Usually I insist on reader reviews following the structure we use for reviews, but when someone puts so much effort into creating something as definitive as this The Secret World review, who am I to tell people what they can and can't write? Great job here by Nathan Kelly. Well worth reading if you have any interest in this game whatsoever, and even if you don't!
Take it away Nathan!
The Secret World Review
When we hear the term ‘MMORPG’ we tend to think of Elves, Dragons, and grinding out levels. The Secret World seeks to subvert this trend by not being set in a high fantasy world and doing away with levels, skill trees and the class system entirely. Set in the present day and in this universe, The Secret World has players assume the role of a regular person who has been granted fantastic abilities, and uses them to do battle against dark forces on behalf of The Illuminati, The Templar or the mysterious and chaotic Dragon.
The Secret World is a recently released MMORPG, published by EA, and developed by Funcom; the people who made Age of Conan. Let me say right now that Funcom has come a long way from the still alive, but ultimately forgotten AoC.
I pretty much purchased The Secret World on a whim after seeing folks tweet about it, coupled with the urge to play something new while I waited for upcoming releases. I didn’t know a great deal about the game before I started playing, but I became very impressed, very quickly.
The biggest thing that sets The Secret World apart from other MMOs is its setting. Events take place in our present day world, and reference real world culture. For instance, the Templar make a point of telling the player that they are nothing like what one might see in a Dan Brown novel. Early locations pay homage to the likes of HP Lovecraft and Stephen King, and mission-giving NPCs feel like they’ve stepped out of film and literature as they go off on their pre-quest monologues. Enemies are taken from myth and legend, and include the likes of Draugh, Wendigo, Zombies, Vampires, Demons and The Bogeyman. I’ve even seen a tribe of Sasquatch.
Zones are large and varied. In the early stages of the game, players explore haunted carnivals, sleepy towns plagued by the undead, occult institutions, and forests inhabited by vicious beasts. I’ve been putting many hours into the game since I got it, and still haven’t left the early zones as there is plenty to do in each of the game's large, open areas.
Most of the time, like in other MMOs, I’m doing missions for NPCs. Upon accepting a mission, the player is treated to a cutscene where the quest-giver tells you (sometimes in a rambling, roundabout way) what they need done. I really like these cutscenes. Despite the player's character not having any dialogue, the quest-giver monologues are entertaining, as the NPCs have a lot of character and the voice talent has done a good job of bringing them to life.
While still maintaining the “Kill 10 X” style of quest, The Secret World expands on the formula by introducing a couple of new quest types. Investigation missions are probably the most enjoyable of these new types, as they deviate most from the standard MMO fare. In investigations, players have to employ detective skills, along with logic, problem solving, and perhaps a little research (made easier by the games handy built in web browser) to uncover clues that lead to other clues, that eventually lead to uncovering some important knowledge. Some of the investigations are absolutely devilish, requiring a substantial degree of effort on the part of the player. One such mission presents the player with a message encrypted in Morse Code. To advance to the next stage of the investigation, the player must decipher the coded message (or give in to temptation and google up a guide using the games handy built in web browser). Investigations may also task players with cracking a computer password or following a series of cryptic clues in a treasure hunt across the zone. The investigation missions are a lot of fun, provided you’re the kind of person who is into cracking clues and codes, otherwise they can just be infuriating and force the player to follow a walkthrough to get it over with.
The other main type of mission introduced in The Secret World is Sabotage. These involve sneaking into an area, avoiding laser tripwires, security cameras and enemies who are capable of quickly dismembering the player if their attention is accidentally attracted. Sabotage quests are not as common as investigations or “Kill X” quests, possibly because they can be a little repetitive. Most Sabotage missions require the player to navigate an area where the price for failure is almost instant death.
This wouldn’t be a problem, but at times, jumping over a low tripwire is complicated by sloppy jumping mechanics, often ending in something exploding and severely damaging your character, if not killing it outright and forcing you to attempt the section again.
Another interesting aspect of The Secret World is the way in which it does away with the traditional class and levelling systems that appear in other MMOs. The Secret World employs a system that allows the player to create their own class, or ‘deck’ as it is called, by equipping two weapons, and up to seven active and seven passive abilities. Decks are built by spending a combination of Action Points (AP) and Skill Points (SP), which are gained through accumulation of experience. Abilities are split into categories based on the weapon a character a character needs to use them. Currently, the weapons available consist of Swords, Hammers, Fists, Blood Magic, Elementalism, Chaos Magic, Pistols, Shotguns, and Assault Rifles.
