The Secret World, released just over a month ago, is one of the year’s most anticipated titles, standing right alongside Guild Wars 2. It is also the latest addition to Funcom’s growing stable of MMOs, joining Anarchy Online and Age of Conan: Unchained. As one of the newest MMOs to arrive on the scene, Funcom’s development team promised players something different from the current crop of games complete with innovative new features and genre-altering systems. We take a look at The Secret World today, after several weeks exploring its systems, to see how it fares in an increasingly crowded MMO market.
Aesthetics – 9.5
Aesthetically speaking, The Secret World is one of the prettiest games I’ve ever seen particularly if played using DirectX 11. Each zone has its own look, sound and tone created through a fluid combination of music, ambient sounds, a brilliant color palette and mobs of monsters that fit the setting. Seoul, London and New York are filled with the typical sounds of cities and all are bustling with activity of one sort or another. Sometimes it’s nothing short of breathtaking and you find yourself standing there in awe.
Kingsmouth is a riot of autumn splendor. Egypt evokes the gritty sandiness of the desert. Transylvania is awash in greens. Music changes to fit the zone, with nods to traditional tunes. Ambient sounds focus on things one might encounter in the real world: Crows caw, waves lap at the shore of the bay, wind blows through the trees, and ships creak at their moorings. Lastly, while there are the traditional monsters such as zombies, they fit somehow. In Kingsmouth, for instance, the undead are the recent inhabitants of the area. In Egypt, the walking dead are ‘crunchier’, more mummified.
What I’m getting at here is that a great deal of attention has been paid to the way the zones in TSW are laid out, with all pieces coordinating to make a whole.
But aesthetics embody more than just the colors and sounds of a game. Probably the most important part of the way we visually interpret a game is based on the way we view our own avatar as it moves through the world. I don’t know about you but I want to look good while I’m gaming. I want to like looking at my character for the hundreds of hours I’m likely to put into a game. That’s why, recently at least, MMO developers spend so much time on making sure that character creation is fully featured at launch. It’s the first thing that a player does and one that, if poorly done, might determine how long a player ends up ‘living’ in the game world.
The Secret World’s character creation has taken a lot of flak over the months since the various beta phases began. Players complained that there were not enough choices to create someone that didn’t suspiciously look like everyone else’s someone. At the time of the first beta events, detractors had a point but Funcom steadily made improvements prior to launch. While not perfect, not as all-encompassing as other MMOs as far as the minute details of character creation, the system is not bad at all and it’s quite possible to make a very pleasing looking character. Add in the gigantic variety of clothing available and each character will have a terrifically unique look.
If that’s not enough, Funcom has continued to show willingness to hear the complaints of those who want more customization and have promised to keep adding new ways to do so. Additionally, the UI is appropriate slick and minimal in a way that's fitting with a modern world where less is more and Apple's design philosophy rules the day.
Game Play – 8.5
Along with the aesthetics of character creation, initial game play experiences of players took a hit from critics and fans alike. Many players, at least in the earliest beta days, felt that the combat system was clunky and strange. I number myself among those who complained.
Funcom has steadily been improving the combat system and have promised even more changes to come in the future. Much of the weird feeling to the combat system, developers explained, came from the ‘untethering’ of the avatar’s upper body in order to allow moving combat. This has been a boon for caster types. It’s been quite easy to overlook the awkwardness of the system due to the increased effectiveness and less vulnerable state of combat.
What I found is that the longer I played The Secret World, the less I noticed any combat weirdness. Since movement is integral to success in battle, I quickly came to appreciate what Funcom did for my girl. As time went on, I discovered that combat was both fun and thought-provoking. It’s not enough to stand and fire. You need to get on your roller skates to bring down monsters. Having to think is refreshing (and thinking is pretty much the only way you'll survive all TSW has to offer).
I did find, however, that killing the same five monsters in every trash mob on the street to be tiresome. The monster models seem to have little variety so it is like fighting the same critters over and over and over and over…well, you get the point. It’s quite easy to get frustrated in combat since avoiding these trash mobs is difficult due to how laughably simple it is to step into the circle of awareness and/or the way that groups are spaced out making navigating between them problematic at times. I suspect that this is a purposeful design but given how often you’re forced to fight trash mobs, it can get a bit frustrating.
