It was two years ago this week that I found myself standing in front of the Funcom booth at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, looking up at a big banner that read “The Secret World.” They also were promoting Age of Conan and other properties, but The Secret World was something new I hadn’t heard about, so that’s what I asked the lady working the table about. She leveled a blank stare at me and delivered, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I missed the point at first. “The banner,” I said, pointing upward. “What is that?” And she persisted, “I’m not sure what you mean.” That’s when the obfuscation and shadowy universe of The Secret World first grabbed me, and my interest only heightened as small details about the game began to surface. Now that The Secret World has launched, we can pull back the curtain on the most intriguing entry into the massively multiplayer RPG realm in a long, long time.
Reviewing an MMO always is a tricky proposition by the very nature of the genre. The game constantly is getting significant updates and tweaks to gameplay, missions, and every other aspect of the product, so a review written a couple of weeks after the game’s launch is very unlikely to apply to much of what the game will be a year or even a few months down the road. For that reason, this initial review intends to cover The Secret World at the time it launched in July 2012, and I’ll be updating with new coverage periodically as Funcom rolls out new content and changes. I will be the first to tell you that I’m not a MMO guy at heart, but The Secret World has hooked into enough of the geeky and dark principles that rule my favorite fandoms that I know I’ll be along for this ride for quite a while.
First and foremost, while The Secret World does resemble other MMOs in its interface and in some of its structural principles, it’s likely to be more attractive to traditional roleplaying gamers than to power gaming MMO enthusiasts. The strongest component of this game is its theme, which permeates every aspect from the setting to the music to the missions to even the character progression. In the universe of The Secret World, every urban legend and horrific myth you’ve ever heard is true. There is a Bogeyman, vampires do stalk the night, and wendigo indeed prowl the northeastern wilderness. The game is set in a modern day version of our world that exists at a crossroads of all weird folklore and fiction. If you drew a Venn diagram containing the works of Stephen King, David Lynch, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe, The Secret World would land smack in the middle of their intersection. The atmosphere is dark, the score is alternately moody and ominous, and the world is creepy and dangerous.
Lurking in the background of all the supernatural goings-on are three primary factions, and you’ll choose to become one of those three during your initial character creation process. The Illuminati are based in New York City, and they are the rock and roll puppeteers. They control the world from the shadows, influencing everything from pop culture to the world economy, and they have deep ritualistic roots spreading back through history. The Templars, located in London, are the modern incarnation of the ancient order of holy knights. They see the elimination of demons and evil as their duty in the world, and they wield massive and secret power from behind the cross. The Dragon are the third order, and they operate from Seoul. Their tenets are based around the observation and manipulation of chaos as a means for influencing the world at large. I opted for Illuminati for my primary character, so the bulk of my experience in the game comes from that viewpoint.
The character creation process is very straightforward. You will choose a faction, and then you get to customize your character’s appearance. As with most MMOs, your sex and facial features are purely aesthetic and have no influence on your skills or gameplay. The Secret World’s selection of facial customization is fairly limited at launch, but Funcom already has announced upcoming in-game features that will allow you to further customize your look beyond what the creator allows. Breaking with the common MMO tradition, your outfit also has no effect on your in-game skills. You can wear any clothes you want without having to worry about their stats or how they’ll affect your abilities. This costume independence is a refreshing break from tradition and reminds me of the way City of Heroes handles costume pieces separately from character statistics. You can start the game with a fairly basic, though decently customizable, outfit, and it’s easy to craft a very unique look after visiting some in-game clothing stores.
Once you’ve made your basic character, you’ll watch an introductory cutscene that ushers you into your chosen faction and then gives you a choice of starting abilities. Most of the abilities in The Secret World are weapon-based, and there are tons of ways to mix and match them to get the results you want. Rather than progression through traditional ability trees, you’ll have ability circles that broaden to offer you more advanced abilities as you complete the inner circles. Most abilities fall under the main headings of Melee, Ranged, and Magic, with some Miscellaneous skills thrown in between. There currently are 525 unique abilities in the game, and you can mix and match any of them to make your own unique character build. You can have seven active and seven passive abilities equipped at any time, and you can swap your abilities out whenever you want, making experimentation easy and fun. With no rigid class system and no artificially imposed level cap, you theoretically could create a master sword wielding, gunfighting, spell slinging martial arts champion.
