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The Secret World [Review] – Revealed

13 Jul 2012  by   Tim McDonald
Game Details
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: EA
Reviewed on: PC

The biggest problem with reviewing an MMO is that, within three days, it’s entirely possible that most of the issues I note will have been fixed. A lot of this text may be utterly irrelevant in under a week. MMOs aren’t unique in this –SimCity Societies was a catastrophe of a game that became one of the finer entries into that hallowed series after a few industrial-strength patches – but regular change is expected with MMOs. Do bear this in mind, not least because, for once, I’m hoping this will be the case.

I’ve written a lot about The Secret World over the past month, and by now you’ll hopefully have a pretty good idea of whether or not it’s your sort of MMO. In case you haven’t, though, a quick summary.

The Secret World is a game in which you, as a regular person in the modern day world, swallow a magic bee (it makes sense in context) and gain amazing powers that let you use magic and or imbue regular weapons with frightening new abilities. Before long you’re inducted into one of three secret societies that rule the world – the power-grasping Illuminati, the traditionalist Templars, or the mysterious Dragon – and from there you’re sent off to represent their interests around the globe, and stop a variety of impending apocalypses.

On the surface, it’s reasonably standard MMORPG fare. You explore a variety of environments completing quests, killing enemies by tapping keys 1-7 on your keyboard, earning experience, and levelling up.

Most of those standard MMO tropes have a bit more to them, though. You complete quests, yes, but they’re divided up into different types – standard combat quests, stealthy sabotage quests, speedy side quests, the game’s story missions, and the fascinating and puzzling investigation quests. You earn experience, but you don’t level up, per se; gaining experience nets you Ability Points and Skill Points that unlock extra powers and let you use better gear, with your stats tied solely to whatever you have equipped instead of the arbitrary number of experience points you have.

The other neat little thing is that, no matter how you start, you can take your character in any direction you want. There are no classes – just nine different weapon types – and you can level any of them whenever you wish.

As an example, my character started off using Blade and Elemental skills for pure combat prowess. After playing through the first fifth of the story like this, I decided I wanted to mix it up a bit and spent my next 100 Ability Points – which come faster, the further into the game you get – on Blood abilities, while hoarding healing gear and crafting any that I was missing. Within a few hours I’d healed through my first dungeon. If I should decide I want to tank in a few days, or I want to try out a new weapon type to mix some more skills into my character, I no doubt can with a few hours of work.

This character build system is one of the two major gameplay mechanics The Secret World does well. While you’re “locked” into decisions you’ve made, insofar as you can’t get refunds for any points you spend, going in one direction with a character doesn’t mean you’re permanently stuck with it. Equally, your choice of build tends to matter far more than anything else: you have seven active abilities (chosen from the two weapons you have equipped) and seven passive abilities (chosen from anyyou’ve unlocked) “equipped” at any given time, and creating your own builds to match the task at hand is great fun if you’re into tinkering. If you’re not, then the game has a series of pre-made “decks” to help out; the idea is for these to show off the sort of synergies possible between weapons, and to give you something to aim for.

The other thing the game does really well in a mechanical sense are the investigation missions, which this genre hasn’t really seen before. These are the missions for which the “b” key is used; this opens up an internet browser in your in-game window, which you’ll need to look up facts, decode cyphers, and do all sorts of other gubbins in order to solve the cryptic puzzles laid out before you.

Moving away from the mechanics, the general presentation is superb. Right now, it’s not for raiders, PvP kiddies, or those who rush to the endgame – PvP is anaemic, raids currently aren’t implemented, and the endgame is really about doing harder instances or levelling new weapons – but it is probably the best-crafted world there that presently exists in an MMO. The Secret World is a joy to explore and learn about; intriguing bits of lore are dotted around landscapes, and your own knowledge about history, culture, and code systems tie into the aforementioned investigation quests. The world, much like the mechanics, is familiar enough to resonate but different enough to intrigue, whether you’re dealing with vampires or elder gods or anything in between.

