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True to style, the location of the Illuminati's main base of operations was described to me by a seemingly insanely paranoid individual in the back of a New York Laundromat. He explained, in hilarious detail, how life was a game of Pac-Man, and that the Illuminati were in control, keeping us chasing yellow dots. He told me I should pursue some yellow dots myself – the blinking lights of CCTV cameras bolted to the corners of buildings throughout the city.
The trail of cameras led to a stairwell, which in turn led to an area known as the Labyrinth, an underground series of corridors with markings that lead observant players along the right path. Unobservant players, like myself, will find themselves wandering for a good long while, as the labyrinth is quite complex. It's this blend of real-life settings and clever, fantastic situations drudged up from the far reaches of internet conspiracy boards that could sell The Secret World to gamers who aren't into elves or aliens.
There are no pre-determined paths, no end-all be-all route for ultimate progression. If you want to throw a fireball as you reload your assault rifle, mix firearms and elementalism. If you want to leech your enemies' lifeforce while bashing in skulls with a sledgehammer, mix hammers and blood magic. The game automatically switches weapons for you based on whichever ability you use at the time, so you don't need to worry about biting off more than you can chew. Or, alternatively, forget the hybrid route and progress in just one area like I did.
In either case, you'll have to choose seven abilities to serve as your hotbar and seven passive abilities to give you boosts in combat. If seven sounds like too few a number, keep in mind that your inventory is absolutely massive, with no need to upgrade carrying capacity in any way, and it can be re-sized and dragged along the screen to be placed wherever you like. You can even create your own “bags” and lock them into place, creating an easy-to-use and organic UI that suits your individual needs.
“But Sophie,” you must be thinking. “What is this madness?! No classes? No levels? Only one hotbar with just seven abilities? Blasphemy!” But hold on there, cowboys and girls, I'm about to blow your minds again: There's no gear or vendors (meaning no vendor trash), either.
The challenge of taking the real world city and translating it into a game is a big one considering how much NYC has become psychologically linked to games like Crysis 2 which mock up the size and scope of the place in starkly realistic detail. Funcom's New York on the other hand could be seen as oddly minimalist. It is a smaller affair, not a skyscraper jubilee, but it focuses on what many games miss – not the size and scope, but the feel of the city.
The questlines are paranoid, neurotic, and funny, mimicking the NPCs who hand them out through the zone. This is a place with a cultural identity of its own, feeling particularly different compared to our earlier experience hands-on in London.
Hitting a mark somewhere between the paranoia of Jacob's Ladder and the comedy leanings of Bill Hicks, the voice of NY is situated in a nearby Laundromat in the form of your first quest giver, Dave Creed. Like SWTOR, Secret World works its magic with mo-cap cutscenes for every quest-giving NPC – and it's worth pointing out that despite this being BioWare's bag Funcom succeeds in making this a far more incredible product. Its writing is spectacular, for one, and in a genre often devoid of personality the game shovels charm and brains in front of the user.
You can move while fighting in The Secret World (even while activating abilities), and if you don't when battling bosses, you're dead. For example, in a boss fight on a narrow bridge high above a pool of dark and deadly muck appropriately called "filth," a scientist turned evil sorcerer hurled wave after wave of dark spells at us – waves that had to be avoided by dodging left and right on the narrow bridge. Along with the dark waves, the boss unleashed floating orbs that, if they attached to you, would prevent you from attacking and slowly drain your health. The boss would also summon strong undead minions periodically, and on top of all that, his ultimate ability was a massive dark wave that would roll down the entire length and width of the bridge, pushing anyone in its wake off and to their deaths in the filth below – no matter the HP.
Working together and leaning heavily on our healer (there are no classes in The Secret World, but the abilities you select allow you to create a defined role), my two-tank, two-ranged, healer group was able to take the boss down by identifying his patterns, communicating, and running like hell to safety at the end of the bridge when the massive dark waves came rolling.
While the bridge boss is a good example of the challenge The Secret World bosses pose, Funcom doesn't stop there -- not by a long shot. I battled through environmental effects (like deadly sandstorms that can blow you from peaks if you don't seek shelter), stuns galore, devastating area effect attacks, boss tandems, varied attack and timing patterns, and more. Overall, they are tough but fair encounters, and tackling them was as rewarding as solving the Investigation mission.
Like last time, we took part in a dungeon run, with a developer as our healer as we tackled the minibosses and eventually the final boss. These instances always require a fair bit of teamwork and coordination, because even though we were told what we needed to do, victory was still no easy task. When we were left to our own devices, we spent our time taking on quests in the deserts of Egypt, trying to figure just why this talking mummy in a white suit had such a nonchalant attitude. (It's possible that after a few thousand years, one finally learns the secret to relaxation and inner peace.) The quests ranged from slaying cultists to locating very specific locations or people. While you're given a general range on the map as a hint, there were times when we were wandering around in circles trying to figure out exactly where we needed to go. The scorched desert is no small playground, and the narrow streets of al-Merayah had a lot of dead ends so we'll admit that we took the...scenic route - a lot.
Computer and Videogames:
The settings are beautifully sculpted too, with the Templar's London headquarters and the Iluminati's New York-based labyrinth feeling somehow more true than the actual places. The wide open desert area we played, the Scorched Desert area of Egypt, is more believable than the real world, combining open desert, magnificent tombs, a sprawling tourist hotel, and a small hill village, with its map represented playfully as a tourist guide.
Similarly, Kingsmouth, the Lovecraft analogue, is a small US coastal town covered in a mysterious John Carpenter-style Fog that's zombifying its population.
Into these areas the game pulls monsters from all mythologies; mummies, golems, trogoldytes, brainwashed soldiers, giant scorpions, sand giants, mad scientists, Deep Ones... as well as conjuring a few of Funcom's own (frustratingly, we're not allowed to talk about some of these, but we'll be able to say more shortly.) Combat with these creatures is solid - the usual World of Warcraft hotkey structure, though slightly quicker, more mobile and, of course, featuring modern weapons.
And we conclude with Ten Ton Hammer:
The deeper puzzles come in the form of investigation missions which will have players scouring the internet and using parts of their brains that may not have had much exercise while killing ten rats for the past 8 years in other MMOGs. I was only able to find and pursue one investigation mission during my time with the game but it did leave me craving more, as I do enjoy a good puzzle. Without spoiling too much I will say that the puzzle was challenging enough to make it really feel rewarding once it's figured out. It involved first finding a cleverly hidden object within the environment, then finding an alternate route into a building where we searched for clues. We then used the clues to find a codex on wikipedia (conveniently with a built-in web browser available in game for those who don't wish to alt-tab) which we then used in-game to hack a computer. This led us to another area where we had to memorize a series of audio tones and then play them back with no visual indicator. It was quite challenging, but a heck of a lot of fun for a puzzle-lover like me.
As you can begin to see, The Secret World is not your typical MMOG. Players who are looking for more of the same solo-quest-xp style gameplay probably won't find much fun here. But even though the stylings are quite different Funcom has still included some of their famous scripted dungeons which are a whole lot of fun for groups of friends. During our hands on time we were able to check out The Ankh dungeon.