There are so many different abilities that getting started could be a little daunting. Funcom has built in a “Deck” system to help you with some direction. Each faction has a set of unique decks that present particular archetypes, and each deck suggests a different combination of two weapons and fourteen abilities. The decks include such classics as ninjas, gunslingers, grifters, slayers, and bounty hunters. When you select a deck to build towards, the needed abilities will become highlighted in your ability circle interface. Once you finally accumulate all those abilities and equip the deck, you’ll be rewarded with a unique outfit that can be obtained only through deck completion. Unique outfits and clothing pieces also come to you through completing smaller sections of the ability wheel or through finishing major quest lines.
You earn experience points as you kill bad guys and finish missions, but the XP doesn’t level you up linearly as it does in most other MMOs. Rather, each time your XP reaches a particular milestone along the bottom of your screen, you will gain a combination of SP (skill points) and AP (ability points). Ability points are spent on the ability wheel mentioned above, and they’re used to unlock those 525 different abilities and the numerous faction decks. Skill points go into a different progression screen, where you can level up your capacity to use better equipment. These skills are divided by weapon and magic type, and there also is a section for upgrading your skill to use various types of talismans.
Talismans play the role of traditional armor in The Secret World. Your clothes don’t grant you any special abilities or perks, but talismans do. You can equip talismans on your head, neck, wrist, and various other places, and while they will show up in your character info menus they won’t appear visibly on your avatar. Talismans and weapons of various qualities can enhance your hit rating, attack power, evade skill, overall health, critical hit chance, and all the other usual RPG character stats. You can further build up your equipment’s usability through glyphs, collectable enhancements that socket into your weapons and talismans. As you kill monsters, you’ll frequently loot runes of different types from them. You can combine those runes to create the glyphs that buff your gear.
There’s a fairly robust crafting interface that you’ll use to build glyphs out of runes and then to slot them into your weapons and talismans. That same interface can be used to build weapons and talismans from scratch, as well as break down completed equipment into component pieces. There are varying levels of quality for the components, and those quality levels factor into the final effectiveness of the gear you create. The actual creation of new gear is both elegant and complex. If you want to create a new sword, you first need to have enough pieces of the appropriate kind of metal. Once that’s collected, you’ll lay the pieces out into the shape of a sword (three pieces laid vertically, with several other pieces laid horizontally to form a cross) to create a sword. Creating guns, hammers, necklaces, and belts, follows similar patterning.
Once you’re fully equipped and tricked out with some cool abilities, you’ll want to tackle the quests in The Secret World. Just as character progression is different here than in other similar games, so too is the way missions work. World of Warcraft players will be used to visiting a mission hub, talking to some NPC questgivers, and loading up twenty quests before heading into the wilderness to collect thirty crab claws. That’s not how it works here. In The Secret World, there are major storyline quests, main missions, investigation missions, dungeon missions, and side missions. You are limited to working on a maximum of six quests at a time, and you have a further limit of one main quest and three side quests at a time. Genre fans might balk at these low numbers, but when you see how these quests work it makes a lot of sense.
The Secret World presents missions that have a lot more depth than “go here and kill X of this, then collect Y of that.” True, you occasionally will have quests that force you to slay 10 zombies or to collect 5 mushrooms, but those parts always are components of bigger story quests. You’ll need to read the text or watch the opening cutscenes for your missions in order to get a proper context for what you’re doing. It’s rarely enough to know only where you need to go or what you need to kill. Context is extremely important, and much of the quest solving requires reasoning and puzzle solving that would be impossible if you just skipped straight to the slaying. There even are some quests that will require you to have knowledge or do research outside the game itself. The Secret World provides a convenient in-game web browser for all your Google-y needs.
