Over the weekend, I had the chance to take part in the open beta for FunCom's upcoming MMO, The Secret World. Since recent events have led me to become extremely mistrusting of game developers and especially video game critics, I've decided that I should write reviews of my own, since clearly so many have a sincere lack of ability to provide what their customers are looking for. Since The Secret World was my most recent play, I've decided to start here.
Technically, since the game hasn't been released yet, this is really more of a "preview" than a "review", but it's still with a critical eye that I will be writing about it, so make of it what you will. The beta weekend provided only a small portion of the game, only worth a few hours of play time, but considering it was only one small part of just one of the areas in the game, "a few hours" is still quite a lot to get out of that.
Right from the get-go, I noticed some issues with connecting to the servers, but that may well have been since I was trying to connect shortly after the beta servers went live and the amount of log-in traffic was a bit too much to handle. I did not notice any major problems connecting later in the day, after the initial rush had died down.
Probably the first thing I noticed once I was in the game was that my framerate was terrible. Not "impossible to play" terrible, but bad enough that I felt it was worth reducing the video settings to an amazingly low level in order to feel comfortable playing it, and my system is not that old. This was particularly interesting because, even at max settings, the graphics were not all that great. Not that the graphics were terrible, mind you, but they certainly didn't seem like they warranted that level of slow-down on my system. I actually had to reduce the resolution of the game, which is something Ialmost never have to do.
Once I got the game running at a comfortable pace, I was able to create a character and jump in. The beta weekend was restricted to allowing only characters of the Templar society, so that took one of the major options for character creation off the table to begin with. The full release of the game is supposed to have three secret societies that your character can be a member of: the "holier-than-thou" demon hunter Templars, the elitist conspirator Illuminati, and the Asian criminal syndicate Dragon. I am not clear how the different societies impact gameplay. It certainly appeared that at least part of the storyline throughout the game was impacted by being a member of the Templars, but I can't yet identify if being a member of one organization prohibits you from participating in activities with members of other organizations the way Alliance and Horde characters can't cooperate with each other in World of Warcraft.
Speaking of storylines, let's get to my favorite subject in video games: story! As far as story goes, the game does appear to have a major story arc that players play through. I didn't get very far in it, so I can't say much about what the story actually is about, but the player character does not get any dialogue, so don't expect to be playing a fully voice-acted character like in Star Wars: The Old Republic. That said, there are cutscenes where non-player characters talk to you and give quests. The voice acting isn't bad, but it's certainly nothing to write home to your mother about.
Since I can't say much about the story itself, I can at least provide some information about the setting. The game is set in the modern day, and players take the role of humans who have, for some odd reason (seriously, don't ask if you don't want a head full of bee-flavored nightmare fuel) have been inducted into the "Secret World" - yes, they really do call it that in character - and are able to use magic as well as see things that most people either can't see or are simply too disbelieving to admit. These people are often invited to join secret societies that operate toward their own ends. The Templars, based in London, UK, are the descendants of the Knights Templar of the middle ages and are hellbent on destroying monsters and demons, even at the cost of their own righteousness. The Illuminati are a conspiratorial organization who manipulate events toward their own ends and control entire nations from their headquarters in New York, NY, and Dragon are a chaotic organization based in Seoul, South Korea, that are seemingly devoted to the purpose of Chaos itself.
Naturally, the atmosphere begins to form in your mind from these descriptions, showing themes of secret conspiracies, mysteries and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The fact that so many of these things seem clear can make the Secret World seem a little cliché, but FunCom handled this very much the way Joss Whedon would: by not only making it obvious, but having fun with it too. The meat of the gameplay areas available to players in the beta was in a town called "Kingsmouth" in New England. Just that name probably causes a few people to guess where I'm going with this, and in case that is you, you are absolutely right. The streets in the town have names like Lovecraft Lane, Dunwich Road and Arkham Avenue. Shops have names like "Flagg's Pharmacy", a name that will definitely be recognizable to fans of Stephen King (who, I suspect, also inspired the name of the town itself). All of these little touches will be fun to look out for for those players who enjoy looking for Easter eggs.
