Review: The Secret World

Review: The Secret World

I normally kick off my reviews by writing about the story that drives the game. This time I’ll do something slightly different and I’ll tell you a story: It’s the story of a writer (yours truly) that tried the beta of The Secret World and was convinced that the game had very little to offer. The beta builds I tested, for some reason I still have trouble identifying, simply didn’t click with me. At all.

Most of the elements were there, but they failed to interact with each other in a way that would generate enjoyment. The feeling was so compelling that I got to the point of considering letting someone else in the team review the game. Then I reminded myself that passing judgement on an unfinished product would be highly unprofessional, so I decided to stick with it. While I’m normally rather stalwart in my opinions, I do admit when I’m wrong: this is one of those times.

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The Secret World is based on a rather simple (but not simplistic) premise. All the legends, folklore, fairy tales and horror bedtime stories are true. Zombies, Vampires, Ghosts and all those supernatural creatures that haunt our darkest dreams are real enough to kill people and to risk to lead the world towards its untimely end. Even that crazy pumkin head of Jack o’ Lantern is as solid as a punch to the face. To keep all those otherworldly threats at bay equally legendary secret societies like the Templar, the Illuminati and the Dragon are collaborating under a shaky truce guaranteed by the ancient (and fairly useless) Council of Venice.

The player starts as a recently inducted junior member of one of those secret societies that, after acquiring an uninvited immortality on top of magical powers due to swallowing a mysterious bee, is sent to investigate a terrible zombie outbreak in the fictional city of Kingsmouth on the equally fictional Solomon Island (crossed by a river named Miskatonic…) just off the coast of Maine. That investigation chock full of Lovercraftian innuendo will show that local zombie problems are only the proverbial iceberg tip of a much more global threat.

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Story and atmosphere are probably The Secret World‘s biggest selling point. Funcom’s writers went to great lengths in gathering what’s probably the most varied and diverse collection of legends and lore to ever appear in a video game, mix it up wisely with a sizable amount of pop culture, sprinkle it with a handful of witty writing and actually create a very coherent and realistic primordial soup that not only makes perfect sense, but is also very enjoyable and thought-provoking to play through.

It feels delightfully “mature” and dark in its themes despite treading waters that can often be defined a tad juvenile in their origins (like the “slightly” overdone zombie fad) and without sparing some much welcome  humor to lighten the mood.  It really hits a sweet spot in a careful balance that I honestly didn’t think could really work. Fact is that it does. Everything is true and it often doesn’t take itself too seriously. You might instinctively think that people on the brink of annihilation wouldn’t resort to humor that often, but it does make a lot of sense if you think about it, especially when the things that want to annihilate them would drive most people to sheer insanity even before touching them.

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As soon as the player logs into the game it’s hard not to notice its extremely rich visuals. Funcom has always been one of the rare MMORPG developers that furthered the idea of supporting DirectX past version 9 in its games, and the DirectX 11 client definitely helps The Secret World in setting itself apart from the rest of the MMORPG market.

The engine is an updated version of the one that powered Age of Conan, giving the two games a distinctively similar visual flavor. Everything looks organic and the representation of nature and vegetation is absolutely astonishing, creating some of the most beautiful vistas in a MMORPG to date.

The attention to even the smallest detail and a masterful environmental design, complemented by advanced effects like tassellation and normal maps really deliver, enhancing the sensation of walking through a realistic world made of actual solid materials, that you’re almost tempted to reach out and touch, instead of a bunch of polygons wrapped in their textures.

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Funcom’s environmental designers really went all out in recreating the vision of the art team, filling the game with small, lovely details like business signs, graffiti, hidden wards, random (or actually not so random) eye catchers and Easter eggs, turning our Secret World into a world that compels you into exploring every little corner, not just because you want to discover every quest, but simply to see what hidden visual delights have been tucked out of plain sight.

One small discordant note comes from the fact that the engine is so highly specialized in displaying organic materials. Urban models, especially when made of very plain materials like concrete, may seem comparatively a little flat, probably because the engine is not as efficient in rendering that kind of texture.

Luckily that problem is made less apparent by the absolutely lovely lighting design, that gives every object volume and dramatic substance, contributing in an even more determining way in creating a world that feels immersive and disturbing (in a very good way, given the setting) at the same time. The dark and eerie atmosphere is absolutely unique and delightful.

