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.”
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 justified.
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 flames). 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 it.”
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 religions? Everything