The Secret World Review (PC)

Disclaimer: this is by no means the definitive, now-and-forever, all-seeing all-knowing review of The Secret World, because that is impossible. This isn’t a cop-out in case you disagree with me (although it handily doubles as that), it simply means that the game will change often and my criticisms may well melt away entirely. MMOs are being constantly changed, messed with and added to, meaning that you shouldn’t be assuming that score on the right will be correct in a year. This is a judgment of the here and now of The Secret World. Got that? Right, now I’ll get on with it.

The Secret World is a subscription-based MMO from Funcom, the makers of Age of Conan, a subscription-based MMO that was about to die a hideous player-less death until it went Free To Play (F2P) because no one wants subscription-based MMOs anymore. See if you can notice what was wrong with that sentence, because Funcom haven’t. World of Warcraft, still the biggest name in MMOs, is £8.99 a month. Star Wars: The Old Republic, arguably the second, is also £8.99 a month and is venting subscribers left right and centre. Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, Guild Wars 2 and every other major MMO are F2P. The Secret World is £11.49 a month, which is actually cheaper than it was going to be. At the end of this review, I am going to be asking two simple questions: is it worth such a hideously overpriced subscription fee, and will it have the player-base to keep it going?

Kingsmouth. A lively place

What it definitely does have is a compelling world and subject matter. The Secret World is inspired by HP Lovecraft, The X-Files, Deus Ex and any number of conspiracy/monster stories, which is damn refreshing when every MMO coming out is either fantasy or space based. After choosing your side (Illuminati, Templar, or Dragon) and setting up your character you start the game in bed, whereupon a bee flies in your mouth and trippy shit starts happening. You’re then contacted by a representative from your chosen group and sent to one of three starting cities – New York, London, and Seoul. You won’t be spending much more than a few tutorials there as you’ll shortly be sent via underworld tree (don’t ask) to the New England town of Kingsmouth, which is overrun by zombies, hellspawn, Old Ones, Men In Black and, um, hippies.

Funcom are undeniably on to a winner here. Running around a recognisable open world rather than a made-up fantasy land is a breath of fresh air in the MMO genre, and instantly makes The Secret World 90% more compelling than any other MMO coming out. A realistic, believable town covered in monsters inspired by Lovecraft, with a definite Silent Hill feel (small American town covered in fog and overwhelmed by monsters), and that’s really a new audience for a persistent online world – one I know I really wanted, and I’m sure I’m not the only one given how big the fanbase already is.

Funcom had an excellent idea and, thankfully, they pull it off well too. The Secret World is half-recognisable from a dozen Stephen King stories, filled with monsters straight out of Call of Cthulhu and characters from The Walking Dead or The X-Files. Just exploring this world is a joy – split into three main areas comprising Kingsmouth, Egypt and Transylvania – meaning that Point One of creating a great MMO, “create a world people will actually want to spend hours in”, is well truly ticked.

The combat is most definitely a bit simplistic – this isn’t DC Universe Online or anything. Press ‘1’ for Basic Shot, ‘3’ for Big Crippling Shotgun Blast, that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter what faction you choose, skills and weapon choice are the same for all. There are three combat trees, comprising Guns, Melee, and Magic, with three weapon types in each (like pistols, rifles and shotguns for Guns). You can only carry two weapons at any time (including the three magics), meaning you have to make some tough choices in this department.

I decided to specialise in Shotguns and Elemental Magic, but after a few hours play I hit a problem. Levelling is almost entirely combat-focused, with ‘AP’ and ‘SP’ points to spend rather than Levels per se, but instead of the usual World of Warcraft string of commands at the bottom of the screen Funcom limit you to only seven skill slots (and seven passive skills). I very quickly found that giving up Elemental Magic and focusing entirely on my Shotgun skills was the only way I’d actually get to use most of the new attacks I was buying. I understand that this decision was to make things easier in the heat of the moment, but it still feels a little tight.

Quests are interestingly handled, although one design choice may upset a few people. They can be found pretty much anywhere, such as an NPC, a Missing Persons list, or a, er, severed hand. There is quite a wide range of quest types, which is one of the best things about the game, although in general they boil down to Find Something While Killing Things, Stealth With A Bit Of Killing Things and Puzzle-Solving (While Killing Things).

