Since The Secret World is such a massive game, Game On decided to split reviewing the game up into several smaller weekly diaries rather than review the whole game based on a few days of play. This week we’ll be discussing the game’s story and how it’s unique take on questing adds to and detracts from it.
We briefly discussed The Secret World’s modern day horror setting in our first game diary, but the world and narrative is the game’s strongest point and thus worth discussing with a bit more depth.
Like most massively multiplayer online games, The Secret World is a pastiche of the tropes of its genre. Just as World of Warcraft mashes up a number of fantasy settings into it’s own unique universe, Secret World takes influences from seemingly every part of the horror genre and mashes them together. This blending produces some surprisingly interesting results as it creates one cohesive narrative out of the works of Steven King, H.P. Lovecraft, and other fiction writers along with real-world conspiracy theories (considering that you can play as the Illuminati or the Knights Templar I think it’s good the game has done its homework in this regard).
This also extends into the design of The Secret World's different zones, with each area of the game expanding the game’s scope of references while bringing a new spin on the horrific universe you’re inhabiting. For example, the town of Kingsmouth proper is very much a Lovecraftian pastiche: a small New England town that brought something back from the depths of the sea that has cursed their normally quiet town with the living dead and with unholy and disgusting mermen creatures.
As you venture out to the edges of the town, however, the sphere of thematic influences expands in a pretty fantastic way. You start learning that Kingsmouth has a long occult history that predates this latest outbreak of horror and includes numerous atrocities by the town’s elders (shades of Steven King), and you start running into more of the game’s conspiracy theory angle as you combat men in black and meet the game’s major non-player characters (including one that is a shockingly [and wonderfully] thinly-veiled pastiche of Steven King himself).
Unfortunately, The Secret World's storytelling is held back by its gameplay. Since higher-level quests award more experience and therefore more points to unlock your skill wheel (discussed in our last diary) you’ll want to quest in those areas as much as possible. Since quests unlock again each day you can often find yourself “farming” in a zone you’re able to handle easily while you sort out any issues with your build to progress forward, and even at max level there’s nothing new to break up the monotony of doing the same stories every day.
However, Funcom does seem to have a long-term solution to this problem. Instead of content patches, the developers of The Secret World is hoping to put out monthly “issues” which add to the storyline of not just the maximum level zones, but earlier ones as well. As each new issue comes out new quests will be added and, eventually, others will be removed as they stop making sense. You might some day come to Kingsmouth to find the town’s zombie infestation has ended (to be replaced by some other eldritch horror certainly) and many of its characters have died or moved to new locations.
While this does mean that players who come into the Secret World late will never be able to experience the game as it exists right now, Secret World’s developers seem more excited than scared by this possibility. I’m inclined to agree with them. More than any MMO I’ve played The Secret World feels like a game world that would have real and lasting consequences to actions. If a new questline killed off a major character and upset what little balance nature has in The Secret World then that just makes the stories more meaningful. The real question is if monthly changes to the game’s content will be enough to keep players paying The Secret World’s monthly fee.