July 3, 2012

The Secret World review as it happens



  • Get ready for the most ridiculous superhero origin story to date…



  • A bee flies down your throat, giving you magic powers. Look, I’m not much of a comic book fan, but at least Spider-Man’s beginnings were a little more dignified than digesting arachnids in the night. Pretty soon a representative of your chosen faction arrives to offer you a place in there ranks. “Bee problem? There’s a lot of that going around.” It’s possible I imagined the hint of mocking.
  • Speaking of factions, your three choices are the Illuminati, the Templars and the Dragon – because apparently the developers ran out of historically appropriate conspiratorial factions and decided to add something “cool”. It’s a choice between power, tradition and chaos that affects your starting location, the sporadic faction quests you receive, PvP, and not a whole lot else. Obviously I picked the Templars, because…



  • …hilarious accents! It must have taken all this detective’s restraint not to call me “guv’nor”.
  • London is grey, dull, foggy… Yeah, it’s hard to tell if these are limitations on the graphics engine or an admirable commitment to accuracy. The small-scale touches are impressive; the attention to detail with which shops are kitted out, or the architecture and layout which feel in keeping with the city. There’s even some notably interesting art design in the weird demon-run markets. But the larger picture is one you have to squint to make out.



  • The first taste of combat comes after my character passes out in the street, shifting into the body of a Tokyo operative dealing with a subway breakout of black manga tentacles. It’s a clever trick for breaking up the otherwise slow, exploratory starting section, but dear lord is it a mess of a tutorial. Abilities are laid on with barely any introduction, and most of the section is spent mashing number keys in an effort to figure out what everything does.
  • The combat section ends, I head off to the Templar HQ to meet my handler, who is very clear that WE ARE NOT DAN BROWN STYLE TEMPLARS! I quite like that the characters aren’t afraid to reference real-world fiction; something that most games and films set in the modern day do their best to ignore. Although, given that the game seems to include practically every conspiracy and horror trope it can think of, turning a blind-eye would leave the world in a pop-culture vacuum.
  • With introductions made, we’re heading to our first assignment in Kingsmouth. How do we get there? Magic Tree!






  • Kingsmouth, home of zombies and fish monsters, is where the game really opens up. There are quest givers marked all over the map, each with two or three sometimes extremely involved missions to undertake, and sidequests can be stumbled upon throughout the map. Typically, my first quest is “Kill X zombies”.
  • Killing mobs and completing quests both generate XP. Instead of levelling up, you gain ability points (AP) and skill points (SP) at regular intervals along the XP bar. AP comes thick and fast, and is used to buy both attack abilities and passive bonuses for your weapons. Seven of each can be equipped at any one time to create a sort of custom deck to fit your style. Skill points relate to both weapons and equipment, and provide stat increases to damage attributes, or health, magic and armour boosts. The trick to this is that AP and SP both generate at the same rate throughout the game, so you can naturally respec your character by simply picking a new path to work through.
  • The ability wheel also has preset decks you can work towards, usually a selection of higher level skills (which cost more AP) that should combine into a recommended build. I’m aiming to complete the Paladin deck, mostly because the first two weapons I picked up were pistols and a sword, and that was the preset that supported the both of them. Picking a melee weapon seems to be have been a good move. Zombies have a natural tendency to charge at you, so ranged combat is pretty much out.
  • All that said, I’m not really feeling the combat. The last MMO I played was TERA which, for all its problems, had some really kinetic and tactile battles. Here I’ve settled into a tried and tested combo:  hitting an enemy with a triple-strike from my Dancing Blade, then main blade and pistol attacks to build up my focus to activate the Shootout pistol damage attack, then repeat with area-of-effect attacks inserted in case of multiple mobs. There have deaths along the way, but mostly as a result of attracting the attention of too many big-hitters at once.
  • Kingsmouth’s zombie troubles seem to be related to the thick fog that’s covered the town. How very convenient for your slightly disappointing draw distances, Kingsmouth.
  • I’m enjoying the cutscenes that play before each of the main missions. The characters are drawn with broad strokes – the hobbyist Illuminati priest, the shotgun-wielding granny, the philosophising cowboy – but the writing’s pacey and it’s not afraid to have some fun with the archetypes. The problem is one of the most awkward cases of Mute Protagonist Syndrome to date. I can’t quite work out if my character is supposed to aloof or stupid. At one point someone offered her an outstretched palm, and she just stood there, blank expression on her face. I really want someone to slap her and point out she’s only here because she swallowed a bee.





