Despite a huge niche interest, The Secret World is still flying somewhat under the radar. With a demographic of MMO gamers desperately clamoring for something new and unique, it’s a crime that this beautiful and creative project is still relatively unknown to many; The Secret World is about as far away from World of Warcraft as a legitimate MMO could be, without breaking the most important foundations of what makes a good, satisfying MMO.

Developed by Funcom, creators of Age of Canon and Anarchy Online, The Secret World aims to blend MMO gameplay with a science fiction themed alternate reality game.

Ridin’ Seoulo

Meet Jerry Bernstein: accountant, uncle to three, elementalist extraordinaire in underground Dragon clan. 

Playing as the Seoul-based Dragon, who enjoy non-partisan autonomy between the other clans, I became a pawn in a huge, faceless plan to orchestrate chaos in the world, although the lengthy albeit beautifully rendered cut-scenes insisted time and again that ‘chaos’ in the sense of the Dragon clan was more about control and calculation. Causal-determinism.

I was met at the door of my apartment by a ghostly Korean, lips sewn together, dressed in robes. He zapped my head with his finger, and before I knew it I was in Seoul. Dumped into this alien and eerily modern world, I ran around trying to get to grips with the movement mechanics and figure out where to go. Having not had a chance to fiddle with my graphics settings, I turned on Dx11 and tessellation. TSW features the same extensive graphics options and UI as Age of Conan, although it runs much better.

I ran around Seoul for a good half an hour, soaking in the incredible detail – and man is there detail. Every corner of the richly textured town was meticulously detailed from head to toe, with shops and houses and family cars sprawled about the place. I have to admit the town didn’t feel like a real town so much as a masterfully rendered replica. Because it didn’t feel real, I didn’t explore every nook and cranny… which is a problem with the game in general I’ll talk more about later.

Heading into what looked like the HQ of the Dragon clan, a non-pretentious hotel complex, I was met with a very Matrixian gentlemen who proceeded to explain the nature of causality, and how the Dragon meddle in the affairs of everyone on the planet. He withheld on exactly for whom I… we, worked, which is a running theme for the enigmatic Dragon.

Lead up to a private room, I met a beautiful Korean woman who proceeded to explain exactly what my job was – stating that we work for the Dragon without thinking, we do it because it is our duty. Then this happened:

I guess I took the [puts glasses on] blue pill – oh yeahhhhh!

Let the games begin

Suddenly, I’m on the Tokyo underground – but it isn’t me, it’s someone else. I’m inside the body of a woman working with some members of the other clans, cleaning out monsters. An English guy who seemed like a character out of Buffy or Angel really set the tone for what was to come: a mash up of folk lore, myth and legend – all set in a wonderfully rendered modern world, completely out of the norm.

These cut-scenes are quite lengthy, well written and very polished. They utilize the visuals of the game perfectly, and shadows are particularly beautiful to look at as they render around the smooth models and tessellated flat surfaces.

Running through the Tokyo underground, I was introduced to combat. At this stage I was handed only a shotgun although you can pick your “class” (there aren’t actually any classes) later on in the game, after the prologue. This segment was awesome and really set the tone of the game – chaos in a modern world. I had suspected a problem with a classic lock-on and hot-key combat system with modern weapons, but it was relatively unfounded. The guns work much like casting spells.

The shotgun wasn’t great to use though if I’m honest, although I can see the tactical
advantage. It didn’t feel very meaty and the spread was far too wide, but I was having too much fun blowing up monsters to really care at this point. I was for all intents and purposes thrown in head first.

At the end of the prologue I was presented with the first hint that The Secret World was going to be an decidedly surreal experience, as I stood on the edge of the platform, the universe spinning around me to my left. I was sucked it, I’ll admit that much. But this was only the prologue, how did the questing hold up?

