Website: The Secret World
Category: Massively multiplayer – P2P with optional subscription, Modern Fantasy, horror, supernatural themes
“All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”
– Bruce Lee
It didn’t take me long to realise The Secret World was different to pretty much anything I had played up to this point. I am standing in a zombie infested town in The Solomon Islands. Around me I see a police station holding the line against hordes of zombies. Somebody is tossing molotov cocktails while a manhole cover explodes in the middle of the street. Somebody is circle strafing a zombified fireman with a katana while what I assume is a team mate holds a book and is blood healing them. I’ve been given a quest by the local fortune teller and I am following what is becoming an increasingly large murder of crows to god knows what. Whatever it is I know it’s not made out of sunshine and kisses.
I have this fantastic friend who plugs me into the most amazing left of center content as it is released and it was him who truly introduced me to MMO when he brought me an Everquest 2 membership back in 2004. And he’s brought me into The Secret World at just the right time. EA is still more or less involved with publication and issues have been released expanding the title out of the already too small sandbox that had seen some players leave. I bring my character development bias from years of raiding and I find I am quickly out of my depth with Funcom’s open-ended skills-based system. Although able to choose and equip two weapons at any given time I settle on one. Later – from pure frustration, I realise how hard I have made things for myself.
The Secret World does away with levels as you know them, favouring instead a character progressions system built on skills and abilities. And in fact the system is so open-ended it’s a little daunting for players raised on systems based on commitment and pathing. The skill wheel is literally a circle within a circle – comprised of nine weapons. Three fall under firearms, three are melee and three weapons are magic. Any weapon is capable of DPS but three will lean toward healing, three toward tanking and three output significantly higher DPS. A skill is either active or passive and can be equipped on an active or passive skill bar – each holding a maximum of seven abilities respectively. All weapons and skills can be learned by a single character giving rise to a dizzying amount of character combinations and possibilities. A maxed character can fill any role and in fact some of the more gifted or geared players are operating as heal tanks – literally holding aggro and self-healing while a full DPS crew do the burning work or high DPS leech healers, outputting more group healing the more damage they inflict.
The Secret World has set perhaps the highest bar for story driven content in the MMO genre avoiding the ‘kill 3 of these, find two of these, go over there’ quest model. TSW is steeped in conspiracy theory, contemporary horror concepts and the spirit of the cold war with a plot that intricately threads through a biohazard containment effort in The Solomon Islands, ancient evil rising once again in Egypt, a modern Transylvania bursting from hidden cold war facilities and a corrupted modern Tokyo that brings all threads of the story together. Quest NPCs are memorable and every major quest begins with a cut scene with voice acting delivered by some of the greats of the industry including Tara Strong, Tim Russ, Leigh-Allyn Baker, Tim Bentinck, Brian Bloom and Steve Bloom. Almost every quest is repeatable after a cooldown period providing a steady stream of experience which can be plowed into your Skill or Ability trees.
Many quests require lateral thinking or alternate approaches to complete showcasing a cleverness about the content driving TSW. At some point you will find a machine in Kingsmouth that is attracting sea monsters and it requires you go online (a browser is provided ingame) and go to the website for Orochi Corp – a company that exists only in TSW universe to look at the manual for this machine so you can power it down. Another quest requires you to be dead to complete it.
The character progression system is a treasure trove for DPS bean counters and the healing system is elegant and appeals to those who traditionally find healing frustrating or boring. Nightmare level game play provides a solid tanking experience with bosses that must be controlled or interrupted at critical times or ad management scenarios. The skill wheel system also opens up a plethora of single player builds that can be configured and switched based on whatever situation the player is faced with.
Groups are relatively easy to find at all levels and the game features a dungeon finder utility. Dungeons are atmospheric, repeatable, populated only by (6) bosses and each provides an interesting mechanic that will challenge players and reward or even require teamwork. There are three levels of dungeon difficulty with the first six dungeons repeating through all levels. Three additional dungeons unlock at Elite level and the Tokyo dungeons expand Nightmare difficulty. The difficulty increases substantially at nightmare level with more complicated boss mechanics, substantially higher damage and increased boss resistance or immunity. An interesting additional mechanics is ‘rising vigour’ where bosses become resistant to crowd control effects for a certain time if they are overused.
The core instability of the game engine is why I can only play TSW for so long. Crashes and DCs are common – so much so that veteran players can often tell the subtle behavioral difference between a disconnection and a rage quit in a dungeon or raid. This remains my key criticism of the Secret World and is the sole reason I leave. However the strong story-line and the eerie feeling that only TSW can give always brings me back after a year or so.
TSW is adult content built on adult concepts that alienate many younger players. The intricacy of many of the quests and the lateral thinking demanded requires patience and in many instances life experience or age and you easily see progression of younger players move from initial excitement in the early stages of the game to boredom or frustration as the threads of the game become entangled and the quests more complex. There’s an inherent cruelty and exploitation hardwired into the game content and in fact your character is often a pawn for big players making power moves in battles, struggles or grudges that have gone on for a thousand or so years. Sometimes longer. Some of the twists and plot devices in TSW are not for the faint of heart.
The original story content was penned by Ragnar Tornquist is without peer. Powerful, unpredictable and genius in it’s inter-connectivity and it seamlessly links plot into gameplay. The change in authorship signaled a major shift in the quality and mindset driving the content in TSW as Tokyo was released. While I found the storytelling consistent and strong I found the gameplay itself weak, repetitive, formulaic and cannibalistic as it plunders and reguritates the earlier content of the game. Each Tokyo DLC is a story about a sequel – at one point I found myself waiting for a van to pick me up that never arrived because I didn’t own the next DLC and there was no notification to tell me otherwise. But the content seeks redemption through powerful rewards bundled in each DLC.
The Secret World is available only on the PC platform and considering how unstable the game engine can be this is a key weakness. The complexity of the game content is another limiter, driving away younger players or players looking for faster rewards or simpler pleasures. The result is a game so niche that it appeals to a very specific demographic. What amazes me though is I can leave the game for six months or a year at a time but something always brings me back. And as I join groups I find I am with players who also left the game but have started playing again. There are also those players who never left and I see them in Agartha.
The Secret World is without doubt unique – too unique in many respects with it’s Clive Barker meets George Romero fusion of paranoia, enlightened self-interest and waking ancient evils. It truly is a contemporary rabbit hole that challenges the player to carve their own niche in the world. The solo content in TSW will keep you entertained, enthralled and on the edge of your seat in parts if you are receptive to it and the dungeons are unique and exciting. Will it hold you in the long term? Perhaps not. But chances are at some point – you will come back.
Pros: Rich back story, beautifully designed maps
Cons: Some maps frustrating to navigate
Pros: Unique skill/character progression system, good co-op play
Cons: somewhat weak, repetitive PVP
Cons: Frequent crashes, slow enemy AI
Pros: Very strong story driven content, excellent voice acting, memorable characters
Cons: Content may prove too challenging for younger players
Cons: Upgraded Conan engine showing it’s age