Escape To New York: The Secret World’s First Raid

By Adam Smith on September 4th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

I’ve seen the things that are to come in The Secret World, at least some of them, and even though the present is turbulent the future seems bright, or at least as bright as global conflict, the destruction of a metropolis and the spilling over of supernatural horror onto city streets could possibly be. It’s a flame-bright future with a great deal of ash, boiling blood and smoke blotted across it. As well as witnessing the power of plotting, I’ve been dipping into Guild Wars 2 for the first time, so along with a tour taking in elements of The Secret World’s first raid, I’ve been wondering whether I have room for two MMORPGs in my life.

Truth is, I’m not even sure there’s room for one given how cluttered my calendar and mind are. There’s no long-lasting relationship to peel away from because both of the games I’m spending my sociable gaming hours in have only recently come into my life. I haven’t concealed my enjoyment of The Secret World , which provides places and people I want to know better, and has a team of writers working to progress those relationships and to provide surprises and shocks.

It is, to a great degree, a writers’ game, certainly from a design perspective and perhaps, to a strong degree, from a players’ perspective as well. In that sense, I fully understand the criticisms that combat and crafting interrupt the more important business of worldbuilding and storytelling, although I enjoy expanding my skills and exploring the connections between play and plot enough to enjoy the sum total of the experience rather than simply to tolerate it.

Then there’s Guild Wars 2, into which I took my first tentative steps last night. Despite having read a great deal about what makes it stand out from the pack I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m still not, truth be told, but I’m starting to understand that ‘events’ rather than ‘quests’ are at the heart of the game, and I also realise that the systems are more impressive than they sound on paper/screen. In some ways, in my early experience, despite having so much that is conventional for the genre in common, GW2 and TSW seem to have approached the problems of their chosen battleground from entirely different perspectives.

In The Secret World, the player is often more like a member of the audience or a reader, partaking in the events scripted into the world’s texture rather than participating in their occurrence and outcome. Guild Wars 2 offers a more reactive place, although within a carefully constructed and controlled framework. Where The Secret World delivers lengthy monologues to explain its mysteries and objectives, Guild Wars 2 has icons popping up on the map, “SOMETHING AWESOME IS HAPPENING”. I often just follow streams of people, reckoning they must be heading toward something interesting. Usually they are, although one time they all started dancing and then lay down a field. Roleplaying a village fayre or something far more sinister? I never found out.

While the world is extremely pretty and I do want to see more of it, I’m not particularly moved by vales, dales, centaurs and dragons, being more a conspiracy and Cthulhu kind of chap. Because of that personal preference as well as a willingness to be guided by writers as much as waypoints, I certainly have a desire to play both games, even if there’s not necessary enough sand in the glass of every day. At Gamescom, I did see the longer term future of The Secret World though and it showed the scale of the ambition that’s been in place all along, as well as an ability to react to feedback.

It’s impossible to ignore the bad news coming out of Funcom, which John covered yesterday, but seeing upcoming content in action is encouraging. The raid is the thing, not quite like anything else that’s been shown in the game so far, though still as heavily allusive as I’ve come to expect. It takes place in New York at a new ground zero, with memories of real world horror thick in the dust that coats the ground and chokes the air as a subway station trembles in tune to the dull thud of death from above. Cloverfield, 9/11, the melancholy of this beautiful lesser known scene – there are so many touchstones for the city under attack in this way that everyone will have their own list, but Funcom seem to invite as many connections as possible into the cramped space.

There is humour next to horror and tragedy. Tourists bicker about their ill-timed trip while a father holds a still bundle of rag and bone, questioning, cursing and crying. This is what happens when containment fails and the monsters leave the dark corners, deserts, and haunted coastlines and make their way to a major city.

It would be wrong for me to spoil what comes next, not because it’s particularly surprising but because the tone and layering of atmosphere and intensity is the best example of pacing The Secret World has managed to date. The raid is carefully orchestrated, with “no trash monsters, no lumps of health to grind through”, it’s a path full of detail and death leading to an almighty conflict. While I don’t think my words would damage the experience too much, if you’re spoiler-averse then skip the next two paragraphs.