If one were to play the game for long enough, one could obtain all the available abilities, as there is no limit to the amount of experience a character can accrue. For this reason there is no way to refund spent Ability Points, nor does there need to be.
If someone was to do what I did, and create a character build they weren’t happy with, remedying the situation simply requires picking up a new weapon and buying some new abilities to go along with it. I was genuinely surprised with how easy it was to alter the developmental direction of my character. I just stopped, equipped a hammer I had lying about, used my spare AP and SP to grab some abilities and weapon skill, and off I went.
The limitations imposed on the number of abilities a character can equip may be jarring to MMO veterans who are used to loading up their half a dozen action bars with dozens of abilities. I too felt somewhat strategically hindered at first. Eventually I came to see the restrictions as a deeper level of character customisation, intended to force the player to design their deck of abilities around the situation at hand. There’s still times where I really, really want an eighth ability slot, just so I can squeeze in one more attack or passive ability, but I’ve come to appreciate the strategy behind customising my build within the constraints of the system.
Combat is probably where The Secret World is closest to other MMOs. The player still has an ability bar, and the abilities on that bar still have cooldowns. Resources like mana have been done away with however, and each of the two weapons a player is carrying uses its own resource pool. During combat, players use abilities to build weapon resources, then spend those resources to unleash their more powerful abilities, then resources are built up again and the cycle continues. The Secret World seeks to break up the repetition of combat by letting the player perform a dodge roll, which allows the character to get out of the way of incoming area of effect attacks some enemy types like to use.
Engaging enemies must be done with some degree of strategy, as for each unintended enemy entering combat, the player’s chances of survival decrease quite a bit. The enemies that inhabit the outside environments tend to boast roughly the same, if not a larger, amount of health as the player and are capable of taking a bit of punishment, so engaging with too many enemies at once is not in the players best interests. I’ve died quite a few times from one extra foe entering combat when I wasn’t expecting it. It can be frustrating knowing you’re dead not long into a combat just because you’re fighting three enemies instead of the two you’d intended.
The crafting system in The Secret World also warrants mentioning. Instead of choosing a profession and grinding out levels in your chosen field, players are free to create weapons, gear, potions and weapon enhancing glyphs as they see fit. Materials are gathered by disassembling unwanted items, and are made into new items by laying out the required parts in a specific pattern, not unlike Minecraft. Personally I like this crafting system as I can craft items as the need arises, without having to have learned a load of useless schemata beforehand. However, the system does have a glaring flaw in that players are required to memorise patterns, or continually rely on outside websites as reference due to a lack of an in-game pattern list.
Before I address some of the bugs that have hindered an otherwise immensely enjoyable experience, I would like to touch on the PvP aspect of The Secret World. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, I have not had as much time as I would have liked with PvP, due to exploring the PvE side of the game, and real life obligations that have forced me to leave my keyboard.
There is no open world PvP in The Secret World, as the player factions have called an uneasy truce in order to fight the dark forces that threaten the planet. Instead, players can participate in 3 PvP scenarios, which directly influence player’s attributes in PvE. Factions vie for control of locations around the world including Stonehenge, El Dorado and The Fusang Projects in Korea. For each of these locations that a faction controls, members of that faction get a bonus to attributes like damage, healing and xp gain. Stonehenge and El Dorado are pretty standard as PvP scenarios go, with Stonehenge using a King of the Hill format, and El Dorado consisting of a modified Capture the Flag. Fusang Projects on the other hand is interesting in that it is a continuous 24 hour battleground, in which players battle for control of several strategic locations. The little PvP I had a chance to do was enjoyable, but it didn’t stand out as much as the rest of the game.
No MMO is without bugs, and The Secret World is no exception to this. During my time with the game, I have encountered a few bugged quests, and have even fallen through the world on one occasion. The GMs were amazingly helpful with the bugged quests, rectifying the situation within 15 minutes of me sending off a petition. Other than these isolated incidents, my time in The Secret World has been essentially bug free.