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Jan 1, 2013

The Secret World Review

Players of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games are used to a certain amount of consistency. There are core components to MMOs that span most titles, and The Secret World tries to retain the most important of those things. In every other area however, the makers of The Secret World aren't afraid to try to innovate and bring something new.

The World
The idea behind The Secret World is simple: our modern-day world has a shadow world behind it where the paranormal and the supernatural exist. Three organizations vie for dominance in this behind-the-scenes reality: The Dragon, the Illuminati, and the Templar. Players can choose which faction to support, but it does not substantially change the gameplay overall so much as it changes the flow of individual missions and storylines.

As you create your character, you are introduced to the world through a series of cutscenes, each of which features your character in them. Your character never speaks, others simply talk to you as if you are there to listen. The game is cutscene-heavy in the beginning to try to get you into the story clearly. A few core events have to take place for you before you're let loose in the world and once you clear these hurdles, you're free to wander. Because there are a lot of places to travel to (more open up as you grow your skills, and as Funcom adds new content), you are introduced to a supernatural travel hub that will allow you to hop from one part of the world to another. This seemingly simple feature is actually the jumping-off point that gives the creators of The Secret World the freedom to create any possible kind of place they can imagine.

Character Creation
The Secret World is a place where anything is possible, so character creation is also fairly open to your imagination too. You can be a master of martial arts, good with guns, or supernaturally adept at spells. Each category breaks down a bit more: for example, "Guns" can mean "Assault Rifles", "Pistols", "Sniping", etc. From there you can tweak it a bit further--for instance, my character uses Elemental magic and over time the skills shifted from just Fire and Electricity to more and different versions, plus an Air-based technique or two.

When it comes to looks, you don't start off with a wide variety of faces, hair, or clothes. The plus is that more clothes can be bought and you can always change your costume any time you like, but the downside is that the smaller selection of bodies and faces means you may regularly see other players who look a lot like you. Just the same, I have seen some really creative characters wandering around, and I suspect many have an interesting story to tell.

Bye Bye Levels - Hello Skills and Actions
As your character grows, you won't see the typical system of "leveling". Instead, you earn Action Points (AP) and Skill Points (SP). Skill Points are spent to enhance particular sets of skills, such as "Assault Rifles", "Elemental Magic", etc. You choose specific sub-sets, such as "Assault Rifles-->Damage" and plug points into those categories to make the skill better. The downside is that some of your Skill Points need to be spent on equipment--being able to equip talismans that boost your skills or stats may require you to have your Talisman Skill at the right level. The upside is that as your skills grow, they grow in a direction that you control.

Action Points are then used to buy specific things you can do within a skill set (e.g., "Fireball", "Inferno", etc.). They climb a skill tree that branches off as it grows into separate tiers. In other words, after you get all of the skills in the bottom tier, you can now choose one of three tiers above it and travel up that tier's skill ladder. This allows for a lot more creativity in your skill picking, and while Action Points are represented as a wheel-like interface, the way it works reminds me more of the skill trees in The Matrix Online.

Things you buy with Action Points are split into Active, such as "you have to press a key to throw a fireball," and Passive, such as "you take less damage from melee attacks" or "fire-based attacks do an additional 15 points of damage per second for 10 seconds". While this micromanagement of your skills may sound complicated it's all fairly well organized: Action Points are laid out in a wheel and Skill Points are a left-to-right chart of your progress.

If it's still too complicated, they've made things even easier for you by letting you select from 'decks' of skills: pre-arranged basic sets of skills common to a particular character type that will pre-load your character's configuration for you.

Gameplay
As you move through the world, you will find that actions run on the same kinds of turn-based and timer-led operations that any other MMO does: one action might take you 4 seconds to do, another takes only 2, and your opponent is doing their thing at the same time. Where it gets different is a more action-oriented approach to the world: if you stand still, a monster can run right up to you and hit you. If you keep dodging out of their way, they won't be able to hit you without a ranged attack of some sort. Special attacks the enemies aim at you might take a few seconds to achieve. Their target path (or radius) will light up the area around you highlighting where the incoming attack is going to land. An inner circle starts to grow to the outer edge of the radius--it represents the time it's taking for the bad guy to wind up the attack. If you can get outside of the area of effect before the inner circle fills, you've just dodged the attack. All your actions are in a hotbar at the bottom of the screen and can be launched at the tap of a key. When you defeat an enemy, they may drop loot that you can collect.

