The Secret World is a new horror-themed MMORPG developed by Funcom, the creators of Age of Conan and the lesser known Anarchy Online. As the saying goes, third time’s the charm, and this time around Funcom hopes to entice players with strong Lovecraftian themes in addition to a truly unique free-form skill system. Intrigued by the prospect of a spooky MMO set in modern times, I signed myself up for the The Secret World’s beta test and started creating my character.
Although the setting reinforces it, character creation borders on bland due to a lack of races and noticeable facial features. Unless you’re willing to go for a comedic appearance, it’s more than likely you’ll be stuck looking the same as everyone else. One supplementary feature of character creation is the option of customizing your default outfit. Players have the option of starting the game in a t-shirt, a trench coat, or a fancy suit. As you progress, additional articles of clothing can be acquired through in-game currency and achievements. Under this system, equipment only changes your character’s stats and has no cosmetic ramifications. Being able to control what my character dressed in more than made up for the lackluster character creation, but I fear this feature will practically beg Funcom to tack on a cash shop after launch.
Before you can start uncovering the mysterious and horrifying secrets of The Secret World, you’ll need to choose one of three factions to join. The zealous Templar are an ancient organization honor bound to protecting the world from evil, the deceptive Illuminati aim to control civilization through mystical and technological wonders, and the anarchic Dragon harness the power of chaos to reshape the world to their liking. Being in a particularly destructive mood, I decided to join Dragon.
Immediately my character was tasked with following a hooded child through a series of alleys until my character reached an eerie looking hotel. Still in pursuit of the child, I followed the sound of crying up a set of stairs and found the only accessible doorway blocked by a half-naked man covered in tattoos. A cutscene depicted the trouserless man allowing my character passage through the doorway, where I was confronted by an Asian woman who promptly explained to me that the world is being invaded by darkness, and that only I can harness the power of “anima” to stop everything from going to hell, literally. Then we had sex. No, really.
Clearly I made the right choice when I joined Dragon. That being said, I have some beef with NPC interaction in The Secret World. Practically every NPC has something long-winded to say to you, and it’s almost always done in a cutscene. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this, but while these NPC’s are explaining all the horrible things happening around you, your character sits perfectly still watching the paint dry in the background. The disconnect between the player and their environment is a common issue in MMOs. While it’s nice to see Funcom try to inject some intrigue into the plot, it amounts to nothing when your character isn’t given the option of responding to the environment they’re disconnected from.
After finishing my “conversation” with the nice lady it was time to pick my first spells. As mentioned earlier, the skill system in The Secret World is all sorts of unique. Players are given nine passive skill slots to use in conjunction with nine active skill slots. Passive skills generally consist of buffs applied under certain conditions, while active skills have a wide range of effects. A more defining factor of active skills is their direct effect on resources. Each of the nine skill trees in The Secret World–blood, chaos, elemental, blade, hammer, fist, shotgun, rifle, and pistol–have their own respective resource used to power their spells. Players may choose to take spells from any of the nine skill trees when they obtain skill points, but can only generate two resources at a time. Under this system, players may create any number of unique builds using the five hundred active and passive spells at their disposal. The vast majority of my time in the beta was spent experimenting with new builds and I’ve no doubt that players will continue to find ways to improve upon existing builds when The Secret World launches.
With my fine selection of chaos magic and blade mastery, I was prepared to slay the forces of evil. Tasked with the destruction of amassing zombie forces in the fictional town of Kingsmouth, I leapt into action. The Secret World takes the standard MMO approach to questing in that most of your time spent leveling will consist of killing monsters and collecting items scattered about the world. Though this isn’t anything new to those familiar with the MMO genre, players will find themselves constantly adapting their strategies to combat new foes. Each enemy I faced in The Secret World presented new mechanics, prompting me to change my strategy or face certain defeat. Zombie firemen would smash the ground in front of them, killing me almost instantaneously unless hastily dodged. Aquatic necromancers used bursts of water to propel my character into the air, disabling my skills for a short time afterwards.
Sufficient understanding of my surroundings and spells made quick work of my enemies, but managing my quests was another matter. Limited to five quests at a time, players must choose three area quests, one daily quest, and one story mission before embarking beyond the safe boundaries of the town. Area quests generally consist of unimportant fetch quests designed to give players something to do while they go from place to place. Players receive in-game reputation with various factions for completing daily quests every twenty-four hours. Finally, story missions reward special loot for defeating boss monsters and uncovering the secrets surrounding them. I’d have no issue with this system were it not for the needless five quest restriction. I often found myself unable to accept the far more interesting quests located outside of town without discarding the progress I’d made on quests I already had. Questing could be made so much more efficient if this was changed, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be one of Funcom’s priorities.
After a few hours of questing and perfecting my skill tree as best I could, I decided it was time to test some PvP. This would turn out to be the worst decision I would make over the course of my time playing The Secret World, as PvP is a complete and utter joke. Level brackets have been completely thrown out in the window in favor of scaling stats. What this means is that a level fifty character fighting a level ten character is a common occurrence in The Secret World, and I can’t begin to imagine who thought this was a good idea. No matter how high you scale player’s stats, the higher level will always win. It doesn’t take a college degree to figure out the player with no crowd control will beat the player with it. This glaring problem is only made worse with the horrible matchmaking system. Each team in the Secret World has a maximum of six players from one faction, but one possibly overlooked issue is the minimum amount of players each team may be composed of. If not enough players are present in the queue, games will simply begin with uneven teams. Combined with the aforementioned lack of level brackets, I was unable to play a single balanced match over my three days of play. On the off-chance the teams weren’t unbalanced, you could be sure a higher level player would single-handedly win the game for their team. I understand that unbalanced teams aren’t all that unlikely in a beta due to the small playerbase, but it’s absurd that games of two versus five are allowed to start in the first place.
When it comes down to it, one word rings true when it comes to The Secret World, and that word is average. The only outstanding feature is the skill tree system, but it’s hardly reason enough to buy and subscribe to a horribly unbalanced MMO focused on a story the player isn’t allowed to be a part of, with a needlessly inefficient questing system that forces players to waste their time and skip content. There’s a chance The Secret World could thrive under a free to play model, but I doubt this will ever come to pass under the supervision of EA and Funcom. Sadly, the future of The Secret World looks just as dark as its atmosphere.