The Secret World|
For all the time and effort that goes into them, MMOs seem like sort of a cut and dry thing. Put together a fantasy world, build a few classes, and then start making vast swathes of quests to kill the inhabitants and, optionally, collect their body parts. The Secret World breaks from this formula in every way that matters, presenting a modern world where every myth and urban legend is true, where players collect abilities and make decks of powers in a manner reminiscent of creating decks in a collectable card game, and where the quests to slaughter the supernatural creatures that dot the landscape are broken up by investigation quests worthy of full-fledged adventure games and infiltration missions that are about as good as you can expect them to be in an MMORPG. Wrapped up with tremendous writing and voice acting, The Secret World is an MMO experience that is well worth having.
It all starts when you swallow a magical bee from inside the hollow earth. No, seriously, it does. If there's one thing to learn about The Secret World from word one, it's that it doesn't skimp on getting weird. The second thing to learn is that when it gets weird, there's almost certainly an answer waiting around the corner. The Secret World doesn't skimp on lore, all delivered by the Buzzing, a sort of bee-powered hive mind designed to educate the people who've been selected to save the world without popping their heads with a flood of forbidden lore.
But where strange things happen, the secret societies follow soon after. All players belong to one of three ancient conspiracies that are all doing their best to control the world in modern times. The Illuminati, retreated to New York City, are the apotheosis of the corporation, seeing their efforts to save the world as damage control to ensure future profits. The Templars, based out of London, claim to be arbiters of good and evil, using tradition as their means of control. The Dragons, housed in Seoul, are psychohistorians and chaos mathematicians with a veneer of eastern philosophy, planning and executing the future as they see fit. Aside from what side you play on in PVP, the difference between the three pretty much comes down to the flavor text you get for finishing missions, and the interludes between regions.
After your induction into one of the secret societies, you're sent to Solomon Island, an island off the coast of Maine with a rich past steeped in Illuminati influence and strange magics, and a dangerous present steeped in zombie uprisings and terrible things emerging from the sea. The game's missions run the gamut, from stealth missions where you need to break into secured areas, avoiding enemies and solving simple puzzles to accomplish your goals to more standard MMORPG fare, hunting and killing monsters, to elaborate puzzles.
Whether you're solving riddles in the town of Kingsmouth to lead the way to an ancient Illuminati treasure, or breaking codes and translating hieroglyphs in Egypt, the investigation quests are some of the most interesting things the game has to offer. The game only lets you have one regular quest at a time, along with a small number of fetch quests, but the quests are broken into tiers, with rewards as you finish each, which is excellent for when you don't want to do all the work of an investigation at once, or when a kill quest starts to drag.
Alongside it all is the main story, which is episodic for each region, with different characters and themes between them. Without spoiling anything about what happens, The Secret World does an excellent job of changing the tone of the areas up to match where you are in your personal arc. Solomon Island is bleak and apocalyptic, with plenty of horror overtones, while Egypt has the feel of an Indiana Jones movie dipped in conspiracy thriller fiction, and Transylvania edges into modern fantasy and fairy tales. Along the way, you learn more about the fascinating groups that inhabit the world, with easily the most memorable characters in any MMORPG I've played.
There aren't any levels or classes in The Secret World. Instead, each character wields two weapons. The holy trinity of tank, healer and DPS is alive and well, but how a player does it can vary pretty greatly. Each weapon has the capability for damage, but shotguns, pistols, and elemental magic are able to buff teammates and debuff enemies, fists, assault rifles and blood magic allows players to heal, and hammers, swords, and chaos magic help you not die. Each weapon has its own style of managing these secondary abilities, and as you earn experience, you gain skill points and ability points to increase proficiency with weapons and unlock more powers.
The game does a good job of handling power selection. With 525 to choose from, it provides a search that lets you enter keywords, search by weapon, and check for actives or passives, allowing you to narrow down the number of powers that synergize with the build you're going for. While the system for saving skills is currently broken, with an obnoxious habit of taking off your weapons and armor when you swap skill sets, the system for making the sets, at least, is terrific. For players less concerned with customization, each faction has ten premade decks, each built around a given theme, and each awarding a costume when you complete it. They aren't great, but the costumes are nice, and they give a good basis for expanding your role.
Of course, the story, while fairly long and interesting, isn't going to last forever, and MMORPG players want their games to last forever. Fortunately, The Secret World has the best dungeons I've ever seen in any MMORPG at launch. Whether you're exploring the rusted machinery of the hell dimensions, invading abandoned Soviet dark science installations in Transylvania, or going back in time via vision quest to help Native Americans and Vikings fight invading Mayan blood mages, each of the dungeons is conceptually spectacular.
Even better, they don't pull their punches. After letting you warm up for the first bits of the first couple dungeons, the challenges and mechanics feel like five man versions of World of Warcraft's better raids. Not only are the bosses' mechanics interesting, but many of the better dungeons are designed to teach players boss mechanics as they play. If you find exploding minions in one battle in The Darkness War, you should be prepared to fight them again later. Even better, there's barely any trash mobs between bosses, letting the encounters come hard and fast.
When you're done the regular dungeons, you'll be ready for the elite dungeons, and after that, the nightmare dungeons. Each adds a new layer of difficulty, keeping the experiences fresh, and, in a boon to players easily frustrated by their partners, Nightmare dungeons are gated by an encounter designed to see if players are competent in their chosen role. Altogether, it should keep players who crave and endgame engaged as they wait for more content.
Fortunately, it won't be a long one. Funcom's announced a plan to bring in content updates with new missions, as well as plans for new regions to adventure in, new dungeons, raids, and even new types of weapons on a monthly basis. While some of the later parts of the game are fairly sparse compared to the beginning, if Funcom can deliver, The Secret World will be an amazingly vital MMORPG, and I can easily see the issues with the lack of content in Transylvania compared to previous zones being resolved.
However, despite all this glowing praise (which the game richly deserves!), The Secret World isn't without its flaws. There are enough bugged quests currently in the game, and not quite enough feedback about when things aren't working in a legitimate way, to make the player base wary of any issue being the result of a bugged quest of dungeon. Oftentimes, the player base is right, but whether they are or not, it always leads to frustration. Similarly, the game's chat is often nonfunctional, and requires re-subscribing to channels and telling it what to talk to on login. While neither of these ruin the experience, they are pretty large issues in a game that's otherwise excellent.
Still, despite those The Secret World managed to hijack my life for a couple weeks as I burned through the main story, and still keeps me coming back to run dungeons, hunt for achievements, and check out the side quests that I missed. It's one of the first truly different MMOs and an absolute coup for Funcom. If you can't afford the price of admission, see if you can get a guest code from someone who can, because The Secret World is, despite its flaws, a masterpiece, and it deserves to enter the pantheon of MMORPGs that have managed to thrive.