These days, it’s tough being a new MMO (massively multiplayer online game). You’ve barely launched and already you’re compared to that behemoth, World of Warcraft. It has to be one of the most unfair realities, that ONE game can have such a far-reaching shadow.
At least, the Secret World comes from the same Norwegian developers (Funcom Productions) that have had a string of moderate MMO successes. Funcom has been responsible for the ambitious and critically acclaimed Anarchy Online, and the gory Age of Conan.
They might not have had the success of Activision-Blizzard, but they have shown a desire to push MMOs beyond the usual, and to test the genre in a way, that other MMO developers can only dream of. Of course, if you’re drug of choice has been World of Warcraft for the last few years, it’s hard not to apply a distinctly Azerothian eye to Funcom’s latest creation.
But what exactly is The Secret World? It’s essentially a horror-themed MMO that pits three distinct factions (the Seoul-based “Dragon”, The New York-based Illuminati and the London-based Templar) against each other as they try to save humanity from “whatever goes bump in the night”.
If you’re trying to wrap your head around it, it’s a bit like Fringe, mixed in with a touch of X-files, with a dollop of the first seasons of Heroes and Lost. It’s a game that’s not shy to mix contemporary genres or to throw in urban legends, conspiracy theories, classic mythology, or references from popular TV-shows and movies.
In a nutshell, it’s a gaming chimaera that allows you to play as a super-powered investigator (for your chosen faction) who faces zombies, vampires, strange government creations and even demons.
Wait? No levels? What sort of sorcery is this?
One of The Secret World’s most touted features is the lack of set character classes. You’re essentially free to experiment with the Ability Wheel (and accompanying Ability Tree), and to create your own character class. You can be a pistol-wielding madman with a broadsword as a backup, or a machine gun blasting nut with healing powers.
All skills and abilities are open to all players, and the only restriction is that you can only wield two class-specific weapons (from daggers to shotguns to even magic-channelling books) at a time. It’s a daunting task to learn which skills are effective or which combinations will work to your advantage. Not to mention, the chance of creating the world’s worst character is very much a reality.
Skill progression depends on assigning points (either ability points or XP-related skill points) to unlock class-specific abilities and improving individual weapon (and item) skills. It’s an interesting and refreshing system, that makes the restrictive classes we have in other MMOs look decidedly archaic and dated.
The only real problem is that there isn’t a re-spec option, which means deciding on a new character build (path) means revisiting areas and re-doing missions to gain the necessary ability points. Fortunately, the lower tiered abilities are fairly easy to max out, but be prepared, it’ll still amount to hours of level grinding. A frustrating task, if you eventually realise that your initial creation is a dud.
Speaking of levels, while the Secret World still operates using a levelling system, there’s no way of telling where you fit on the bell curve. There is no overriding level-integer to guide you, except for your individual item and weapon skill ranks. It’s definitely interesting but as you’ll soon see, the system opens up a different can of worms all together.
I would have ganked you with my Gnomish Rogue! (PvP)
There’s nothing quite like bolstering your perceived sense of gaming mastery when your overpowered class destroys another in only a few key presses. In World of Warcraft, it used to be warlocks and rogues that ruled the battlefield, until the tables were turned and both classes were nerfed (made less effective) into submission. I’m still recovering from the day my precious Gnome Warlock was decimated by a lowly mage.
It ended my love affair with World of Warcraft, but at least the PvP (Player vs Player) operated along a number of easily understood rules. You knew for certain that attacking a level 85 Death Knight with your level 23 Paladin will only result in tears, and for the most part, you could identify prey purely on what they were wearing (or the level-integer dangling suggestively above their heads).
Guild Wars operated in a similar fashion, whereby certain item sets or even class builds assured victory, but you could generally tell, that you’re facing a squad of battle-hardened veterans or a bunch of drunken casuals, purely on how their avatars looked. The Secret World on the other hand, throws all of that out of the window.
The game doesn’t operate on a traditional levelling system, and everyone wears the same set of PvP-sanctioned clothes, with separate clothing types for healers, damage-dealers and tanks. There’s no way to tell whether the person you’re facing has maxed out their skills, until your team mates are left scraping your eviscerated remains from the walls, ceilings and floors.
What’s even more frustrating is that there isn’t a beginner’s zone where you can learn the ropes alongside fellow newbies. Instead, you’re a blood-covered bunny in a huge pond filled with bloodthirsty sharks.
Granted, you’ll eventually unlock the “big boy” abilities (and skills) or craft face-melting weaponry, but the real downer for the PvP, is the lacklustre and soulless arenas. At the moment, there are only three PvP areas (with no world PvP).
