Whether free-to-play or tagged with full-fat subscription charges, developers are finding it increasingly difficult to carve unique and lasting experiences from the ageing MMORPG template. The continued stagnation has become all too apparent this year with a number of the genre’s heavy hitters seeing a rapid fall in subscribers, not to mention a slew of recent free-to-play transitions (and even full-out closures).
This isn’t to say that the concept of massively multiplayer gaming has reached its expiration date. If anything, we’ve only began to scratch the surface, as proven by games such as EVE Online, PlanetSide 2, and more obscure titles like The Repopulation. It’s MMORPGs, not MMOs as a whole, that are on the decline, mainly due to a beguiling over-saturation of the sub-genre and mechanics that remain largely unchanged since the days of Everquest.
There are still ranks in the game, though compared to conventional forms of levelling, player rank is more of a decoration than an actual display of skill.
Setting or “lore” is one of the most fundamental aspects of just about any MMORPG. Developers can spend years filling these games with content but if it isn’t strung together with a consistent, over-arching narrative, the result is often something that feels disjointed and lacking in character.
One of the first things you’ll notice in The Secret World is how intimate Funcom has made the story-telling. Set in fictional parallel to our own world, players assume the roles of everyday people who are suddenly imbued with supernatural powers. The process by which you gain these powers (you happen to swallow a magical bee – no joke!) is absurd, though the follow-up is more than convincing as you are introduced to one of three in-game factions.
Inspired by real-life secret societies, players can align themselves with either the Templars, the Illuminati or the The Dragon. Aside from a different chain of introductory missions, outfit options and base of operations, there’s little that separates them when it comes to actual gameplay. No matter which secret society you throw your lot in with, the first accessible area of the game will always be Kingsmouth.
Unlike its contemporaries, The Secret World adopts a character development system that does away with the traditional class-based system. Instead, players will spend their hard-earned XP on a variety of abilities across nine weapon proficiencies. These include ranged weapons such as pistols, shotguns and assault rifles as well as melee weapons and three flavours of magic.
Players are free to experiment with a variety of weapon combinations, though choosing two and sticking with them is perhaps the best direction to follow. Each weapon offers two or more gameplay traits (healing, damage over time etc.) that are represented as ability trees. The more points you spend in a particular tree, the further it will branch out, opening the way stronger powers.
The way in which players accumulate experience is the same as its always been: a perpetuating cocktail of grinding, questing and instances. The way in which basic gameplay operates is also emblematic of the classic MMORPG template, presenting players with an interface in which powers are slotted and used against enemy targets. Despite a few quirks such as the way in which abilities are powered as well as “stances” and the reflex-dependant “active dodge” mechanic, it’s exactly what MMO players will have come to expect.
Another dynamic to the quest system is the inclusion of “Investigations”. Unlike regular missions, these aren’t centred around node-hunting or pre-set combat instances, instead they challenge players with more cerebral tasks such as puzzle-solving. In such missions, you’ll have to occasionally use the in-game browser to access websites that have been specifically constructed for The Secret World to aid you in your findings.
Other pursuits also include crafting, dungeons and player-versus-player combat. The former is a fairly over-complicated system in which players drag materials from their inventory and drop them into slots to create certain shapes (similar to Minecraft). At first it seems like a nice change from the basic menus MMO players are no doubt used to, but after the first few times it becomes frustrating and unnecessary.
PvP, on the other hand, is much better integrated. From the word go players can thrust themselves into “The Secret War,” a conflict staged between the three in-game factions. El Dorado and Stonehenge are both pre-set, objective-based scenarios, though most of the PvP action takes place at the Fusang Projects.
This run-down district plays host to a persistent battle that houses dozens of players simultaneously. The objective here is capture and secure various spawn points and bases. If a faction controls a certain number of objectives between Fusang, El Dorado, and Stonehenge, then every member of that secret society gains XP/stat bonuses during regular play. It’s a great incentive for those who don’t normally partake in PvP and suits the theme of The Secret World perfectly.
The amalgam of horror, mystery, and all things supernatural is complimented well by the in-game visuals. Quest givers and major NPCs are each given their own unique appearance that ties into the fiction well. From dubious airport maintenance men, to shotgun-wielding pensioners and saucy schoolmistresses there are a number of diverse personalities, each brought to life by a fairly decent flock of voice actors.
Environments, though each with a prescribed theme, are highly detailed and harbour a number of memorable landmarks. Those running on fairly decent rigs via DX11 will also be able to toggle “Tessellation” effects which really help amplify the authenticity of stone-like surfaces and buildings.
- Unique setting, packed with plenty of character not to mention pop culture references.
- Rejection of conventional class/level system works well.
- PvP is accessible and meaningful.
- Voice/audio work ties neatly into the visuals.
- Hordes of playable content, even by MMO standards.
- If you’re sick of traditional MMO gameplay, The Secret World will only aggravate your condition.
- Lack of quick-travel and other staple inclusions.
- A number of the game’s intricacies are only touched on lightly.
There are a multitude of areas in which The Secret World really shines. However, once you realise that everything unique or interesting about the game is wrapped around the same archaic core mechanics, there’s no going back. If this is the sort of gameplay you relish, then The Secret World will prove a near-perfect solution for those wanting to get away from the constant buzz of lightsabers or the ringing of sword on shield.
2012 marks both a worrying and exciting time for the MMORPG genre. It’s a never a good thing to hear projects being canned, or subscription rates falling, but, as silly as it sounds, such disasters can only lead to betterment. If studios are unable to capitalise on the conventional MMO template then, eventually, they will be forced to think outside the box.
This isn’t to say that MMORPGs are certain to die out; instead, we’re likely to see a plurality of massively multiplayer genres, some of which are already beginning to materialise.