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The Secret World Review

Updated Wed, Jul 04, 2012 by Shayalyn

Every now and then a game comes along that's so radically different it leaves everybody wondering whether it will sink or swim. The concepts sound strong in theory and, in fact, even seem to be just what certain types of gamers have been crying for, but because they buck tradition we're all left wondering: will it work?

Funcom's new MMOG, The Secret World, is one such game. For starters, it lacks a traditional leveling system. It also doesn't have predefined classes. It boasts unique mission types and takes a step away from the hand-holding, on-rails quest systems many MMOGs embrace to offer a more open approach. And finally, it's neither sci-fi or fantasy--it has a horror theme with a twist of conspiracy. But does it work? Our editors played for months in The Secret World's closed and press betas, through the early access event, and into launch so we would tell you early on whether this is a game you'll want to invest in.

Cautions

This is a Funcom game, folks. It's rated M for mature audiences. There will be "colorful" language, blood, gore and, of course, bare-chested females. None of it is particularly gratuitous or in-your-face--in fact, it's all quite realistic--but it's there. If games like Silent Hill make you squeamish, The Secret World may not be for you.

Gameplay

87Very GoodThe Secret World starts you off strong with story. You'll choose your faction from among three secret societies. The Templars are, of course, holy crusaders. The Illuminati are all about power and wealth, and don't care who they have to manipulate to get it. The Dragon seek to find order in the art of chaos. After you create your toon and dive into the game, you'll be treated to cut scenes that all essentially follow the same story, but with color and characters relating to the faction you've chosen. Once you've moved through the opening cut scenes, and a brief flashback experience that takes place in Tokyo, you'll head to your starting city: London for the Templars, New York for the Illuminati, and Seoul for the Dragon.

The Secret World Review

Illuminati outside the besieged sheriff's station in Kingsmouth.


After completing some missions in your starting city you'll be faced with one of the more daunting tasks The Secret World has to offer the uninitiated--choosing your weapon. While this may seem simple enough, it has long-range ramifications--the weapons you choose (you can equip two at the same time) will determine which abilities you can use. The game gives you a little guidance, but unless you're either intimately familiar with MMOG class mechanics and able to apply some informed guesswork, or you've done your homework in advance, there's a possibility that you could find yourself making some decisions you regret. More on that in a moment.

Character Development and Builds

The Secret World features an Ability Wheel--Funcom's over-achieving answer to skill trees. Essentially, the new character is faced with a dizzying array of about 500 options, each of which are accessible to any character. (In theory, you could learn every single one of those abilities given time and persistence. In practice, maxing out 2 of the 9 ability trees is probably more than comparable with a complete level-up experience in other MMOGs.)

It's entirely possible and, in fact, easy to make a bad, ineffective build in The Secret World. The game won't stop you from, for example, slotting no damage abilities as you spend Ability Points (AP) to purchase abilities and Skill Points (SP) to increase your effectiveness with your weapons and gain access to more powerful gear. Quite intentionally, there's no respec available - Funcom felt even an expensive respec would be game-breaking. Unfortunately, gameplay alone might not reveal early on that you've made some not-so-great build choices. In fact, you may not wise up to your relative ineffectiveness until you're getting thrashed in PvP or taking a beating in a dungeon.

The Secret World Review

Facing the Ability Wheel can be daunting. Premade Deck templates ease the strain a bit.


The good news is, Funcom made a wise design move with their implementation of the Deck system--a system of premade templates that let you follow a build roadmap. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the idea of creating a build from scratch, you can either follow a deck template or study it to learn how good builds are formed. Unless you've got build-making chops, this is likely the route you'll take, at least initially.

Combat

Your early experience in The Secret World will have you facing off against hordes of zombies and other undead creatures. And you'll probably have fun doing it initially. But if you're expecting combat along the lines of Funcom's Age of Conan, you're going to be disappointed. The challenge in The Secret World's combat comes with selecting the best combination of seven active and seven passive abilities to equip on your hotbar. Beyond that, it isn't particularly complicated. You'll use abilities that build resources, dodge your enemy's ground-targeted attacks, and then follow up with a big bang that consumes those resources. You'll throw utility into the mix as you're able. It can become repetitive as you churn through hundreds of mobs in Kingsmouth alone.

The Secret World does allow you to fight that repetition to some degree, though--you can (and should) eventually create multiple builds and switch them out as the situation demands. With a new build, at least you're working on spamming (albeit in a logical, purposeful way) a different set of abilities.

Fortunately, enemy encounters with all but the most run-of-the-mill trash mobs will throw challenges into the mix to keep you busy. Unless you're actively getting out of the way, monsters will inflict various states designed to afflict or even just knock you down and steal your lunch money. You can do the same to your enemies. It's a fun dance, if one more harrowing than complex, and you only really see it play out in dungeon encounters and world boss fights.

Missions and Story

The Secret World Review

If you love a good tale, The Secret World spins them brilliantly.


If there's one thing The Secret World does not lack it's a great story. Three secret societies with opposing purposes are forced to stand united against the encroaching darkness in a world where every myth, nightmare, and conspiracy is true. A good horror-themed MMOG has been a long time coming, and The Secret World delivers in spades. The story has depth and purpose, and missions range from the simple "kill off some zombies" type to complex investigation missions where players will have to put their real world puzzple-solving, clue-finding, truth-seeking abilities to the test. There's a mission type for every play style, and none of them disappoint.

