In the long years that have passed since the initial success of MMORPGs with Ultima Online (1997), Everquest (1999) and Asheron’s Call, the genre hasn’t evolved as much as it should have. There was the big breakthrough of World of Warcraft in 2004 that put together most of the elements the other games created and based its leveling on questing rather than heavy grinding and focused on end game content. This was followed by the innovative mechanics of Guild Wars in 2005, that came with the completely instanced content (an idea very popular in the free to play MMORPGs of today) and with the fixed number of useable skills which is widely used today. But after that, the genre stagnated for years, most developers trying to overthrow World of Warcraft without really realizing where the roots of its success come from. And so began an almost decade long period of games copying each other, especially after the rise of free to play games.
Some developers have tried to get out of the loop, but there are few titles that actually had success in the western culture. But 2012 was the new defining year for MMORPGs, at least it was for me if not for everybody. The release of The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 changed some of the vision over MMORPGs with unique and innovative features that killed old and annoying concepts overused to death by developers for very few reasons (fear of the new).These were story driven games that put the RPG in MMOs and abandoned the conventional leveling for different ways of progression while getting rid of the incredibly annoying quests backtracking. This was a new dawn for MMORPGs and for the players willing to venture into something different.
The Secret World is a MMORPG developed by Funcom and released in on 2nd July 2012. The game started with a monthly subscription business model that lasted until the winter of the same year. After that it switched to a buy-to-play model with an optional subscription and paid-for DLCs released every several months, but at a way slower pace than they were initially released.
What separates The Secret World from most of the MMORPGs on the market is its modern setting, a setting that hasn’t been milked to death like the fantasy one (probably because it is less popular or it is harder to deal with the game mechanics involving it).
The Secret World’s action takes place in our time, but in a universe in which many legends and urban myths exist, where occultism and paranormal are not fantasy but a reality hidden from the eyes of the normal people (muggles!). The game starts with the player character receiving supernatural powers from the agents of Gaia itself, the bees, and struggling to control them. As the character adapts to these new powers that seem depicted from a comic book, an agent from the chosen faction appears at the door and recruits the player and so the adventure begins!
There are three secret societies to choose from each fighting for power and stability in the world: Templars, Illuminati and Dragons.
Templars date from Babylonian times and they are set on destroying what they consider darkness no matter what. Their current headquarter is in London.
Illuminati are the shadow puppeteers of the world pushing for the New World Order, acting silently and only going full out when it is absolutely necessary. Their headquarters are beneath Brooklyn in New York.
Dragon is an Asian group now based in Seoul that recreated itself many times throughout history. Their existence follows the natural chaos of life and they fight for change and to stop society from being controlled.
The three factions are in a secret war with each others, but fight together against the powers that threaten the existence of our world.
The three factions are in a secret war with each others, but fight together against the powers that threaten the existence of our world.
|These Orochi people are everywhere!|
The action that put in motion the events of The Secret World is the Filth infestation of Tokyo caused by the detonation of a Filth bomb by an unknown person. The Filth is a black tar-like substance that mutates every life form it enters in contact with and recently started to ooze from various places in the world. Agents from the three secret societies have been deployed to Tokyo to help with the situation and the players get to experience the situation there through a vision after the game tutorial.
As this happens, different places around the globe become wildly dangerous as different supernatural threats rise taking advantage from this opportunity (coincidence?!). So as a rookie in a secret society, the player (the obvious choice) is sent to investigate and try to put an end to the terrors that haunt the normal people of our world.
The first location to cleanse from evil is the Solomon Island, a land engulfed in Norse mythology, which is now in the middle of a lovecraftian monsters invasion combined with a zombie infestation and tormented by the mistakes of the past (these people have a terrible karma). It is quite an atmospheric zone to start the game with, as a strange fog came and killed the people caught in it, creatures from the bottom of the oceans have come to the shores to swipe the land clean of life. Zombies run rampart into the streets of Kingsmouth City, the ghosts of the deceased can’t find rest, Filth is bleeding from the wounded land and hellish creatures have found their way into our world from their fiery dimensions (a bad day to be a cop there). But as bad as all these things sound, they aren’t the worse, as a madman attempts to awaken an ancient being imprisoned deep beneath the mountains for the island.
The Secret World changes scenery often enough and to extremely interesting and unexplored locations by other games, starting from Solomon Island to Egypt, Transylvania and ultimately leading to Tokyo (DLC required) with some stops in between for China, the UK, Central America and others (waiting for Antarctica and its mountains of madness!). All the locations in the game are connected through Agartha, a zone that serves as a hub area for the players (as well as a labyrinth).
The monsters are as varied as the exploreable areas themselves, from the always present zombies, ghosts, demons and vampires to the rarer lovecraftian monsters, mummies, werewolves, local folklore creatures and many other unique ones created by the twisted imagination of the Funcom writers.