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The same level of detail comes into play with character design, especially pertaining to fashion (about which I’ll go more in depth later). There are a few small flaws here and there, mostly concerning hair and eyebrows, but nothing major. The world is populated with believable and varied NPCs that have no trouble “popping” out of the screen, even more so during cutscenes.

Since nothing is perfect, the visuals of The Secret World do have a rather weak link in some of the animations, especially combat-related ones. The problem lays in the fact that movement is a key factor in the game’s battle system, so every skill is designed to be executed while on the move. This creates a rather disturbing effect in which the upper and lower parts of a character’s body seem to animate independently in ways that don’t look very natural. Luckily this is limited to player characters, as monsters and NPCs are animated in a much more believable and natural way.

If you want to see more about the game’s visuals, you can, as usual, check out my flickr gallery – 300-some screenshots should be enough to give you a rather clear idea of what I’m talking about.

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Storytelling in The Secret World relies heavily on cutscenes, and boy, they’re a joy for the eyes. As opposed to combat animations, during cutscenes everything is natural and fluid, and complex facial and body animation is well complemented by the display of characters in shiny high resolution and great photography, creating a lovely cinematic effect that will keep most players wanting for more.

Cinematics are made even more enjoyable by excellent and extensive voice acting that brings to life every single quest giver. Lines are delivered effectively by a wide variety of seasoned actors that almost always prove very appropriate and comfortable in their roles. There’s a bit of overacting here and there, but it very seldom feels out of place, falling in line with the fact that most people we’ll meet have been in contact with all sorts of horrors and their mental health isn’t exactly what it used to be. Remember Call of Cthulhu and Sanity Points? A lot of the NPCs in the game failed quite a few of those rolls, adding nicely to the depth of their acting and design.

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Funcom didn’t limit voice acting to cutscenes. Every main character can be asked about himself, his situation and a variety of topics, allowing us to better connect with them and delivering even more lore and information to our doorstep. They aren’t just quest givers, as hours upon hours of voice acted monologues turn them into realistic entities immersed in a realistic world. They’re men and women that had lives, friends and loved ones before disaster struck, and have no qualms in talking at length about them, improving our immersion tenfold in the process.

Dialogue unrelated to quests is entirely optional for those that suffer from severe attention issues (even if often they offer information that proves valuable for the future, like identifying who would have knowledge about a certain topic that we’ll have to research about), but listening to those ramblings is extremely interesting and enjoyable.

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The witty and effective writing and voice acting are made even richer by a very wide selection of accents that creates an even more varied world and enhances realism, ultimately turning every encounter into a very memorable experience. Whoever wrote Richard Sonnac (our “mentor” if we play as Templar) and his voice actor Jimmy Akingbola will forever have a place in my gamer heart, no doubt about it.

The only people that I can see disliking the writing of The Secret World are those that harbor a sheer hate for pop and geek culture, that permeates a quite sizable portion of the script. Ultimately, though, the game is set in the real, contemporary world, and people are supposed to share our pop culture, hobbies and passions. When you meet a skater boy that thinks he knows how to fight zombies due to all the hours he spent on Left 4 Dead, it’s hard not to smile.

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Of course, generally amazing production values, even when complemented by one of the best looking minimalistic UIs I saw in a MMORPG, can’t create a good game by themselves. Funcom played it safe with a few elements of the gameplay of The Secret World, resorting to the usual tab targeting and hotbar combination for combat, but in some other aspects they took some rather commendable risks in order to break the slightly moldy mold (pun entirely intended) of the MMORPG genre.

The biggest risk, that I would go ahead and actually define a true leap of faith, was taken with questing. While there are still plenty quests in which your task will revolve around the indiscriminate genocide of assorted monsters, Funcom decided to introduce two rather innovative kinds of missions: Sabotage quests and Investigation quests.

In Sabotage quests you won’t have to fight at all. As a matter of fact, even trying will, in most cases, get you killed. You will, instead, have to rely on stealth and subterfuge in order to succeed. Sabotage missions normally focus on infiltrating a hostile zone without being detected, and often you’ll have to use the environment in a clever way to reach your goals, sounding alarms to clear rooms full of guards or injecting gas into air conditioning systems. The game won’t tell you how to get past every hurdle, and often you’ll be given multiple ways to complete the same task.

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You’ll be given the chance to rely on sheer stealth after analyzing the patrol routines of the NPCs, or to steal a uniform to lower the chance of detection. Finding the right pass code won’t be the only way to get past a fence, as relying on platforming to jump over it will also be a possibility. That’s definitely a quite fresh approach to questing in a MMORPG, but the best has yet to come.

