By Ryan Scott | 05-17-2012 | 11:00AM
When Funcom teased its then-untitled massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Secret World in 2007, with creepy poems scrawled on fancy parchment, my first (bold) guess was that we were looking at an oncoming H.P. Lovecraft-inspired MMO. Based on my brief experience with the recently launched Secret World beta, that assessment couldn't be further from the truth.
What we've got here is basically Conspiracy Theory: The Online Game -- a modern MMO that casts you as an extra-human adventurer, recently awakened to the world that exists beneath the surface of reality. Every word of conspiracy paranoia-fuel you've ever read is true, as evidenced by your initial choice between secret societies like the Illuminati and the Templars (which act as The Secret World's warring player factions). And now, you're tumbling down the surreal rabbit hole at a breakneck pace. No blue pill for you.
It's a cool premise... but the awkward execution put me off for several reasons. For my part, I signed on with the Illuminati, hedonistic Machiavellian chess players that oppose the Templars' righteous pursuits (a third faction, the Asian-inspired Dragon, is currently unavailable in the beta). Right from the get-go, I leapt through a series of initiation hoops.
The first guy I spoke to was the sort of cliche conspiracy kook that would make even Chris Carter groan: Holed up in a laundromat (the 24/7 dryer cycles drowned out their audio bugs), he was the editor of an underground truth-spewing 'zine, and wasted no time explaining -- in the obligatory exasperated-yet-hushed tone -- that the Illuminati was onto him, and had even replaced his girlfriend with a robot. Yikes.
And once I arrived at Illuminati HQ a few minutes later (who knew it was in a poorly guarded and easily navigable sewer, all these years?), I met up with a nutjob of a doctor, who was manically nonchalant about the fact that he hadn't left his lab in nine years. He sent me through a drug-induced out-of-body flashback (which doubled as a handy tutorial to The Secret World's entirely MMO-standard combat mechanics), and then sent me another step up the chain of command, to an f-bomb-spouting party girl who battered me with supernatural babble before sending me off to deal with some sort of impending cross-city crisis, which turned out to be a zombie outbreak.
If this were a movie, it would stand awkwardly next to the schlockiest breed of Syfy Originals. But what makes it worse, I think, is that your character never talks. From minute one, a parade of secret society power brokers, wizards, time-displaced warriors, and all other manner of genre oddballs are at your doorstep, each with their own chapter of convoluted exposition to unload on your still-new-at-this avatar. They all engage in various levels of mental gymnastics to keep the one-sided conversations going, blissfully ignoring your pronounced lack of input and sending you on your merry way.
Now that I've hopefully made my point about The Secret World's beyond-ridiculous narrative aspects, I have a couple of good things to say. The game jettisons the usual MMO class system for a giant, freeform skill wheel that you use to define your character's abilities and combat predilections. Levels don't exist in a strict sense, though you still fill an experience meter that grants a couple different types of skill points for you to spend on whatever trees you've chosen. It's functionally just a class system dressed up a little bit differently (the typical melee, ranged, healer, and tank roles still exist here), though I assume you can push the reset button and redistribute your earned points if you wind up growing bored. That's a plus, for sure.
It's also got a Guild Wars-esque sense of minimalism going on: You're limited to using a mere seven active skills and seven passive skills at any given time. You're forced to specialize and strategize, swapping them in and out to fit your situation -- which I find much more appealing than having to monitor an ever-growing, World of Warcraft-esque splay of abilities.
Now if only these lunatics would stop babbling at me like poor Jon Arbuckle from Garfield Minus Garfield....