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The Secret World (Review)

Posted on July 11, 2012 AT 07:18pm

Funcom delivers a gritty, mature MMO set in the modern world, full of atmosphere, excellent writing, and a versatile skill based progression that forgoes the standard class and leveling systems. Despite all its innovative features, you can’t help but hold it up to other games in the genre. In some cases, it surpasses its peers merely for being so different. In other ways, it stumbles…but the potential is there and it’s pretty great.[pullquote_left]In some cases, it surpasses its peers merely for being so different. In other ways, it stumbles…but the potential is there and it’s pretty great.[/pullquote_left]

While most other MMO’s take place in either a fantasy or science fiction world (with the odd superhero exception), The Secret World is set in the modern world. When you create your character you choose one of three secret societies. The London based Templars are honor bound crusaders against evil. The Illuminati are shadowy corporate puppet masters based in New York. And the Dragon are “chaos theorists” looking for order out of chaos… by introducing their own random elements. The secret society you choose determines who you report to, complete with an unique opening cinematic and faction missions. It also gives you access to a faction specific uniform later on and determines the “decks” that are available to you. “Decks” are character templates that bring together a particular combination of abilities to serve different play styles.

This brings us to one the Secret World’s more unique features. Rather than adopting the standard level based class system of other games, The Secret World instead uses a skill/ability based system. As you gain experience you will earn both Ability Points (AP) and Skill Points (SP). AP can be spent to buy new passive or active abilities in one of nine different weapon categories which include everything from different firearms to different types of magic. Although you can follow the “deck” templates (and get a neat outfit for completing said “deck”), you can also choose any combination of weapons to fit  your particular play style. SP is spent on leveling up your overall skill level with both your chosen weapon and the available gear categories. Higher skill levels mean you can equip better weapons and gear. Because there is a lot of synergy between different types of weapons, the system is almost overwhelmingly versatile. There are no “respecs”, but nearly all the missions in the game can be repeated to collect more points in case you want to switch gears and try different weapons and skills.

A look at the “Ability Wheel”

[pullquote_right]This is not a family game, the world is pretty edgy and dark[/pullquote_right]You can equip seven active and seven passive abilities at once, however. So choosing the best combination of abilities from the ones you’ve unlocked involves a bit of pre-planning and experimentation. You’ll be facing all manner of beasts in the dark, horror themed world Funcom has crafted, from zombies to vampires and nearly every ability can be cast while moving. Add in the fact that you can also actively dodge some bigger enemy attacks and you end up with a pretty fun and engaging combat system. The heart of all this is of course the missions you take from the various NPC’s throughout the world. Pretty much every character you run into has a cinematic and some wonderfully written (and acted) dialogue introducing a different story behind every task. This is not a family game, the world is pretty edgy and dark, so expect the quests and the dialogue you get from the missions to be more mature than that other MMO that just released not too long ago that boasts story based and fully voiced quests. In all honesty I found the story aspects of this game a lot more engaging than The Old Republic. The overarching story about the ominous fog enveloping New England really drew me in with its various twists and charismatic villain.

Of all the available mission types you’ll take (which include your standard combat missions as well as some stealth based stuff), the most unique and rewarding are the Investigation missions. Investigation missions involve following a trail of clues and solving a mystery. In most cases you’ll have to actually consult the internet using an in-game web browser to decipher the significance of many of the seemingly disparate clues you’ll pick up. You could of course just look for spoilers online instead of doing things the “old fashioned way,” but then you’d simply be missing the point. These are the only missions in the game that cannot be repeated and unfortunately they are not as abundant as other mission types. More of these are said to be planned for inclusion in the game soon.

One of the bosses in the “Hell Raised” dungeon.

While most of the missions can be done solo (missions can be shared and objectives can be completed by multiple players), the bulk of group content comes in two major flavors: PvP and Dungeons. Currently there are three different PvP destinations to queue for, with more promised sometime in the future. El Dorado and Stonehenge are team based matches with set objectives that have a winning team declared once all objectives are completed. Fusang Projects (my personal favorite), however is a persistent warzone. Several facilities around the map as well as respawn spots (called Anima Wells) can be captured by members of one of the three factions. Each faction gets a faction wide buff (that includes everyone in the game even if they are not playing any PvP) depending on how many of these objectives their faction is holding. And because it’s persistent, that means the battle is always going on and you can drop in and out at any time. While both El Dorado and Stonehenge cap their team sizes between five and ten players per faction, Fusang Projects allows a very large number of players to participate resulting in some truly epic battles. It does get a little repetitive after a while and really it’s an easy way to grab some extra experience points between missions, but I still find myself constantly going back in whenever I can.

There are five dungeons in the game ranging in three different difficulty settings for groups of five players. As with the quests, each is supported by a story based quest and like other MMO’s, the best gear can be obtained from these instances which include a trip to the depths of Hell, investigating a wrecked ship and even a trip back in time. Elite and Nightmare difficulties yield even better rewards for more skilled players. More dungeons and even raids are planned to be included later down the line.

Need more options…

[pullquote_left]But, as of right now, there is no “end game”. How important that is to you versus what TSW offers in terms of setting and story will really determine whether you continue to enjoy this game.[/pullquote_left]For all its atmosphere, excellent writing and acting and innovative skill system, The Secret World is not quite perfect. Being an MMO it is, by its very nature, a work in progress. That being said, I do have some concerns about certain aspects of the game “as is” that may or may not get resolved in the future. For one, character creation is pretty limited. Although you have a lot of choices for hairstyles, faces, and facial features, it’s not as much as you would expect and not much of what’s here looks all that good. In contrast to the graphical beauty of the world, filled with moody lighting, intricate details, and ominous atmosphere, the character models are pretty lacking. There are no height and weight sliders so everyone is all the same in that respect. And maybe it was just me, but the female characters looked taller and even more substantial next to the males who generally looked shorter and scrawnier. The animations are also not up to par with the fidelity of other aspects of the game, especially during combat. Although I’ve read that it’s going to be fixed soon, the chat system lacks a lot of customization options, in particular the ability to color code different chat channels. It all runs together with the only option being to create a bunch of different tabs… which I personally find cumbersome and counter-intuitive. There’s also the very palpable fear of… ‘ok, now what?’ You can keep doing missions, run through all the areas of TSW and keep collecting points and create different builds with different weapons. But, as of right now, there is no “end game”. How important that is to you versus what TSW offers in terms of setting and story will really determine whether you continue to enjoy this game. MMO’s are made to be played virtually forever. If that light at the end of the never-ending tunnel is not an appealing one to you, then eventually you will move on, sooner or later. I’ve already had some friends who were initially charmed by TSW’s trappings move on after that “ok, now what?” question didn’t come with a clear enough answer.

Still, there are in fact a lot of things (according to the official site) that are being planned. You can already get a good range of clothing in game to customize the look of your character, including many that are rewarded for different achievements. In addition to that, by the end of August a barber shop featuring hairstyles not seen in character creation and a “plastic surgeon” for changing your character’s physical features is going to be added. The aforementioned raid is in the works, as are new missions, two new adventure zones and seasonal events. Like I said earlier, MMO’s are all a work in progress. As the game stands right now it’s an interesting and often refreshing change from the standard. If you’re used to that “standard” MMO formula you might be turned away, even if the game hooks you with its unique setting and engaging story. It’s going to be interesting to see how it evolves. If its content and customization makes some significant strides we might have a definitive alternative out there for all those players who’ve had their fill of orcs, elves and spaceships. Only time will tell and for now, I’m personally enjoying my time in this Secret World.

Original review

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