The story is evolving at a good pace with missions covering the entire map and having fully voice acted cutscenes. The mystery and myth surrounding every aspect of the story does require looking past the appearances and digging deeper to find answers as the huge amount of lore is not always explicit. Endless theories and speculations can be made about the action and the characters of this game, the characters break the barrier of conventional archetypes. The game being full of supernatural beings (gods, mythological heroes, etc.) and people trapped into situations that they have only seen in the movie makes it hard to find a normal person in this world, as everybody is at least a little insane, eccentric or paranoid, sometimes all three combined into an unstable personality cocktail. The entry cutscenes for missions are an absolute delight
This universe contains many references to popular culture and does satirize some of the things of the present times in a subtle but amusing way.
|The right attitude!|
|Seems like a good outfit to wear during apocalypse!|
It takes more than brute force to deal with the problems in this secret world, cunning and sneaking skills are required to advance further into the game without problems. The missions are structured into three different categories: action, investigation and infiltration, transforming questing in a combination of multiple genres which makes for diversity in gameplay.
The investigation missions are the flavor with some mind blowing puzzles. Observation skills, general knowledge and thinking outside the box are some of the abilities needed to complete these missions which kept me in opposite states of mind all the time, making me feel like a genius or a complete idiot when attempting to solve them (unfair.co helped me when I was stuck). There is an in-game built browser designed to help with this type of missions and there are many websites created specifically for this game and its mission which adds for an incredible immersivity level when playing and makes the world credible.
The action missions are engaging and sometimes difficult enough to put builds to trial, most of them should be soloable, but a party could make things a lot smoother (good luck with bugs). Many of these missions are grindy, requiring a large amount of monsters to be killed, but also lead to entertaining boss fights.
The infiltration missions are a combination of observation and sneaking with little combat as mobs are usually way more powerful in these scenarios. The sneaking is not mandatory most of the time as a well built character can usually power through the hardest mobs, but the beauty and the challenge stands in completing them unseen.
Mission endings have a paradoxical effect of both enjoyment and displease. The majority of them end with a phone text removing backtracking, but at the same time leaving a dry feeling as they end just like that, even after some epic action.
As good as the mission system sounds, it has its problems and some of them might be game breaking for the players with little tolerance. Playing as a group makes completing missions more efficient and faster, but it can also cause a tone of bugs because not all of them are working properly for group play. Also the completion of tasks in a group is very misleading, as some of them can be done together and other similar ones don’t work and have to be soloed. This is a stressful situation when playing with friends and if someone doesn’t pay attention to the evolution of a mission they might remain quite far behind in the progression for that mission because of all these problems..
|Alone in the darkness.|
When it comes to character progression The Secret World features a classless system without levels. With the completion of story and side missions experience is gained which is transformed into SP and AP at three thresholds on the experience bar. These points are spent in the skills and abilities progression, which is extremely complex and split in three categories: skills panel, a multi-layers abilities wheel and auxiliary weapons wheel.
The basic skills allow the usage of weapons and talismans at the expense of SP which can be spent to increase the level of these skills up to 10. With the increase in skill the characters can equip more powerful items and gain passive benefits from each type of item.
There three types of equipable talismans covering up to seven gear slots and nine weapons split in three categories: magic (elemental, chaos and blood), melee (swords, hammers and fists) and ranged (shotguns, pistols and assault rifles).
With the addition of new content, the skills system has been further expanded to accommodate the introduction of auxiliary weapons, augmentations and AEGIS.
The abilities wheel is a complex, and off-putting at first, system of enhancing the character with active and passive abilities tied to the equipped weapons. Each weapon has a basic tier formed of two sets of abilities and an advanced tier formed of six sets. Abilities cost AP and as the basic sets for each weapon are quite cheap, the advanced ones cost up to 50 AP for the ultimate ability and progressing through the wheel can take a long time.
A character can equip two different weapons at once and an auxiliary, a build can be created with eight specific active abilities for the equipped weapons and eight passives with the restriction of only one from each for the auxiliary. Each weapon can serve at least two roles in the game from healing, tanking or damage dealing. The combinations for possible builds are probably in the number of thousands and even if not all are working as good, it is worth testing and experimenting to find a suitable setup.
Auxiliary weapons have been added through DLCs, first coming with Issue #2. After completing the mission rewarding the weapon 35 SP have to be spent in the skills screen so it becomes useable. There is a special wheel to unlock abilities for auxiliaries with an almost identical design and functionality to the one for standard weapons, the only differences stand in the lower number of available abilities and the steep price of 50 AP per unlock.
Currently there are two ranged auxiliaries (rocket launcher and flame thrower), one magic (quantum bracelet) and two melee (whip and chainsaw) with more to come for a maximum of three per category (I’m rooting for sniper rifle, scythe and summoning!).
