NOTE: Reviewing an MMORPG is no easy task, and The Secret World stands apart from the pack for more than just how unique it is compared to its competitors. I’ve been playing for the better part of two weeks now and have put close to 100 hours into the game. I have not finished the main story and only scraped the surface of late-game elements like crafting and PvP. This is not a definitive review for the whole experience… yet. I’m here to lay out the basics of the game and explain why it may or may not be worth checking out. MMOs require commitment though, and it’s impossible to walk away with a sense of that when you’re only a handful of days past the final release. Please bear that in mind as you read.
After spending 80-odd hours running around in Funcom’s new MMORPG The Secret World, I can confidently say that I hate my avatar. I hate his stupid, emotionless stone-face. I hate his mute, voyeuristic perspective on the bizarre world that surrounds him. Most of all, I hate that this facade he maintains hides all of the answers that I’m looking for. When I’m staring at the screen for long periods of time, struggling to understand some tiny scrap of information that the game has dangled before me, I hate my avatar’s inability to share any of his secret knowledge. He knows how to solve this thing, so why the hell can’t he tell me?!?!?!
It’s in this we come to the heart of what makes The Secret World stand out in a gaming world that is by and large filled with rote, by-the-numbers MMOs. Funcom builds on its experience from Anarchy Online to deliver something unique, something that stands apart with its modern-day fantasy setting and its unconventional approach to familiar RPG mechanics. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s an excellent salve for those who might be suffering from a serious case of MMO burnout.
Through the Looking Glass
The story and setting that Funcom devised for The Secret World is something of a hodgepodge of familiar modern-day fantasy and urban legends, with everything from zombie hordes to Lovecraftian horrors popping up around every corner. Players choose to align with one of three factions at the start of the game: the Illuminati, a New York City-based gang of Machiavellian conspiracy nuts, the Dragon, a Seoul-based organization that thrives on chaos, and the Templars, religious zealots based in London who want to cleanse the world of its monstrous infestation. Your faction choice influences where you start the game as well as late-game concerns like PvP, but it in no way limits your ability to group up with others from opposing factions to take on group-oriented quests.
Once all of the establishing stuff is out of the way, all players are transported via the Agartha transport system — one of many in-game elements based on real-world myths — to the fictional New England town of Kingsmouth, a location that has been overrun by zombies and other, much darker and more malevolent, forces. When you first start exploring Kingsmouth you might initially start to feel like you’re playing yet another by-the-numbers MMO. There’s a cooldown timer-managed hotbar at the bottom of the screen, quest-giving NPCs scattered about with goals like “fetch this many items” or “kill this many beasties,” and of course fellow players running around all over.
Stay awhile, however, and the differences start to bleed through. The setting is probably the most immediately jarring element. Where most MMO creators are content to send players into fantasy worlds filled with lush, green forests and expansive mountain vistas, The Secret World sticks to delivering fantasy framed against the familiar. Once you put aside the hordes of zombies and the post-apocalyptic feel of the surrounding environment, Kingsmouth looks like a pretty typical sleepy suburban town. It’s anything but, of course, but that’s the magic of The Secret World. Where so many competing titles go for high fantasy or hard sci-fi, Funcom delivers an instantly memorable setting in its adherence to the familiar.
Then you start to pick up some quests. Early on, you’ll be asked to perform very simple and straightforward MMO-style tasks. You’ll be setting gas cans ablaze with the goal of burning X number of zombies or running around the town picking up supplies from a handful of abandoned stores for survivors barricaded at the police station. That changes fairly quickly, however. The MMO-style grind never actually disappears, but familiar quest types are supplemented by others. Sometimes stealth is required, a matter of timing your movements and jumping to avoid things like security cameras and laser tripwire. Sometimes it’s an unclear chunk of text that you’re staring at alongside a green mission icon, your cue that this “Investigation” quest will require a trip to the Internet.
Oh yes: you are flat-out encouraged to surf the web while you play, to the point that ‘B’ on your keyboard can be pressed at anytime to bring up a browser window. There’s some really inventive stuff in this category. One quest involved unlocking a door by slotting special runes into slots alongside it, in a specific order of course. All of the runes were familiar — things like a Star of David or the Eye of Providence — and their correct placement for the puzzle was dictated by a few lines of text in a book that indirectly referenced the various runes.
Another quest called for me to break into a laptop, only the laptop in question was password-protected and the only hint given for that password was “My wife’s name.” Close to the laptop’s location, in the back of an abandoned truck, were two human corpses in corporate uniforms being feasted upon by zombies. After clearing out the undead, you can search the bodies and find employee ID cards. From there, the puzzle can be solved by connecting to the company’s official website and looking up employee files for the wife’s name. It’s marvelously simple, the sort of web-sleuthery that most of us engage in, on some level or another, on a daily basis, and it integrates into the context of the game seamlessly.
Later on you’ll try your hand at group-oriented quests, either as part of a cabal (the Secret World equivalent of a guild) or as a member of a temporary group that forms just for the quest. There’s no group finder in The Secret World (yet– it’s a feature that Funcom is apparently working on), switching between instances to meet up with a group is as easy as clicking “yes” when prompted. These missions serve up a stiffer challenge on the combat side, and they conclude with boss fights that, again, aren’t your average MMO fare. Combat in The Secret World — with regular enemies and bosses alike — often requires constant movement and frequent dive-rolls. It’s still a hotkey-based command interface, but things like visual aids for enemy charge attacks create a much more active combat experience.
