The Secret World is officially out today, but I was lucky enough to try out the game with the open beta a few weekends ago. After only a couple of hours into the beta, I promptly decided to pre-order the game, which granted me early access last Friday and paved the way for me wiling the hours of the weekend away via the medium of MMO goodness. As any of you who have played an MMO will know, one weekend’s play merely scratches the surface of what’s on offer – as a result, this won’t be a full review, as it’s impossible to put a score on it this early, but I can let you know if The Secret World looks worth diving into based on my early impressions of the game.
The first part to any MMO is character creation; from the get go, it’ll be obvious that The Secret World isn’t like other games in the genre. The options available for customising your character may feel quite limited at first – but this isn’t necessarily all bad. For some of you, deep customisation of your character from the get-go is a ‘must have’ feature of an MMO – and this may put you off – but this might not be a major issue for everyone who picks up the game.
The Secret World game takes place in modern times (more on this later), meaning that humans are the only race to play; this is great for immersion purposes, but does limit your options for customizing your character, as there is a severe shortage of appearances to choose from. Luckily, FunCom has already acknowledged this issue and is in the process of expanding the number of visual customisations for your character and has pencilled in an update – that will allow players to use in-game shops to change every aspect (apart from gender) of a character’s appearance – for around August this year. For the time being, however, you can still tailor your character’s look to your tastes, with additional clothing items available for purchase from in-game stores or given as rewards for completing special tasks. Interestingly, aside from weapons, just about everything that alters your character’s appearance is for vanity purposes only, meaning that your appearance won’t give away the fact that you’re packing a bevy of stat-boosting items.
I hate to bring up this next point – as I’m sure this will turn some of you away from the game – but, despite the $15 a month subscription fee, the developers of The Secret World saw fit to have a real money shop in the game. However, this cash shop is completely cosmetic; like the pets that available for purchase in World of Warcraft, the items available in the real money shop are purely for vanity and, to keep the gritty tone of the game in check, replaces fluffy pets with not-so-fluffy pets as well as hawking some special titles and even more clothing options. Thankfully, there are plenty of items to buy without having to resort to spending real money, so this shop can be completely ignored. Also, to the developer’s credit, the game doesn’t attempt to strong-arm you into frequenting the real money shop – you wouldn’t even know it’s there unless you went into the menu to search for it.
Once you’ve finished making the basic choices about your character – choosing their faction, finalizing what they look like and selecting a first name, nickname and surname – you’re dropped straight into the game proper. It’s at this point that those of you familiar with other MMOs may start to get a little antsy, as you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned selecting your character class. That wasn’t an accident; there are no classes in this game.
After the faction-specific opening cutscene, your character is packed off to the training grounds to pick their initial weapons of choice. At the start of the game, there’s nine weapons to choose from, of which your character is able to use two at any given time. Thankfully, you aren’t restricted to using the two weapons that you initially chose, and have the freedom to swap out a weapon for another one at any given time. But – and it’s a fairly big but – the ability points that you spend are weapon-specific, meaning that if you swap to a new weapon, you’ll be starting from scratch (from a weapon ability point of view) since your points don’t transfer over.
There’s also another break from the MMO norm in The Secret World as, rather than a traditional levelling system, your character’s progression is tracked through gaining ability and skill points. While the game offers freedom in letting you choose what weapon to use at any time, the ability progression within that weapon is fairly linear, with each weapon having 2 initial branches to fill out. Both branches can be filled at the same time, but within the branch, each ability must be purchased in order. Once both are filled out, six more powerful abilities branches are unlocked.
In theory – and if you’re willing to put the personal relationship-destroying hours into the game – every ability can be unlocked. But that doesn’t mean every ability can be used at once; only the abilities that are tied to your two equipped weapons can be used and, even then, you’re limited to a maximum of seven active and seven passive abilities at any one time. However, this approach to developing your character provides for numerous builds thanks to the seemingly endless combinations of weapons and abilities; in fact, each weapon can be tuned to maximise DPS whilst also having a secondary role based on the abilities chosen. As you’ve probably worked out by now, The Secret World does things a great deal differently than other MMOs – truth be told, the only ‘traditional’ MMO standard this game sticks to is the notion of DPS/Tank/Healer/Support roles.