They’re all essentially perpetual capture-the-flag type warzones, where “victory” rewards the conquering faction with a server-wide buff. However, there’s really nothing to entice you to compete (except for that ever dangling carrot of tokens to buy better PvE/PvP gear).
The sad truth is, unless you’re prone to find repetitive tasks titillating (I know this is rich coming from someone who has ploughed 289 hours into Battlefield 3 or a lifetime into World of Warcraft), I can’t recommend The Secret World for its PvP. If you’re a PvP nut, you’re better off playing something else, or at least waiting for Guild Wars 2.
What? I don’t have to kill 12 000 bears for their ears? (Questing)
It’s pretty obvious that The Secret World was designed with PvE (Player vs Environment) in mind, but not the mindless sort where a quest giver sends you off to kill 40 insane frogs for their eyes. If there’s one aspect that Funcom’s MMO shines, it’s with its quests.
While the game does feature the occasional “kill x” type quests, they’re skilfully woven into a mesmerising multiple objective quest stream. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re part of a massive and exciting investigation, with each quest superbly written and acted.
You’ll find clickable photos, files to read, computers to hack and even puzzles to solve . But, it all boils down to presentation, with some quests even featuring mid-quest cinematics, and the ability to “Google” solutions with the built-in web-browser. One quest in particular had me rushing to the web-browser, after I scratched my head and muttered “Wait, was that Morse Code?”. The quest variety is something that’ll win people over.
There are faction quests, normal story quests, crafting quests, PvP quests and even the dreaded “package delivery” quests, but they’re definitely not the lazy and tedious sort that we’ve come to expect from MMOs.
I touched a dungeon, and I liked it (Dungeons)
Joining other players and venturing into an instanced dungeon have become a staple of MMO gaming. The Secret World allows you to team up with other players, and take on the cream of the crop of bosses (and their minions).
Where you could ride the coat tails of other players in other MMOs, dying in a dungeon in The Secret World removes you from the dungeon all together, and you’re left trekking back to its entrance (which in turn puts your party in the dire situation of being a party member short).
However, the real embarrassment lies in not having a specialised build for the generic dungeon-crawling roles of cleric (medic), tank, buff-support or damage-dealer. I learnt this the hard way when I first ventured into the Polaris (in Kingsmouth) with a group of other confused newbies.
Sir, I’d like to buy some fighting trousers (Micro-transactions)
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there exist an item store where you can buy specific cosmetic/vanity items for your avatar, using real cash. This is one of those issues that may enrage some to post diatribes on their blogs or drive others giddy with excitement, however as of my last dip into the pools of The Secret World, the in-game merchants have more stock and crucially of more substantial and worthwhile items.
So in all honesty, there’s no reason to ever use the “for cash” item store, unless you’re into vanity items, and how you choose to spend your money, is ultimately a personal matter.
The Secret World strives for innovation however the core gameplay will be easily recognisable to even the most casual of MMO gamers. Combat still amounts to clicking or tapping ability-assigned keys on your keyboard and watching the action unfold before your eyes. It’s a system that has not changed over nearly a decade and a half of MMO gaming.
Design and Presentation: 9/10
Aesthetically, The Secret World provides a delightful platter of DirectX 11 visual pleasures. The various areas have their own unique look and feel, with the ambient sounds and music complimenting the colour palette.
The faction cities of Seoul, London and New York are distinct, and give a slight nod to the respective factions and their particular ideologies. The Templars for instance have an old world mentality steeped in tradition, and their headquarters in London reflect their rigidness. The Illuminati are realists with a flair for business, and seem at home in the busy streets of the economic hub of New York, whereas the Dragon is as chaotic and colourful as the streets of Seoul.
There’s really two ways to look at how much you can squeeze out of Funcom’s latest game. You can easily see the subscription model as a deterrent and never delve into the creepy halls of The Secret World, or you can realise that since the game dips leisurely into the rupturing treasure trove of global lore, superstition and mythology, this crazy conspiracy-filled game will see a healthy dose of additional content (for years to come).
Funcom’s latest MMO is a bold experiment, and while (over the last month) I’ve experienced my fair share of bugged quests, a strange party system and a PvP system that will drive you to murder, as a newcomer to the MMO battleground, there is certainly potential here. It just needs a little more polish.
While that may be damning words for a general video game release (non-MMO), as someone who lived through World of Warcraft’s teething years, Age of Conan’s empty servers, a slew of dodgy Korean MMOs and attempts at exorcising the foul demon of EverQuest from my system (it’s not called EverCrack for nothing), for a potentially groundbreaking MMO… it’s merely a sign of reaching puberty.
I am confident that The Secret World will improve with time, and I’ll be keen to revisit this title in a few months to see the improvements.
The Secret World was reviewed by James Lenoir