Nowhere is this clearer, however, than when you face off with a group against one of the game’s towering bosses. One of the earlier group missions pits the team against a multi-story Lovecraftian monstrosity that changes up its attack patterns as its health drains. Initially it’s just a standard war of attrition, but you’re eventually put in a position where you have to avoid its line of sight while also dealing with support beasties that it’s summoned in. The final stage returns to the basic blow-for-blow exchange, but with added twists to the attack patterns that put additional pressure on the players to finish the thing off as quickly as possible.
All Systems Operational
Things look equally unconventional when you peer under the hood at the various systems that power The Secret World. The concept of leveling and a level cap is thrown out the window completely. You’ll earn experience, but you spend earned SP and AP on skills and attributes laid out in a complex tree. The long-term thinking is that you can essentially “level up” to capacity, eventually earning enough SP/AP to unlock all skills and use all weapons. The trick comes in setting your character up correctly with the right deck; at any given time, you’ve only got access to seven “active” (hotbar-accessible) skills and seven passive skills. How you kit yourself out with what you’ve unlocked determines your “class,” though that term doesn’t exist in The Secret World. You can even save loadouts to quickly switch between, say, a healer build and a DPS build. Familiar MMO concepts still apply, they’re just approached differently.
In gameplay terms, the effect of this is easy to grasp. You feel a much greater sense of accomplishment from the more frequent drip-feed of SP and AP than the typical MMO’s level-based grind. The tradeoff is that you’re extremely limited when you’re first starting out, turning the early hours of The Secret World into a chaotic swirl of WTFery. Once you get a handle on the progression system, however, the full potential of what’s laid before you begins to shine through. If there’s any complaint to be leveled here, it’s at the utter lack of a clear tutorial; players are basically just thrown in and expected to figure it out.
The skill system also ties in with your weapons loadouts. You’ve got swords and knives, fist weapons and magic, joined by present-day firepower from assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Each weapon is broken down between a healing tree and a combat tree; unlock all of the skills in both of those base trees to open up an even wider assortment of higher-tier skills, with three trees apiece for combat and healing, per weapon. There’s no need to worry about ammo or mana or anything like that; instead, attacks fall into two basic categories: builders and finishers. Use enough of the former and you’ll build up the resources to let loose with one of the latter. The relationship between the different skills — not just with builders/finishers, but also the “Synergy” (an in-game term) between passive and active abilities and the different states you can inflict — form a huge part of the mid- and late-game combat strategy.
As with actual combat, the feel here is that you’re taking a much more active role in your character’s development than you normally would in an MMO. The AP/SP drip-feed, the constant unlocking of new skills, and the shuffling of various decks to see which combos work together is downright addicting. There’s a pull that will frequently bring you back to The Secret World once you get into it. It’s not quite on the level of a “just one more quest/kill/whatever” mentality, but it’s much more constant and pressing than one would typically expect from this sort of game.
Crafting and PvP bring even more variety into the game, though as I said at the outset, I’ve barely scratched the surface. They’re definitely both unique; the former for its Minecraft-like interface and the latter for its big picture faction war focus, but whenever I tried to tackle these I was left with the sense that my character wasn’t quite there yet. That’s actually great news considering that I’m now roughly three-quarters of the way through the main quest. Whether or not these elements amount to much, they certainly promise plenty more content for those who put in enough time to reach the endgame.
As unconventional as The Secret World is, it’s still not perfect. The environments look fantastic on my Alienware X51 (i5 CPU / GTX 555 GPU) and the various baddies you come across speak to a nice variety, but the human character models fall somewhere between meh and awful. I suppose part of that can be ascribed to the fact that player character models need to support a heavy amount of customization, though it should also be mentioned that the character creator is surprisingly limited. On top of that, it’s also just jarring to see all of those emotionless faces cast against such pretty backdrops.
Then there are the cutscenes. The core story moments are fine, though they’re of course filled with the same so-so character models that you see everywhere else. There are other cutscenes, however, for each mission-givers’ various quests. They’re ostensibly used to offer you a bit of narrative context for what you’re about to do, and it’s the sort of thing that I’m typically a proponent of in any MMO, since there’s much more impact from watching a scene play out than reading a text synopsis of an exchange.
They really just don’t work in The Secret World, however. I blame it on the mute nature of your player character. These pre-mission cutscenes feel like monologues, and they’re often boring monologues. You see a character talking at you, ostensibly giving you some background information on what you’re about to do. The writing often paints these individuals as exceedingly bizarre; more often than not, they come off seeming like crazy, raving nutballs. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it’s also boring. There’s no emotional investment on your part. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to press ESC to skip when you tire of watching any of them.
Lastly, while the combat succeeds in conveying a very active feel, it’s heavily lacking in the flash department. Your weakest attack and your most powerful attack don’t visually look all that different from one another. Combat is fun and the assortment of enemies gives you cool, new things to look at all the time, but it’s definitely lacking in some ways. The thrill of victory is often muted by the lack of flash. It’s fun to play, but it’s not particularly exciting. More flash would have been welcome.
Is The Secret World worth your time? I would answer that question with a big, emphatic yes. It’s not perfect but it scores major points for offering an unconventional and surprisingly varied MMO experience that is fun to play. Genre noobs should definitely consider this one; it might lack the mass appeal of an old statesman like WoW or the popular franchise appeal of Star Wars: The Old Republic, but the familiar modern-day settings coupled with the highly active combat and rapid sense of progression really stand out. Even factoring out the late-game content, you can expect a good 80+ hours of fun and rewarding online RPG play.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC on a copy provided by EA)