Well, I’m finally diving back into another MMO, after taking a break from them for a little bit (unless you count Diablo III, which might as well be an MMO). However, the one I’m tackling has been promoted as fairly unconventional. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also state that I’ve been in the beta for this one, so I’ve been able to see how things have evolved and what issues have been addressed or not addressed. What I’m reviewing here, though, is the ‘finished’ product, in the sense that no MMO can ever truly be called a finished product, since they all are regularly patched and altered. Anyway, so, here we go with my initial experience with the release version of The Secret World!
What is it?: The Secret World is an MMO set in the modern world, with the twist that every conspiracy theory, every myth, every legend, and every folktale is real.
So like urban fantasy, then?: I hate that term. But really, it’s a lot like, well, okay, yeah. Something like that. Or Lovecraftian X-Files, or Harry Potter meets Assassin’s Creed. Or a number of other equally implausible mashups, all rolled into one.
So what do you…do?: You’re a member of one of three secret societies that take it upon themselves to guard humanity against the things that go bump in the night, and at the same time oppress humanity by keeping information about the paranormal out of their hands and instead using it to control governments. Two of the societies, the Illuminati and the Templar, you’ve probably heard all sorts of Dan Brown-esque conspiracy theories about already (or have killed a whole bunch of if you’ve played any Assassin’s Creed game at all). The third, the Dragon, is based out of Asia and used chaos as control, instead of order. Of course, these societies don’t seem all that… secret, in the actual game, because every player is a member of them, and their headquarters seem to be REALLY obvious. But, well, what can you do?
So, let’s get down to it. The creators of this game have been going on and on about how different it is from a ‘traditional’ MMO. So how different is it, really?: Well, it is very different, and at the same time it is not different at all. The most glaring difference, and one that will either make or break the experience for you, is that there is no race/class system.
What?: Yep. First of all, everyone’s human, so that gets rid of any idea of a race system. And classes do not exist either, character development is completely freeform. Your experience points get you ability points, which you use to buy abilities sorted by weapon type, and also skill points, which let you specialize in one or two types of weapons. However, there’s no real cap that I know of, so you can eventually have a character that knows how to do everything. You are restricted in the sense that you can only equip seven active abilities and seven passive bonuses at one time, leading the game to implement a ‘deck’ system to refer to useful combinations of actives and passives. Each faction has its own set of eleven ‘decks’, and when one completes a deck, they are granted various rewards. While the decks are handy, they don’t really represent the ‘best’ combination of abilities for a given character, and therefore experimentation is absolutely essential. The only complaint I have about the freeform development is that it means that every character for a given faction will have the same plot progression; no class quests.
But what about the other quests? Are they really different?: Again, yes and no. There are definitely a fair amount of ‘go to x, kill x number of x, get reward’ quests. This is made a lot less annoying by the removal of the requirement to return to the questgiver, though, which is something every game should do, ever. And then there are ‘investigations’. These quests are simply ingenious. They are quests that don’t give you your specific goal up front. You get clues, and must figure those clues out. You, the player, not just your character going to a spot and picking up a piece of paper with the answer conveniently on it. No, the game provides you with an in-game web browser overlay that has Google as its homepage. If you are on an investigation, you’re expected to have some post-its handy, your map open (which you can add markers to), and possibly Googe the shit out of some things. The community has been pretty supportive of this idea, and have (thus far) refused to blurt out the answers in General Chat.
So how about the combat?: Well, the combat /does/ feel familiar, as it controls just like a typical MMO would, with a couple of exceptions. First of all, you don’t have to be targeting something to attack it. This is useful for AoE weapons such as shotguns, as you can just point them into a crowd and fire, and you’ll hit whatever it makes sense for you to hit. Second, when fighting enemies, their AoE attacks will light up hit zones on the ground as their attack charges, giving you a chance to dodge if you’re fast. It’s not as action-RPG as say, Tera, but it’s a slight difference from WoW.
So what else impressed you?: The soundtrack. It’s /beautiful/, and haunting, and adds to the atmosphere. Second, the atmosphere. In Warcraft, I always got the sense that the surroundings were just there to give an explanation as to why you were killing, say, an ice monster as opposed to a forest one. In this game, the environment is a tangible part of the game, and it’s incredibly detailed. The signs on buildings and such are readable without clicking on them, even on the lowest graphics settings. Additionally, the voice acting is superb and varied. Your own character is a silent protagonist, which also helps to eliminate the repetition of lines that plagues some games that give voice to your avatar. However, the NPCs are more than willing to talk your ear off while pointing out that you are, in fact, the silent type. And finally, the UI is slick, and is able to be mostly customized right out of the box (in WoW, you have to get third-party addons to allow customization of the UI, and in SW:TOR, UI customization was patched in a few months after release). It’s actually pretty reminiscent of Android or iOS, which goes with the theme of reporting your quest completion to your superiors via smartphone.
And anything negative?: Well, it’s not perfect. Aside from the fact that it’s not /quite/ as different as it makes itself out to be, there are some technical issues as well. Granted, no MMO is without launch bugs, and what I’ve seen is on par with what I’ve seen in other games, but they’re still there. In particular, General Chat is full of people talking about certain quests that are bugged, so it remains to be seen how quickly the developers handle those issues. Additionally, the presence of a store in which you pay money for vanity items has never sat well with me in any game, and this game is no exception. However, this game has the double-violation of applying your purchases to only one character and not making them account-wide. If that angers you (and it should), just don’t buy them. They are simply vanity items and don’t affect your gameplay experience at all, and this is a case where I feel that the actual game has the potential to be good enough to overlook this affront to my gamer values. In terms of actual gameplay, the only real complaint I have is that the quest tracking system is one of the dumbest I’ve ever seen, in that you can only have one ‘main mission’, one ‘story mission’, and three ‘side missions’ active at the same time. This causes more running back and forth than I think is necessary.
What about your experience on a high-end desktop vs. a middle-of-the-road laptop?: Well, there’s where another difference comes in. My desktop handled the game on max settings no problem, with a year-old graphics card. My laptop had a driver crash once, and then a bluescreen, all within the space of a couple hours. To get the game to run smoothly, I used DX9 mode instead of DX11 and dialed the texture and environment detail way back. However, this is probably a case of my laptop showing the effects of its underpowered processor (I’m honestly surprised it took this long). It’s still something I’m throwing out there as evidence the game might not run all that great for everyone just yet.
So would you recommend this game?: Yes, with caveats. If you have a low-end computer, it may not be playable to you. If the presence of an in-game real-money shop offends you, well, there’s one of those here, though it isn’t very invasive at all (and not a touted gameplay feature like another game I could name). If you’re expecting the actual combat to be different than other MMOs, well, be aware it’s not /as/ different as Tera’s. However, if you want a game that has a rich environment, wonderful voice acting, and a pretty supportive community (so far), give this game a shot. And if you like the idea of classless character progression and some questlines that are pretty reminiscent of a Silent Hill game, well, definitely play this game. In all reality, this is a game that I would recommend anyone to try, and they should decide for themselves whether it’s their kind of different. I like it, and that’s good enough for me.
[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]