Game Review - 'The Secret World'

'The Secret World', available from Amazon

4 stars for 'The Secret World'

The Secret World, the modern-world MMORPG developed by Funcom, has been out for a while, now. And, it's been struggling. You may have heard a bit about some of the problems it's been having, so I wont get into that here. None of that matters quite so much as the recent changes Funcom of chosen to make to try to draw more attention to their game, anyway. As you may, or may not, have heard, The Secret World recently dropped its monthly subscription model in favour of a 'buy to play' one (basically, the same set-up used by Guild Wars 2), which is distinct from the more common 'free-to-play' model in that you still have to buy the game but, after that, its yours - without any of the restrictions typically imposed in 'free-to-play' games. You can dismiss the change as an attempt to save a struggling game, if you want (and, let's be honest, that's probably exactly what it was) - but, it is also a change that has opened up the game to a much wider potential market. The games future profitability now rests firmly on the developer's ability to release new content that players consider to be worth purchasing - and, it's a challenge that the developer's seem eager to take on. So, it seems now is a good time to finally have a look at the game.

Now, since I've come to feel that it's pretty important to be open about any bias you may have when writing a review, I suppose I should come right out and mention that you are currently reading a review of an MMO written by someone who still has very limited experience with MMOs - and, who is never going to be that big a fan of them, in general.

So, what does that actually mean? Well, it means that much of what an MMO veteran would consider to be important, and what they might particularly want to know, is likely to go right over my head. 'End game content', for example, is a term that tends to get tossed around a lot when you're talking about MMORPGs - and, sure, I know what people are referring to. But, once I get to the point where there's nothing left but the constant grind of repeating the same content over and over again just to get the best gear, that's usually where I stop. It just doesn't interest me. PvP is another area where my input would probably be of limited value - I enjoy it in very limited doses, and I'll never be what you can call an 'expert'.

So, if this review isn't for the MMORPG veterans, who is it for? Well, think of this as a review of an MMORPG written by one of the 'casual gamer' population, and you should be on the right track.

The world is a strange and terrifying place. There is the world that we all live in,one very much based on the idea that 'ignorance is bliss', and there is the Secret World - the real world. In the Secret World, everything is true. Magic is real. Creatures straight out of mythology (or, horror fiction) actually exist. The Earth really is hollow (and, is a very convenient form of transportation for anyone that can make use of it). And, three powerful secret societies compete for control of the world. This is where you come in. As a new recruit for one of these three secret societies, you will be thrown head-first into this three-way conflict as you fight to support your societies interests.

The three organisations you will have the choose from include the Illuminati - overtly, and almost proudly, amoral, the Illuminati are devoted to controlling the world through the control of information. Next, you have the Templar, who are quite possibly the closest you will get to straightforward 'good guys' in this game, with their devotion to battling evil in the world - though, even here, things are not quite as black and white as they may first seem. And, finally, the Dragon, a mysterious organisation devoted to the study of chaos, and with a heavy emphasis on oriental mysticism - who press-gang you, then surprise you with some mystical oral sex (I'm not joking... it's as weird as it sounds. Maybe weirder). The choice of organisation will provide additional colour and context to much of your experience - though, for the most part, you will be running through the same content as every other player. Each organisation has its own home-base, which will form the starting location for your character - the Illuminati can be found in New York, while the Templar have made London their home, and the Dragon have set themselves up in Seoul.

Once you have made your choice, and created your character, you will be put through some quick training, then just as quickly put to work. Your first mission will take you to Solomon Island - a location which will quickly begin to seem like an obvious love letter to the works of H. P. Lovecraft - with, perhaps, some influence from other writers of horror, such as Stephen King, working its way in. It is a bleak place, where survivors have been forced to barricade themselves against hordes of zombies (and, worse). Solomon Island will be your new home for a while, as you try to uncover the Island's central mysteries while, perhaps, taking the time to help out where you can. Later, you will find yourself sent off to Egypt - where you will be required to confront an ancient cult. Following that, you will find yourself in Transylvania - where you will be drawn into a conflict which (naturally) will see you fighting vampires and werewolves.

The Secret World is a game that obviously prides itself on the atmosphere it is able to build. And, it has every right to do so. Solomon Island, for example, does a brilliant job of creating a genuinely bleak and oppressive atmosphere. You start out with the sense that the island is doomed, and that the inhabitants would have to consider themselves fortunate if they simply managed to get out of there alive - and, things somehow manage to get worse from there. By the time you are ready to leave, you might find yourself feeling an odd sense of relief that it is over. But, of course, it wont last.

Story was obviously a high priority, too. While the game has its fair share of minor side-missions, which start with little more than a bit of text, all of the main quests will be introduced with a cut-scene in which you will get to meet one of the games many fascinating (and, often, eccentric) cast of characters. These characters are easily as important as the setting itself in selling the games atmosphere - and, thankfully, they are all well-served by the game's design, as well as a cast of talented voice actors. Sure, on occasion some of the dialogue you will hear might come across as a bit stilted and unnatural - but, the cast work well with what they are given and, in the end, it often seems to fit the style of the story being told.

The missions you will be given are broken up into specific categories. The Combat missions should be pretty obvious - they will typically involve you simply needing to go to a specific location and kill a certain number of a specific type of enemy. Standard MMO stuff, overall. The Sabotage missions are a little trickier, since they will typically require you to avoid combat. A typical Sabotage mission will usually see you needing to break into some well guarded area undetected in order to steal some piece of information. They are stealth mission, basically - but, in a game that does not actually have stealth-mechanics of any sort. So, you will simply be running about the place trying to avoid getting too close to anyone. These missions needed to either be implemented properly (by, for example, adding some sort of proper stealth mechanic to the game), or left out entirely. As it is, though, they are one of the weaker aspects of the game.

