The early 20th-century fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, which holds that our universe is filled with vast conspiracies and unspeakable cosmic horrors with the power to drive men insane and render human achievement insignificant, has been rich fodder for contemporary pop culture. Lovecraft’s dark view of the cosmos can be felt in everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “The X-Files” and “Prometheus.”
Yet few pieces of pop entertainment wear their Lovecraftian influences as proudly as “The Secret World,” the new massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO or MMORPG) from the makers of “Age of Conan.”
For players weary of MMOs’ tendency to plumb the same settings, namely “Dungeons & Dragons”-inspired fantasy and science fiction, “The Secret World” is a welcome change. Its settings, from London and New York to Transylvania and New England, are familiar to modern audiences, and its characters carry cell phones, visit laundromats and ride on helicopters.
Playing as a member of one of three secret societies, you’ll travel first to the New England town of Kingsmouth, an obvious homage to Lovecraft’s fictional towns of Kingsport and Innsmouth. And if you didn’t pick up on that tip of the cap, there’s a street named after the author and Deep Ones-like creatures straight out of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”I haven’t run into Cthulhu Boulevard yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
As characters hop the globe in the name of unraveling conspiracies and figuring out why all manner of supernatural legends — from vampires in Transylvania to Viking spirits in New England — are coming true, they’ll engage in some typical MMO-style questing.
Yes, there are plenty of “Kill X number of monsters” and “right-click on three objects”-style missions, but sharp writing by Funcom and some ancillary activities mask the quests’ basic nature.
“The Secret World’s” most ground-breaking missions, called investigations, can also be its most frustrating. These quests require players to put on their thinking caps and use resources outside the game to solve puzzles and advance plot lines.
In one quest, the coordinates of a key location my friend and I had to visit were being transmitted in Morse code. I know Morse code well enough to recognize it, but it would take me a half-hour to decipher the most basic sentence, even with a key right in front of me. But then my similarly Morse-challenged friend suggested using a smartphone app to decode the radio message. I hit the Google Play store, had a free app on my phone within minutes and we were off to the destination, feeling like modern Sherlock Holmeses.
That solution led to a discussion between my friend and I as to whether we’d “cheated,” but what makes that puzzle great was that “The Secret World,” with its modern setting, encourages players to “cheat” in this way. After all, my character has a smart phone that she could use to download an app to help her parse Morse code? Why shouldn’t I use that tool, as well?
Missions that steer players to look up facts or quotations on Google stumble slightly. For example, Googling the name of a fictional character to find biographical information on a fake website created by Funcom will also show you tons of links to gaming forums in which players divulge the answers to the puzzle. It’s frustrating to accidentally blunder across a solution when you’re trying to solve it the right way.
“The Secret World” runs into other issues. Though the writing is sharp, the setting original and the puzzles brainy, the game, which launched in early July, still contains plenty of bugs. Its combat is fairly basic, which will appeal to one set of players while alienating another. Its graphics and character customization options aren’t going to win any awards.
But the game’s unusual yet familiar setting, sharp writing and attempts at innovation make it appealing to anyone interested in the evolution of MMOs or solving mysteries. There are a lot of interesting elements at play, particularly if you’re fan of Lovecraft, “The X-Files” or the “World of Darkness.”
“The Secret World,” rated M, costs $50 for PC, which includes one month of subscription time. Subsequent months cost $15. For this review, I played player-versus-environment content for about 20 hours and was provided with one free month of subscription time. I’ll be renewing my subscription when it expires after a month, but am still unsure of its long-term staying power. Bitmob’s Layton Shumway has made the point that “The Secret World” would have been better as a single-player game free of MMO trappings, and I’m inclined to agree.