The true head turners, in fact, are Investigation quests. Forget the boring process of clicking through quest text as fast as possible and following easy quest markers while being spoon-fed the solution by the game. There are no quest markers here. You’ll be given nothing more than one or more clues and you’ll have to use your grey matter and your intuition in order to find a way to progress and ultimately reach the conclusion of your investigation. Often you’ll even have to resort to external information like the title of a song or the name of a painter. You’ll even have to learn to decipher Morse code.  To facilitate that, Funcom went as far as building an external web browser to let you access the internet directly from the game.

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The Secret World‘s Investigation missions are probably the game’s biggest perk, but also its biggest risk. MMORPG developers have been doing everything in their power to pander to the players’ laziest inclinations, making their experience as smooth and effortless as possible, reducing the need of actual involvement and thinking to the extreme. I can’t help but wonder how many of those used to have their path from mindless monster to mindless monster perfectly marked on their compass and mini-map will meet a very rough awakening from having to actually pay attention and figure their way to success.

Personally, I find this move against one of the genre’s most fossilized tropes absolutely fantastic. The fact that Funcom promised to shift the questing focus even more towards this approach in the future gives me a lot to look forward to, and quite a bit of confidence on the fact that The Secret World will keep my brain engaged for a while.

Generally speaking, the eerie atmosphere of the game, combined with memorable characters, the great writing and the dark, oppressive environments create one of the best questing experiences in the genre. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mission in the amusement park in the Savage Coast area, for instance. They’re perfectly worthy of the best horror movies.

An interesting choice in quest design, that honestly has me a bit more conflicted, lets players accept only one main mission and three secondary missions at the same time. While this encourages us to focus on a quest, following it from beginning to end without digressing, and most probably enjoying the story of said mission and the interaction with the quest giver more thoroughly, it’s a bit inconvenient in a way that feels mostly unnecessary.

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It doubtlessly prompts the player to run back and forth a lot, and unfortunately there’s a ton or running to do in The Secret World. Besides a teleport to a central hub with a thirty minutes cooldown, there’s basically no fast travel method in the game (besides committing suicide and selecting one of the “anima wells” to revive at, but that definitely feels more than a little cheap) and vehicles are nowhere to be seen. Every player has a sprint ability that increases his speed, but the second and third tiers are extremely costly and succeed only partially in mitigating the rather tedious process of covering large distances over and over again.

Character progression is also rather peculiar. There are no classes to chose from, but only a set of  nine “weapons” to learn: three melee weapons (Blades, Fists and Hammers), three ranged (Dual Pistols, Assault Rifles and Shotguns) and three schools of magic (Chaos, Blood and Elemental). Each character can use only two at the same time, but is free to progress in any and all of them.

When you gain experience, you don’t earn levels, but you’re given Skill Points and Ability Points. Skill points can be spent directly on the weapons, either in their defensive or offensive skill, or on talismans, split in three categories. Your skill level with each weapon or talisman will determine the quality (and power) of the equipment you can wear and effectively replaces levels, as your character stats are entirely determined by the equipment you’re wearing at any given moment.

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Ability points can be spent on the ability wheel, to purchase basic and advanced abilities that you can use in battle. To preserve balance you’ll be able to equip only seven active abilities (that require manual activation) and seven passives at the same time. This means that filling up your ability wheel and learning more and more skills for several different weapons won’t necessarily make you more powerful after a certain threshold, but simply more flexible.

While the ability wheel is rather complex and can feel a little daunting to new players, Funcom also provided a series of pre-made combinations named “Decks”, that can provide a guideline for those that don’t know how to progress or don’t want to bother with creating their own customized combinations. If you want a more classic class-based MMORPG experience, you can simply chose a deck that fit your taste and stick to it. If you prefer freedom you can study the ability wheel and cherry pick the options that fit your style best. You can also start with a deck and stray from it at any time when you feel confident enough to do so, basically providing the best of both worlds.

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Of course not every single combination is effective, and min-maxers will argue endlessly on the “perfect” build, but the degree of freedom and customization allowed by The Secret World‘s leveling system has few rivals in the market, and is definitely welcome and refreshing.

One thing, though, needs to be said. While you are rather free in choosing the abilities that better suit your favorite playstyle, this doesn’t mean that The Secret World broke the mold of the Holy Trinity of Tanks, Damage Dealers and Healers that characterizes the genre. During party play specializing in one of those roles is pretty much a must, and is definitely the most efficient way to play.

