With their latest MMORPG: The Secret World, Norwegian developer Funcom seeks to reinvigorate the massively multiplayer scene by moving the genre from its traditional fantastical settings to a modern day, ‘real’ world scenario - albeit a world in which every conspiracy theory is true, secret societies battle for dominance and monsters lurk in the dark places of the Earth.
Funcom is no stranger to the MMO market having previously developed Anarchy Online and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Both games were well received by critics, although both were also plagued by some fairly serious bugs and technical problems in the period following initial release.
The Secret World is not without its problems on that front. Some side quests suffer from bugs that prevent completion, notably when events fail to trigger and required aspects fail to spawn into the game. These quests are few and far between, but it does create another problem - namely when getting stuck on a quest or two I was left wondering whether I was doing something wrong or if the game had bugged at some point.
Thankfully bugs like this are few and far between and so far Funcom are doing an admirable job of sorting out those problems quickly, but until reports of bugged quests stop filtering through it will continue to create frustration for those players like me who find themselves stuck and not knowing if it’s they who are doing something wrong or if it’s a problem with the game itself.
On creating a new character the first task is to choose from one of three available player factions; in this game represented as secret societies. The three available are the Illuminati; devious corporate playboys and manipulators, the Templar; an ancient order steeped in tradition and dedicated to pushing back the darkness and the Dragon; a far eastern society committed to spreading chaos throughout the world.
The main draw of this game is the world in which it is set and Funcom certainly haven’t skimped out on creating a vibrant setting, which is only to be expected from a game in which “world” forms part of the title. Although the player is thrust into their faction’s schemes with the slightest of introductions to the group, each has a background and history to learn and explore.
This is the way with much of the game. Hammering through the main story quests will give a good understanding of the story, world and the movers-and-shakers; but those who explore off the beaten path will find there is much more to discover to further fill in the background and experience the true depth of the world that Funcom has created.
Scattered throughout the game locales are various items of ‘lore’ that the player can collect and each one will give some knowledge or background relating to the factions, locations, history or recent events. Collecting all of these lore pickups is a challenge, but one that rewards the player by providing further insights into an already deep setting.
Side missions themselves are largely run-of-the-mill MMO affairs: kill X amounts of enemy Y, collect A, B and C and deliver to D, with combinations of the two also featuring. Despite this, motivations to tackle these missions exist not just in terms of XP and item rewards, but in the fact that they will deliver you to interesting places and offer further information about the events unfolding in the locations they are set in. The setting is key to enjoyment of The Secret World and the more information uncovered through lore and side quests the greater the player’s understanding and appreciation of the world is.
Two types of non-traditional side quests do exist although they are less common than the traditional variations. Sabotage missions involve stealth play encouraging the player to avoid traps, powerful monsters and security equipment to progress, with instant death often offered as a reward for being spotted. Investigation missions are a highlight and involve collecting clues and piecing together information. You are rarely given answers in investigation missions, rather you piece together enough information to form a question and have to work out the answer yourself - or else resort to Google through the handy in-game browser.
In terms of looks, The Secret World certainly isn’t bad. Environments are well detailed and varied with particularly good lighting effects. Monsters are well modelled and varied as are many of the people you encounter.
However, things aren’t quite as good once they start moving. Animation is not a strong point in the game and character movement appears stiff and unconnected to the world. The speed in which a character moves his legs may seem off when compared to the speed he is travelling and the facial animations are particularly odd. The lip syncing of NPCs is out of time and when my main character attempts a smile he looks like he is having a minor stroke.
This feeds into the combat, where the animations serve to harm the experience substantially. Combat here is standard MMO fare, a hotkey system based on assigned skill and weapon sets featuring the usual single target, cone, area of effect and chain style attacks alongside buffs, debuffs and healing effects.
There are some effective tools in the arsenal here and combat builds are very flexible - which we’ll come back to soon - but the combat is mostly let down by the animation. There is no real impact to using your abilities and there is little feedback on the effects other than watching a health bar decrease and reading the damage reports. Many area of effect and chain attacks show little in the way of dramatic visual feedback; your character may raise his arms in an invocation then everyone in the field of effect simply starts losing health with no apparent cause.
Similarly with buffs and debuffs; their effects will be made apparent and icons representing them let you know they are in effect but there is little in terms of eye candy to represent these on a character. This lack of visual lustre leaves the combat experience feeling somewhat flat and certainly not exciting. A hotkey system is always going to consist of ‘press button combination, repeat until enemies are dead’ style gameplay but that is no excuse for making it look boring.
Character advancement is, thankfully, a particularly innovative system in that Funcom have done away with the concept of ‘levels’. You will still gain experience as in most other RPG style games and earning enough grants both skills points, spent on unlocking better quality item usage and ability points, spent on weapon and combat abilities.
However, earning a skill point or ability point will always costs the same amount of XP and this amount will never change. This means you will always be able to develop your skills and abilities at a consistent rate in each area and that in higher level areas your skill development will be that much quicker than in the early game.
There are no character classes either as each character has access to all the abilities the games has to offer, which are split over the nine weapon types available: three ranged, three close combat and three magic; two of which can be equipped at any one time. This means, given enough time investment it is possible for any character to unlock every skill increase and every ability available in the game and effectively take on any role at will.
At any one time you can have 7 active (activated on button press) abilities and 7 passive (always active) abilities on your character and these form the basis of your combat style. Statistics such as attack rating, health points and healing ability are defined by the ‘relics’ equipped by your character, mystical items of varying levels whose use is dictated by your skill points. The selection of abilities and combination of items allows players to adapt their character to one of the many traditional MMO roles such as DPS, tank or healer or to adopt somewhere in the middle ground.
The middle ground isn’t a bad place to be as a lot of time in the game is likely to be spent solo so being reliant on a group to plug the gaps in your abilities is not alway wise. The game doesn’t make it easy to join a group, so unless players join a guild (or ‘cabal’ here) the only option is to hit the in game chat and hope for the best. Even if you do group with a party, a fair few missions force you into solo-only sections and so make it hard to keep the group together for a substantial period of time.
There are some multiple-player dungeons available in certain areas and players often organise groups to tackle these areas, but the general open world is less group-friendly. The dungeons are fairly fun to play and Funcom has stated that further dungeons will be added along with raids in the future.
PVP is available, over three different settings. There are two smaller battlegrounds in Stonehenge and Eldorado, which represent takes of king of the hill and capture the flag respectively. The Fusang Project is a larger, persistent PVP map where groups fight for control of strategic bases around the map. Given that combat is perhaps the weakest point of The Secret World, PVP is unsurprisingly lacklustre and a distraction at best from the PVE aspect of the game.
The Secret World is a worthwhile entry into the MMO market for the world and setting alone. Combat is subpar at best and it can be difficult to find a good adventuring group, but those who are interested in the idea of a modern world of Lovecraftian monsters, conspiracy theories and secret societies will find a world steeped in lore and history to immerse themselves in and explore.
- A well detailed world
- Lots of lore, history and information to unearth
- Strong ability and skill customisation
- Hard to find a group
- Weak combat