Probably the biggest way The Secret World departs from the norm is that it really does try to be story-driven. A lot of MMOs offer quests that are so generic that most people don't even read the dialogue: they click through the instructions, sprint off to do the job, then run back to the contact to collect their reward--rinse & repeat. The Secret World makes its quests more unique: each really does benefit from you reading the instructions or watching the cutscenes. If you have to pick up a map and give it to somebody, you'll see the map pop up on your screen, a piece of artwork rendered as if you were holding the real thing in your hands. Your missions have icons on the right side of the screen that not only let you quickly flip from one mission to another (some can be 'paused', others will be discarded and replaced with the mission you chose), each icon lets you go back to the steps of the mission and look them over again, even popping that map back up on the screen for another look.

The storytelling branches out a bit further: there are 'lore items' everywhere that you can retrieve, and as you pick them up they fill in details of backstory. Collect them all and you have a nice little bit of reading you can do to add depth to the story. The game has an integrated browser not because it's too hard to play without looking up a cheat, but because if you get stuck, you might need a quick look at the details to see where you took a mis-step. The browser is also there for deliberate real-world interaction. For example, I found an ID card on a body. A nearby laptop had their user plugged into a command-line-based OS, but in order to login I needed to figure out their password. Their password hint told me the password was their wife's name. Taking another look at the ID card, I noticed a company website address. I opened the ingame browser, went to the company website, and with a bit of digging I came up with the wife's name and voila, I was in. Some of the quests are impossible without following clues out into the real world, where The Secret World have set up websites, YouTube channels, and other artifacts to broaden the gameplay. Don't be shy about using the in-game browser.

This is where The Secret World demands a lot of the MMO player: you have to cool down the urge to level-grind to the top. You need to be willing to slow the pace and enjoy the story. Reading and paying attention rewards you. The blessing is that there is rich solid writing behind your adventures. The curse is that at times the cutscenes are just plain bad. The worst example: a Texas-style cowboy, camping out in a forest filled with zombies...outside of a New England town. This fish-out-of-water feels the need to throw in a line about how he's cooked up some baked beans on the fire, just in case the corny accent wasn't enough to make you roll your eyes. But for every baked-bean-bad cutscene, or halting-dialogue boring one, there are some interesting ones, too: who are these two strangers you're spying on? They appear to have a dangerously dysfunctional relationship. What is going through this guy's mind, as he tells you what it's like to feel his body overrun by Lovecraftian deep-sea horrors, knowing that when he dies he'll be reanimated into a shuffling, gurgling monstrosity?

Playing missions with friends is easy: no matter what server your friends exist on, you can play together wherever you like with a simple "/meetup" command. Some servers are pre-flagged as being Roleplaying servers so people who prefer to talk in character can be in a world that's more like what they're looking for, while non-Roleplayer folk can get together without having to interact with the RPers. The only awkward part about missioning with groups is that some missions have instanced sections that mean each player completes that section individually, then everyone gets back together after the instanced part (many MMOs do this).

Can it Survive?
In a time when every MMO except World of Warcraft seems to be closing its doors or converting to a free-to-play scheme, The Secret World still insists on having a paid subscription model. The promise is that Funcom will earn your money: they intend to release new content every month and always keep adding to the game. How long they can sustain that remains to be seen, because right now you are also going to have to forgive bugged missions and the occasional large patch. However, the graphics and sound quality are excellent, and if Funcom can fix the bugs as they grow the world, there are those who will find The Secret World to be worth the price. I've uploaded a couple of screenshots here so you can see graphics quality straight off a player's machine.

If you like MMOs and are looking for something new, I highly recommend giving The Secret World a try. You may find just the right balance of the familiar and the new. If you're new to MMOs, this might be more accessible to you because Funcom really do try to make the environment easier to understand and to navigate. Just be patient with your progression and enjoy the storylines underneath.
Verdict: 75/100

Details:
Genre Role-Playing
Style Persistent World Online RPG
Themes Demons Conspiracy
Release Date July 3, 2012
Developer Funcom
Publisher Funcom Electronic Arts
Controls Keyboard, Mouse

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