An awesome ending to an awesome prologue

Skills? Here – have them all

There aren’t any set classes in The Secret World, although I’m skeptical as to whether it will stay that way once the community gets number crunching, and this is one of the problems I had with the game. Although I instinctively knew I could do whatever I wanted, I was sure that if I made some unpopular choices in my build, I would pay for them later. Because Funcom want to veer away from this set-in-stone attitude, they don’t offer any assistance when picking your class, skills or attributes, so it was a little overwhelming. I can’t say for sure, but I was (and still am) concerned that the first dungeon I went into, I’d be met with criticisms over the choices I made early on. I can’t say if that’s a legitimate complaint or not, but what I know from games like Rift who promise fully customisable talent trees, is that they don’t stay that way, once the community gets their hands on them.

All of the natural things we know about classes and skill systems has been replaced with the skill wheel a beautifully rendered albeit hugely perplexing chart from which you can pick over 500 abilities. The theory goes, you have the whole arsenal of skills at your disposable, so it’s up to you to mix and match and find a bunch that work for you. It sounds a lot like talent trees, and I suppose it is, but imagine a talent tree wherein you’ve every talent for every class at your disposal. Balancing nightmare, but Funcom have tackled it.

I picked elemental magic as my main attack, and thus abilities that either expedited cast times or increased crit chances. I guess I’m old school. You’ve the choice of different firearms, specializing in pistols, assault rifles, shotguns etc respectively – all with their own abilities. There’s even fist weapons, swords, and even a damned hammer! You can also pick from an array of casting classes.

The skill wheel doesn’t make things easier. You can’t come from any MMO and expect to know it instinctively. It isn’t derivative in the slightest, and Funcom have really taken us back to square one in some ways. This isn’t a bad thing, though, it offers much more depth and incredible theory-crafting experiences, able to mix and match the oddest and most bizarre set of skills and abilities that, perhaps, no other player will have.

You of course unlock skills and abilities periodically, and spend AP on improving them at milestone moments – although there’s no strict XP based leveling system, as we know it.

What does the unique skill system do for combat? Well, nothing, really. The Secret World hasn’t deviated from the lock-on hot-key based combat we see from the likes of WoW or Rift, but it’s entirely up to you whether or not this is a bad thing. With so much going on in the game, and such beauty, it’s hard to grow tired of the combat we’re so used to. I can’t say it’ll do much for the longevity of the game, but I don’t see it as a problem at the moment. It works well for all of the “classes”, and combat is fluid and meaty for the most part.

Unfortunately for some, but not for myself, The Secret World still features the classic trinity system, relying on DPS, Healers and Tanks. One could argue that because Tera successfully introduced active dodge combat, The Secret World should have too – but it would only really work with a few of the classes, and if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Instancing The Twilight Zone

The first major instance (not a dungeon) that people visit in The Secret World is Zombie infested Polaris. A beautiful country town that reeks of B-movie charm. Think Alan Wake, 30 Days of Night, that sort of thing.

Now, I’m getting really sick of Zombies saturating every video-game theme now’days, although I did enjoy Dead Island, I had washed my hands of the genre come the end, so I was feeling a little let-down by the fact that my first real foray into the questing of The Secret World was a Zombie story. It’s personal taste, of course, but it felt like the biggest possible cliche they could have gone with, given the gravity of the lore they’re working with. Still, heading down into the woods I set fire to as many Zombies as possible to vent my anger.

Don’t wear too much deodorant if you’re planning to set Zombies on fire that day

Coming across a police station, I collected what I thought was my first story quest (or, at least, the first one I noticed). In The Secret World you can only collect one main story quest at a time, and a few minor secondary quests. I know, most MMO’s let you stack your quest log to the brim, but Funcom wanted players to enjoy a much more focused and varied tale, rather than a grind. The quests are often presented with full voice over, and even cut-scenes which are animated further than BioWare’s Star Wars The Old Republic, where blank rubbery faces would stare at you and give you some crap about bad people and good people. The Secret World is much more authentic… much more natural. Each NPC has character – or rather, is a character – and their tone and writing is above and beyond what was necessary, especially this early on in the game where people are trying to get to grips with the mechanics, barely able to focus on what’s going on around them. It’s a wonder they could create something this in depth and polished for a relatively small audience – but it’s quite incredible.