  • In places, The Secret World has some of the best mission design I’ve seen in an MMO. There’s still plenty of fetch quests, and more than enough kill X of Y objectives, but there’s also a lot of experimentation. The main quests are broken down into three main types: action, sabotage and investigation. Action tend to involve going to a place to kill some enemies, defending a barricade, or tracking down some big nasty and methodically slashing away at his giant health bar. It’s the other two that provide some neat tricks.



  • The only sabotage mission I’ve tried, for instance, involved breaking into a warehouse and avoiding security cameras and lasers. It didn’t quite work, especially as the cameras are implemented awkwardly, and had a nasty tendency to see through the crates I was hidden behind. Still, points for effort… I guess.
  • The investigation missions are where TSW really comes into its own. Each is basically an ARG-lite, with puzzles to unpuzzle and codes to decode. At times they stray into Adventure Game Logic, with some particularly bizarre mental leaps required. I won’t spoil the main trick of the mission Something Wicked, except to say I resorted to Googling for something along the lines of “how the cocking hell do you do this thing?!” Then, during the next section, it turned out the mission was bugged anyway.
  • When they work, though, the investigation missions are really satisfying to solve. Also it’s a great way to encourage people to group without just throwing hard-as-nails enemies at you. Tossing ideas around between friends really builds the atmosphere and mystery in a really natural way. That is, unless your friend had already done that mission in the beta. I spent possibly the most involved investigation, The Kingsmouth Code, receiving a mixture of patronising encouragement and smug emoticons.
  • The grouping system is so refreshing for its ease of use. Each faction is in an uneasy truce, and each server is just an instance of a single main server. Basically, if you have a friend in the game, you can play with them without having to worry about their initial set-up choices.
  • Grouping also shows the benefits of the ability wheel. When paired with a ranged healer, I could equip movement debilitating attacks to keep the pressure off them, as well as group beneficial active abilities that increased both our accuracy. Back solo, I can return to my default deck by switching out a couple of skills.



  • I’ve now cleaned up most of the quests on the town’s west island. One thing I’m not wild about is that you can only have one main mission and three sidequests active at any one time. I understand the point is to prevent the mission gobbling fugue state you can descend into when MMO questing, but it seems such an artificial and restrictive way to slow progress.


Tuesday Morning


  • While there’s no levelling for your character, there is a faction rank that slowly increases as you gain XP. I just hit Templar rank 2, which meant my first faction mission. It was a welcome distraction from the grey fog of Kingsmouth. A trip back to the grey fog of London led to a mission in a car park underneath the grey fog of the Illuminati stronghold of New York. The art design of each location is recognisably that place, but when the clearest skies in my vicinity are in the Manchester outside my window, there’s definitely a problem.
  • Back in Kingsmouth. My plan today is to progress with the Story mission, which is the overarching eighteen part quest that is the purpose of your visit to the town. I’m pretty sure the next place I need to be is the airfield, which inevitable leads to me picking up some more investigation quests. There seems to be a problem that if multiple people are trying to use the same object, the entire thing breaks down. My latest quest involves disabling something called an Occult Attractor. I know the sequence, but every time I try to enter it, some other burk starts randomly hitting parts, and the attractor starts doing its thing – attracting the occult.
  • I quit that mission – pausing it at that stage until everyone just clears off. As part of the next mission, I’ve just downloaded a morse code app for my phone. It’s given me what looks like coordinates. Um… Now I just need to find out how to use them.
  • Still, while I was back in London I bought a new coat. So whatever happens, the day can’t help but be a success.


First Few Hours Mini Review

I’d estimate I’ve played around 12-16 hours so far. In that time the ability points have been steadily rolling in, and while I’m saving them for higher powers along my current path, it’s gratifying to know that I can pick up an alternative weapon and have a good reserve of points to spend on it should I need to. Right now there isn’t – even with no real healing ability – as long as I’m careful about how many mobs I aggro, I’m rarely being challenged. There’s been no evidence of combat being any different from a typical, and decidedly average, hotbar-based MMO, and I’ve already fallen into the pattern of carefully weaving between the enemies trigger distance to avoid fights I can’t be bothered with. Despite this, I’m enjoying myself, largely thanks to involving missions and enjoyable writing.

I’ll be updating this post throughout the next few days, as I get to grips with dungeons, PvP, crafting, and – eventually – some new areas.




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