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The Secret World review

Mediocre

World of Warcraft launched eight years ago, and MMORPGs still don't know what to do with themselves. It's no longer enough to just clone WoW, if it ever was, and the genre's massive shift toward a free-to-play revenue model has developers scrambling to reinvent yesterday's premium games as sufficiently alluring freebies. The Secret World, Funcom's latest MMORPG, boldly aims for the ever-shrinking premium space, hoping to justify its monthly fee with an utterly unique setting and theme. It doesn't quite, at this early stage, despite being an undeniably interesting effort.

TSW takes place in the modern day, only in a skewed universe in which every myth, legend, and conspiracy theory is utterly, horribly true. This heightened reality serves as the backdrop for a millennia-spanning struggle between three secret societies: the craven, amoral Illuminati, the rigid, authoritarian Templars, and the chaotic, mysterious Dragon. As a new agent of your chosen faction, you'll bring your newfound paranormal abilities to the aid of your masters' agenda.

This is a very cool concept, and Funcom's writers have a ton of fun tossing in scads of far-out ideas just to see what sticks. Collectible lore items fill in the backstory, but much of the best color comes via the quest-giving NPCs, who are veritable chatterboxes. The dialogue tends toward overwritten and pulpy, but it's hard to feel too cross when there are moments of brilliance, such as writing the Illuminati as crass Hollywood hedonists. TSW’s atmosphere is utterly singular, and purple prose is preferable to the more common alternative of uniform, juvenile mediocrity.

We also like the highly unorthodox way TSW handles character advancement. There are no classes or levels, so your aptitudes are completely determined by your equipped gear and slotted abilities (up to 14 at once). So, want your healer to be a tank? Find some tank gear, slot relevant abilities, and you’re set. It’s very cool that one character can, given enough development and gear, play any role you want them to. (Less cool is the build-swapping interface, which is only vaguely functional. Luckily, modders are working on alternatives.)

 

Character flexibility is second to none, but with 525 abilities to choose from it takes a lot of time and effort to come up with a decent build that properly exploits the synergies between certain weapon and ability combos. Our eyes nearly glazed over the first time we explored the wheel-like interface that holds all those abilities, and we lunged for its built-in search engine like a life preserver. A little patience and a can-do attitude got us past the initial info overload, but it’ll be nice if Funcom comes up with a more user-friendly way to access all this crucial info at some point. A web-based build calculator would be a great start.

Upon landing on gloomy Solomon Island, the first of three current locales, our questing began in earnest, with the initial tasks coming from the frazzled staff of a zombie-besieged police department. We like how the quest system limits you to just a handful of quests at a time, which puts a greater emphasis on their individual storylines.

TSW tries to keep things fresh with occasional sneaking missions and puzzle-focused investigation quests. While we appreciate the concept, these pace-changers often felt superfluous or frustrating, either because the relatively crude MMO game engine wasn't up to creating a fun stealth dynamic or, more commonly, because an extremely obtuse riddle stopped us dead in our tracks. Being stuck for long periods (at least by MMO standards) just wasn’t fun, which drove us to Google. We ran into plenty of players who absolutely loved the investigation missions, but we found them more frustrating than fun.

Beyond the scattering of high-concept quests, MMO business as usual dominates. WoW-like tedium of the "kill x monsters, gather x items" variety had undeniably taken hold by the time we got to Solomon Island's third and final zone. A bit later, in Egypt, this was amply illustrated by two concurrent quests which, combined, had us kill some monsters in the front yard, then kill some monsters in the backyard, then kill some monsters inside the building, then enter the basement (a solo instance) to kill yet more. Call us crazy, but we expected internecine shadow conflicts to be a lot more interesting.

It's strange, too, how antisocial TSW feels. Outside of the token PvP arenas and five-player dungeons, there is very little need to group or interact with other players, and the PvE questing contains enough solo instances to disrupt even those players who actively try to group. Despite joining a cabal (guild) of cool folks and running dungeons now and then we spent the vast majority of our time playing solo, making our TSW adventure feel more massively single-player than massively multiplayer.

TSW's PvP offerings are modest. At any time you can queue up and wait to go to El Dorado or Stonehenge - a large arena or a small one - or warp rather immediately to Fusang Projects, a persistent PvP space built around territory capture. We didn't like Stonehenge's tiny cluster of an arena, but El Dorado and Fusang were an agreeable break from tiresome PvE questing. But fun? That brings us to combat.

