The Secret World Review
Game: The Secret World
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Windows PC Only
I’d be surprised if any of you reading this haven’t at least dabbled in the world of the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, especially with the recent spate of free-to-play offerings out there, it’s almost impossible for any self-respecting game to not have had a peek and seen what all the fuss is about. That being said, most of the MMOs that are out there at the moment – with a few exceptions – are all “Sword & Sorcery”, clearly based on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and other legendary fantasy writers. There have been attempts to make an MMO not using such standardised practices but none of them really went anywhere (the infamous Hellgate: London springs to mind). The Secret World is a new entry into that relatively crowded genre, one that’s been developed by a company that already has an MMO out in the “Sword & Sorcery” environment in the form of Age of Conan; Funcom.
The Secret World asks the player to choose from three secret societies, the Illuminati, the Templars or the Dragon and make your place in the world by investigating strange goings on, defeating the plethora of monsters that will undoubtedly make your life a living hell (in some cases quite literally) and, as is standard MMO practice, get you to join up with a group of friends and take down some truly big enemies. Rest assured though, despite how much The Secret World sounds like a standard MMO on paper, nothing could prepare you for what you will experience within its virtual walls. Prepare to enter the world that’s been around you all along, you’ve just not been looking in the right places.
STORY: The Secret World is all around us, according to the game at least. While the rest of us are going about our daily lives, going to work, going to school and the rest of the things that make up our lives, there are groups of people working hard to keep our world safe. They’re operating in a world that, thanks to their efforts, we never see: The Secret World.
This is where the story starts, whichever group you choose to join. You’re woken up one night after swallowing a glowing insect and you suddenly find yourself able to do things that you weren’t able to do before, you have powers beyond what previously seemed possible and you’ve got to learn to use them. A week or so passes and you’ve learned to control your newfound powers somewhat; enough to draw the attention of whichever group you chose to join when you started your game. The only real downside to this first part of the story that you’ve set out upon is the fact that it’s exactly the same no matter which of the three factions you choose to join, it would have been nice to see a slightly different scenario for each, encouraging players to create a character in each of the three factions, because as it stands right now there’s no point.
Once the game and the story starts picking up some momentum after about the three hour mark, things start to get decidedly more interesting. You’ll soon find yourself seeking out the Lore pieces that are scattered around the world in order to get the next bit of the story. These Lore aspects to the game are parts of the story that usually aren’t told anywhere else, or may just be alluded to but never told in full. An example of this is the Lady Margaret storyline in Kingsmouth, you’ll spend your time doing quests surrounding the disappearance and eventual reappearance of the ship but you’ll only be able to find out the full story through the collection of Lore.
Quite a few of the stories that you’ll come across during your time in The Secret World are obviously based on other works of storytelling, the Lady Margaret story, where a fishing boat comes out of the fog bringing death with it, is very reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘The Fog’. However, because you’ll be enjoying the game as you’re going through the story there’s little chance that you’ll care, just sit back and enjoy the ride that you’re experiencing.
GRAPHICS: All of the environments and models looks quite realistic and have been modelled to a high level of detail. You can certainly see the amount of care and attention that has been put into the game when you sit back and really take in what the entire world is made of. The biggest downside when it comes to character models, is that you’ll often find the same models repeating themselves over and over again. This isn’t really a problem when it comes to the enemies as most players of MMO games will be used to the same model being used for the enemies that they’re attacking, but it becomes quite evident when looking at the survivors and other citizens that make up the living and breathing environments of The Secret World. It’s never quite enough to take you out of the immersion of the game, but it’s enough to be noticeable.
One of the main downsides to the engine – and something that people will probably be used to by now in this generation of gaming – is the texture pop-in. This is the method that the engine uses to keep the frame-rate up where it will display a low resolution version of a particular texture until it needs to display one with a higher resolution, usually when you’re close enough to notice the difference. The problem lies in the fact that the engine doesn’t always stream the high resolution textures quickly enough so you’ll often find yourself looking at an ugly, illegible sign waiting for the texture to pop in before you can actually read it and figure out if you’re on the right street at all. Again, this is something that people who have seen and played games using the third generation Unreal Engine will be used to by now, but it’s something worth mentioning nonetheless.
