The Secret World MMORPG: A three-months-in review

At the start of July I reviewed Funcom’s latest MMORPG, The Secret World, in reasonably glowing terms (you can see the review here) for my ‘proper’ job. In short, I praised its originality, stability, story and lore, while calling crafting and cabals (guilds) into question.

But a big issue with any computer game is longevity – especially when they’re expecting you to pay a monthly fee for the privilege. So 10 or so weeks or on from my initial review, how’s it holding up?

In terms of stability, it has been as close to a faultless launch as I’ve experienced for an MMO. The one big issue was cabal chat – it would stop working every time you zoned, which was hugely frustrating. Thankfully this has now been fixed, although it took a bit longer than anyone would’ve liked.

The world

I’ve never been the kind of player who wants to rush through to the end-game of an MMO – I’d much rather poke my head around every corner, talk to all the NPCs and generally wring every ounce of value from each new area I encounter.

But, with a few weeks mostly stuck at home on my hands due to illness, I was in the position of being able to both explore every nook while also making strong early progress through the game.

As hinted at in my previous review, while the game doesn’t have levels in the traditional way it still has a familiar feeling of progression through areas and also ranks. In terms of content this means you are essentially still spoon fed progressively more difficult zones that become manageable as your equipment and skills improve.

However, I don’t see this as a negative – it is part of what makes MMOs so popular. While the sandbox model is something of a Holy Grail in the genre, The Secret World does a good job of making areas big and interesting enough to give you a feeling of exploring, and of space in general.

Lore is scattered everywhere, often behind curtains or on top of cliffs or even in mission instances. It makes such a nice change to get up on top of some huge rock face and actually find something worthwhile up there when you do. You may even find a rare mob that’ll kick your ass as well.

The initial area, Solomon Island, consists of three vast play zones. These are all heavily populated with quests, lore and nasties and it was an absolute joy to play through. You never really feel like there’s much hand-holding going on, although there is to an extent – it’s amazing what good quality writing can disguise.

I’m now deep into the second area, set in Egypt. It’s again spread over at least three large play zones and I know there are more area to come after these ones. And that’s before getting into PvP instances and group quests. So, in terms of the world, so far I have absolutely no complaints.

Questing

For me, this are still the game’s strongest suit. The quests are imaginative and cleverly constructed, often making even simple pick-up-and-deliver chores seem a lot more fun than usual.

The NPCs tend to have genuine character, while the lack of goblins etc in the overall story is a breath of fresh air; the present day reality in the setting really helps bring things home for me, but it hasn’t stopped Funcom turning the fantastical stuff up to 11.

I was a little worried that the more interesting and original quests (at least in terms of MMOs) – stealth and research – had started to dry up after the first zone, but thankfully after a baron patch there are more on offer later, if less frequently.

That said, someone needs to do some obscurity control on the lengths the poor players are sometimes asked to go to. I’m well up for looking things up online, working out codes etc but turning Morse code into a .wav file and slowing it down to try and crack a code – you really can take these things too far!

A lot of quests are also repeatable. It’s a measure of how good many are that I do actually go back and redo them, just to enjoy the process one more time. I can’t think of another game where I’ve bothered. It’s actually useful too – you still progress a little in terms of getting new ability and skill points, so it can be handy if you want a leisurely way to get those last few points you need for a new ability – or to check out a new skill set-up in a less dangerous environment.

The adult theme certainly helps set it apart too, but I really can’t overemphasise the quality of the writing, voice acting and general top level of storytelling chops that are on offer in The Secret World.

One final down side I should mention is loot. Especially coming from the company that gave us the amazing variety of Anarchy Online, the equipment drops available get very boring very fast. Most items are worthless to you and are just boiled down into boring base components or sold for coin. This really needs to be worked on.

Breaking the lore

In terms of the lore, while being widespread and well written, Funcom does seem to have dropped the ball a little. Each thing you find will add to a particular little story arc – sometimes with more than 10 pieces – but while a good idea in theory the way it’s implemented doesn’t work well in practice.

Each lore segment is in a static location and the free roaming nature of the world means you’re incredibly unlikely to find the pieces in order. This leaves you with several paragraphs with huge holes, so it’s pointless to read the lore until you’ve found all the parts – which could take weeks, or may never happen.

What would’ve worked better for me is if they could’ve given you the next piece you needed when you found where a part of a particular lore series was – so instead of finding 3 of 10, then 9 of 10 etc you’d get 1 of 10, 2 of 10 etc. I’m sure this would’ve been relatively simple to implement.

Overall though, lore and quests are still very strong and with the first free monthly content instalment already live and successful (adding several more quests and other improvements) that looks likely to continue. If I’d been playing this as a standalone offline game, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Crafting, personalisation and cabals

While the game’s strong points have continued to shine, unfortunately its faults are still keeping The Secret World from becoming a classic.

On the surface the crafting system looked imaginative but in reality, unless they have some clever plans for it, it is just fiddly, dull and pointless. You can’t make anything you can’t buy or find, while the process is boring and completely unrewarding – dedicated crafters should avoid this game like the plague.

Most items can be boiled down to their constituent parts, which can then be used to create other items. But this involves dragging said items into patterns on a grid one by one and once you know how to do it it’s hard to imagine any reason why you can’t just drag the lot over in one spot and click the option you want to make.

There is also no progression or skill involved, so not only can anyone do it there is absolutely nothing to gain from sticking with it. The only positive thing to say about The Secret World crafting is the ability to take the look of a weapon you’ve found and liked and apply that to a current item you have that’s not so pretty – a fine idea that adds another welcome layer to the personal customisation available to each individual.

Another negative is cabals, which are still nothing more than chat channels – very disappointing. I guess finishing this part of the game wasn’t seen as a launch priority, which is fair enough, but in terms of immersion and adding the MM to the O it seems pretty essential. I can only hope one of the upcoming content patches add cabal houses and other benefits.

Personalisation has improved a little and there is more coming in today’s second big content patch (face-lifts and haircuts). I like the fact that your clothing etc is purely fluff, meaning you can look how you want without it affecting your abilities. And there is a good amount of clothing on offer now too.

Another positive here is getting fluff rewards (as well as titles) for completing certain levels and quest/lore lines – it’s nice to see completists getting little rewards for their endeavours, even if it’s only a silly hat or T-shirt to wear.

Conclusions

Three months into The Secret World I still feel every bit as immersed as I did on day one. The stories and world in general make me want to log in and see more, while the quests are varied, testing and enjoyable.

The promise of monthly free updates is keeping me feeling positive about the areas of the game that need improvement, although how much longer my patience will last on the likes of cabal houses remains to be seen.

But this is of course very much a personal opinion. Several friends who started out the game with me have already quit, while others who have tried it out didn’t bite. It’s mainly for the reasons I’ve outlined above – it’s simply a case of how you prioritise a game’s features (or lack thereof).

I’m also a little concerned about character progression, as by the time I’d finished the first three zones (or first main area) I had completed my first ‘skill deck’. If I’m happy with that, there is really no way that my skill points can be used to improve my ability set. I’ve started another deck, just to use the points, but I can see this being an issue for me down the line and a lot of other people much sooner than that.

I’ve seen that a new type of weapon is being introduced today, and an extra hot key space, so hopefully they’ve also recognised this as an issue.

I’m still to check out PvP properly, while our group hasn’t been together online enough to complete much group specific content (although the one dungeon we did do was thoroughly enjoyable and challenging). But overall, I would recommend The Secret World to almost everyone.

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