Let’s face it, MMOs are a huge thing right now. Big name franchises are all rushing to take the plunge into massively multiplayer territory. So how do you stand out from the pack? It turns out it involves killing a few sacred cows. And some vampires.
The Secret World is seemingly unafraid of taking (most of) these risks. It’s got a dark modern day setting, no levels, and no classes. It’s a refreshing take on the MMO genre, but feels hampered by a few remaining genre-specific hangers-on, but we’ll get to those later.
Let’s start with the game’s positives. First of, we have the game’s atmosphere and story. This is, undeniably, where The Secret World shines. Funcom has managed to create a world that seemlessly intertwines with our own. You’ll hear references to Silent Hill and DnD, just like you would when talking to your friends. Mission briefings will contain your secret society’s twist on actual historical events, and in some missions you’ll even find some of the evidence. This is very much “our” world, just full of demons and Hellspawn.
On the subject of baddies, the game’s monster design is stunning. From doll-carrying scarecrows to fleshy abominations, The Secret World is full of creatures you’ve likely not seen anywhere else, at least not in a fashion so grotesque. Some of the monsters are genuinely unsettling, which is definitely a positive, considering a large portion of the content draws heavy influence from various forms of horror media. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want to see an Ender Thing when you close your eyes at night.
Another stand out feature is the game’s investigation quests. These differ greatly from your normal MMO “kill ten rats” type quests, by actually requiring you to think. For example, during one such mission, you’re accessing the laptop of a deceased employee of a company called the Orochi Group. Of course, you need his password to access any sensitive files, but the only thing you’re given is the hint that the password is the name of the employee’s wife. So, search the guy’s corpse, he’s got to have something on him, right? Sure enough there’s an employee badge in his pockets with the company’s website. Accessing the website reveals there’s an employee database, so you search the dead NPC’s name, and viola, everything you needed to know about him, including the identity of his spouse.
It’s these sort of quests that make The Secret World feel different from the current crop of MMOs. They’re almost a reward in their own right, as when you figure it out you get that “damn I’m good” feeling, but when you have to use Google, you feel like a fraud even turning the quest in. They’re executed brilliantly, and work wonders at blurring the line between the game’s universe at ours.
Of course, what’s a world without characters? Everyone you meet in The Secret World has something going on in their own hellish little corner of the world, and it’s your job to help them out. Luckily, just about everyone’s got an interesting tale to tell. From the bitter tycoon with daddy issues, to the unambiguously gay archaeology duo, you’re going to want to learn what you can about these people before you move on. One small thing that bugged me a bit, however, is that everyone spoke extremely eloquently. I realize putting “I was so scared I shit myself” into your script isn’t fun, but when you’re talking to an uneducated dockworker who may or may not be the product of incest, it can be a bit jarring to have him speak like your college English professor. A minor gripe, but I digress.
Speaking of jarring, the “leveling” system can be a source of confusion. While I do respect the design decision, it’s fairly hard to gauge where you are in relation to your current quests. and it gets fairly easy to lose track of which enemies you’ll stomp on, and which ones will tear you to shreds. Finally, since there’s no way to easily tell a player’s progression, you’re going to be judged by your gear, which means your viability, will, at least partially, depend wholly on luck. This makes grinding dungeons a viable tactic, and well, let’s just say you better really like dungeons.
So what’s with the foreshadowing in the paragraph above this one? Well, dungeons (and their heroic versions) are really your only source of PvE progression for the time being. The game doesn’t currently have any raid dungeons, and the first one isn’t due until the end of August. Frankly, this is a huge misstep. One of the big reasons people fled from games like SWTOR so quickly is because they reached max level and became bored. Five man dungeons can only hold people for so long. They need big endgame goals to work towards in order to keep subscribing. However, The Secret World has something for a different sort of player.
You seem the current plan for the game is to release new content every month in the form of free “issues.” For example, the July issue contained the auction house system, and some new quests spread across the three zones. With this, Funcom is essentially catering to people whose favorite parts of MMOs are the journeys. People like me. They’re essentially giving players a reason to subscribe, by playing out the story month after month, like a comic book. It’s a risky maneuver, as the MMO market is filled with min/maxing, super competitive e-sport players, but you’ve got to give them points for creativity. Hell, the same could be said about almost all facets of the game.
Finally, we come to the game’s combat, and honestly, I’m not sure what to think of it. It’s an interesting mixture of targeted combat, and real time actions. You need to dodge to stay out of harm’s way, and you can move around while performing any of your actions. So of course this leads to boss strategies that are very different than, say WoW. It also allows the developers to make the fights a bit busier, as they don’t have to worry about moving dropping your effectiveness. This is very much a positive, as your encounters with the world’s larger beasts feel that much more compelling and action-packed. However, when you’re venturing out on your own the combat, pulling one mob at a time, you’ll likely find yourself going back into turret mode, spamming attacks until whatever you’re attacking falls over. It’s an odd dichotomy, and, in my opinion, the result is a wash.
So, to put it simply, The Secret World stands on its own two legs creatively, choosing not to lift ideas from its competitors, and taking a few risks in the process. It’s still got a few gaps in the content, but those will be filled out month after month. Even as it stands, it’s not an experience that should be missed by fans of the genre.