Funcom’s The Secret World
is five years deep into development, and still some way off. But having
spent a couple of days in their Norwegian HQ, I’m reasonably convinced
it exists. I mean, it could just be one heck of an elaborate conspiracy.
Below is my report on where things are just now, which I’m pleased to
report is somewhere genuinely exciting. We also have four exclusive new
screenshots, which you’ll only have to click on to enjoy.
The real world is a difficult place to depict. The Secret World is a
defiantly different-looking MMO, bearing in nothing in common with WoW
and its many, many clones. It looks years ahead, gorgeous depictions of
the real world, best shown off in its New England town, Kingsmouth. It’s
a recognisable town, with real-world buildings, populated by human
beings as its NPCs. It’s set on Earth, our Earth, in our day. And yet,
until a certain moment, I still felt a sense of disconnect as I watched
it being played inside Funcom’s Norwegian headquarters.Because my
real world isn’t stalked by zombies. Clearly if I’m ever suffering the
misfortune of having to go inside ASDA it can feel damned close, but
during my general day-to-day life I rarely encounter Draug emerging from
the sea. And as much as I want to live in denial of this, I don’t work
for a secret society attempting to protect the Earth from knowing of the
presence of darknesses. I felt this way right up until we had a chat
with a local priest.He described himself as a “hobbyist” member of the
Illuminati, and then added that he knows things that “aren’t on Google.
”And snap!It’s the real world. It’s fascinating that it took something so simple,
but the game simply making mention of real-world things, something as
ubiquitous as Google, gives you enough of a bridge.But it’s a
bridge that will get so much more complicated, The Secret World
intending to blur the edges between its world and yours in many ways.
As Jim mentioned back in March,
investigation quests not only involve solving puzzles within the game
(and by “puzzles” I don’t mean running around and clicking on all five
of the flashing objects – actual puzzles, with clues to decipher and
things to read), but also without the game. Task-switching to Google is
to be ordinary behaviour for The Secret World players, because The
Secret World takes place in the real world. You’re going to need the
real world.The previously vaunted investigation puzzle was still
fascinating to watch be solved. A series of Illuminati-themed symbols
are hidden around Kingsmouth, on drain covers and signs, and following
them takes you to a plaque that gives you information about a man who
died, his name and birth and death dates. That’s a dead end if you see
the MMO’s walls as the extent of its own reality.
Step into your world and you’ll discover he’s a real person, an artist, with a distinct
style. Head to the town’s art museum and you’ll find a piece by him
(actually, it’s by Funcom, but it’s remarkably faithfully created in his
style) that contains further clues. Go to many of the other paintings
in the exhibition and you’ll find false clues that will send you on wild
goose chases.“It’s where the adventure game meets the MMO,” says project
lead Ragnar Tørnquist, clearly trying to get quoted.
Those clues aren’t simple, either. The painting contains the words, “Hands of
time point to truth.” That takes you to the clocks in the town, all of
which show ten past ten. The next line is, “Written by Kings in the word
of God.” Well, the word of God is the Bible, and there’s a book called
Kings. So let’s look up 1 Kings, chapter 10, verse 10.“And
she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and
precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the
queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.”It’s the first time I’ve
seen Bible Gateway used during a game demo. Take that information back
inside the game and there’s a house in the town called Solomon Priest.
Around the back is an entrance protected by a keypad. Enter 120 into
that, and you can get in.It’s undeniably obscure. It’s meant to
be. You’d have more hints of what to do if you’d taken your Googling
further, and indeed increased the blur, by looking up Kingsmouth itself.
Never mind that it’s a fictional town, there’s a website all about it.
If you’d found out the history of Kingsmouth you’d know it was founded
in the 1600s by Solomon Priest, and the reference to Solomon would have
jumped out at you. (And if you’re concerned that reading this will have
spoiled one of the puzzles, Funcom intend to change this one to a
different solution before release.)Or you could ignore the quest and beat up zombies.
There’s no doubt that TSW’s focus is on story, and it’s not apologetic for it.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a complex and individual combat
mechanic.While its delivery is relatively traditional – you
assign seven passive abilities to your character, and then a further
seven active abilities to keys 1-7, and you click on enemies and fire
them at them – there’s enough that’s different here to be interesting.
