Some secrets are best left untold.
I have a soft spot for online RPGs, especially MMOS that try to revitalize the stagnant genre with unique design and progressive flavor. The Secret World fits right into my archetype; not only does it attempt to go in a bold new direction with level-less design, a modern setting, and fully voice-acted cutscenes, but it’s made by a developer with over a decade of experience. In essence, it’s the perfect setup for either a big surprise or a huge let-down.
The Secret World starts off exactly how you might expect—spending nearly half an hour creating a character. But don’t be fooled, it’s not because there are a lot of options. Selecting from one of the three cool factions (Dragon, Illuminati, and Templar) is great, but the character creator is too limited. Most of your time will go into choosing which clothes to wear since the choices for designing your character’s features are slim. Since everyone is human and the're very little physical customization, each character's wardrobe is what sets them apart.
During the first hour the game tears control away from you with dozens of cut-scenes and dialogue, but on the plus side the voice-acting is great. The game offers a truly unique atmosphere in the modern day world with a particular blend of myths and horror. NPC interaction is one of the best qualities of the game, but unfortunately the first few hours don't do it justice. Initially, it almost feels like you're playing a modern action-adventure game with MMO roots, but that potential is quickly swallowed whole by the first taste of combat.
The combat system aims for a more action-oriented approach with handguns, magic, and hammers, but it's so dated and incohesive that it’s hard to enjoy. The animations are clunky and it lacks the feedback that makes games like World of Warcraft and even the upcoming Guild Wars 2 fun to play for extended periods of time. Worst of all, combat sequences are rarely satisfying no matter which of the nine weapon types you equip. The only highlight is the attack indicator that appears while battling certain types of monsters which prompts you to dodge. However, it isn’t enough to carry the experience, and since you spend the majority of your time in battle, this shortcoming is amplified.
It’s important to keep in mind that by design The Secret World features both sandbox and themepark elements with hand-holding kept at a minimum. Though there’s a main storyline to follow, the path isn't set in stone. Instead, progression is made by participating in dozens of side-quests. Quests range from generic hunting quests that lull you to sleep, to missions that require thought and precision. Some take advantage of the game's engine by introducing interactive objects, while others send you around on a scavenger hunt. At launch, a sizeable portion of the quests are buggy and progression is halted on a regular basis. While most of these are optional, spending half an hour on a questline only to find out that one of the final steps is broken is something that can overwhelm any sense of satisfaction with pure frustration.
The unfortunate side effect of the game’s adventurous design is that it’s extremely common to feel lost and hopeless. Quest instructions are hit-and-miss with some offering helpful guidance while others are downright impossible to understand. You’ll find yourself constantly asking where to go in the game’s Help chat or taking advantage of the in-game browser to find forum threads littered with similarly confused individuals. Players who enjoy a challenge might find this quality alluring, but the average player will quickly lose interest.
Investigation quests are where the game shows strokes of brilliance. These quests require you to problem-solve by using clues in the environment as well as contextual items, such as phone books and newspaper articles. An in-game browser is also employed to solve a variety of the quests. Similarly, there are missions that involve platforming and light puzzle-solving. As with investigation, these breathe some life into The Secret World, but they’re only a minor portion of the whole questing experience. As such, the mixture of many dull and sometimes broken quests coupled together with the game's unsatisfying combat system makes for gameplay that simply put isn't fun.
What’s most interesting about the game is there are no levels and you can design your character how you want even after you finish character creation. Progression through the ability wheel is rewarding with hundreds of skills for you to choose from, and you can mix and match two weapon types to play how you want. A total of seven active and seven passive skills can be equipped at any given time and it’s encouraged that you level up several sections of the wheel to avoid being one-dimensional. The result is a system that is very flexible and encourages you to be a swiss army knife of sorts.
In terms of gear, there is no armor in the game, so you can wear any—or none—of the clothing purchased at the game mall to give your character the look you desire. There are talismans that can be equipped, which function in the same way as gear, although the combinations are limited and not visually gratifying since you can’t see them on your character. It’s a strange mixture, but on the plus side personality is on full-display. You’ll very rarely find two people who are dressed the same, and there are an awful lot of half-naked women running around... which might be a plus for you.
Each zone of The Secret World is themed with its own enemies and quests. The first main environment you run into is Kingsmouth, a calm town that’s been overrun with zombies. Later you go on to visit other real-world locations such as Egypt. It certainly makes going to a new area more exciting, but the biggest problem is that they’re inconsistent in quality, with later zones clearly less polished. What’s most concerning is that the zones feel dead with open areas littered with characterless enemies and uninteresting environments. The main cities are devoid of life and make you feel like you're a character in Stephen King's The Langoliers. Its lack of energy makes it difficult to become immersed, which is a shame considering the atmosphere has a lot of potential.
PvP is hardly worth noting. Not only is it laggy, severely imbalanced, and frustrating, but the combat also makes it a button-mashing snore-fest. The crafting system is useful for creating your first weapon and completing the tutorial, but afterward is rarely useful. There’s no group finder, so chat spam has once again found its way into a modern MMO. The one thing worth your time and effort are the several dungeons with unique bosses that require group strategy. They reward you with tons of experience and loot so it's a good idea to do them once your gear is up to snuff, but once again the game's floaty and spammy combat presents itself in full-force during the long drawn-out fights.
The detailed character models are the only commendable part of the game’s presentation, and even they're far from perfect. Female character faces look hideous, and although there are a few very well-designed enemies in the game, many of them are dull. The character models stand-out from the game's comatose environments which feel empty and unfulfilled. Animations are awful and there’s so little feedback that you’ll wonder sometimes whether or not your ability landed. The UI is functional but can be a hassle at times and considering it lacks hotkeys for inventory items it certainly isn't up to today's standards. Worst of all, performance isn’t up to snuff, so even if you have a decent rig chances are you’ll be rolling with lower framerates than you expect.
As it stands now, The Secret World stands little chance as a subscription-based game when similar products offer so much more. The flexible skill system is fun to toy around with, but the boring combat makes unlocking abilities far less desiring. While the voice-acted cutscenes are arguably the best in the genre, it's difficult to become engrossed in the world when it's as lifeless as it is. Lastly, the quests are far too inconsistent with investigation and platforming rising well above the majority of other quests which at times are downright dreadful. The Secret World is a title that may have made a splash five years ago. Now it’s just another archaic MMO looking to fit in.