Making their way to the surface, through ruined buildings filled with survivors and a QBL TV crew (“the Fox of The Secret World”, says Bruusgard) , the group (of up to ten) have nothing to fight, they’re there to soak up the surroundings, to learn about the threat and to prepare. On a repeat visit, it’d probably be possible to rush through all of the build-up in a minute or two, but the first time it’ll be hard not to watch the beginnings of what will be a global war: tanks growl through the wreckage of Manhattan and jets patrol the skies. Then, closer, helicopters shoot through the corridor of skyscrapers, huge winged demons grappling with them and casting them aside. These creatures don’t even notice the players and it’s impossible to engage with them. The fight comes later, a gigantic thing erupting from the streets. It’s large enough for different parts of it to register as separate targets, and the actual arena of battle is enormous. The story doesn’t stop advancing when bullets start flying though, with NPCs recognisable from elsewhere in the world lending a hand

The raid and an entirely new play area will close act one of the story, with plenty of answers and a host of new questions. As well as New York, players will revisit Tokyo in what at first appeared to be a rehash of the game’s introductory flashback sequence. But then the city opens up and there’s a whole new playground to explore, with the Orochi HQ at the heart of things. This excursion doesn’t just bring new architecture, it allows Funcom to explore more of their many influences, bringing in Eastern horror. Expect Ju On, Junji Ito, The Host and at least a pinch of Sadako. It’s not just heebie-jeebies though, with Orochi’s advanced tech controlling the streets and fighting against the Filth-infected victims of the original Tokyo incident. The streets are a warzone, technology pitted against something primeval, and again the references come thick and fast – 28 Days Later and Moon came to mind in quick succession as a horde of not-quite-humans ran down a street and a robot’s LCD display flicked from :) to :( .

Before all that, which is coming later in the year, issue 2 contains customisable auxiliary weapons that can be tailored to the player’s taste, more lairs and dungeons, and more difficult encounters since people are already mastering what’s out there. Hairdressers (Occam’s Razor) and plastic surgery should help to make the population look a little less like one big not-so-happy family, but it’s the raid and Tokyo that are most exciting, pushing the plot forward and significantly changing the balance and state of the world.

I’ll almost certainly spend more time with Guild Wars 2 than with The Secret World over the next few weeks, mostly because it’s all new to me and I’m extremely curious about all the weird and wonderful ways that it works. Long-term I don’t expect I’ll become invested in Tyria to the same extent as I’m invested in uncanny Earth and that’s not just because it’s where I actually keep my stuff. I like the guiding hands of authorial control because, although The Secret World may not be as dynamic and alive day to day, it’s episodic plot could make it a much more lively proposition in the long-term.

That does, of course, raise the problem of the monthly subscription. There’s an obvious argument that it’s only worth playing every other month, or even less frequently, experiencing what’s new and then dropping out again for a while. That’s why, for Funcom, the smaller additions – quests, characters, customisation, additional difficulty levels – might be just as important as the bigger picture.

That bigger picture really does look splendid though.

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21 Comments »

  1. Kid_A says:

    I love the whole premise of this game, and the talk of Junji Ito stylistic referencing makes me very excited… I just wish it was a 60-hour single player RPG in the KotOR style, not an MMO with a monthly fee.

  2. mike2R says:

    “Then there’s Guild Wars 2, into which I took my first tentative steps into Guild Wars 2 last night. ”

    That sounds incredibly meta :P

    (feel free to delete)

  3. Blackcompany says:

    So a game much derided for its too typical KNOW content & the manner in which it kills immersion will add a raid?

    I can’t imagine a reason why this should excite people, but if you enjoy it, by all means continue. Me personally, I loved TSW right up until the first video showing combat. At which point I lost all interest.

  4. frightlever says:

    So, the game with disappointing combat has a Raid now. Wouldn’t they be better off playing to their strengths and creating more story and investigation missions? Meh. I thought what I saw of the writing, and the cut-scenes, was dreadful but to each their own.

