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.