An Antisocial Take On The Secret World’s Issue 7

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The Secret World is the only MMORPG in the history of creation that I’ve been able to play without turning into a slobbering maniac. Every other game consumes my every moment (both waking and not) with the pursuit of bigger crits and more efficient grinding routes, but TSW’s focus on story and atmosphere at the expense of a traditional progression treadmill make it easy for me to approach it like I would a single-player game. There’s a storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. When the final mission is completed, that’s it. The story, at least what was in the game at launch, has been told. It’s a MMO that, for all intensive purposes, ends.

Well, it used to end. Then those crazy bastards started releasing new expansions in the form of their “issues,” each following up on dropped plotlines through a variety of new quests. The fifth issue, The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn, released in December 2012, changed things up by focusing on an entirely new storyline. It went so well that issue six, The Last Train to Cairo, eschewed the scattershot approach in favor of one long Indiana Jones inspired quest chain. Each was a little easily digestible nugget of content, something I could take out in a burst and then put away. No more realizing it’s 5pm and I still haven’t put on pants.

On July 12th, Funcom dropped Issue #7: A Dream to Kill on players, prompting me to drag the little grey The Secret World icon back onto my desktop for another jaunt into the misty Transylvanian alps. For $10 you get access to a whole new storyline, the flamethrower auxiliary weapon, and another set of—shudder–daily quests. Is it worth the money for those of you who, like me, are only here for the story?

While The Last Train to Cairo was busy mucking around with the timeline and rolling off moving trains, A Dream to Kill puts on a sharp suit, seduces some ladies with ridiculous names, and prefers its drinks shaken, not stirred. Something is hunting both werewolves and Orochi corporation (the nefarious and well-funded human antagonists of TSW) researchers in Transylvania and it’s up to you to figure out what. Of course, it wouldn’t be The Secret World if it was that easy, so you’ll end up infiltrating secret medical facilities, chasing soldiers on a snowmobile, and entrusting your life to a certain enigmatic teddy bear.

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The story itself is a little schizophrenic, switching gears around the halfway point and dropping the whole spy homage in favor of the kind of creeping dread and dreamlike terror that filled Vanishing. The cheap James Bond impersonation wears itself out almost immediately, as it consists of little more than a Russian lady in a snowsuit and an awkward snowmobile chase. All the subterfuge and trickery that make spy movies great is completely absent. Mass Effect 3’s Citadel or Kasumi – Stolen Memory for Mass Effect 2 are far better examples of how to incorporate super spy action in a setting that isn’t built for it.

The much-hyped snowmobile section is particularly disappointing. What could have been an engaging mini-game, much like some of the cool stuff that’s been going on with Guild Wars 2’s Living World story, ends up feeling more like walking around really fast while dropping mines. It doesn’t help that there’s nothing to tell you that riding on the roads actually slows you down or that your treads can break and lead to a permanent crawl. Sure, there’s common sense, but this is an MMO — in a world where giant mutant dogs drop mystical runes, common sense goes out the window. While I can see what they were going for with this – flying over snowcapped mountains with nefarious Orochi agents in pursuit – the actual experience falls far short of the mark, an underwhelming speed-bump on the way to the issue’s far more interesting second half. If you want to see an MMO do one-off vehicle quests right, look at World of Warcraft’s revamp of the game world in the Cataclysm expansion. It was filled with unique and creative vehicle sections governed by evident mechanics that fit the situation well.

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Once you ditch the snow for poorly lit underground facilities, things settle into place. The settings you explore in the later half are some of the creepiest in the game, the storyline picking up one of the more interesting dropped threads in the Transylvania plotline. It also leads into the inevitable invasion of Tokyo, setting the stage for the big battle whose aftermath frames the tutorial. While it’s nothing you couldn’t summarize in a ten sentence Wikipedia article, actually watching it is nice if you’re invested in the ongoing story.

In terms of mission distribution, Dream doesn’t feel quite as varied as either of the two previous major packs. There’s only one major Sabotage mission and it’s a pretty standard “avoid the security cameras” affair, not unlike pretty much every other underground facility mission in the final third of the main campaign. The rest of the missions are little more than “go to point A, fight a bunch of dudes, continue to point B where there are more dudes to fight, hey guess what’s going on at point C? DUDES.”

The opening mission is a particularly frustrating run through all three Transylvania zones chasing a series of Orochi reports. There’s no reason for it other than to get you to the Carpathian Fangs, but why you have to slowly run through a bunch of other zones to get there is beyond me. One of the missions is even called “A Trail of Breadcrumbs!” The lone investigation mission is a woefully simple creep down a series of hallways with a simple word puzzle at the end. It’s a damn creepy set of corridors yes, but the lack of the open-ended exploratory thinking that makes TSW’s investigation missions is sorely missed. Even Last Train, the pulp action movie issue, felt cerebral next to Dream’s waves of Filth monsters and werewolves.

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It’s really unfortunate, because the final mission in Dream is actually quite good. I hesitate to use such a trite word to describe it, but it’s atmospheric in the same way that the final mission of Vanishing is; a hazy crawl through somebody else’s dreams in search of the truth. Some of the locations featured are also exceptionally well designed, full of new and interesting assets. The Nursery, a nefarious boarding school for the gifted, is up there with Dead Space 2’s school in terms of creepy places filled with alphabet blocks. Its story, told through security reports and diaries, is a fascinating look inside the head of those who would tamper with something as obviously evil as the Filth, a great lead in to the story that will probably be told in the next few issues.

If you’re a stalwart TSW player, there’s no question about whether or not you should buy Dream. You’ve probably already maxed out your flamethrower and have added the new daily quests into your rotation. For people like me though, who only reinstall TSW when they get an eldritch bug up their ass, it’s a bit harder to recommend Dream when the already free Vanishing treads similar thematic ground without the same frustrating attempts to jump genre. It ditches a lot of what makes TSW interesting in favor of shoehorning in some ideas that other games are far better situated to incorporate. I appreciate what Funcom is trying to do, but TSW doesn’t have the fluidity of Guild Wars 2 or the weightiness of World of Warcraft. It’s a game sold on a deep and invigorating world first and foremost, something that both Last Train and Dream seem to wander away from.

Hopefully with the next major story-based content pack, which looks to be either Issue 9 or 10, Funcom can get back to their slimy roots and recapture what The Secret World is all about: the things that lurk between space and time, life and death, and light and dark. Until then, unless you’re on the cutting edge of the battle between mankind and the cosmos, A Dream to Kill might be more of a *puts on sunglasses* nightmare. (Ed. note: YEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!)