I’ve been dipping my toes into Funcom’s The Secret World (and its relaunch Secret World Legends) for many years now, but I’ve never really gotten very far into the game. Instead, it’s become something of a Halloween ritual that I reinstall the game around the beginning of September, create a new character and run around the starting zones (London, New York, Seoul), and the first proper quest area – Kingsmouth Town – then move on to other games in time for their Christmas holiday events.
Kingsmouth is one of the greatest locations ever conceived of in an MMO. The mixture of a Stephen King-esque Maine town, a Lovecraftian mystery, a menagerie of Lynchian residents, hordes of Return of the Living Dead zombies, and a score that evokes both John Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi make for a near-perfect ode to the horror genre.
To top it all off, in Kingsmouth Town, it’s always Halloween.
With its pumpkin-adorned doorways, thick veil of mist, and red-tinged trees, Kingsmouth captures the essence of the season so perfectly that, if you could haptically feel the crunch of leaves beneath your feet it might actually be preferable to stepping outside and experiencing the real deal.
So every year, firing The Secret World up around Halloween time has become something of an almost unconscious habit. It’s literally gotten to the point where I will hear a crow squawk sometime towards the end of summer and get excited that it’s almost time to hear that sound again in Kingsmouth.
My plan for this autumn was to split my time between Secret World Legends, and the new(er) horror-inspired MMO in town, New World (which, like seemingly everyone else, I trailed away from around the time I hit level 30). I actually ended up hitting New World a little earlier than expected as I was intrigued by the new instruments system which was a part of its Summer Medleyfaire update. Despite being quite impressed by the system (as well as the other updates which had been made in the months since the game launched), I still dropped away from the game to get my annual Secret World fix while things settled down in Aeturnum following the release of the Brimstone Sands expansion-that-wasn’t-an-expansion.
Perhaps as a result of my recent shift in thinking about story-driven MMOs, I ventured beyond Kingsmouth this year for the first time ever. Not only that, but I carried on playing the game after October had passed. In fact, I’ve only just put the game aside having completed the entirety of the main story.
With the 100-hour mark now behind me, something’s become quite clear. The Secret World is a game which can’t quite ever capture the magic of its first few hours.
I knew what awaited me beyond Kingsmouth – more of Maine, Egypt, Transylvania, Tokyo, South Africa – and while the prospect of these never really filled me with all that much excitement, I’ve still come away a little disappointed. The problem with having finally experienced these areas is that they highlighted just why the game has always failed to fully hook me.
Sometime during its early development, the game that would become The Secret World (but was then Cabal), was envisioned as an MMORPG set in the 1920s. That idea was later nixed; instead, the game was set in ‘the present day’.
Even during the lead-up to the game’s launch, I remember feeling that The Secret World‘s interpretation of ‘the present day’ was rather dated. That feeling is multiplied by an order of magnitude a decade later.
The two biggest shortcomings are the game’s mall ninja cosmetic options, and the Whedonesque humour. As I said, dated at the time, but agonizingly cringe today.
In Kingsmouth though, the whole thing just about hangs together. As a Twin Peaks-y town in a perpetual state of the carnivalesque, the self-referential corniness of it all seems appropriate. Move beyond the town’s boundaries though and it all starts to get a big tiresome.
The quippy, meta dialogue is grating enough as it is, but it especially doesn’t work when you’re dealing with themes like Native American spiritualism (The Savage Coast/Blue Mountain), and terrorism in the Middle East (Scorched Desert). Then you’ve got Transylvania, where the humour is less of a problem, but the fact that the game wants to have an edgy aesthetic is. If you want to do the whole ‘every myth and legend is true’ shtick then please, spare me the Arkham Asylum Scarecrow wannabees and just give me an honest-to-goodness vampire.
Look, I get it. There probably isn’t a huge market for a truly dread-inducing horror MMORPG. Few people (myself included) want to ‘live’ in a virtual world where you’re constantly in a state of fear the likes of which single-player survival horror games attempt to evoke. You need levity.
Y’know what would have been a more effective way of accomplishing this? Setting the game in the 1920s.
Whether it is the Universal monster movies and their iconic representation of characters like Frankenstein and Dracula, the novels of H.G. Wells (or indeed H.P. Lovecraft), or the occult shenanigans of Aleister Crowley, there’s an obvious hokeyness to these landmarks of early 20th-century spookiness. Lest we forget that this was also the era of the Halloween greeting cards which gave us so much of that enduring seasonal imagery which informed Kingsmouth’s decorations anyway.
None of it is scary, but it’s that exact blend of spookiness and comfiness that The Secret World swings for and comes up short. It’s a different kind of tackiness. One whose imagery outdates us all and therefore doesn’t carry the personal weight that TSW‘s 2000’s inspired horror styling does.
An MMO which takes its inspiration from those sources I listed above would be a true dream come true for me. There was a glimmer of hope back in 2013 when Universal licensed an official MOBA based on their classic horror properties, Universal Monsters Online, but unfortunately, it was a low-budget affair that was destined for obscurity given the slew of other MOBAs launching at the time.
‘Cutesy’ horror in general is a severely under-represented niche in gaming, but I can’t help but feel that an MMO with this aesthetic would be able to carve itself a nice little corner in the market. Lemax Spooky Town Online. The licensed MMO you never knew you wanted until just now.
Assuming that never happens, The Secret World’s Kingsmouth is the closest thing we have to that pumpkin-filled fantasy. Time will tell if I return next October now that I’ve exhausted most of what the game has to offer, and honestly who knows how much time the game has left anyway given that it’s been limping along in maintenance mode for a few years now (though it must be said Funcom has kept Age of Conan and Anarchy Online running in a similar state for years also).
If you’ve never played Secret World Legends before then you owe it to yourself to at least download the game (it’s free) and check out this amazing first zone while you still can. The rest of the game may not quite reach the same heights in terms of level design, but the story is admittedly well worth persevering through (cliffhanger and all) provided you don’t cut yourself on it’s 2000’s edge.