Try and pronounce that when you’re drunk

The first is the general MMO go-to mission that usually concludes with a boss fight of sorts, which at the very least gives you an excuse to explore a new area. The other two, while excellent in principle, are messed up right now. Stealth just doesn’t handle well with the standard MMO controls, so it’s fortunate this type isn’t that pervasive. Puzzle missions, on the other hand, are. Fortunately though these are a lot more fun even though you sometimes have to fight off hoards of hard zombies while scanning the environment for a piece of paper, a scrawled symbol or a rock, but the most interesting puzzles force you to use the game’s web browser to search the internet for clues. Nice idea, but what’s the first thing that comes up when you Google “secret world men in black wife password” (like in the already-infamously complex Men In Black side-quest)? Not as Funcom intended, but rather twenty walkthrough sites with the answer in the search excerpt. Oh well, still a fun idea.

What’s less fun, and I have no idea why Funcom have implemented this, is the fact that you can only have a certain amount of missions on the go at any one time. No, not 45 like Lord of the Rings Online, five. One story mission, one NPC mission, and three side-quests. That’s it. It’s supposed to force you to concentrate on a few missions at a time, but instead it stifles exploration. I might not come back this way again, but I don’t want to give up the Missing Journal missions to follow these empty seafood boxes. I couldn’t actually do the boss of the very first mission in Kingsmouth so had to give it up, and I’m certainly not going to do all the stuff that led up to the boss again so I’ll never finish that quest. As a further moan, it’s sometimes really hard to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing or where you need to go. I really don’t want to scour a massive area covered in zombies for a piece of paper, thanks.

Fortunately a better idea is that you don’t have to go back to the quest giver to get your reward, instead your faction bosses do that – sometimes snarkily (“I’m glad you solved that mystery of the missing seafood, but let’s get back to saving the world from the forces of darkness okay?”). In fact the writing and voice acting are both pretty darn excellent, with some genuinely funny dialogue along the way. Sometimes pre-mission cutscenes can be a bit rambling, but you never want to skip them. It’s a shame your main character is mute, as it turns a conversation into a bit of a monologue, but otherwise Funcom certainly give Bioware a run for its money. It’s even got the wonderful Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners, Weyoun in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), my favourite actor ever, so a big thumbs up from me in this department.

We’re coming to the end now, so let’s go back to those key questions. First, is it worth the ridiculously high subscription fee? Going technically there are plenty of bugs and quest problems but I’m confident they’ll get sorted out, although I have to say I did encounter an awful lot of lag and pop-in even for an MMO on my crappy connection. I certainly had the most problems of any MMO I’ve played, which makes the decision to cut the world up into smaller chunks (presumably to make it more manageable) either bizarre or much-needed – if it’s this bad now, what would it be like with a bigger play area?

I’m not going to really answer the question about the fee, but my personal view is that Funcom are utterly insane. Even if Bioware and The Old Republic are struggling to tempt subscribers and the entire genre’s proving that the Free-To-Play model is a success (including Funcom’s own games!) it’s baffling to me that they would saddle The Secret World with the highest subscription fee around, no matter how good it is.

So on to the second question then, will the player-base be there? Right now most definitely it is, and a friendly helpful bunch of players they are too. Which is good, since Funcom seem to have gone out of their way to make the opening hours of The Secret World as confusing as they are compelling. Skill descriptions are baffling to any MMO newbie, key buttons (like the Inventory!) are hidden away under ‘Menus’, and no one tells you how to access the still-slightly-underdeveloped PVP warzones. PVE is the main focus of the game though, you can’t even challenge another player to a duel (I couldn’t anyway) outside the special PVP areas. Speaking of other players it has to be said that unless you’re actively playing with a partner (best way to play MMOs) most of the quests are stubbornly solo affairs, with little opportunity for kindly Samaritans to help out barring the odd boss.