Through the release of newer DLCs the game has received even more features related to character progression. Issue #8 has brought the augmentations system which unlocks stronger passive bonuses by augmenting active abilities and increasing the bonuses through skills.
With the release of Tokyo was added the AEGIS system which is divided in two parts, Issue #9 containing the AEGIS weapons and Issue #10 AEGIS shields. This is a two part technology that provides protection from damage to anyone shielded by it, but also provides the necessary weapons enhancements to penetrate these shields (typical military technology!). Its progression comes as a firmware update that requires a huge amount of samples from users of the system which are in the form of filth corrupted beings (the grind!).
This feature is part of the progression in the Tokyo area and currently has no effect in any other zones in the game.
As vast and complex the progression system is as short and vaguely informative is the tutorial for it (and everything else in the game for that matter), making it extremely scary for the new players and being one of the reasons that many of them quit this game or just ignore it. There are some pre-made decks that can be followed, but the synergy between the abilities used in them isn't that great.
|Not even scary!|
The Secret World’s combat system is in between two styles. It is not the common static combat with auto attack, but isn’t fully action oriented either. Instead, this game takes elements from both styles in an attempt to make something better and suited for everybody, but this compromise doesn’t fit the game perfectly. With two equipable weapons and a great variety of builds, the combat sure can be fun and engaging. Its main mechanic is to generate resources for both weapons using an ability designated for this purpose and then unleashing ravaging damage with abilities that spend those resources. Cooldowns should be used when necessary and dodging out of the way of harmful abilities is a must. The majority of the abilities in the game can be casted while moving and this is a big plus.
The combat is dynamic and requires movement when fighting tough and versatile enemies. The area of effect abilities used by mobs have their size displayed by a white perimeter as a warning to avoid the incoming damage. The fights look like Armageddon was unleashed with fires burning, blades chopping through everything and bullets flying from all directions.
For group content, The Secret World didn’t go as far as to abandon the “holy trinity” (tank, healer & dps party composition) as Guild Wars 2 did, which is probably for the best, considering how the group content is designed in this game.
On paper everything looks great, but in reality what ruins the combat is the clunky netcode and the weird way some abilities work due to the tab targeting. Abilities deal damage before animations, making some hits unavoidable in PvP. The tab targeting doesn’t seem like the greatest idea either and while a crosshair option has been added through patches its implementation is rudimentary and can be uncomfortable to use.
Even so, despite all its problems, I can safely say that this combat system is a step up from the standard and extremely overused auto-attack combat with immobile characters as it requires more input and fast reactions from the players.
To complement the character progression, the itemization is the factor that defines most of the character stats and is capabilities to handle harder areas. The items are split into 15 levels of quality with QL 10.5 being the highest at the current stage, different types of quality from common to epic items and four different item groups: weapons, minor talismans, major talismans and head talismans. Standard items of the zone required level are provided through missions, keeping the player at an average level of power for that area. Better items can be purchased through specific zone vendors using tokens awarded from missions or from PvP using tokens gained by participating in battles against other players. Dungeon or raids can provide highest quality items based on a fixed loot table.
|My character is sexy and I know it!|
The dungeons in this game are a true beauty, each of them has a story of its own in concordance with the area they are found in, expanding the lore even further. A shipwreck in the Atlantic ocean, the Hell planes, a tomb in Egypt or a secret super soldiers research facility are some examples of the awesome locations that serve as setting for them. The concepts and level design go hand in hand with the thematic of the game and is refreshing helping replayability a lot.
The dungeons are structured into three levels of difficulty: normal, elite and nightmare, each difficulty being designed to be accessible as a certain point in the character progression. While normal difficulty should be doable with gear gathered from the missions of the area where the dungeon can be found, the elite difficulty is more challenging and requires a gear quality of 8-9+. Nightmare dungeons are part of the end game content and are extremely challenging and almost unforgivable to player mistakes, they require an attunement and epic gear quality and the tactics necessary to beat the boss fights are more complex.
There are currently eight dungeons in the game, one for each major zone besides Tokyo, and sadly this number hasn’t changed since the launch of The Secret World. While there is a planned dungeon for Tokyo zone via a DLC, its release has been postponed and is currently unknown when it will come out.
There are two 10 man raids in the game, which increase the activity options for the players that reached this part of the game. One of them was added a long time ago in Issue #4 and the other one is part of the lairs system. Lairs are some high level areas within the main zones of the game in which the mobs drop key fragments that can be combined to form the key for the lair raid entrance.
