On 2 a.m. Saturday, June 30, 2012, the unthinkable happened. Funcom’s new Lovecraftian MMORPG, The Secret World, went live. After the launch disaster that was Age of Conan, and more recently—Diablo III, I half expected logging in to cause my modem to spontaneously combust in unholy fire.
I created my character—sexy red hair with a great choice of looks. I moved around—great graphics at fifty frames per second. Curious, I tested if a bug remained that I had reported a week prior in beta. It was fixed.
This is a Funcom game. I was confused. It wasn’t supposed to be this way! After recovering from the shock induced by this smooth launch, I started towards Temple Hall in London…
A grim story
The Secret World’s biggest draw is its story. Designed by Ragnar Tørnquist, famed for his stories in Dreamfall and The Longest Journey, The Secret World has the darkest storytelling in an MMO to date. It tells of demons spawned from nightmares. Of burning witch hunts and collapsed mine suffocations. Of murderous carnival rides made to sacrifice young children so a billionaire can feed on their souls.
Drawing you into this story is investigative quest design. Rather than “Kill ten zombies and bring me their brains”, quests often ask you questions, with the answers revealing map coordinates or computer passwords. These include puzzles like “What does this Morse Code message translate to?”, “What mythology do the ‘hands of time’ point to?”, and “What’s four times the duration of The Safety Dance?” (Seriously.)
If you want to complete the game, you’ll have to use your brain, a good deal of lateral thinking, and Google. On the other hand, if you don’t care for story, and just want to level-up, the game’s not for you—much of the best content’s hidden behind riddles.
Knives and bullets (and shotguns, too)
The Secret World has a well-balanced combat game, too. With each character being able to learn all 525 available skills, you have thousands of possible builds. However, so far I’ve been unable to determine a clear winning build. This is a remarkable feat, considering that Star Wars: The Old Republic launched rife with balance issues, and my time in Guild Wars 2 has failed to convince me that ArenaNet is faring any better.
The Secret World achieves this balance through varied encounter design. Because each character can learn every skill, encounters are designed for this variety. You’re not a class—you’re an operative with an armoury, and you do best by choosing the right weapon for the job. Even as the all-important healer, I had to swap my healing for damage mid-dungeon for bosses that favoured a damage race approach. That’s why, in addition to her assault rifle, my healer keeps a trusty shotgun handy—for close encounters.
This illustrates how The Secret World is joining the cool-developers club that’s trying to ‘kill’ the holy trinity of damage, tanking, and healing. While the trinity still reigns, versatility is king. To aid this, you’re able to save your skill builds as templates, and switch to these quickly out of combat. Playing the trinity becomes more engaging than in the traditional MMORPG, because you’ll need to constantly tweak your build to match the encounter.
1, 1, 1, 1…
The skill system does have its problems, however. Because the game’s designed to ‘blossom’ into long-term experimentation, early combat’s a repetitive spamfest. You just don’t have the options available to play around with interesting builds, and the early encounters are simplified to match. After the first ten hours this problem rights itself with more complex encounters and an expanded armoury, but you’ll want to approach the start with patience.
Second, because the game requires such an investment into your main character, little point exists to play an alt. Even your faction choice is mostly cosmetic, meaning you’re not rewarded with new content for starting a new character. This may rankle with altaholics.
Fortunately, the game is huge, so you won’t need to play an alt just to see new content. After a hundred hours of hardcore play, I’m still in the middle of the second zone (out of nine). The game really rewards you for taking your time. There is no ‘end game’—rushing will simply leave you with a gimped character that needs to repeat content to skill up. Instead, you’re encouraged to explore, run dungeons, and train skills as you go.
The Secret World, like EVE Online, uses one mega-server. This server is then split into several ‘dimensions’, and you can change dimensions to group with anyone. This is actually a big benefit—the looking for group channel broadcasts across multiple dimensions, and finding groups has never been easier.
The only downside, of course, is that the server is in America. Worse, it’s on the American east coast—expect latency of 250-300ms. Worse again, no ping tunnels exist for the game. Terribad.
That said, the game is playable for the most part. The combat rewards planning over reflexes, so you won’t be at a disadvantage. Unlike a certain other online game (that starts with a ‘D’), all attacks are telegraphed, so if you need to roll out of dodge, you’ll get fair warning.
The only trouble I had was the occasional ping spike when it seemed my router chose the scenic route through Alaska. While the single-server technology makes local servers almost unwanted (I like being able to easily get groups), Funcom would do well to provide a ping tunnelling service to reduce lag spikes for players outside America.
It’s all swings and roundabouts, though. Unlike just about every other publisher, Funcom doesn’t price gouge Australians, and you can buy the game from them direct for $50. When you consider that the first month’s subscription is included, you’re given incredible value for a new AAA title of this quality. While its future remains to be seen, The Secret World has made one of the most promising starts of any recent MMO.
- Great performance for a launch title.
- Atmospheric, good looking world.
- Thrilling Lovecraftian story in a refreshing, modern setting.
- Varied encounters make for engaging combat.
- Investigations require real thinking.
- Deep, complex skill system encourages thought and creativity.
- Large amount of levelling content that breaks the rush-to-endgame mould.
- Excellent cosmetic look customisation.
- Global server makes the game feel populated at all hours.
- Cheap starter price.
- Combat takes time to show its potential.
- Little point to play an alt.
- American east coast server with no ping tunnelling.