The Secret World Review
What if supernatural forces did exist, and powerful organizations fought an ongoing war to keep them hidden from us?
That’s the premise of The Secret World, an innovative MMORPG by veteran developer Funcom. It’s a rare entry in the MMO genre that takes a great many risks, which begs the question: did those risks pay off?
The Secret World
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: July 3, 2012
The Secret World is an RPG without classes, races, or even levels. Character creation has you pick your starting clothing — which is appreciated — but is otherwise fairly barebones, allowing you to customize your head, but not your body. The result is a world full of people of exactly the same height, weight, and build. Thereafter, you develop a “class” through play; every time you level up, you earn points that you can spend in one of three specialties: firearms, melee weapons, or magic.
Each specialty is further subdivided — for instance, the firearms branch breaks up into pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles — and players can hold one primary and one secondary weapon, taken from any specialty. Mix-and-matching the right combination of weapons and powers is the key to building a strong character, and without levels, there’s essentially no limit to the number of points you can allot.
While TSW doesn’t technically have levels, you do level up. You have an XP bar that fills as you kill monsters and complete quests, and every time it fills completely, you gain points to spend on abilities. The downside of this system is the loss of the allure of leveling. Whether we admit it or not, most of us enjoy the feeling of satisfaction obtained by seeing that numerical representation of our time investment increase, and TSW’s system is too abstract to retain the thrill of the “ding!” All it would take is a simple measure of how many times our XP bar filled — as it stands, it’s difficult to judge your personal progression.
TSW’s intro sequence has you take on the role of a Joe Everyman who discovers he has supernatural powers and is promptly recruited into either the religiously zealous Templar, the pragmatically Machiavellian Illuminati, or the philosophically terroristic Dragon. The game hits a home run with its factions — there is no obvious “good” or “evil” choice, with each group liberally colored in shades of grey and deliciously enticing.
Every faction has a different introductory segment before all players are dumped into the collective starter zone, which immediately struck me as reminiscent of Left 4 Dead: a country road winding through a forest, littered with stopped cars and home to packs of zombies feeding on corpses. If you picked a firearm as your starting weapon, the combat even initially feels similar to an MMO rendition of the popular zombie game.
In fact, the game is filled with pop culture references, be it a kid directly bringing up the zombie-killing experience he accrued playing Left 4 Dead, or an indirect reference to Indiana Jones via a “We have top men working on it now; top… men,” quote. Unlike the pop culture references found in some fantasy games, these don’t feel out of place or like the developer nudging and winking at the player, but rather a natural part of the world.
These references help lend credibility to the game’s characters. Now, I applauded The Old Republic for being the first MMO with full voice-acting. Not only does The Secret World have plentiful voice-acting, but it’s much more fun that SWTOR’s. While the Star Wars voice work may be a tad more professional, TSW’s characters are more interesting, dynamic, and alive. Sure, there are some bad accents and a healthy dose of caricature, but just about every NPC that spoke to me was memorable.
One element that was key to bringing characters to life was humor, which you’d think would be out of place in a horror game. Humor humanized the characters and actually served to enhance the horror through juxtaposition — black looks darker when it’s next to white.
While I’m normally averse to silent protagonists, TSW handles this trope well, even hanging a lantern on it by having NPCs make comments like, “Not much of a talker, are you?” Your character may never speak, but he still says a lot through facial expressions and body language, and it often makes sense for him to be speechless and look on incredulously — there’s a ton of crazy sh*t being thrown at him. When someone is talking to you about eldritch horrors, I think standing around dumbfounded is a completely appropriate response.
Characterization isn’t the only element of realism in the game. TSW pulls no punches when it comes to mature themes, even involving your character in arguably-consensual (off-screen) fellatio in one of the faction’s opening sequences. That example is the exception rather than the rule, however, as the maturity is mostly conveyed through usage of common vulgarities, which actually helps with immersion and makes characters all the more believable.
The Secret World is, without a doubt, the most immersive MMORPG I’ve ever played — and perhaps one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played, period. Cities don’t feel like maps constructed for a game, but like actual, inhabited settlements. Sound effects — like the pattering of footsteps or the grunt of a zombie — have you looking over your shoulder, scanning for threats. Monsters — at least initially — aren’t just XP piñatas that stand about, waiting for you to kill them; they’re semi-intelligent zombies that actively run about the city and munch on corpses lying in the streets. An atmosphere of doom and gloom conveys the tone of the game both visually and via a well-executed musical score that subconsciously plucks at your psyche.
As I walked the streets, shotgun in hand, careful not to draw the attention of any zombie packs away from their meal, I felt genuine horror. Horror, in an MMORPG! TSW also plays with lighting to great effect, both in terms of its day/night cycle and by having you explore dark areas. One quest, in particular, necessitated wearing a headlamp that provided a dim cone of illumination in a darkened garage complex, making players jump at any movement in the darkness and evoking the same sense of paranoia you feel when you think you may have an intruder in your house.
Unfortunately, that sense of immersion vanished the moment I entered combat. Once I started dancing with these monsters that I’d so feared, familiar MMO mechanics kicked in and I was left with a disappointing fight with just another pack of mobs. TSW does little to push the envelope for traditional MMO combat. While there is a focus on combos and tactical positioning, general clunkiness and occasional unresponsiveness, coupled with animations that could use a little more work, make combat slightly less enjoyable than in other MMOs.