. The lore of the island include Elder Gods, Vikings, a Native American tribe, Illuminati secrets and puzzles under the town, a haunted amusement park, the power of the earth, and the fucking sword Excalibur. So yeah, you tell me what’s going on there. Because I don’t even know.
Okay, see, I promised once that I wouldn’t make these things all really positive even if it’s a game like The Secret World that I love, and here’s where that’s going to come in. There are some gameplay problems. I’ll get into that in a bit, but first here’s the basics:
Since there are no classes, TSW works entirely on skills. You get to chose two main weapons from nine choices, three each of melee (hammers, swords, and fists), ranged (pistols, rifle, and shotgun) and magic (blood, elemental, and chaos). Then you get eight active skills and eight passive skills based on those two weapons. At any point, you can change around what weapons and skills and items–which give you health, DPS damage, magic damage, basically any stat you can think of, that’s from items–you have equip and become a totally new person. A healer can decide to be a glass cannon or a tank or a ranged DPS on a whim if they’ve bought the skills to do it.
The ability wheel: know it, love it, be confused by it.
In order to facilitate this and make it less complicated to get the hang of, you also have decks, which are groups of skills that do certain things–an unofficial class, if you will–that the developers put in. You don’t have to stick to a deck either but it’s a nice starting point. Also a lot of them give you cool hats and shit as a reward for completing them. The Secret World: Do Stuff and We’ll Give You Hats.
Then later you can get a third weapon, an auxiliary, which you get one active and one passive skill for which can be fun for an extra boost. And then there’s some new stuff about augments on your skills to further tailor them, plus this new thing in combat about breaking barriers on enemies…it’s kind of crazy and a lot to manage and that’s one of my complaints, that the level of skill customization can get really, really overwhelming at times. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the different skill stuff and lose sight of the game itself.
Also, the game itself is actually really, really difficult sometimes so frustration levels can skyrocket if you’re not careful. Just a word of advice, take it easy and slow, don’t expect too much from yourself early on, and do not, and I repeat DO NOT do the mission “The Eye of Horus” more than once because it’s the most painful thing ever and I hated doing it the first time.
Speaking of missions (did you like that segue?) quests are repeatable! This is super cool because you don’t need to level grind. Instead, you quest grind. They reset every so many hours (usually 24) but they really dole out the experience later on which can be quite nice to just see your XP rocketing upwards in bursts rather than slowly dragging itself towards the next Skill Point.
The atmosphere. The best part of this game is how hard they work to make everything seem both real and terrifying, funny and sarcastic and yet so completely fucked up that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be laughing or screaming. Both. The answer is both.
I don’t scare easy because I usually see the literary tricks behind suspense stories (sorry, guys, this is what a degree in English can do for you) but this shit is terrifying. There’s an issue called “The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn” which I played with my friend and it was basically two people screaming at their computers for two hours as we went through it. There’s one mission with creepy singing children and a number that involves charismatic but definitely evil voices offering you great power. There’s a sixteen-year-old girl who explodes every once in a while, a family trapped in the statues of Egyptian gods, and a horrifying parasite that eventually starts talking to you.
Oh yeah, AND VAGINA WITCHES.
Would you like to see one of those coming towards you tentacles first on a dark night? It’s awful.
Oh, and there’s no fall damage so that’s super fucking awesome, not gonna lie.
The customization is a pro and a con. It’s cool in theory, decent in execution, but really hard to totally comprehend in reality. There are just so many different abilities and it’s tricky to figure out how they’re going to interact together. Some people do a ton of research in order to figure out what they should build but I am not a research person so I work on trial and error, mostly. It’s not a bad way to go, but it can leave you feeling like you missed something important.
THE INVENORY. I know it’s a weird thing to freak out about, but god is it tragically terrible. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it works on icons and the crafting system is also sort of shit so you get all this material and it’s hard to figure out what to do with it. I mostly sell it and buy pre-made shit because I refuse to deal with the crafting, but regardless, the inventory can be real pain in the ass.
Get it. It’s often cheap, often on sale, always on Steam if that’s your poison. If you hate it, you hate it, and I’m sorry – I’m aware this isn’t a game for everyone, I know a lot of people who can’t stand it because, I don’t know, they don’t tell you anything which I guess could be frustrating if you’re looking for a simpler, non-think-y gaming experience – but you should give it a try. If you’re interested in history, languages, puzzles, mythology, urban legend, sarcastic writing, great graphics, cool monster design or being constantly afraid for your life, buy this game. You don’t even need to subscribe.
Next Month: Wildstar! A game I want to love but am still unsure about! The pain of expectation and the confusion of it not actually being Firefly!