All in all, gameplay is rich and complex--if you understand what you're doing, or take the time to learn, you're likely to play well and enjoy the hell out of your time in The Secret World. For every drawback, there's a counterbalance that mitigates it somewhat. The pain of being unable to respec can be avoided by using the premade Decks as a template and modifying your abilities as needed. The whack-a-mole combat is kept from being stale by employing interesting enemy mechanics, as well as the ability to create multiple builds and change things up a bit. And the story is capable of rendering the whole thing fun, even for those with unanswered gripes.

Graphics

90Great

Overall, The Secret World offers fantastic, state-of-the-art graphics, particularly if you're running a high end box and a DX11 enabled video card. Textures are incredibly realistic, sometimes disturbingly so (those moldering dead corpses are none too pretty.) The settings you find yourself in provide vivid atmosphere and texture. Kingsmouth really does feel like a sleepy New England island hamlet...that just happens to be beset by zombies. Lighting is superb, but unfortunately native support for TXAA (a super-efficient anti-aliasing algorithm that offers quality comparable to 16x AA at a fraction of the hardware and performance cost) didn't make it into the game for launch - the Nvidia drivers simply weren't ready.

The Secret World Review

It's a detailed, richly rendered, scary-as-hell world.


The Secret World serves up realistic and pleasant-looking character models. Although you'll be offered a few different facial and hairstyle options there are none of the sliders or fine tweaking elements that gamers have gotten used to. Funcom did add more options just before the pre-launch early access event kicked off, but they're still rather limited by modern standards.

The one thing that has dogged The Secret World from the moment people saw their first glimpse of actual in-game combat is character animations; they looked stiff, stilted and, in a word, retro. Although they have improved, they're still not on par with modern games and aren't even as fluid is I remember them being in the carefully mo-capped Age of Conan. In an otherwise fantastically rendered game world, stiff, unnatural animations stand out as a serious detractor. Can you get used to them? Sure. Overlook them? Probably. But you shouldn't have to. Fluid animations are the one thing that keep The Secret World's great graphics from being truly outstanding.

Sound

95Outstanding

From the moment you load up The Secret World and begin to play you're treated to music and sounds that fit the game and its mood and setting to a tee. From the chilling and mysterious opening refrain to the icily semi-randomized slow piano arpeggios on loading screens to the combat music, everything just rings true and adds to the game experience.

Not only that, but atmospheric sounds are crisp and realistic. From the sound of crows taking flight to the death rattle of a dying zombie, it all makes sense. The only thing that doesn't quite seem on the same quality level as everything else is the combat sounds, which aren't bad, necessarily, just...unimpressive.

And finally, the game contains a number of voiceovers. I liked how the voice actors delivered their lines, and I generally loved their scripts. When the town sheriff says, in her New England deadpan, "I'm not saying that Kingsmouth was a little slice of heaven in a snow globe, but it was ours...and now it ain't," I feel her bitterness and resolve. And overall, the voiceovers are on par with that. Occasionally, if you pay attention, it's obvious that the same actor covered different NPCs (which isn't unusual in the industry), but it's far less obvious than in, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

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This game is an mmo that is fun for those who like to use their brains.

There are plenty of "Wtf did that just happen? Can they do that?" moments in this game.

If you've read horror/thriller novels, especially Stephen King, you're gonna love the first island you go to.

The writing is top notch and delivered with excellent skill by the voice actors, although sometimes you might want to ensure v-sync is on (in your video card settings, no in-game toggle *Grumble*). Some of the cut scenes are chilling not because of some cheap scare but because of the words that come out of the characters mouth.

Essentially a great game for ADULTS not wow kiddies. You need to have world experience and have read quite a number of books to really appreciate the references and the amount of detail they've put into this game.

With regards to the review. Respec is arbitrary as it doesn't really take that long to level. By the time you realize the amount of ways you can mix and match abilities you already know that it doesn't really take that long to fix an error or tweak a build. Switching both weapons might be a challenge but the game emphasizes trying out the different weapon types before you set out into the first zone. No handholding, you really should have been paying attention sorry.

No resurrection in a boss fight in a horror game means you're gonna die if people aren't awake. It's rough but not impossible and you're probably not gonna be too interested in instances for the first while anyways because you have other stuff to do.

The lack of LFG is DEFINITELY missed. There is a lot of LFG spam in general chat because of it and it makes the game feel clunky in this regard.

The reviewer neglected to mention that some of the quests are broken/buggy. GM's are pretty fast to help, but with a puzzle intensive game where you may refuse to google until you're absolutely perplexed as to what to do (I cheated a couple of times yes. I have a job ;p), you may not even know that your quest is broken until you (cheat) check online and find this out. Can be frustrating.

The game can and will murder your video card if it's outdated or has reached the planned obsolescence date, especially during the heat of summer. Just a warning. (Google thermal paste replacement)

With regards to pvp. I haven't pvp'd yet. Too busy playing the actual content in the game. That being said, this same problem was the one i had with Guild Wars 1 and probably will have with Guild Wars 2. Abilities synergize as you open up more of the abilities.

All in all this review was more fair to the game then a lot of the major game critic sites have been (due to the fact they weren't paid off I imagine. Star Wars Old Republic anyone?) However if you're looking for something new that is a challenge and doesn't underestimate your intelligence, you might not want to miss Secret World.

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