|Release: July 3, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
Plenty of MMOs are highly anticipated. But only a few succeed. And with The Secret World, Funcom and EA have taken an enormous risk: Not only is this game the result of five years of development and untold millions of dollars, but it breaks the MMO mold in a variety of ways. The Secret World might set the tone for the next generation—or it might crash and burn, if players decide they like the old way of doing things better.
It's still early yet. The story of an MMO's success or failure is told in years, not days. And there are certainly things about The Secret World that could be better. But the early signs are very, very promising. This is a game that turns an entire genre on its head and lives to tell the tale.
The Secret World is not set in a Tolkien-esque land of fantasy like World of Warcraft. Nor is it based on a major franchise like Star Wars. Instead, it's a new IP set in the modern-day real world, with locations ranging from Egypt to London to small-town America. Like The X-Files, The Secret World assumes that every conspiracy theory, every supernatural tale, and every secret organization you've ever heard about is real—and tells a variety of chilling stories as a larger underlying plot develops.
At the start of a game, you choose one of three powerful factions: the Illuminati, a group bent on attaining power through any means necessary; the Templars, a group of holy crusaders; and the Dragon, a gang that loves to sow chaos. As the story unfolds, the three factions must team up to ward off a supernatural threat that is overtaking the earth. Your foes will be zombies and similar otherworldly creatures, rather than the fantasy monsters you may be used to. Violence, darkness, and intrigue lurk around every corner.
Character creation isn't too elaborate; you can choose a gender and adjust some basic elements (hairstyles, etc.), but you can't really fine-tune your character's features to make him look a particular way. However, the important thing in The Secret World isn't what your character looks like—it's what he learns to do.
Unlike virtually every other MMO on the market, The Secret World doesn't assign your character "classes" and "levels." Instead, by earning XP you accumulate "Ability Points" and "Skill Points," which you can use to unlock new attacks and upgrade your character. The number of available upgrades—not to mention the number of ways to combine them—is simply ridiculous. There's also a crafting system, which lets you break your weapons down and build new ones.
Most upgrades are linked to certain weapon types (assault rifle, blood magic, etc.), and you can carry only two weapons at a time. (One of your earliest and most consequential choices will be your first weapon.) As you focus on abilities that lend themselves to your play style, the upgrades will become more and more expensive, and you'll encounter enemies that give more EXP—but it will still take the same amount of EXP to earn each point. This is convenient, because it allows higher-level characters to build up neglected skills quickly, should they decide their current build isn't working for them.
However, there is a major problem with this setup, too: If you don't know what you're doing, you can easily spend hours building a character whose blend of abilities just doesn't work. If this happens, you pretty much have to grind until you develop the skills you're missing, which happens quickly at first but eventually slows down. Fortunately, though, the developers foresaw this problem and created some "decks"—basically, templates you can use to build your character if you want to. I highly recommend that players choose a deck and stick to it until they get more familiar with the game.
One area that MMOs have been experimenting with lately is combat; Wakfu uses grid-based matches, TERA is set up more like an action game, etc. In The Secret World, combat feels a lot more visceral than it does in, say, World of Warcraft, but that's largely thanks to the presentation. The music always has an intense and spooky feel, the enemies you shoot always respond appropriately, and the gun noises are satisfyingly loud.
The basic mechanics of combat are fairly standard for an MMO, though there are some nice twists. For example, there's a dodge maneuver you can use the avoid damage, and a lot of times it helps to back up while you're unloading lead into a group of zombies so they don't get behind you. Further, your basic attacks charge a meter that you can use to unleash more powerful blasts of bullets and magic. Unfortunately, all of this makes the default control scheme, with the attacks mapped to the number keys and movement mapped to WASD, very cumbersome—if your hand is on the mouse and you'd rather not click on the attacks from a menu, your left hand is pretty much doing everything. I found it helped to move my right hand to the keyboard during combat, and I remapped the attacks in a straight line from "Y" to "]." I wish the default setup worked a little better, but the beauty of a PC game is that you can set up your controls however you please.