Special mention has to go to the writing, voice acting, and atmosphere, though; it says a lot about these elements when a villain can come out with the phrase “fucking bees” and still seem menacing, and it’s a rarity for an MMO to give me a proper horror game feel of “I really, really don’t want to go in there.” Certain quests help maintain this atmosphere – from a burned-down house where a rumoured witch lived, through to an abandoned asylum where you have to genuinely worry about your character’s sanity – and each of the game’s three zones have their own distinct feel, from the Lovecraftian and B-movie inspirations of Solomon Island, past the Biblical plagues and blood cults of Egypt, through to the European fairytales and gothic horror of Transylvania.

The Secret World does all of these things really well, and to that end the general levelling experience is really, really good fun, which is fairly novel for an MMO. Quests are entertaining; there are genuine characters throughout the plot, with good writing and voice-acting doled out in generous quantities; the build system is well-made and gives plenty of variety as well as customisation; dungeons successfully straddle the line between being interesting and being convoluted.

Then there’s the stuff it doesn’t do so well. And, depressingly, that’s currently a large amount.

Character builds? Well, they’re great fun – but only if you’re planning on using one, because the Gear Manager system is horrific. The idea is that you can save your favourite builds and then, with one click, instantly swap between them, equipping all the necessary equipment and skills. A marvellous idea, except that A) it will regularly fail to equip the right things, and B) there’s no way to modify any saved builds short of equipping them, deleting them, and then re-saving them, and doing this every time you get a single piece of better gear is a pain.

The aforementioned decks, to aid you with your builds? Well, a few of them seem to have been designed a long, long time ago – before various changes to skills and mechanics – and are now borderline useless, with contradictory (rather than complementary) skills and descriptions that outright lie. Not a huge problem, but indicative of a disappointing lack of polish in certain areas.

But the most damning thing, right now, is the legion of bugs. I’ve been stuck in geometry plenty of times; I’ve been unable to accept follow-up quests for no good reason; I’ve lost stacks of items when trying to split them in my inventory; items don’t disassemble into the proper materials. As of time of writing, a lot of players are unable to read or write in chat for hours at a time – not in group, or guild, or faction, or general – which is a massive problem for an MMO. But that’s not the worst thing.

The worst thing is the way these bugs hit The Secret World‘s major unique feature: the Investigation quests. These are the little beauties that require you to think outside the box, do some research, and solve genuine puzzles and problems. I quite rightly raved about them during the beta. And now? Now, plenty of them are so bugged they’re impossible to complete, while others can be screwed up if other players attempt them at the same time as you. When you spend an hour puzzling over a solution and then don’t know if it didn’t work because you’re wrong, or because another player came along and screwed it up, or because the quest itself is just bugged… that’s when you lose faith in the game, andthat‘s when you just start ignoring these quests. If you can’t even be sure that the quest is working, what’s the point in trying?

For all of this, though, I’m having a really hard time recommending that you should forget about The Secret World, because the truth is that – when it works – I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed levelling in an MMO this much. That, too, is why I’m having a hard time giving it a definitive score: in one week, all those bugs might be fixed. On the other hand there might be more (and more terrible) problems. It’s impossible to say. So, I think, I’ll go for the middle ground.

The Secret World is a game with tremendous promise; it’s just a shame that, on launch, I’m talking about promise rather than fulfilled promise. With the Investigation quests, its deliciously narrow builds, and its darkly fantastical – but not fantasy – setting, it does some rather unique things within the MMO space, and it absolutely deserves to attract a cult fanbase and succeed.

But perhaps only when it’s in proper working order. If I was reviewing this in a week I’d like to believe I’d be scoring it higher, and I sincerely hope I can look at it again at the end of the month and report to you all that, yes, it’s all fixed and brilliant and you should play it. Right now, it does enough right that it’s still worth playing – I love it to pieces, I really do, and nothing would please me more than to give it a 9 – but only if you can put up with some bugs that, sadly, really do get in the way of the gorgeous world.

7/10
The Secret World is different enough that it won't be for everyone even when its plethora of bugs are fixed, but when that happens, a lot of people are going to get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
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