Dungeons are fun too with players banding together to take down more and more difficult bosses and their minions. Gone are the days of trash mobs in dungeons. Gone are the days of simply surviving long enough to grab the end reward. Players need to work symbiotically together to finish a dungeon. A player’s death removes them from the action. In many cases, one player’s death will lead to the entire group’s demise. And you'll have to start over on that fight from the nearby anima well, and try to correct what you did wrong.
PvP areas are also fun though I found them to be rather lackluster in comparison to the rest of TSW’s game world. The three types of PvP (king of the hill, capture the flag, and control) are staples of most MMOs and offer varying levels of challenge to players of all stripes. My main gripe is that there are only three PvP zones (well, not including Fight Clubs in the cities) and two of them (Stonehenge and El Dorado) are pretty dead, at least on the servers on which I played. I'm sure they'd be lots of fun but it will be incumbent on Funcom to ensure the expansion of PvP activities and to somehow bring more relevance to the system. I also must note that right now Fusang Projects seems to mostly be a game of trading off capture points, finishing the three missions within the zone, and leaving until you can do it again. Funcom does have some work to do with PVP, and its balance. But the mold is there. It just needs filling.
The crafting is also somewhat of a mixed bag. On one hand, the notion of having to break down materials and place them strategically on a grid in an experimental fashion sounds promising. But in reality, you will just refer to an internet guide for the placement of materials on the crafting "grid", and you'll soon realize that no matter what you craft the best gear falls in Dungeons or is obtained through the game's many reward vendors. Crafting is another small bit of an idea, that needs more work before it shines completely. True experimentation would be a wonder, but it's beyond me how you'd design such a system. The recent (July 31st) opening of the player-run Marketplace will help crafters get their materials quickly, when before you had to break down so many items to make something that wasn't anything near an upgrade. But still, ultimately, it beats the notion of "leveling" crafting that forces you to make hundreds of useless items to get to the good stuff.
I have to say, though, that these ‘complaints’ are almost completely overshadowed by the overarching story that The Secret World utilizes. All systems in TSW seem to bow to the story. It IS king in TSW bar none. Other issues largely seem to fade into the background as players actually want to know what’s going on in the world.
The main arc’s quests are spectacular and informative, each cinematically filmed complete with stellar voice acting. Players want to help out the beleaguered folks asking them to adventure forth on their behalf. Even the more mundane ‘normal’ quests are packed with information and interesting tidbits about the lore in the area. On top of it all, the cinematic way in which each scene is delivered sets a new standard I believe in cut-scenes for MMO gaming.
Value & Longevity – 8.0
On release, players had two purchase options: $50 for the box plus a $15 per month subscription fee; or the box plus a $200 lifetime subscription. Given the amount of content that The Secret World shipped with, players will get their money’s worth in short order. The lifetime subscription also seems like a great deal but a lot of players are nervous about spending that much at one time (and who can blame them?).
All that said, however, and given the recent announcement that Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to offer a hybrid subscription-F2P option it seems unwise to embark on a subscription-only revenue model at this time in the history of MMOs. I won’t say that the subscription based model won’t work. It will remain to see if it can sustain the game’s development and player base over time.
The item mall is definitely packed with convenience items. Honestly, I see little reason to ever use it from the standpoint that the clothiers in each major city have vastly more options for players to choose from. Most of the things in the shop are simply variations of the same piece of clothing in a different color. Prices are pretty steep too. Luckily, there is NO pay to win here. Funcom has done well in keeping things cosmetic and I say good on ‘em!
As for longevity, I can see The Secret World lasting a good long while. There is so much potential for additional content based on the lore and mythology that our human existence embodies. If the team can keep content coming at a decent pace and keep it as fresh and interesting as what is already in the game, it’s possible that TSW could go on for years. Ragnar and Funcom have stated they already have seven years worth of additional content planned... but let's hope they can keep up the monthly pace to keep players coming back.