    EDIT: so I probably should have read blackcompany’s comment before posting. Now Glen Cook, he can write.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Seconding Glen Cook. If you’ve not read him you should.

  5. Trithne says:

    I can’t help but feel that “The Secret World” is a terrible misnomer.

  6. Hardmood says:

    that game has no impact on me.
    lovecraft has a big impact on me.
    i dont see any lovecraftian atmosphere in any stream or vid about tsw.
    its no horror, survival feeling at all tbh
    its like a ken and barbie fashion sandbox (a fact that distrubs me on many other mmos, even f2p ones. no thx) for hipsters and nerds, make-evryone-happy-mysterious-butnottoohard-environment.

    it was almost the same with rift. new lore, hard to get into it, to have an IMAPCT and once u got the slight feeling of imemrsion the massive HAMMER-OF-ONE-TWO-BUTTON-MACRO combat destroyed the whole thing.

    im missing the KICK. call it sexy, cool or whatever.
    raids dont do it, its just one more standard element of all standard mmos out there for all standard mmo-players in a standardized world of gamedesign.
    its far away from being outstanding.

    pre-bc wow had the kick, aoc had the kick, skyrim had the kick, DOOM/HEXEN/QUAKE have had the kick…a ton of indies have the kick.

    • Jerakal says:

      I’d have a lot easier of a time taking you seriously if you had bothered to capitalize a single one of your sentences properly. But hey, at least you used periods correctly, so points for that.

      That said, you aren’t 100% wrong, the game definitely lacks whatever it was in those other games that managed to successfully sink it’s hooks into me. And this is speaking as a person who was legitimately looking forward to TSW’s launch, even taking part in all of the ARG’s and that god-awful Facebook game. (The rewards for which were woefully disappointing in-game.)

      I played my first month of TSW and haven’t really felt compelled to log back in, I didn’t really get much farther than I did in the beta, but I felt no desire to do so.

      Funcom games have a trend which they have not yet abandoned, in that they are never quite as good as I hope they will be.

      • Rumpel says:

        on the one hand, funcom has incredibly talented people working for them. people with visions and dreams about how to innovate mmorpg’s. on the other hand, they seem to be lacking solid craftsmen who can properly translate those ideas into actual, enjoyable gameplay. age of conan and tsw both have disturbingly clunky feeling combat and general interaction with the world.
        there is no “bam”, it all feels very indirect and without punch. i have found that to be the most offputting element of their games. maybe its the engine though.

  7. Geen says:

    I thought it was dead!
    (I’m sorry)

  8. J_C says:

    I’m so looking forward for the next update. TSW is the best MMO ever along with EVE online. Who cares if the combat is generic (not bad mind you, like many people say, just standard, generic MMO combat)? But the world is great, the stories are great the atmosphere is great. Not some boring fantasy crap, like many others.

    This is the only MMO where I’m looking forward to the next mission, because it can take me to some great places. Places which have a history, sometimes very disturbing history. You discover the secrets, you investigate, you meet awesome monsters, it is so much fun.

    Keep going Funcom, you made an amazing game. Even if it has its flaws, it is different like the rest of the MMOs, it is fresh, it is interesting.

    It is also interesting, that the …khm…. overhyped Guild Wars 2, which is the best thing since sliced bread by the mainstream media has an 8,5 metascore, while the “generic, dissapointing” TSW is very close, 8,3. Both with near a thousand votes. I’m not saying that the metascore is important, but it shows something.

    • Nixitur says:

      it is different like the rest of the MMOs
      I suppose you mean “unlike” or “from” instead of “like”, but the way you wrote it makes much more sense.
      Yes, it’s different. Like so many other MMOs. It’s not different in the same way, but, like so many other MMOs, it’s not different enough! I can practically hear the developers saying “Oh hey, let’s make something different, but please, not too different.”
      They made a completely generic MMO and changed just a few little things. A bit more story here, a bit more quest variety there, but let’s not overdo it with the differences because we still want the entire WoW demographic to play our game.
      The generic and, frankly, disappointing combat is just another aspect of this, as are the raids which place an even greater focus on combat.