From a gameplay perspective, the atmosphere even makes for interesting and creative questing. Most MMOs provide quests in which you have to kill so many of a certain type of monster or collect items from such-and-such location. There are plenty of those types of missions in The Secret World as well, but there is an entirely new type of mission that I've never seen in an MMO: investigation missions. These are missions where absolutely NONE of the work is done for you, not even telling you where to go. No markers are placed on your map, and you are only given indirect hints and clues as to where to go and what to do. For the first time in years while playing an MMO, I actually had to use critical thinking to finish these quests, and it was FUN. Real life facts and information even become useful, which makes it especially nice that there is an actual web browser built into the game client that defaults to Google. I spent hours trying to figure out one of the clues, and practicallycheered when the solution finally dawned on me. It reminded me, in many ways, of some older action-adventure horror games like Silent Hill and the earlier Resident Evil games.
As to character customization, well, this is where the game has some major hiccups. When I created my character, there were extremely few clothing options available to choose from. I suspect there will likely be more clothing items that can be purchased in-game (and possibly with real money) to help customize your appearance more to your liking, but it seemed extremely limited at character creation, though it's possible the choices were simply cut down for this limited beta. In fact, one of the oddest things was that the lightest possible skin-tone I could get for my character was incredibly dark (think "Indian with a mild tan" dark), even in comparison to non-player characters throughout the game. I am not sure if this was a problem with the game, or if I just couldn't figure out how to make it lighter.
When it comes to combat abilities, though, customization becomes a whole different game. This game has no class system or levels whatsoever, meaning you are free to play your character however you like. You are given two weapon slots, and a number of abilities that require those weapons, meaning you will be restricted to only two ability "trees" to determine your function in combat, but each type is surprisingly flexible. By fighting in combat or completing missions, you earn experience, which earns your character Anima Points (AP) and Skill Points (SP). AP are then spent on abilities in the ability wheel to determine what combat functions you can have, while SP are spent in your skills to improve your efficiency in certain things.
For the abilities, you get two sets of seven slots to "equip" your abilities: one set of seven to equip activatable abilities, and another set of seven to equip passive abilities. Other than that restriction, you are free to equip whatever abilities you like. There are three categories of weapons - ranged, melee and magic - on the ability wheel, which are then subdivided into three different types of those weapons. What makes this interesting is that each and every weapon type has different abilities, and can be customized to do... well, just about anything you need them to do. I was surprised to find that even my double-pistol wielding 60's Bond-girl parody character had healing abilities with her guns. Equipment, much like most other MMO's, improves your character's efficiency in certain things, like attack power, health or healing, so depending on what equipment your character uses and what skills they have focused on, it seems as though you can manage to build a character to fill just about any role in a group with almost any type of weapon combination.
While it is interesting to explore the different options available to characters, it is important to note that all this freedom definitely can come at the cost of being extremely complicated. While the game is relatively easy to learn early on, activities designed with a group of players in mind might become very complicated to someone who does not have much experiencing min-maxing their character's abilities in MMOs, especially when it comes to endgame activities. It's unclear what the endgame looks like in The Secret World, but we could safely assume it has something to do with grouping up for increasingly hard challenges to earn better equipment, and anyone that hasn't absolutely mastered their abilities will probably fall behind, and I would suspect they may suffer admonishment from other players. In other words, I have a feeling this will be a game that will be hard if it is your first MMO, although learning it shouldn't be too hard if you want to invest the effort.
Altogether, I give the game, or the small bit I experienced of it, 4 out of 5 stars. It's got some flaws, but altogether it is an enjoyable and refreshing change of pace from the usual MMO fare.
Advance Recon: The Secret World
Blog entry posted by Breefolk, May 14, 2012.