The Investigation missions are what stand out as one of the game's most unique features. You may find yourself needing to visit websites that have been created for the game, to dig out some piece of information. Or, you might end up having to research obscure bible verses while looking for clues. You might even find yourself having to decipher a message given in Morse Code. Whatever it is you end up having to do, the one common trend is that there will be no hand-holding involved - you really are on your own with these missions. The game comes with a built-in web-browser and you will be glad it's there - whether you use it to do the mission the way it was intended, and look up the clues you need, or to look up a walk-through.

There are no set classes in The Secret World. Instead, your character will be defined by what weapons you choose to use. To start out, you will have nine different weapons to choose from: three ranged (duel pistols, shotgun and assault rifle); three melee (fist, sword and hammer); and, three magic (elemental, blood and chaos). Each comes with its own set of abilities (both active attacks, and passive bonuses) to unlock - and, the game encourages you to experiment with different combinations. As well as the starting weapons, there has also been a new class of Auxiliary weapons added since release - these are all high-powered weapons that you will need to earn by doing a high-level mission, and include wonderful new toys like a chainsaw or a rocket-launcher.

Additional attacks and passive abilities, as well as the bonuses drawn from skills, is all well and good, but it's your gear that will truly determine your ability to progress through the game. Each piece of gear is given a quality rating (Q0 being the gear you will start out with, and Q10 being the current top tier), and the average quality rating of your accumulated gear comes to serve as an odd surrogate for character level - so much so that the majority of the player-base have taken to using it in that way (if another player tells you that the content in an area is 'Q4', take them at their word and make sure that all of your gear is at the appropriate level before trying to take it on - you'll save yourself a lot of grief, that way.)

Gear itself tends to come in three different flavours, representing the classic 'holy trinity' of MMORPGs. Gear with various defensive stats and higher bonuses to health is clearly intended for tanks, while there is also gear intended for DPS and Healer builds, as well. Despite the sheer amount of variety offered by the many possible weapon combinations, it is still pretty obvious that you are clearly intended to settle into one of these three roles. Though, you are never forced to stick to that role - all it takes is a quick change of assigned abilities, gear and weapons, and your Tank can become a Healer. Of course, you actually have to have the gear and abilities to be to make the change - but, that's something you can work on. To start with, you will obviously be limited to just your initial choices, but the longer you play, the more options you will eventually be able to open up.

Combat in The Secret World feels fluid and responsive, if only for the inclusion of one seemingly simple feature - the fact that movement is always possible, even while attacking or casting a spell. No matter what you're doing, there is no reason to remain standing idle in a single location. Getting used to the idea of moving and attacking at the same time becomes increasingly important as you move through the game, too, as the creatures you will encounter seem to become increasingly relient on area effect attacks - just ask any player about their first encounter with the Ak'ab, and you should get a good idea of what I mean. This ease of movement makes combat feel a little more action-focused and exciting than some MMOs that I have had experience with. I'm not saying that this is the only MMORPG to make good use of movement in combat, of course (refer back to the beginning of this review), just that it definitely works to the games advantage here.

Another aspect of the combat which I quickly came to appreciate is the ability to track both an offensive and a defensive target separately. Any offensive spells will be directed toward your offensive target while beneficial abilities, such as healing, will be directly channeled toward your defensive target (which can, of course, also be your own character), without any need to awkwardly switch back and forth.

Much of the game is designed to be played solo - though, there is nothing stopping you from grouping up with other players, at any point. Most of the time, anyway. Many of the quests you will be required to take on throughout the game include areas designated as 'solo instances', which you will be required to do alone regardless of whether you may want or need the help of another player. Obviously, this will not bother the sort of player who prefers to tackle most of the games content solo, anyway - but, it is certainly worth keeping in mind. If, for example, you had been enjoying the experience of playing through with a friend, and had placed yourself in a supporting role, it would have to be frustrating to suddenly find yourself forced to fight through an area alone. But, that is also where the ability to easily switch roles comes in useful.

Group content early on will come in the form of special dungeon instances. Intended for groups of five players, these instances are clearly meant to offer a much experience of a much grander and more epic scale - and, they succeed quite admirably. The very first of these, Polaris, will see your group taking on a distinctly Cthulu-like monstrosity. Sure, it would probably count as a baby compared to the real thing, but it still easily dwarfs you - and, it's a good taste of what's to come. They are well worth the time it may occasionally take to put a team together.

Regarding PvP, though (and, keeping in mind what I said at the beginning of this review), I would have to say that this is another area where the game disappoints. The one thing which became painfully obvious to me during my brief (maybe too brief) first-hand experience with PvP in The Secret World is that there is very little sense of balance. Players seem to be lumped in together regardless of the level of their gear - and, while some of my performance can be put down to lack of experience with the game, seeing my DPS character with mid-level gear do tiny amounts of damage to an opponent while they were able to turn around and take a significant chunk of my health off with a single attack doesn't give me a lot of incentive to go back. If I had any advice to offer regarding PvP, it would probably be to treat it as something for the end-game (or, at least, be prepared to be a punching-bag)

In the end, though, those areas of the game which frustrate me are easily avoided - and, there is so much more that I genuinely enjoy. This is a game that I am definitely glad I started playing. There are single-player games that can't even manage the same level of genuine atmosphere that you will experience with The Secret World. And, with the current lack of a monthly subscription, there's no real reason why even a player who isn't a fan of MMORPGs couldn't have a look at it.

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