      Also, are you seriously citing metacritic scores here? Come on, man, that’s just nonsense.

      • J_C says:

        OK, TSW is not TOO different, but then what is? GW2 gets a pass, because it has combat which has good feel to it. And I don’t argue about that GW2 has a more enjoyable combat than TSW. But the setting, the quests are not that different from the norm (also generic fantasy). As you said it, it’s a little different, just like TSW is a little different.

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      It is also interesting, that the …khm…. overhyped Guild Wars 2, which is the best thing since sliced bread by the mainstream media has an 8,5 metascore, while the “generic, dissapointing” TSW is very close, 8,3. Both with near a thousand votes. I’m not saying that the metascore is important, but it shows something.

      Uh dude, these are user scores, not critic scores (there’s currently a 20 point gap there). See this list of PS3 game user scores to see how sensible it is to use that to judge a game: http://www.metacritic.com/browse/games/release-date/available/ps3/metascore?hardware=all&view=condensed

      • J_C says:

        I cited user scores and not critic scores, because critic scores don’t mean shit nowadays, also they are weighted on metacritic. User scores are OK, if they are looked at the right way. There are games that the public hate from the beginning, that’s why you can see those 1/10 and 2/10 ratings. And there are those which didn’t get a bad reputation (because of DRM for example), and the user rate them fairly, and not giving it a 1/10 automatically. I say that GW2 and TSW are rated fairly.

  9. zerosociety says:

    I have never been as invested and immersed in an MMO as I have been in TSW.

    I have never had as much fun in an MMO however, than I do in GW2.

    I want them to mate and have babies.

  10. MeestaNob says:

    I just started trying the free trial, and whilst it’s promising I don’t understand why it’s an MMO.

    It’s an interesting premise with shitty (even by MMO standards) combat. It feels like an MMO for people who don’t play MMO’s, which is a nice idea in theory, but shackled to MMO constraints it means this doesn’t feel like it is all it could be.

    The subscription model then begins to make even less sense. In a traditional MMO you pay your money to fight monsters with mates and then do it again. In the Secret World that isn’t fun, nor is there any reason to do it. The skill/no levels system effectively removes the reason to fight other than to proceed to the next story element.

    As a single player game with a (vastly) more satisfying combat system, the Secret World would work amazingly well with new $10 content packs every month or so, rather than being shackled to the MMO payment scheme which affects the perceived value of what they are getting. $10 a month subscription forces the player to assess whether they will play it enough to warrant the cost (despite it only being a pint at the bar), whereas $10 every 4-8 weeks for an optional content DLC is pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys the game (bizarrely, using the exact same rationale “Hey it’s only the cost of a pint for a solid couple of hours additional content! Sold!”).

    The game is a good idea. The choice of making it an MMO is really iffy, and charging money for it using a subscription system is just asking for diehards-only to stick around.

    And the facial animation in cutscenes is just shocking.

  11. Hardmood says:

    basically a mmorpg is a social environment.
    so, if u start to create one, u have to decide if u want to build a huge fancy disco for the masses or a small to medium club with a certain flair in it.
    tbh i hardly ever experienced flair in a big disco, but nevermenind thats not the point.
    the point is, if a bunch of people r lost in a huge discotheque it feels like shit even its the coolest disco ever, people look dumb on the empty dancefloor, and noone wants to look dumb, on the other hand a small to medium club with the same amount of people in it is able to have a rockin party goin on.

    each concepts have to be revised after launch and after a decent amount of time. u have to cut down something or building more.

    theres no party goin on in dead space environments, no matter what state of the art technics u use or how much events u offer. afterwards, U NEED PEOPLE
    and u need a certain amount of people related to your concepts.
    so imo…, the small scale concepts are far better to start with than the big ones.
    and u can´t build cult games upfront by acting like a bigmouth too.