Incredibly lackluster combat was the sledgehammer that broke our camel's back. While you can wield a variety of supposedly deadly weapons, few offer much sense of oomph or impact. We played primarily with the blade / assault rifle combo, but we might as well have been slashing that sword at thin air for all the visual and aural feedback it offered. On-hit effects didn't even wait for their animations to connect; the very instant we triggered our stun ability enemies would freeze, well before our character actually executed the attack's visually dramatic animation.

Once you assemble a stable build, combat devolves into cycling through the same few abilities over and over, ad nauseam, until the enemies drop. Many MMOs feature skill cycling and the resultant repetition, but even eight-year-old WoW (not to mention Funcom's more recent Age of Conan) do a better job of making combat seem believably physical, with blades that feel cutty and blunt objects that go thunk. In contrast, TSW’s combat looks and feels like a weightless pantomime. Apply 2-10 button cycles until enemy drops; repeat. All RPGs are repetitive on some level, but TSW's repetitive, bloodless encounters become mind-numbing.

Between the superficially novel but ultimately familiar questing and the utterly uninvolving combat our initial wellspring of bonhomie and goodwill dried up, leaving us going through the same motions over and over just to get to the next slightly different quest giver. By the time we got to Egypt (about 80 hours logged) we were spent, leaving us in an odd position. TSW's fiction and atmosphere are so novel that we'd really like to see what happens in the rest of the game, in Transylvania and beyond. The problem is that this would require playing for another 100+ hours, and at this point that doesn't seem appealing.

The Secret World is admirable for attempting to inject much-needed originality and life into MMORPGs, but while its fiction and theme succeed, its mostly derivative questing and stale combat fail to justify the steep time investment. Funcom is committed to The Secret World and will undoubtedly make many changes and improvements over the coming months and years. But given the current shortcomings, up-front cost, and the monthly fee, a wait-and-see approach seems wise. Given time, The Secret World will only get cheaper - and better.

More Info

Release date: Jul 03 2012 - PC (US)
Available Platforms: PC
Genre: Role Playing
Published by: Electronic Arts
Developed by: Funcom
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence, Sexual Content

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16 comments

  • vincent-wolf - July 23, 2012 12:22 a.m.

    TSW really hooked me up in first few betas and I don't regret buying it one bit. However I do not expect to buy even 1 more month of sub. All the new positive sides end very quickly as usual and negative things catch up. Lack of LFG tool is gamebreaking. I'm not going to go through the same old "prove that you're good enough to join my manual party" sh*t. That's too 2009. What's that? Don't want to play manual way don't play at all? Yes, that's what I would do. Along with many other ppl. How's that good for business? Characters are ugly and badly animated. I need to like my character to be interested in playing the game. It must be alive and pretty. Not usual random gal with bland appearance from the streets. Especially weird since they added a cash shop that mostly sells clothes. Nuh-uh, Funcom, doesn't works this way. Bugs, crashes and over the top system requirements. Don't even need to explain that. Guild Wars 2 looks much better, has sexy characters, pretty graphics, good animations and much simplier graphics and still looks better.
  • JVNT - July 24, 2012 10:29 a.m.

    Alright, as far as the LFG tool, chances are that will be added. It's not a standard. For example, WoW didn't have it for the longest time and it was a pain getting a group. I haven't had a problem getting a group in TSW for something. No one questions my character or requires me to prove I'm good. The only reason you'd be complaining is if you tried to bring a QL 0 character into a QL 5 dungeon and were told you were good enough. I like the character models. But someone used to the perfectly pretty stuff like guild wars might not appreciate something that doesn't look like a fairy.
  • tim-benson - July 20, 2012 8:02 a.m.

    This is one reason why I don't read reviews anymore. They are Biased and some people may not agree. I do enjoy the game, but to be honest EVERY mmo that is out has some form of clunkyness. Every mmo will ALWAYS have the kill x and kill x. That is just natural. Even the most action based mmo AKA Tera is kill x and kill x. NO MMO will EVER tray from that formula like it or not. This review should be NEUTRAL but you reviewers are rediculously making a Biased review forcing people to believe what you feel how the game is. You need to make it nutraul based and explain how if PEOPLE would like this type of thing NOT HOW YOU FEEL RETARDS!
  • angelusdlion - July 21, 2012 8:10 p.m.