Despite these downfalls, which are mostly the engine itself showing its age and not a fault on the part of the game or the developers, the game looks pretty good. As MMO players we have gotten used to the sub-par visuals of our games, often telling ourselves that it was due to the amount of people in the world or the vast scale of the universe we were encompassing ourselves in. It seems like those days have come to an end and we’re finally getting MMOs that look like their single player counterparts, TERA was a gorgeous game, as is Guild Wars 2, and you can rest assured that The Secret World deserves a place in that list.
SOUND: When it comes to an MMO, the one thing that you’d definitely expect, is to read all of the quest text that we come across, even the granddaddy of all MMOs, World of Warcraft, forces the player to read every single inch of story relating to the quests that you’ll be doing (with a few notable exceptions). One of the more impressive aspects of Star Wars: The Old Republic was just how much of the game was fully voice acted, and it’s something that’s still impressive. But that game had the full might of BioWare behind it, Funcom is a much smaller company and yet they’ve manage to get a substantial portion of the game voice-acted. All of the main quests, the story quests, the investigations and the stealth missions are introduced with fully voice-acted cutscenes. Not the best thing in the world if you enjoy to sit back with your MMOs, listening to a podcast (like our MMO specific Podcast, Ding!) and getting lost in the world that you’re experiencing. However, if you’re more like the majority of people who prefer to get truly lost within an MMO, then voice-acted cutscenes are the way to go and The Secret World more has you covered.
Due to the content of the game, where a lot of it plays like a survival horror MMO, the sound design is one of the most important aspects of the game. There will be times when something will happen behind you and you’ll find yourself wondering whether you should turn around to find out what made the noise or just keep running forward, such is the immersion that you’ll feel within the world. One memorable area of the game where the audio made an impression was a quest in Kingsmouth involving White Ravens and ghostly voices of girls reciting a nursery rhyme. It was eerie, engrossing and amazing all at the same time.
GAMEPLAY: Unlike the recently released TERA and the upcoming RaiderZ and Neverwinter games, the gameplay mechanic that you’ll be using throughout your time with The Secret World falls under standard MMO practices; at least on the surface. Your user interface will comprise of a mini-map, quest information and all of the other usual information you’re given at your fingertips while playing a game in this genre. You’ll also be given a pretty standard abilities bar at the bottom of the screen, through which you activate the various abilities by clicking on them (or hitting the number that’s related to the ability you want to cast). The first thing that’s different about the way that The Secret World does things is that because there’s no class system you can literally pick any ability you want out of the wheel and train up to it, crafting your character in your own image as if you were some kind of God. Due to the fact that you can literally have any of the abilities that you want, the developers have intelligently locked down the amount of abilities you can have active at any single time to seven. You can swap and change them around to your heart’s content when you’re not in combat, but you better make sure that when those enemies start charging you down, you’ve assigned yourself with the abilities that are going to help you out of the situation. If you haven’t, you’re going to end up being an easily forgotten stain on the floor until you respawn.
As I briefly mentioned, The Secret World has no class system to speak of. Other MMO’s will pride themselves on the amount of classes that you can pick from when you’re starting the game, or from the amount of variation between the classes, The Secret World is different, they take pride in not having a class system at all. As the player you are fully in control of what type of character you want to create. You can create a magic user that has a sword for close range combat or a character that has a machine gun and a set of twin pistols, you can even swap and change your abilities at will providing you’re not in combat and you have the time to generate the required amount of skill points and ability point to achieve such a feat. On top of there being no class system and the game allowing every player to create exactly the type of character they want, there’s no level system either. With The Secret World you’re not going to be able to turn around to your friend and say “Yeah, I got to level X today”, because there are no levels. If you can’t enter a new zone without getting your head handed back to you on a plate then it’s because you don’t have the skills necessary to take down those enemies. It won’t ever be because you’re simply too low of a level. There is an experience bar at the bottom of the screen but instead of generating your level number, it generates skill points and ability points; the currency that you’ll be using in game to purchase your abilities. The experience bar is split up into thirds, fill up one third and you’ll be given a single skill point, fill up the entire bar and get yourself a shiny Ability Point. It’s a system that takes a little bit of getting used to, and there’s no denying that it’s very different from the norm, but it makes sense in the game and you’ll end up watching it just like you do in every other MMO you’ve ever played, but for different reasons.
