Every single MMO announces itself with this claim, and even prototypes all sorts of elaborately different ideas, before slowly capitulating and rendering themselves to be WoW. From Warhammer to The Old Republic, great promises were made, and WoW clones were produced. So Funcom’s making the same claim was reasonably assumed to be nonsense until such a time that it was proven to be nonsense. And Age Of Conan hadn’t helped. And yet, The Secret World is unquestionably unlike other MMOs, in a series of significant ways – meaningful ways. That’s not to say it’s unrecognisable within the field. For good or ill, many familiar tropes of the genre are in place, but what seems important is that what’s different isn’t just aesthetic, or perfunctory.
There are many examples, and each highlights a different aspect. Some are incredibly simple, like being able to annotate the map. That’s not just a courteous nod to RPGs of yore – it’s a necessity if you’re going to be able to usefully solve some of the tougher puzzles within. Which leads neatly on to…
Tougher puzzles? Puzzles at all is an unfamiliar notion in the MMO. Hell, the notion is barely present in solo RPGs. But here your quest text might be so damned obscure you think, “Sod that, I want to hit things with my new hammer,” before you run past a building with a sign on the side, which on closer inspection offers the name of a former resident, which rings a bell with something you were told earlier by a character back at the Academy. And you piece two things together, perhaps even Google some details and find a faked website extending the fiction further, and suddenly your new hammer is forgotten. You’re making notes. Actual notes on paper in front of you, as well as on the map. I think that action alone is unique.
The variety of mission types, the original ideas and twists put into the more normal actions, the removing of levels, the ability to create your own class, and the strong sense of a meaningful meta-narrative all make this stand out in a serious way.
What The Secret World Should Avoid Getting Wrong
Keep up with the investigations
I have it on good authority that the beta version of the game is knowingly short on the game’s best feature – the investigation missions. These are the ones that are designed to be so tough that many won’t complete them, not because baddies hit you too hard, but because they require some extremely lateral thinking, obsessive note-taking and observation, and a desire to puzzle through some fairly opaque cryptic gobbledegook. Rather than have them all be spoiled before the game comes out, I believe the plan is to put a bunch more in for the final version, and then keep adding them. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying that they may start to fade as things go on, as the main plot becomes more thunderous, or as you’re such a high level that you’re only supposed to care about dungeons. That shouldn’t happen. While a lot about TSW still sets it apart, these really are the poster-feature that advertises something genuinely new.
That said, as I’ve been charging around the third section of New England, Blue Mountain, and missing such activities, I do keep getting satisfactorily distracted. Even though a quest may be to kill a bunch of stuff, when it involves time travelling through four different 20th century time points within the same mansion, it’s clear effort is being poured in all over to keep things interesting. But, in the end, you are just killing a bunch of stuff.