The Secret World Review

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 style="font-style: italic;"> 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.


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 - 87 / 100

The 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 style="font-style: italic;">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

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.


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 - 90 / 100

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 - 95 / 100

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.

Multiplayer - 77 / 100

Grouping in The Secret
is pretty straightforward. Although there's no Group
or Dungeon Finder tool at the moment, and that's a disappointment,
we're told something's coming post-launch. Even in a classless system,
roles such as Tank, DPS, and Healer still exist, meaning there's no
real reason not to have a mechanic for finding other players to
adventure with.

The Secret World Review

You may start out on your own, but pretty soon you're going to want to make friends.


Our team enjoyed taking on dungeons in style="font-style: italic;">The Secret World.
Not only are they fun and challenging, they cut right to the chase. TSW
dungeons have very few trash mobs, and the ones you do encounter
are either summoned by a bigger bad guy or essential
to the lore for
that particular area. While the dungeons are by no means short on
content, that content comes in the form of trickier boss encounters as
opposed to slogging through hordes of minions.

Make no mistake--The
Secret World
dungeons will put your group to the test. But they're well designed in
that most mini-boss encounters serve to prepare you for the final boss.
Bosses pull out all the usual (and some unusual) tricks like summon minions, enrage, engage in DPS races, phase into and out of damage immunity, and create unique (and tricky!) area and
ground effects (like massive artillery strike) to keep you on your toes. On top
that, the environment is also out to kill you. Electrified water? Flame
bursts? It's all there.

Funcom has stated flat out that they expect you to die as you learn the
game and the mechanics of enemy encounters. While there's no death
penalty other than equipment repair costs (which can add up but aren't
overly harsh), one mechanic is particularly baffling-- style="font-style: italic;">The Secret World
lacks a resurrection ability.

The Secret World Review

That's an amazing boss mob...but die during the fight and you'll have to watch the rest of it from the sidelines.

Funcom has argued that a res (in-combat or out-of-combat) makes grouped content far too easy, since the battle becomes more about keeping players "up" long enough to finish the fight, rather than winning the battle through sound tactics. In practice, I honestly find the lack of a resurrection hard to defend. For
starters, when you die while grouped, the inability to resurrect means
that you're going to have to recall to an anima well ( style="font-style: italic;">The Secret World's
resurrection points) and then run back, which takes you out of the game
and away from your companions. Die in a dungeon, and things are even
worse--you'll be sent to an anima well where you'll be able to watch
your fellow groupmates fight it out until they either defeat the boss
encounter or wipe, but you won't be able to rejoin the fight until it's
effectively over. If the group wins the encounter, you've had to remain
benched while they reaped the glory. If they're defeated, you just
might feel somewhat responsible for not having been there to help. It
truly is a no-win situation.


Player vs. Player (PvP) in
The Secret World
is a bit of a mixed bag at present. On the one hand it offers players a
viable alternative for earning skill and ability points, and token
rewards that allow you to upgrade weapons and talismans that are
comparable to those purchased through certain PvE vendors. On the flip
side, it suffers from the same fate that most PvP systems tend to when
there isn’t an even playing field from day one.

Not counting the open arenas found in major cities like New York, there
are three core game types players will be able to choose from. Two of
them are more of a traditional arena or battleground style matchup
between the three societies, with one a kind of the hill map, and the
other an object based capture and hold map. The third is a massive,
ongoing point capture map that players can join or leave at any time.

Along with the ability to advance your character regardless of game
type selected, players will be able to earn temporary buffs for their
secret society in all three game types. The genius of this is that the
rewards for participation extend beyond the personal character level,
and gives even non-participants a reason to care about how well their
society is doing at any given point.

On the flip side, we’ve seen countless titles attempt a PvP system that
doesn’t offer an even playing field in terms of starting gear and
abilities, and in most cases the player frustration this invokes
overshadows any potential rewards. This is certainly the case with PvP
in The Secret World,
especially given that time spent playing means you have a deeper pool
of skills to draw upon.

Eventually a metagame will be established once a critical mass of
players have the bulk of weapon skills unlocked, but in the interim the
system largely favors players who have more time to spend in-game
unlocking better builds. As such, PvP in The Secret World is not very
friendly to new or more casual players.

A final note on PvP is that players may suffer a pretty sizable
performance hit when stepping into Fusang Projects, style="font-style: italic;">The Secret World’s
open PvP map. While I was able to play the rest of the game at max
settings with an excellent frame rate, the sheer volume of players and
particle effects at combat hotspots in Fusang made my PC want to crawl
under the front porch to die a quiet death. Even dropping to the lowest
possible settings, FPS was below optimal on that particular map.

Value - 87 / 100

The Secret World will cost your about $50. If you're unable to get your money's worth out of the box price, you're doing something wrong. There's plenty to explore and discover in this game. You're very likely to play at least for the initial launch month, and have fun doing it, unless you're easily frustrated by the complex character progression system or you're put off by the fend-for-yourself mission mechanics. (But in that case, this game wasn't likely a good fit for you in the first place.)

Lasting Appeal - 77 / 100

Whether The Secret World has lasting appeal or not sort of depends on who you're asking. There are certain types of players that this game appeals to, and they're the sort who love to theorycraft builds, enjoy missions that reward exploration, dislike hand-holding, and love the freedom a game without classes or levels provides. Those players are likely to overlook the game's flaws in favor of all the things it offers them.

And then there's the rest of us.

There are a lot of things to love about The Secret World, from its great horror setting and stunning graphics to its unique progression to its clutter-free dungeon experiences. There are also a number of frustrations, chief among them being the Ability Wheel learning curve. For those dissatisfied with that and other mechanics we've mentioned, such as the lack of a respec or resurrection ability, the game will undoubtedly be a diversion and a novelty for only a brief period unless some drastic post-launch changes occur. Unfortunately, when the 30-day trial period expires, whether The Secret World remains engaging enough to keep playing isn't necessarily a given. And those who do remain, and careening along toward the end game, will eventually face a PvP experience that still needs tuning and, at the moment, leaves something to be desired.

Pros and Cons


  • Unique setting and story--we haven't had a good horror-themed triple-A MMO yet, and this one delivers.
  • Missions that provide a great deal of variety and depth without hand-holding
  • Dungeons that are relatively free of trash mobs, and instead provide challenging and exciting boss encounters
  • Vivid and atmospheric graphics and impressive music and sound


  • In a game where it's not only possible but easy to accidentally create a bad build, there's no respec ability. If you find your build isn't viable for the kind of game you want to play, you'll have to replay a lot of content (or play a lot of PvP) to build up a new build.
  • No resurrection mechanic, which takes a huge benefit of social play out of the mix.
  • Group or Dungeon finder missing in action at launch
  • PvP currently feels imbalanced, and too daunting for the new player with fewer Ability and Skill Points to participate in


Of all the things The Secret World is, one stands out--it's unique. Funcom has colored outside the tried and true (and often dull) MMOG lines and drawn a game that's truly different from all the rest. It provides players the ability to explore intriguing missions, the mysteries of which aren't always so easy to unravel. It offers up a complex and deep character progression system that no other game has attempted on such a massive scale.

For some players, The Secret World is likely to veer just a little too far away from the comfort zone. For others, it's likely to represent a refreshing and challenging change of pace. Despite a few inherent flaws, what you take away from The Secret World truly depends on what kind of gamer you are.

Overall 84/100 - Very Good


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our The Secret World Game Page.

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About The Author

Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.

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