REVIEW: The Secret World [PC]

The Secret World is the latest MMORPG from Funcom, the Norwegian company best known in the MMO genre for 2008’s Age of Conan and 2001’s Anarchy Online.

With both floundering at launch due to technical issues and an unfinished feel, The Secret World was expected to learn from the mistakes and launch strongly.

Unfortunately the one lesson Funcom has learned is to include an item shop from the start, rather than trying to incorporate one post-release as was the approach with Age of Conan. Otherwise The Secret World has a lot of great ideas and innovations buried beneath a plethora of bugs, puzzling design and an overall poor level of polish.

During the first preview weekend I wrote about the very interesting and original skill system in The Secret World. Nothing has changed in the interim. You still invest in some active abilities and passive boosts, loosely related to the two weapons you have equipped or the sort of magic you want to wield. Buy some pistol skills with your accumulated Anima Points and get some fancy pistol shooting abilities. Invest in some Elemental Magic to throw more or fancier fireballs. You can mix and match these to your heart’s content, even in combinations that don’t make any kind of sense.

This level of freedom is one of the big strengths of the game, since it’s quite likely that no two characters will have the same set of skills, other than deliberate selection via a template. While there will still be ideal combinations, the freedom to tweak things to suit your own preferences is great.

What lets the skill system down is the focus on building up a “resource” and then expending it with a special attack during combat. This, for most character builds, necessitates at least two of your seven available skills be set aside. And then combat is often firing off one or two of your other selected skills alongside spamming your resource building/spending abilities.

And you’re going to do that over and over and over.

That’s true of a lot of MMOs, of course, but when the skill system is designed to be so open to exploration it’s disappointing when it ultimately boils down to the same repetitive combat, encounter after encounter.

[img_big]center,6437,2012-05-14/nyc_8.jpg,The Secret World[/img_big]

Quests! It wouldn’t be an MMORPG without them and The Secret World has plenty. There are the standard “Kill 10 zombies” snoozefests common to every RPG but there’s also some very complex puzzle solving, note taking, web searching and brain hurting quests.

One of the big draws of The Secret World is the idea of it being set in the real world, but behind the curtain of the mundane lives of the average citizen. The London everyone knows exists, but lurking behind police blockades and highly secured buildings is the world of magic and monsters. Your character has a smart phone and your chosen secret society will use it to contact you when necessary. There’s cars and guns and fishing trawlers and comic book stores and the internet. And Funcom draws inspiration from it all to make the questing much more engaging than most anything else out there, MMO or otherwise.

Kingsmouth Police Station, the first outpost you reach past the starting areas of the game, is fortified with walls made of burning cars, hurricane fencing and partially propped up by dumpsters. Go inside the station and talk to the sheriff, who’s trying to hold the survivors together until help arrives and she’ll ask if you could brave the streets in town to scrounge up supplies.

In most other games you’d then wander off into town and either follow a map marker or even just kill random monsters to find enough shiny objects. In The Secret World, you check the phonebook for stores that would have what you need (tinned goods, ammunition, medical supplies) and take note of their addresses. Peruse the town map and find the right streets and their location relative to the police station and head out to collect what you need.

Other quests see you hacking laptops with clues scrounged from the environment and the built-in web browser, tracking down monsters via blood trails and even having to decode a message in morse code! (Or maybe downloading an app for your real world phone that will decode morse for you…)

But even in the quests there are instances where the game clearly needs refinement. One early mission involves tracking down the pages from a medical report and, rather than having you seek out where they might be (a doctor’s office? the hospital?) you’re just given some waypoints on the map. Go to each one, find the clickable piece of paper to collect, take them all back and read a patient’s confidential medical records for… no apparent reason. It adds a little to your understanding of what has happened to the town but it is a classic example of really lazy quest design in amongst some absolute gems. Baffling.

[img_big]center,6437,2012-05-14/kingsmouth_1.jpg,The Secret World[/img_big]

Crafting? It… exists. You can use a crafting kit to put together your own weapons and equipment and health kits and what have you. They’ve tried to make this an interesting system, where you need to lay your ingredients out on a grid to specify what you want to create. But they’ve done it with no apparent notion of what makes crafting an interesting endeavour.

You see, there’s a specific pattern for creating an assault rifle. You take your raw ingredients and lay them out on the grid to make a pattern that looks like an assault rifle, insert a weapon crafting toolkit in the toolkit slot and hit assemble.

How is this different to the way crafting works in most MMOs? Well, you have to split your stack of raw ingredients and arrange them on the grid. Because… that’s fun, right? Splitting stacks is what every crafter looks forward to the most, isn’t it?

There isn’t any reason for Funcom to have done it this way, other than to provide a false sense of depth. You can’t add an extra piece of material to the rifle pattern to alter it in any way, you won’t discover a layout that produces a better result. This could all have been done with a menu of craftable items, with the player selecting the stack of ingredients to use and the toolkit to assemble it with, maybe including some optional resources to make a Sword with +1 fire damage. Instead they went with a needlessly fiddly implementation people will tire of within a week.

Player versus player, via the three secret societies, is another missed opportunity. The persistent battleground is already deserted and vastly inferior to the upcoming Guild Wars 2‘s three-way persistent battlefields system. There are a number of respawn points scattered around the map that can be captured by a society, along with facilities that grant a faction wide buff while controlled. While it’s not the worst system ever devised, it’s just nothing particularly special.

And when the zone is populated by just five players, four of them Templar, during the launch window? It’s doubtful it will take off as a popular destination.

Populations in the non-persistent warzones are equally poor, causing matches to start only on rare occasions. This could be fixed by simply combining all the servers into one pool for PvP, rather than splitting the playerbase by home servers. Whether this is feasible or can be achieved before people abandon PvP entirely…

Graphically, the game includes some really nice bells and whistles. Terrain has tesselation available, which makes the ground look bumpier (which is nice?). Spell effects are flashy, without obscuring the action too much. Enemies range from regular human-sized zombies to hulking monstrosities to creepy wendigos crawling along the forest floor. Water ripples as you walk through it and there’s even a day/night cycle to admire. Often suddenly, as the world switches from eerie twilight to morning sun in the blink of an eye.

Other graphical glitches abound. The always popular invisible characters rear their heads (if only you could see their faces!) and shadows occasionally wig out when shifting between lightsources. Anything given too much attention in terms of texture quality is probably important at some point, much like the cartoons of old would telegraph scene elements about to be animated with a different colour to their surrounds. Blandness abounds in many unimportant areas.

When first logging into the game you’re given the chance to connect your Facebook account. If, like me, you regularly forget passwords you don’t use a lot, you might need to click the “Forgot Password” link. Doing so crashed the game at launch.

[img_big]center,6437,2011-07-08/the_secret_world_2.jpg,The Secret World[/img_big]

That sums up a lot of the problems with The Secret World. Funcom just hasn’t spent the time it should have on making sure the quality is where it should be for a new release MMO.

It might sound from all this that I don’t like the game and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that’s not the case. There’s really nothing else out there right now that’s trying something this different. It’s just a matter of what the game could be, and the reality falling so far short.

Development doesn’t stop on an MMO once it’s launched and while The Secret World‘s launch state is typical of Funcom, their long-term support is exceptional. Anarchy Online is soon to celebrate its 11th birthday, putting it among the longest running titles in the genre.

There are better MMOs out there but this is one of the few trying something really different. If you’re already having fun somewhere else, there’s little to recommend making the swap. But if you’ve grown weary of World of Warcraft and all the slightly-different but kinda-the-same clones, The Secret World is worth checking out.

Just be aware it’s a work in progress. And keep Google handy to cheat at the puzzles.

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