Most MMO games use the basic system of collecting quests, going off and performing the required actions and then coming back and handing the quest in. Where this often gets annoying is when you go to a specific point in the map, which could be a long way away, complete the quest, hand it in only to be told that you’ve got to go back to the same place you just were but this time you’ve got to kill a different amount of a slightly more difficult enemy. This is the main bane of the questing systems on most MMOs, but The Secret World is slightly different. Yes, you’ll have the same basic mechanics of a quest system but once you’ve complete a stage of the quest line, you’ll automatically be given the next, and the next, until you’ve completed the entire series of quests. No more going back to quest givers more than you need to.
Another exciting aspect to the questing system is the different types of quest that you’ll be spending your time doing. There are the Story Missions that push you along through the different areas that the game has to offer, the Main Missions which are your standard MMO type of quests, but then there are Stealth Missions and Investigation Missions. Stealth Missions are just what you’d expect, you’re usually asked to collect information and you’ve got to do it without being spotted, or at least not going in all guns (and hands if you’re a magic based player) blazing. Investigation Missions are some of the best quests you’ll come across in the game and require the player to do research in order to get to the end of the quest line. One particular mission that springs to mind is a mission that asks you to decipher a Morse code message in order to find the co-ordinates of a crate. I downloaded a Morse code decipher app for my iPad, had it listen to the Morse code whereby it told be the co-ordinates and I was on my way. There are probably a lot of ways around this puzzle, as there are probably multiple ways of solving all of the Investigation Missions, but that’s the beauty of them, you have to figure out your own way of solving them.
One last thing that needs to be mentioned is the fact that there is a subscription to play The Secret World, though it has already been mentioned in interviews with the developers that the Free-to-Play model is firmly on the cards for a point in the future. There’s already a fully fleshed out Item Store in the game at the moment so there wouldn’t be too much work needed to switch the game over to the more popular model.
LONGEVITY: As with just about every other MMO you could lay your hands on, as long as being able to afford the subscription cost isn’t an issue, you could literally play The Secret World for as long as you wanted to. Even if you get through all of the quests in the game (which is almost impossible but I have no doubt that some dedicated players out there will manage it) you’ll be able to play through all of the missions again should you wish to. There should be no need to play through anything more than once though, Funcom have said that they’ll be supporting the game for the foreseeable future with monthly “Issues” which are essentially patches, but will also add small areas of story for players to work through.
At the time of writing there’s only been one issue released, adding a couple of quests centring around the Innsmouth Academy (which is one seriously freaky place to begin with) and with more content to come in the coming months I can see people playing this for as many hours as they can possibly fit into their gaming schedule. The Secret World may actually be the first MMO that I continue to play because I want to know where the story’s going to go and not because I want to level up some more; so nice work Funcom.
VERDICT: If you think you’ve played every type of MMO under the sun and you don’t need to play any others other, I’d highly recommend that you check out The Secret World, it’s like no MMO you’ve ever seen before. The modern setting has been done before but it’s not been done to the length that’s seen here. There are, however, some glaring bugs that you’ll come across throughout the game that will hopefully get patched out with some of the Issues that we’ll see further down the line. Strange audio inconsistencies, NPCs doing strange things and buggy quests are all par for the course with The Secret World but you’d hope that six to twelve months down the line most of these issues have been fixed.
The atmosphere of the game, created by a combination of excellent story, voice-acting, sound design and environment design, will be enough to keep most regular MMO players coming back for more, while the lack of a standard class and levelling system, as well as the movement away from the sword and sorcery standard of most MMO’s, will hopefully bring in people that usually wouldn’t give an MMO the time of day.
The Secret World is an excellent example of how an MMO can push the boat out, be something relatively innovative, and succeed at doing it. Even if, in the long run, it’s not a financial success, it still proves to the world that you don’t have to be a World of Warcraft clone to be enjoyable in the MMO world. Hopefully The Secret World doesn’t stay secret for long, it deserves to be played, it deserves success.