While that will fly in the face of those fellows that demand the death of the Trinity, I don’t consider it a bad thing. Most MMORPGs use it simply because it’s effective, and even when players aren’t forced to specialize they normally do by themselves because it works best. Having party members cover defined roles at any given time enhances tactical gameplay and coordination, and tends to be simply more fun than having everyone fend for himself like he was playing solo.

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Role pride is also a very important aspect of MMORPGs. Personally I find considerable gratification in working hard to be the best tank i can be for my party. Almost every other MMORPG player I ever talked to has at least one role of the Trinity he takes pride in, and while I can remember at least a few games that experimented with trying to get rid of it, I can’t remember one that actually succeeded (as people continued to find ways to specialize anyway and be more efficient than those that didn’t) and in which players didn’t complain because they had no role to be proud of.

At the very least, while The Secret World still relies on the three roles of the Trinity, it lets you move between them with an ample degree of freedom, and allows you to decide how to best combine your skills to excel at each role, with the added bonus of granting the possibility to be much more flexible and independent during PvP and solo play. During party gameplay you still have to stick to being the tank, a damage dealer or the healer, but how to get there depends on you and on the skills you happen to like. That, for me, is the best balance that can be achieved mediating between having rigid classes with predefined roles and an overly loose setup with no roles at all.

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In addition to that, abilities have a high degree of interaction between each other, often causing chains of effects that can prove quite deadly if carefully paired and triggered. This turns studying and mastering the ability wheel into a very enjoyable minigame in itself, and one that will keep a lot of performance-driven gamers busy experimenting and playing with combinations for a long time.

Skill customization aside, visual customization is another of the elements in which The Secret World takes a rather innovative route. As I mentioned before your stats are entirely defined by your equipment, but your equipment has nothing to do with your armor. The stat-defining items are, besides your weapons, entirely invisible talismans that have nothing to do with your looks. As opposed to that your actual clothes are entirely independent from any statistical consideration and give absolutely no mechanical bonus. They’re completely cosmetic.

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This means that you can wear whatever you like without having to worry if that coat you like so much has the best bonuses for your roles. You can put on that lovely pair of dress shoes just because they look good, since they don’t determine your efficiency in battle. This gives an almost unprecedented degree of freedom in choosing your looks and visual style, without having to resort to counterintuitive mechanics like appearance tabs or armor remodeling.

Once you find or purchase something that fits your taste, you can wear it anywhere without any problems, and you can change clothes whenever you feel like it. That approach isn’t just refreshing and pretty damn fun for those (like me) that love to mix and match clothes and swap looks over and over, but it’s also very appropriate to the contemporary setting. In addition to that, it encourages diversity. One of the worst aspects of many MMORPG is that most characters of the same level and class end up looking exactly the same. You’ll be hard pressed to find two dressed in the same way in The Secret World.

The available wardrobe is already very varied and offers a wide degree of customization, with most of the outfits available for in-game currency and a few more in the cash shop (Funcom didn’t resort to the trick of selling all the cool clothes for real money leaving only the lousy ones available in game, which is commendable), and that’s a godsend, as the actual facial customization is, instead, a bit lacking.

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Options don’t exactly come in the hundreds (or even in the tens) for most elements, and some areas like hair styles are especially scarce in variety. That tends to be more than a bit annoying in a game set in a world where hair stylists exist, and people don’t just take care of their wild manes with a bone comb and a rusty knife. Luckily Funcom promised a sizable influx of new options (and a free recustomization for everyone) with the upcoming August update, but launching with such a crucial feature incomplete isn’t easily forgivable.

Combat is the area where The Secret World doesn’t really stray much from the charted routes of the genre: battles are still very much reliant on the usual tab targeting and ability bar combo that has been done over and over for ages. It does, however, have a few quirks of its own.

Positioning and movement tend to be a lot more important than in other MMORPGs, as mobs will often use area of effect attacks that the player will need to avoid in order to fight effectively and ultimately survive. To do so they’re provided an active dodge to get out of the way, and every single skill is designed to be executed on the move. This, paired with the fact that mobs and bosses telegraph their special attacks in very specific and clear ways, creates a very tactical and rather skill-reliant battle system that, while not breaking any mold, still feels very satisfying and fun to master.

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The most challenging encounters are found in dungeons, that currently provide the most prominent group-based experience and most of the best equipment rewards. While the first dungeon, Polaris, is still rather doable with a light-hearted approach to ease players into party gameplay, difficulty ramps up rather fast, and the second dungeon (Hell Raised) goes out of its way to let everyone understand that The Secret World isn’t designed to be easy, with several bosses that require high situational awareness, constant movement, careful positioning and a stable damage output at the same time.