Why grandma, what big eyes you have LIGHTNING BOLT TO THE FACE

It’s not my place to tell the future so I won’t judge whether £11.49 a month was a bad idea or not (cough, it is, cough), but it is my job to judge whether The Secret World is a good game that is worth your money and time right now. It is, most definitely. I enjoyed exploring and the missions were always entertaining. You’ll probably need at least one friend to buy the game and play some missions with you, but as superbly Funcom allow players to move their characters between servers at will (YES!) and join forces with players of a different faction (hooray!) this becomes very easy. That the playerbase is friendly and welcoming right now is just icing on the cake.

I can’t say whether you should pay a subscription for The Secret World, but if you do despite some quibbles of mine this is a world you will enjoy being part of. Albeit not a very secret one though.

Top Game Moment: Lots, but I personally love the tannoy announcements in the Illuminati base. “All water coolers have now been laced with LSD” for example.



By nocutius (SI Elite) on Jul 18, 2012
I gave this a quick try in the beta and I got stuck in the tutorial :).

I don't know if it was due to my enormous incompetence or due to some sort of a bug but I just quit at that point. But then again the game was still in a beta so it's not really fair of me to even mention that :).

I liked what I saw as it felt fresh and interesting but the fighting is the same stat-based as in most MMOs so I don't really see myself playing this.
By danfreeman (SI Elite) on Jul 18, 2012
I really like the setting of this game,been paying attention to it for years now,it`s definetly a unique game but the bad combat, bad puzzle solving and high price mean i`m not going to buy this.

It`s a shame really,this game could definetly be in it`s own niche of gaming but at that price i`ll wait for it to go f2p,that`s probably why it costs so much right now,they want to get as much cash as possible before changing model.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jul 18, 2012
I think I can pretty much guarantee that it'll be F2P within a year, or soon after. When that happens, especially after all the updates, it'll be an utter jewel in the MMO crown and EVERYONE should give it a go. Right now though, I wouldn't pay £11.49 a month for even the greatest game in the world ever. But that's my personal opinion, it's up to you whether that's too much or not.
By Jraptor59 (I just got here) on Jul 18, 2012
I really like the game, so far, it is the most original MMO out there atm. As to the sub fee, if they deliver new content every month for free, I think it is fair. The F2P model usually turns into hundreds of micro transactions that cost you far more than $15 a month, esp. if they make the micro transaction mandatory (like a needed skill, weapon, armor, etc.). For instance, my son plays LoL and he is always buying new heroes. He has spent about $50 a month, he says, on this F2P game. The sub fee comes out to about 50 cents a day, so yes, as long as they keep it fresh with new content, I'll pay.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Jul 18, 2012
That's the most important thing, if you enjoy the game that's all it matters.

It's true that a f2p game can cost you a huge amount of money if you're not careful. There are people in World of Tanks that spent hundreds of €'s on that game, I spent approximately 100€ myself. I've never spent that much money on a single game before.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Jul 18, 2012
I want to play this...but I'm not paying that ludicrous subsription fee.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jul 22, 2012
Thanks for the disclaimer at the beginning Chris, as it seems some readers don't understand that this is how reviews are published - how the game is now. Perhaps another visit in 12 months might be in order if the game's still around.

After reading through the review, I'd have to say i'd give this a wide berth (even if F2P), especially considering it is subbed.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jul 23, 2012
Yeah, I felt a disclaimer was important since MMOs change so rapidly. What I also didn't mention but can't tell is what the community will think of the end-game content. All the grumbling about The Old Republic's long-term appeal came after all the reviews, and that's TOR's biggest flaw.

I think the game will be around in a year, but it'll also be F2P by then. That's why it'll still be around. It also depends on how quick Funcom can inject new decent content, something else I can't tell. I loved Lord of the Rings Online more than WOW because Turbine were so great at adding new stuff all the time, for free.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jul 23, 2012
I have to agree with the endgame issue, particularly as I was one of the many left in Limbo and very disappointed with "TOR". After a rich storyline, rising to a climax it then just ebbed into nowhere. Unless you wish to just partake in group missions that mean nothing for your character's development there's no incentive to play on. I un-subbed.
So yes, we'll how this one goes.
That's what I like about "STO" - the content just keeps coming for the player who wishes to just explore the galaxy and the stories on their own. Yes you can partake in group actions if you wish to, but there's plenty of content that doesn't require it and much more to come.