The Secret World, the newest game from Age of Conan developer Funcom, takes two bold risks in its design. One, it’s an MMORPG, a genre that has been dominated by the singular force of World of Warcraft for years. Second, it’s a horror MMORPG, a subgenre that has seen little to no representation on the market (the lone notable exception being the bizarre Korean title Requiem: Bloodymare) with good reason: how can you properly build the sense of isolation and fear that good horror is built on when you’re in a group of thousands?
The Secret World avoids both of these problems through its own creativity, avoiding the obvious horror issue by placing itself in a world mired in the supernatural instead of relying on a more traditional scare structure, and peeking out from under the shadow of WoW through its own remarkably deep, satisfying systems.
The gamee starts out by having you choose one of three factions: the Illuminati, the Templar, or the Dragon, each with their own conspiracy to dominate the world as well as protect it from the myths and monsters that have formed the basis of our folklore and urban legends over time. Once you’ve selected your faction, you’re thrown unceremoniously into the game proper with little more than a minimal tutorial to get you accustomed to the game’s overwhelmingly deep mechanics. Where other MMO’s like WoW have you selecting a character class where you would refine a certain set of skills, TSW gives you access to virtually everything right from the get go, with you able to pick and choose abilities based on the number of Skill Points you may have saved up to purchase these abilities. Some skill sets may work better with others, but the game gives you little to no guidance in this aspect, which leads to a heavy amount of trial and error on the player’s part.
The other major difference in the gameplay style comes from the lack of the MMO-classic “set it and forget it,” where you would lock onto an enemy with a generic attack skill and continue to pummel it with additional skills, spells, and attacks. TSW asks you to key in every attack—where you can hotkey up to 7—in a keyboard-punishing tattoo of button-mashing mayhem. This gives combat a tense, frantic pace, as you struggle to maintain a sense of control over your abilities as you split your focus between the onscreen enemies and the slowly refilling ability buttons on the interface.
The best part of TSW is easily its game world, which meshes the real with the unreal almost perfectly. There’s a genuine weight and realism to the environments and their inhabitants, with player characters eschewing a fantastical look in exchange for a look that makes them look like real people caught up in the titular secret world. The game’s environments are a different story, however, with a heavy dose of the fantastic layered over the more mundane, like a sleepy New England town overrun with zombies and Lovecraftian beasts. It’s thrilling and unique, but concrete enough that it’s relatable on a deeper sense.
There are some flaws however, particularly in the choppy narrative. There’s some poignant, provocative moments sprinkled here and there when you interact with quest-giving NPCs, but the game at large is played a little too close to the chest. I never truly felt like I was taking part in the story at large, or that I had any genuine impact. The other issues tie into some inexplicable omissions from the game’s interface (why can’t I look for a group outside of the game’s General Chat channel?),but they are less genuine issues and more annoyances.
The Secret World’s greatest achievement comes from just how much it feels like an honest-to-goodness roleplaying game. There is no hand-holding, or obvious guideposts to drag you along. Hell, there aren’t even the obvious tropes of RPGs in the sense of character levels or classes to define your character. The experience is experimental, endlessly customizable, and almost overwhelmingly deep. You truly become wrapped up in the conspiracies and horrible truths that it holds. It may not be a universally acceptable, casual gaming experience for the masses, but it’s one of the finest MMORPGs on the market.