The Secret World Review
By: Andrew Bohnenberger
The Secret World is a mmorpg developed by Funcom and published by Electronic Arts. Funcom is a veteran mmo developer being the makers of Anarchy Online and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. The Secret World differentiates itself from other mmos by having an unique modern day setting, focusing on story, and having no levels or classes rather relying only on skill based progression in the game. Is the Secret World's setting, gameplay, and story enough to differentiate itself from the standard MMO fare?
The Secret World sets it self apart from other MMOs by being set in the modern day in alternative universe where ancient mythologies, real and false history, urban legends, and pop culture are all true and part of the game world. In the game you play as one of three factions; the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Templars. Each of the three factions have different starting zones but the main quest intersects leaving little to no difference of how the story progresses depending on the faction you chose. The Illuminati you start off in New York and they are a faction that thrives on acting in the shadows and pulling the strings of their puppets in politics and the business world. The Dragon is an Asian based secret society that is very similar to the Asian criminal organization the Triads and is based in Seoul. Lastly, the Templar is headquarted in London and are ancient crusaders against the forces of evil. The Secret World sets up its story by solo instances where you progress the story by completing quests that unlock cut scenes. The cut scenes in The Secret World are done surprisingly well. The characters are wacky and the humor if very self aware and breaks the forth wall. Often characters will make clever references to other games like a teenager who claims he learned how to kill zombies from Left 4 Dead and corporate agents who use security protocols from Star Trek. Overall while the story was enjoyable it felt more like a solo experience that was very linear with not much differentiation based on your faction.
The modern day setting in The Secret World is enough to stir up the MMO market which only seems to rehash the stale fantasy and sci fi genres. The Secret World has a gorgeous variety of different zones based around the modern day world. The three different regions are Soloman Island, The Valley of the Sun God, and Transylvania. Soloman Island includes Kingsmouth Town a fictional New England town inhabited by zombies with streets that have references to famous writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. The Valley of the Sun God is basically a fictional Egypt where you explore dark pyramids and desert locations inhabited by ancient cults. Lastly, Transylvania is a fictional modern day Romania inhabited by werewolves and vampires. While these locations look phenomenal the game engine which was the same one used for Age of Conan ran very poorly on my machine even on the lowest settings. There were significant frame rate drops for no reason and many items in the game were very buggy. Often you would click on a item required for a quest and you had to constantly click on it to activate and quest markers and locations were gone for no apparent reason. Overall, The Secret World was a unique looking game unfortunately riddled by a buggy engine.
The gameplay in The Secret World is its biggest draw. On the surface the game looks like it is trying to get rid of all the standard MMO tropes established by industry titan WOW. The Secret World has no levels, no classes, and aims to get rid of the level grind. In theory it seems like this system would be a drastic step for the MMO genre but eventually feels only cosmetically different. In the Secret World you have seven active skills and seven passive skills. I really enjoy less skills that you can switch out at any time you are not in combat which is a system I think Diablo 3 perfected. This allows the player to focus on a set amount of skills and not get overwhelmed by an overabundance of skills. Also it allows the player to choose any set of skills they want depending on their weapon or magic set. The only problem with this system is the finding the right build required to be effective in combat. The Secret World tries to divert this issue by providing decks which is the game's version of classes. Decks are character builds with skills from two different weapon or magics sets that work well with each other. While the decks were a helpful tool to guide you in developing your character, I felt they could of done a better job of helping you choose the appropriate skills required to build the character in early sections of the game. Often in order to reach the skills that the decks recommended, you had to unlock all the abilities in the skill wheel which is no different to a traditional skill tree in my opinion. With that said that leads to me to biggest issue with the game which is clever way of disguising the need to level grind. By biggest gripe with MMOs besides the action bar combat and quest structure is the endless repetition found in level grinding. While the Secret World has no levels you still have to gain experience by doing quest in order to unlock skill points to upgrade weapons and armor and action points to buy new skills. As a result, this is no different in my opinion to the same experience you get when you level up in traditional MMOs. The game goes so far to even lock off areas if it feels you are not powerful enough. This creates a unforgivable situation where you do not know the level requirements needed in order to be powerful enough to accomplish a given quest. Your only indication in the game is the difficulty of the quest in the quest log. Now with that being said I think this would not be an issue if the side content and ways you accomplished it was compelling enough to warrant the experience. The problem is it is your standard MMO side missions where you kill a certain number of mobs and collects a certain number of items. What makes it worse is the combat is standard wait for a cooldown to come back to spam a button. The combat has a dodge mechanic that is useless because that has a cooldown and is not as vital as it is in other MMOs like Tera where enemy location and timing is very important. As far as the story missions the huge issue with that content is the only accessible while playing solo and is instanced off. Even if you are a party on the section in the questline no other characters can enter your story quest. This is a huge issues that games like SWOTR and Guild Wars 2 have already solved by not allowing party members to progress in their own individual story if they don't meet certain requirements but still allowing them to participate in the quest. The Secret World is a MMO after all and the best part is playing with other players. I think limiting that ability is huge problem in the game. While the side content in The Secret World is standard fare, some of the story missions have some unique point and click puzzles elements, something I have no seen in a MMO. Before Funcom became a MMO developer they did work on the critical acclaimed point and click adventure game The Longest Journey, which makes sense some of these elements in that game can be found in the Secret World. The puzzles have you hacking computers using hints in the environment or arranging symbols to open doors using lore from the game. There are also maps that characters leave behind leaving clues on where you need to go next to pursue them. While all these elements are unique and a welcome addition to the MMO genre I think the execution is hit or miss. In the game there is a web browser where you use hints in the game world to search for the answer on the internet. While in theory this seems like a cool idea , in all actuality I got frustrated and impatient and just used the browser to look up the answer on the forums. Another issue in the game is the crafting and loot in the game. In the game you customize your character with different types of clothing but much like DC Universe these changes are only cosmetic. Your upgrade your armor by finding or crafting items called talismans which are your standard armor attributes for different body parts on your character. As far as the crafting system in the game I was not a fan of. You often have to break down parts and assemble them in a grid like fashion similar to the look of the item. You do this in order combine elements to create more powerful weapons or talismans. Personally I am more of fan of the Diablo 3 system where you acquire items and the blacksmith has random items you can craft that you buy while using those items. Generally if I require a wiki in order to figure out your crafting system that takes the fun out of being in the game and feels more like research. Overall, The Secret World does a good job of marketing itself as being a completely different MMO in the gameplay department but ends up being more of the same.
It is hard to a quantify how much legs the Secret World has in the features department. Since there is no level cap the games leaves me confused on what you do once you complete the 8 instanced dungeons, finish the main story quest line, and visit all zones . I simply do not understand what will keep you engaged during the end game. The main hook of MMOs after you max out your character is lacking in the department of loot hooks or maxing out all the different skills in The Secret World. Also playing with a different faction does not create the much of a unique experience as far as the character you build or the way the story progresses. With that said it makes it hard justifying the $14.99 subscription fee.
I would only recommend The Secret World to mmo veterans who are looking for a slightly different type of experience due to the certain elements I found in the game. If you want to explore a unique modern setting, have a great solo based story quest line, and have the freedom with the skill based progression that does no rely on the holy trinity of MMOs then the Secret World might be different enough of an experience for your average MMO player. As for everyone else I would recommend you wait a couple of months when the game eventually goes free to play.
Score: 70 %
Do Not Buy: Wait until the game goes free to play. While the setting and story brings some unique elements to the MMO genre the base line gameplay is not refreshing enough to warrant paying a subscription fee.