Every now and then, there’s a game that you feel might be made for you. The basic concept just clicks with you; it’s a game that you’ve been waiting for someone to make. For quite some time, I’ve been thinking that The Secret World is just such a game for me.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll instantly fall in love with it, of course; just because I love the general idea doesn’t mean the execution and the fine details will be exactly how I imagined. But an MMO with non-standard mechanics and a subset of missions that require genuine investigation and thinking, with a modern world setting that has more than a twist of the fantastical? It’s like it sprang fully-formed from my imagination.
At the time of writing I’ve spent about three days playing The Secret World, having been levelling my own character in addition to taking a guided tour of some of the later areas, and I think I’ve played long enough that I can elaborate on why I’m still guardedly optimistic about what many may suspect to be yet another MMO.
For starters, it doesn’t really play like most other MMOs. There are bits clearly pilfered from others, but for the most part it feels like its own beast. Combat is fast paced and mobile; you’re able to move while using any ability and there’s an active dodge system to keep you out of range of the constant (and well-telegraphed) AoE attacks that enemies employ.
Character building is the big difference, though. While it’s true in a very literal sense that The Secret World has no character levels, you do still become more powerful as you progress. Experience earns you Ability Points and Skill Points, which you spend to unlock new abilities and to allow you to wear better gear. You can only have 14 abilities equipped at any given time – split between seven “active” attacks and abilities, and seven “passive” buffs – and as each individual weapon tree has far more than that, your build is really key to how your character works. Your character can equip two weapons at a time, too, letting you pick your powers from two separate trees. XP earned doesn’t increase your health or stats, though – that’s all down to itemisation.
It’s a clever system that can, in short, be summed up as “a bit like Diablo 3, only experience doesn’t directly make you stronger” but the fun part is that there are no classes, and you’re free to mix and match any of the nine weapon trees as you like. You could theoretically play through the entire game as DPS and then, at the end-game, decide you want to level entirely different weapon trees and suddenly specialise in tanking – and there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from doing so, except for your unlocked abilities and your gear. Hell, it’s presumably possible to have one character learn every skill in the game, but I cannot imagine how long it’d take to do that. (And yet I’m still betting someone will have done it within two weeks. I know you, MMO players.)
Based on what I’ve seen, then, the mechanics are varied and different enough to help The Secret World stand on its own, but for me it’s the game’s character that makes it shine.
This is a world full of conspiracies and monsters, with shadowy organisations running things from the sidelines and campaigning in a secret war. Shadowy organisations that you’ll join, in fact. The start of the game initiates you into your chosen faction, and from there you’re sent off to Solomon Island, the first of the game’s adventure zones.
Solomon Island is the archetypical horror setting, inspired – in equal parts – by Lovecraft, zombie movies, and any number of horror novelists you could name. The fishing town of Kingsmouth is under siege by zombies; there’s a haunted carnival to explore; there’s a securely-defended location full of Men in Black-types. It’s also probably the only area in any MMO that’s actually given me both a jump-scare and a genuine sense of foreboding, in two entirely separate solo instances.
Solomon Island’s gloomy environs give way to the sunny sands of Egypt and then to the endgame in Transylvania, which you can see in low-detail-o-vision, courtesy of my low-powered PC, below. I can’t speak from much experience with either, but they both seem to have taken the real-world lore cues you’d expect and given them a unique twist. Egypt looks to be having a resurgence in Biblical plagues, and an ancient mummy (wearing an expensive suit, naturally; there’s no need to look bad just because you’re dead) condescendingly told me about a nearby demon I might be up to banishing. Meanwhile, in Transylvania, I met a friendly group of Romani who seemed to have rather different opinions than you might expect on Dracula, and I’m genuinely looking forward to finding out why. I can see the tabloid headlines now: “Dracula: Murderous Monster or Misunderstood Magnate?”
Quests open with cutscenes (in which your character remains mute, which the quest-givers occasionally – and amusingly – notice) to further the flavour, and are split into a wide range of categories. There are the usual story, exploration, combat, and delivery missions, but there are also sabotage missions (in which it’s usually a good idea to remain unseen) as well as investigation missions, which generally feature no real combat but instead require you to solve riddles and mysteries using your brain. The latter are tremendous fun if you’re of the right mindset and they’ve got some very, very clever puzzles and solutions, although they’re thankfully entirely skippable if you’d rather just get on with biffing nameless horrors from beyond the void. Be warned, though, that many of the normal quests will require some rudimentary reading and thought to solve; they’re just not as mind-bending and convoluted as the investigations.
Intriguingly, there’s also a fair sense of freedom with the quests. You’ve got a tiny quest log and can only usually take on one “major” questline from each quest-giver, but the lack of proper levelling usually means you’re pretty free to wander each sub-area freely – which is a pretty good idea, as there aren’t really any quest hubs. Check the map, wander over to somewhere interesting-looking, pick up a quest, solve it, head somewhere else. There’s always something to do, not least because most quests can be repeated after 24 hours if you feel you must. That’s not to say you won’t die if you go too far afield – there are most definitely areas that will kill the hell out of you, repeatedly, if you don’t have sufficient gear and an appropriate build – but wandering around feels more like exploring than just following quest chains to your next destination.
On that note, I’ll quickly mention attention to detail: there’s lots of it. Maps are luscious works of (thematically appropriate) art, and if you find a note, bloody message, or clue on a painting, you will actually see the note/message/clue rather than just getting a text transcription. This even goes so far as to having the traditional corpsewalk, when you die, tie into the story – and few other things. But I’ve said too much.
It’s also a game that’s taken a lot of steps to remove traditional annoyances. “Tagging” monsters is kinda present, but if someone nearby is on the same quest phase as you then you’ll generally share in their completion if you help out, so there’s genuine incentive to actually assist random players. Dying in a dungeon seems to give you the option to repair your gear as soon as you respawn, and by the same token, I think that the group leader entering a dungeon offers everyone else the option to teleport straight in.
If the one instance I’ve seen (The Darkness War) is any indication, in fact, there are a lot of annoyances cut out of those. Rather than wading through trash mobs the emphasis seems to be on the boss encounters, to the extent that said instance only had one trash encounter – and that tied into the boss fight, so I’m not sure it counts.
Said instance happened to be a dream-quest in which I helped the Vikings (who had Excalibur) and the native Americans take on the Mayans. Amazingly, in context, it’s considerably less ridiculous than it sounds.
It’s fair to say that I’m rather impressed with The Secret World, then – although I’d rather use the term “cautiously positive,” because playing for less than 200 hours is usually nowhere near enough time to judge an MMO. That counts double as I haven’t yet tried crafting, nor have I shaken PvP hard enough to see what falls off, nor do I know much about the endgame, nor have I tried an instance away from the GMs.
It’s also worth noting that it’s still not perfect. There are a fair few quirks and bugs that need to be ironed out, a few systems have yet to be implemented, and… well, work needs to be done. But it’s a beta, so that’s not surprising.
So yes, I’m enjoying it enough that I’m actually having a hard time writing this instead of playing it. And if you want to give it a go for yourself, we’ve got some keys for this weekend’s beta session to give away: head over to this page to grab one.
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he’s willing to admit. He’s written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion – in all its various incarnations – for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He’s also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man’s only professional games journalist.