And not least that there’s no classes nor levels.That’s something
many MMOs claim early on in their development, and then backpedal
pretty quickly. But not Funcom, it seems, who are persisting.
While you join one of three secretive factions, either the fervent Templars,
corporative Illuminati, or chaotic Dragon, beyond this you do not limit
yourself. There are to be a ridiculous 500 powers available at launch,
and how you assign your XP defines the sort of character you play. The
powers you purchase determine the sorts of weapons you can use,
essentially letting you spec your own unique class as you see
appropriate. The often mentioned “deck of cards” use of seven of your
chosen skills is made literal, with in-game cards depicting the power,
and you’ll apparently quickly get used to playing with particular
“hands” for particular circumstances.The lack of levels is
somewhat more problematic to understanding, perhaps up until you’re told
that a brand new player can contribute to end-game activities. They
won’t be enormously helpful, limited by their lack of abilities, but
they equally won’t be insta-killed. Quite how you’ll know what you’re
safe to attack isn’t clear, nor indeed did I get a clear understanding
of how someone will know where to test themselves in PvP. Especially
since the game boasts it will contain no armour – you’ll always wear
whatever you want to wear, your protection coming from your abilities
instead. They seem confident it will work. But then so were the
Warhammer Online developers before they about-faced on it all. We shall see.
But The Secret World is a game that’s extremely self aware. It’s hard to be
so embracing of the real world without being so. (They even hinted that
you might literally be asked to deliver a parcel for FedEx, or at least
a simulacrum.) While I didn’t see anyone actually reference World Of
Warcraft, if that never happens I’ll be enormously disappointed. But one
character did get quite heavily into the futility of so much that makes
up an MMO.
Stood at the top of Kingsmouth’s lighthouse is a very
angry man. He’s angry about the way no matter what you do, what puzzles
you solve, what you kill, the world remains the same. He’s extremely
funny, and like every character I saw in the game, fantastically well
voiced. Of course, irony can be painful. So many RPGs currently think
it’s funny to joke about how you have to kill ten rats at the start.
But, er, you’re still killing ten rats. Funcom promise that TSW will be
different enough from the norm that our lighthouse keeper’s rant will be
And that seems like a claim that could be for real.
Along with the investigation quests (I was assured that the one
mentioned above was one of the easier ones), are other deviations from
the norm. There are stealth sequences, where using the environment to
kill enemies is more viable than your own abilities, and setting off
distractions creates safe paths where battling through would be suicide.
And even an opening quest I was shown, in which you did indeed have to
kill ten zombies, was justified in a far more rounded way.
Yes, you’re learning how to use your basic powers to kill things. And yes,
you’re learning how you can use the environment to do this (setting fire
to gas canisters you drop, and then leading the zombies through the
But you’re doing this because you’re learning why zombies are
zombies. What makes them tick.
And there is
a reason why they exist, and that quest is the first step on a long journey to learning
what it is.
So much of The Secret World’s design seems to be about creating a
narrative rationale for the accepted memes of MMOs, and then trying to
make that something meaningful and worthwhile. Monsters are everywhere,
but every monster is there for a reason, and that seems to go beyond an
origin story. A huge part of The Secret World will be figuring out why.
That’s a crucial element to get heads around. Tørnquist has gone on many times
about how TSW is like a jigsaw puzzle. But from what I’ve seen so far,
and I’ve seen things that meant I couldn’t leave the studio without
having a black pen with a red light on the end blinked in front of my
eyes, this is for real.
Ragnar explains that while no one will be
forced to delve into the meta-story to be able to play the game –
there’s no obligation to engage in the ARGs, real-world content, and so
on – in the end piecing it together will become unavoidable for anyone
who’s playing, even if it’s entirely passive. As the man in charge puts
it, “You don’t have to give a shit about the story to feel
Each of the three secret societies has one common link: the Council Of
Venice. Who they are, what they’re for, you need to find out. Why are
there the Dragon? Who is in charge of the Illuminati? What is the cause
of the current explosion of “filth” in the world? What is the cause of
the world? Why are there human beings? What killed the dinosaurs? If
ghosts are real, why are they real? >. And how come there are