Compared with the dungeons, the raids feel easier, despite the fact that they require the coordination of 10 players.
|We were lied!|
|I wonder if I'm in range.|
For those not too passionate about PvE content, The Secret World has player versus player content as well in the form of the Secret War. The PvP has two small maps, Stonehenge which is mostly a skirmish and El Dorado which is objective based where each team has to hold as many artifacts as possible. There is no world PvP, but for the fans of bigger fights the game has Fusang Projects which is a largermap with objectives very similar with the Conquest mode from FPS games.
The PvP games award marks that can be used to purchase end game gear up to QL 10.4 and various other things mostly useful against other players. There is a progression system called Battle Rank which unlocks different coloristic for the PvP character outfits.
The problems with the PvP are related to the combat system and the fact that the population of the game isn’t that big and not so many players are into this feature of the game, leading sometimes to long queues for El Dorado and Stonehenge and numeric imbalanced teams in Fusang Projects.
Overall, the end game is a grind fest, either grinding for XP required to max the stats in the character progression tabs (skills, abilities, augmentations, AEGIS) or grinding the highest quality gear available. For a game that is so innovative and fresh in so many aspects, I felt that the end game experience is a total letdown and is what made me quit in the first place. The replayability of any non-story mission in the game does make things easier for those who want to max their characters stats, but takes a lot of work to do so.
On the technical compartment The Secret World finds itself at two extremes. On one hand it is one of the best looking MMORPGs I have ever played with fantastic level design, beautifully terrifying landscapes and good graphic effects, all powered by the in-house DreamWorld engine. On the other hand the performance and stability of the game can be terrible. I can’t run it using DX11 on my current rig because it causes all kind of graphical glitches (without TXAA active, water goes crazy) and my fps is very unstable. The game crashes often and the loading screens are huge despite the fact that sometimes the textures are not even fully loaded when the game starts.
|Welcome to Kaidan, Tokyo!|
The sound effects add up on the production value of a game that was designed for a subscription model with fully voice acted cut scenes and dialogues, but terrible lip sync. The ambient sound effects and the music are exactly what a game about occultism and nightmarish creatures should have, creating a creepy atmosphere for this game which I love.
During its subscription time, The Secret World received content DLCs quite often, but after Funcom laid off some of the staff working on the game and switched to a buy to play business model the DLCs have become rarer. Currently there are 11 DLCs released with Issues #1 to #4 being free for everybody who purchased the standard edition of the game and up to #7 if buying or upgrading to Massive Edition. Stand alone, a DLC costs 10$ and while this doesn’t seem like such a steep price, adding up all the available for purchase DLCs it goes way over the price of the game. On top of the DLCs there are purchasable side stories packs which further expand the missions in the game.
There is a Cash Shop as well integrated since launch, which sells a wide variety of vanity items, from different outfits and clothing accessories to pets and weapon skins. There are some questionable items like boxes that have a chance to give end game tokens or in game currency (PAX Romana).
While I understand why Funcom release only paid DLCs, I still have to disagree with this business model as it separates the community into chunks of players having access to different zones and missions, but more importantly, to the continuation of the story in a story driven game. This could be easily addressed by allowing all the players to experience the main story missions while the paying players could have access to all the secondary missions and content that comes with a DLC. If Funcom didn’t go for the subscription option at release, which was extremely farfetched for a game that barely had any advertisement they could have prepared a much more solid buy to play business model with a much better designed and structured cash shop (Guild Wars 2). The decision of going buy to play seemed rushed to me at that time and I don’t think the game was fully prepared for it.
|They call this a hub!!!|
|Look like good friends!|
|Business or pleasure?!|
I’m going to stop this review here, before it becomes an even bigger wall of text than it already is. There is much to say about The Secret World, but this is a review not a complete guide. I covered most of the important aspects of the game, which are many, from its basic content and game mechanics to the DLCs it has received.
If there is something I want to point out about The Secret World is the fact that it is a niche MMORPG, a game that isn’t designed to be on everyone’s taste. Its unordinary setting and action, the complex game mechanics with the hard missions and huge progression system are features that scare the players away and it is a shame, because behind the difficult and unpolished exterior hides a beautiful adventure.
This is a game (together with Guild Wars 2) I always come back to after getting disappointed by other MMOs I try, because of the advanced gameplay elements it provides.
The Secret World is and will remain one of the defining MMORPGs of the last years, reshaping the older gameplay into something newer and better for the most part and grasping concepts that should be mandatory for newer MMOs. The game didn’t fear change, it’s in fact an avatar of courage for a genre that hides behind the corners built by older title and I want to thank it for this tremendous achievement.
Let innovation and winds of change come as they are what drive everything forward!
+ Good graphics
+ The setting
+ Great story and lore
+ Unique feeling
+ Complex skill system and character progression
+ Challenging dungeons with great level design
+ Buy to play
+ Helpful community
- Optimization problems
- Grindy end game
- Questionable business model
- Lots of bugs and glitches
- Lacks proper tutorials (to be fixed soon)