From then on the level of difficulty provided by dungeons remains always rather high, thing that may discourage many casual players, but that will make those that look for a challenge squeal in delight. When you have to continue tanking a boss surrounded by a cyclone of death while running in tight circles to avoid a spinning area that can throw you into the aforementioned cyclone, things can get hairy very fast and very badly, but there’s no lack of adrenaline and pure fun.

The same setup extends to the endgame, that involves several lower level dungeons and three new ones available in Elite mode, sporting harder encounters and even more challenging mechanics, culminating with the nightmare dungeons that form the tip of the endgame pyramid.

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Ultimately dungeons in The Secret World are a whole lot of fun, enriched by the usual very well written story-driven approach and made even more enjoyable by a single and apparently secondary element: designers limited the usual mindless and hideously tedious slaughter of trash mobs that you can find in large quantities in other games to a bare minimum. Every dungeon is basically a sequence of bosses one after the other, with a very limited intermission between each, keeping the experience tight and the tension high. That’s a great move if I ever saw one, as dungeons that prompt me to mow through armies of completely unchallenging trash mobs never fail to give me the impression that I’m wasting my time for a large percentage of the run. In The Secret World that normally doesn’t happen, and every time I realize it, I can’t help but smile.

I have to give an honorable mention to the feature I call the “Camera of the Dead”. When you die during a boss battle you cannot be resurrected in place, and all you can do is teleporting outside of the battle area. Once you’re there you can actually access a camera system that will let you watch the continuing struggle from a bird’s eye point of view. It may seem marginal, but the devil is in the details, and this definitely is a classy touch that turns death into a little less painful experience.

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Readers may be wondering why I didn’t talk about Player vs Player yet. Most I can say is that PvP is “there”, but it definitely looks like an afterthought in what is a PvE game at heart. While PvP does offer considerable rewards that can help fill the gaps in one’s equipment, the two instanced battlefields and the persistent warzone feel a bit rushed in their implementation and expose quite a few imbalances that tend to turn PvP into a very niche experience between the community.

Battles are fast paced and combat is generally fun, even thanks to the fact that players receive buffs to (theorically) put them on even ground, but I found it enjoyable only in small doses. I have to praise Funcom for the fact that, even in crowded situations, I encountered very little lag, probably thanks to the clever use of low-detail uniforms everyone gets to wear to reduce the strain on our video cards. That said, the whole PVP experience will need a few rounds of further polish before it’ll become solid enough to be a stable and popular attraction.

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last but not least, one of the most interesting aspects of The Secret World lays in its single server technology. While every player is prompted to choose his “home dimension”, all servers are actually linked and every character can travel between them to play with friends and make new ones, giving the whole community a common playfield. Even Cabals (The local version of a guild) can recruit players from any and every dimension. This has all sorts of beneficial effects, like the ability to freely play with everyone regardless of their home dimension, and a radical mitigation of the usual problem brought forth by overpopulated and underpopulated servers.

Every time you make a friend you can add him to your friend list, and then simply right click on his name and select “Meet up” to be instantly teleported to the nearest Anima Well in his current dimension. The whole system is implemented in a very sleek way, but it could still use some improvement in the form of a more clear display to let players know in what dimension and instance they are at every given moment, and the ability to freely travel between dimensions and instances within them, without needing to use a friend as a homing beacon. The implementation of that kind of free travel would turn a system that is already very good into a masterpiece of MMORPG technology.

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While The Secret World isn’t a perfect game and quite a few launch issues and bugs (especially focused around some quests and the chat system) still require a solution, it’s an extremely enjoyable game that isn’t afraid to pull a few bold moves to break, at least in part, the usual MMORPG mold.

If your idea of fun matches being hand-led and spoon-fed through a gaming experience that strives to make everything as convenient, streamlined and casual friendly as possible, dragging you kicking and screaming through a series of clearly marked waypoints from the beginning to the endgame, you may want to steer clear. On the other hand, if you strive for a challenging, engaging and mentally stimulating PvE experience that will tease your brain as much as your skills, while providing a rich and spectacular world and some of the best storytelling in the market, it may be time to walk some uncharted territory, and The Secret World is definitely a game you may want to try.

Dark days are coming, and they are going to be a whole lot of fun. I was wrong, and boy… I love it.