 

It felt like a nod to movies of the 80′s

Polaris is a beautiful albeit derelict place, with chaos and burning cars, abandoned play areas and musty, foggy streets. It’s creepy, and huge. Featuring NPC’s holding out, tasked with looking for survivors and picking up quests along the way, my first real quests in The Secret World weren’t anything close to the old classics such as killing X amount of Z or collecting Z amount of X. In fact, it deviated so far from the norm that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I knew I had quests, and when I worked out how to use the quest tracker, it took me a very, very long time to figure out how to do them.

 The complexity basically gave me a complex

I’m used to my point and click adventures. I love a good puzzle. Nothing prepared me for this. I don’t know who wrote this particular quest, but the guy should be writing novels. Having come across a guy in a church, he explained he was one of us. After a long chat, I was tasked with following Illuminati clues to the location of the information I needed to further my quest. Following a long trail of man-hole covers with the Illuminati symbol on it, I reached a dock-yard which gave me a riddle about the seat of power in a small town. Spoilers excluded, I headed to the location I extrapolated from the riddle and continued working out the clues. They were tough… I mean, they were Google it tough. The quest followed a series of genius and cogent trails, to a satisfying and truly unique end. Questing in The Secret World is just the right mix of banal and incredible. In other words: you get the “mmo stuff” done during the awesome original quests.

The instance ended with an amazing boss fight. Although it didn’t deviate too far from the dynamic of WoW’s raid bosses, it was set in such a beautiful, horror world, that it felt unique and enthralling. It was even scary. The perfect ending to an enjoyable, albeit perplexing series of events introducing me to The Secret World

Final thoughts

They even created leaflets, menus, phone books!

The Secret World begs for your attention. It effortlessly sits outside expected normality, whilst entertaining ideas as if created with no frame of reference. It acts like it invented the combat mechanic, polishing it to a new degree. It feels as though skill-trees never existed, and that the skill wheel is right back to the drawing board. It doesn’t seem to want to beat WoW, or Rift, or Tera. It doesn’t seem to care. It has an air of contentment as if to say “we know we’re awesome, we don’t care if you do.” I must say, it deserves it.

That said, The Secret World is for a niche audience. It’s for those who truley want something different – not those gamers who claim they want something different, but really want WoW 2.0 with a new engine. It scraps everything we know about MMO’s and rebuilds it for the ground up. Mechanics, visuals, skills, balancing, PVP, PVE: it’s all there, and it’s all good.

The problem is, the game isn’t easy to get into at all. Sure, it’s easy to sink into the theme and get involved, but picking up the rudimentary elements is a bit of a head-ache. It’s worth it for a deep and meaningful game with longevity, but if you come to The Secret World expecting some filler before the next big MMO, you’re gonna have a bad time.

It’s here to stay though, and I can see it doing well. Can it sustain the subscription model? I think so, at least for now – but it does feel like it was created for an easy transition to free-to-play. They already have their own currency and cosmetic store, it’s just a matter of segmenting the game into purchasable pieces, etc. A safety precaution, or a premonition? You can decide for yourself – but without a safety net it’s hard to see a game like The Secret World getting made.

I’m not a huge fan of the style of the Illuminati and the Templars. I would have liked to have seen more anonymity between them, and less forced stylisation… I mean, why are the Illuminati so punk?  It doesn’t gel with my preconceptions. Hey, maybe that’s my own problem. The three factions do feel like a whole world of difference, though, and you’ll want to try them all.

If you’re looking for an MMO that doesn’t merely feel like a tedious time sink before a tedious end-game, then you want The Secret World. Can I see it being around for a very long time? Yes. How you pay for the experience, however, remains to be seen. We might be back here in a years time discussing the transition… I worry The Secret World has delivered exactly what people want, and that people might not want to do their part and really knuckle down, back at the drawing board, relearning things they were proud to already know.