    A review is an opinion, so what, he's just supposed to ignore that he found the combat boring? Doubly so when it's a MAJOR part of the game? Seriously dude, take a chill pill and relax a little. Your'e starting to sound like someone mentioned the ending of Mass Effect 3.
  • Myko - July 23, 2012 8:07 a.m.

    haha your picture looks goofy.
  • GojuSuzi - July 28, 2012 6:35 a.m.

    To be fair, they are showingexactly how people of the same type as them would like it. And since these are the sort plaguing modern WoW, expecting to be spoonfed xp and have quest instructions no more complicated than "go over there, hammer two attacks, then come back for lewt", it's completely accurate that these kind of people will not enjoy TSW, and better for everyone if they steer clear. The shards are filling up faster than Funcom can open them. TSW is not going to die for lack of players. We do not need to trick the instant-gratification-seekers into playing a game that is neither designed for nor desireable to them. Everybody wins.
  • AuthorityFigure - August 29, 2012 4:48 a.m.

    There's no such thing as a neutral review. If there were, it would be meaningless because it would have its point of view made a priori. Your comment itself is biased, so how would you express your view if you re-wrote it neutrally? Ridiculous.
  • JonnyBigBoss - July 19, 2012 9:59 p.m.

    Your review echoes my experience exactly. The Secret World is bold and it's hard to deny that it strays from the norm, but its foundation is weak. I can't recommend any game, particularly an MMORPG, that doesn't have a strong foundation. World of Warcraft may have been missing content and balance when it came out, but its gameplay and engine were fantastic. The Secret World's combat is clunky and the entire experience feels unexciting. Great work fellas.
  • etherealshadow - July 19, 2012 5:25 p.m.

    I'm really torn with this one. I love the concept and the art. I've loved the videos I've seen of it and the in-depth and endlessly customizable talent system they made. However, the gameplay doesn't cut it for me, and it seems to really lack polish. I've already pre-ordered GW2, and I just can't justify paying a subscription for TSW. I played in the betas for both games, and GW2 is much more polished and an all around better value. If it didn't have a subscription I probably would have gotten it. As it stands now, though, I'm going to have to pass. I just can't see enough value in it.
  • Person5 - July 19, 2012 3:08 p.m.

    I been playing the game for a while, and besides the combat being kinda weak, I quite enjoy the game, plus I forsee the game being Free to play soon enough, I think its worth its initial price, and maybe one or two extra months, at least for now.
  • dcbernman - July 19, 2012 2:29 p.m.

    Totally saw this coming. Although, I suppose that that could be the result of honest advertising. If you couldn't see that the game had weak and repetitive combat, but great story, atmosphere, and art, then you really didn't look close enough...
  • griffinkat - July 19, 2012 2:23 p.m.

    a 2.5 out of 5? Oh run the the hills before the fannatics find out. >.> GameRevoltion got flamed for giving the same score. ;p To the point there's a whole forum page on TSW site about how horrible they were at reviwing it. ;p
  • JonnyBigBoss - July 19, 2012 10:01 p.m.

    GameRevolution got flamed for sharing its opinion which went against the die-hard TSW fans. MMO gamers can be a bit fanatical.
  • StonedMagician99 - July 9, 2012 6:54 p.m.

    I know we're both waiting for the official GR verdict, but having bought it and played almost 20 hours so far, I can say yes, it is worth buying. The PVP could be better handled, and a few early quests are bugged, but the story, graphics, and art direction are incredible. I think it's worth buying, for whatever my recommendation is worth.
  • Salazans - July 9, 2012 7:37 a.m.

    One question, is it worth buying? I've already got 90% of the preorder goodies sitting in my account but have been dissuaded by a friend to buying the actual game now.
  • FoxdenRacing - July 20, 2012 9:03 a.m.

    That wholly depends on what you want from it...if the game provides what you want, then it doesn't matter what the reviews say. The reviewer doesn't think it's that great; you might! I've loved games that reviewers have hated, and have hated games that reviewers loved. I've loved games that other gamers pile on, and and hated games that other gamers gush over. It's all about getting to know who you're listening to, knowing whether you and they look for the same thing in their games. Justin Towell, for example; He and I have very similar tastes in racing games, so I take him at his word when he's put on a racing game review.

Showing 1-16 of 16 comments

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