Each of the quests is divided into tiers, each of which provides a separate part of a story to complete. As an example, you might pick up a quest that sends you to locate a supposedly haunted house. Once there, you might escalate to the next tier after you find the house infested with zombies. You’ll need to kill the zombies to clear out the first level of the house. Once they’re dead, you might find a relic in the house that hints at a cause for the infestation. The next tier would have you following up on that lead, and so forth. The missions can become complex, and each of them tends to encompass all the content a traditional RPG quest arc might hold. The detailed storytelling within the quests will encourage you to care about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, instead of seeing each quest as a way to powerlevel without context. AP and SP come to you quickly, so you’ll end up leveling your abilities and skills quickly just by playing through these stories.
As if the structure and perks didn’t already encourage you to embrace and revel in the universe of The Secret World, the overall theme is brilliant and really will speak to anyone who is a fan of weird fiction. This is the MMO for fans of Cthulhu mythos, The Shining, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks. There even are overt shout outs to the fictions that influenced this game, starting from your very first mission assignment. The first town you’ll go to investigate is Kingsmouth, a New England seaside burg that has become overrun with sea creatures and zombies. It feels like a mix of Stephen King’s Castle Rock and any of Lovecraft’s northeastern small towns. Character names are callbacks to similar fiction (Deputy Andy from Twin Peaks, Sheriff Bannerman from the Castle Rock books), and frequent world references provide plenty of fan service (Jack & Wendy’s Bed & Breakfast, in reference to characters from The Shining). Even specific missions take their cues from the stories that influenced the game world. There’s a set of quests surrounding a group of young monster hunters that is very reminiscent of both IT’s Losers gang and the 1987 film The Monster Squad.
Combat also is a pretty unique affair. Your seven active abilities appear in a hotbar on your screen during the fight, and you’ll trigger the abilities by clicking on their icons or hitting number keys like in other MMOs. What sets this combat apart is that it’s a much more kinetic and actiony experience than you might have experienced in the past. You can move as you fight, so there’s no need to stand in one place while you channel abilities or spells. Moving actually is essential, because you’ll want to roll and dodge out of the way of incoming attacks whenever possible. Some baddies even telegraph that they’re about to do an area of effect attack on you by outlining the effected area in white while they build up the attack. That gives you a brief window for getting out of the way before you’re hurt. You also get a lot of flexibility by having multiple weapons at your disposal. You can switch between two equipped weapons on the fly to get the best of both their attack types. I’m building toward the Slayer deck, so I’ve been making good use of swords and assault rifles.
The Secret World currently operates on a $14.99 per month subscription model, with price breaks for buying more months at a time. With the current popularity of free to play games and the trajectory of most MMOs (including some of Funcom’s earlier games) headed in that direction, it’s reasonable to expect that this game eventually will adopt some sort of “freemium” model. It’s hard to say exactly when that might happen, but the microtransaction infrastructure already is built into the game for that possible transition. There’s an in-game store that allows you to buy things like additional unique outfit pieces, cosmetic pets, and character titles for real-world money. It’s not an obtrusive thing, and you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything essential if you opt not to buy from the real-money store, but it’s an option for folks who want to go the extra mile with their characters. It’s easy to imagine a time in the future when the monthly subscription is dropped and the microtransactions become the game’s primary source of income. That could be a long way off, though, so don’t plan to wait around for that transition. The Secret World is an awesome game and absolutely is worth the current monthly fee.
Most of the game is a PVE experience, but there are opportunities for PVP play that will progress your character’s abilities. As a primarily PVE player, I have yet to explore the PVP options. Funcom has announced that updates will be coming to The Secret World in the form of “issues” released comic book-style every month. The first one is due to arrive at the end of July and promises a bunch of additional quest content, as well as numerous new features in what looks to be an ever expanding and growing alternate version of our real and modern world. As I said at the top of this review, I am not traditionally a fan of MMOs. The Secret World really grabbed me with its effective delivery of all the sorts of dark and twisted fiction I love, and it has hopelessly addicted me to its outstanding character progression and content models. It is the freshest entry into the MMO game in a very long time, and it climbs above the competition by breaking away from the pack in tone, setting, visuals, and, most essentially, gameplay. The Secret World is available online and in stores now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.