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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.