This is the biggest draw for me. Those of you that were paying attention may have noticed that I mentioned a opening cut scene earlier – much like SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2, this game has (mostly) fully voiced dialogue and cut scenes – with the notable exception of your character, who’s more of the silent type (and by ‘the silent type’, I mean totally mute). Whilst this can was a bit jarring at first, I soon grew to accept it as I found myself quickly drawn into the highly enjoyable lore of the game.
The Secret World takes place in the modern world, but with a twist. The storyline of the game is centred around secret societies and mythology from around the world. You’re one of thousands of people chosen to fight for the Illuminati, Templars, or Dragon in order to keep the world safe from Cthulhu and other mythological entities. If you are a Lovecraft fan, you’ll be engulfed into this world instantly.
Once the questing starts, it immediately feels different than any other MMO. For starters, this is not a ‘shopping list’ game as The Secret World restricts the number of active quests to one story quest, one main quest, and three side quests. For those who like to pick up 20 quests at once and burn through them all, this game is definitely not for you. For the most part, each main quest is broken down into multiple parts that will span across a wide area; often, by the time you get to the end of a main quest, you won’t be anywhere near where you started. Thankfully, the main quests have been intelligently structured, meaning that the next main quest will be literally just round the corner from where you ended up after your last one.
Like many MMOs, many of the quests in The Secret World boil down to “gather x items” or “kill x creatures”; thankfully, the quality of the game’s excellent and engrossing story ensures that such quests don’t feel like onerous grind-fests. Why you need to do certain things in each quest is perfectly justified by the storyline, meaning that you feel not only part of but also invested in the story. The best kind of questing, however, is to be found in a sub-tier of the main quests – those that revolve around stealth and investigation.
The stealth and investigation quests completely flip the normal quest system on its head; I’ve only played one of each so far, but both have been a huge breath of fresh air to all forms of questing. The stealth quest started off as a normal gathering quest, but about halfway through, I was tasked with stealing a stash from someone. Not expecting anything special, I walk forward inside the building and find myself getting injured for no reason. That’s when I noticed red lasers across the ground. In the blink of an eye, this had now changed from an MMO quest to a platformer where I had to avoid the beams. This then led me to a room where I had to avoid cameras, otherwise the entire room blew up, which I’m ashamed to say happened far too many times for me.
Awesome though the stealth quest was, it was easily topped by the investigation one. After an introductory cut scene outlining the investigation, that was it. I was given a short description in my quest feed of what to do next but was given no indication of where I should go, with nary a HUD indicator or map marker to guide me on my way. It was an old-school investigation mission where I had to use my own brain to figure the mystery out. How cool is that? At that point, I found myself completely sold on the game.
Although this post is getting quite long-winded for a ‘first impressions’ article, I feel that I would be negligent in my writing duties if I didn’t touch on the community aspect of The Secret World, since it is a core aspect of this game. Unless you are heavily into PvP, which I’m not, it doesn’t matter which faction you choose or what server you play on as FunCom have set up a single server with multiple ‘dimensions’ for people to play in.
Once you choose your unique nickname, that name can no longer be taken for any dimension. If you happen to pick a different server than some of your friends, you’ll still be able to group together; once a group is formed, every member can transport to one person’s dimension, hence allowing everyone to quest together. As long as you stay in that group, you can be in another dimension and interact with everyone there. The co-operative aspect of the game extends across factions as well; there is no open world PvP, meaning players from different factions can actually group up and complete quests together. However, if you thirst for player blood, you’ll have to partake in the PvPvP instances (PvP in your PvP, yo).
If this extensive look into the beginning of the game hasn’t already convinced you to try The Secret World out – which you absolutely should – I’ll be whetting your MMO appetite over the coming weeks with a number of articles that will be looking at the different weapons, unique crafting and other uniqueness this game offers in much greater depth.