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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

10 reasons why The Secret World has blown me away

Ok, so I realise the posts over the last two weeks have been very heavily centered on The Secret World, but there are some damn good reasons for it. It really has surprised and amazed me how much I have grown to love this game. Here are some of the reasons why (warning - long read incoming!)...

Ooo, new duds!

1. A Sleeper Hit

First of all, for me the game came out of the blue a little. I have been aware of it for a while, but whilst the setting sounded interesting something about the game sounded off. I only tried the beta weekend three weeks ago because my wife got a key. I pre-ordered the following week. Perhaps the fact I haven't been following every anouncement or preview video for the past year has meant the quality of the gameplay has had a bigger impact.

There has been very little marketing for the game, especially compared to the hype generated by big titles like The Old Republic and  Guild Wars 2. The word of mouth, from people who are playing however is incredible. Check out the user reviews on metacritic, the user comments on massively, or its number 1 rating on mmorpg.com. This is a game that the players are loving, despite its (sometimes obvious) faults. It could well be the sleeper MMO hit of the year.

2. Funcom

An odd choice this I know. After all, they are memetically (did I just invent another word?) known as "Failcom", following the disastrous launches of Anarchy Online and Age of Conan. However, the launch of The Secret World has been the best I've ever experienced (and I've been in at the launches of WoW, EQ2, DAoC, LoTRO, AoC, WAR, SWTOR and several others).

No queues, no lag, no disconnects, no server crashes. The only bugs I have encountered are with a couple of the quests; nothing game-breaking. The game launched on time (for early access) and early for release, without problems. Patches have been quick, reliable and extensive and completed in less time than advertised.

I have had two account issues. I used the Live Chat function to resolve both and they were both sorted out in a matter of minutes is a very professional, friendly and efficient manner. It's almost too good to be true.

So, credit where it is due. Funcom have given us a superb launch with excellent customer service. Let's hope they can keep it up.

3. Questing

This is probably the number one reason I am loving this game. The PvE questing is just a superb experience. I have enjoyed every single quest I have done so far in the game. Sure, there are one or two "go kill X monsters" type quests (but actually very few compared to most MMOs), but even they try and change things up a little.

For example, the very first quest you get in Kingsmouth is to kill 6 zombies. It takes a few seconds to do (caving their heads in with a huge sledgehammer is worryingly satisfying!), but the next stage of the quest asks you to jump on cars to activate their alarms to attract more zombies. Then you have to ignite petrol cannisters and lure the zombies through the flames. Finally you have to investigate the bodies the zombies are feeding on and encounter your first mini-boss, complete with directional attacks. And that's just about the most basic quest in the game.

The questing slowly and consistently introduces new mechanics (in the example above use of objects, environment effects and directional attacks) that become much more prevalent and important later on.

I like the fact that there are no real quest hubs as such, but that you rather concentrate on one or two quests which organically lead you to explore the maps. When the quests are resolved you file a report via your mobile phone (so no backtracking to quest givers). Like a lot of the game mechanics it requires a little adjustment after coming from more traditional MMOs, but it's far more satisfying.

I love that even basic quests entail some kind of investigation. The "handouts" you get whilst questing (journals, photos, books, songs, poems etc) remind me of the paper handouts I used to give out to my Call of Cthulhu pen 'n' paper RPG group back in the day. I really like how the quests uncover the plot and fill out the world (for example, I learnt something interesting things about the characters and history of Madam Roget and Danny Dufresne whilst hacking a doctor's computer for a quest. This information had no bearing on the quest, but made the world seem like a living place with real people with their own stories).

The vast majority of the quests really feel different to the standard kill/find/deliver questing of most MMOs, and the use of "real world" investigations and knowledge give them a much deeper resonance.

Another example (with a few minor spoilers)... trying to fly a remote control aircraft over the Kingsmouth airfield to see what the mysterious "Men in Black" were up to ended up with the rc plane crashing due to their EMP emitters. So my wife and I were asked to go and deactivate the emittters. The only problem is that the MiBs had set up an electronic perimeter as well as roaming guards and probes. This being a Sabotage Quest we didn't want to be noticed.

We explored a little and found an underground storm drain, but our progress was cut short by an electronic gate with a keypad... and we didn't know the code. So, we explored some more. Shortly after (we gave up for a while and decided to follow a different quest) we found two dead MiB bodies. Each body had an ID card, along with an employee number for something called the Orochi Group and a web address. So, we fired up the in-game browser and went to orochigroup.net, where we found an employee database. Inputting the names of the dead bodies along with their ID codes told us that one of the dead people was married to Sally Andersen (in fact further searching of the website revealed how and where they had met), as well as what projects they were working on.

Now, none of this gave us the answer to the original quest and the keypad code. Perhaps that info will prove useful in a later quest. What it did do was tell us about the world in a completely new and innovative way. We learned who the Men in Black were, we started to learn about the mysterious Orochi Group, and it raised more questions and hints about the game's overarching storyline.

For almost twenty minutes my wife and I were exploring websites that tied directly into the game and quest we were doing, and the whole experience was thrilling. We felt like we were investigating, using our minds, not clicking hotkeys in a combat game. It really felt like the developers had created a complete world.

Eventually we found some more corpses that contained the keycode were were looking for, along with some uniforms we could use as disguises, allowing us to enter the airport and deactivate the EMP emmitters. Even then the small touches were gratifying - my wife could not wear the first uniform we found and we had to hunt round for a female corpse to loot before she could wear her disguise.

Now, that brings us on to the Investigation missions which take the principles described in the example above, but make a whole chain of quests based around investigation. These missions give you a task (for example, find out about some murders that occured in 2002) and then leave you to it. There is no quest marker, no pointer. You have to figure it out where to go, what to do and who to talk to by yourself. Clues are hidden all over the place (newspapers, conversations, maps etc).

One page from the notebook I have to use to keep track of my investigations

I'm not going to give away any of the Investigation missions, and I encourage people to avoid spoiler sites, because working your way through these things is so damn satisfying. You may have to examine the zone map for clues, listen to NPC conversations, hack computers in the game, explore websites using the in-game browser (including reading twitter feeds and facebook pages and the like), learn about art history, morse code, famous authors, poetry and so on.

You might think there are only a few of these complex and deep puzzle missions in game. You'd be wrong. There are loads of them. The amount of work that has gone into creating this world is incredible. Perhaps the most telling thing is that I want to share my experiences with my friends and discuss the quests and the world in detail.

This game makes you use your brain in creative ways. No MMO has done anything like this before.

4. It Keeps Getting Better

One problem I had with another Funcom game, Age of Conan, was that after the first incredibly well done 20 levels and leaving the city of Tortage the quality and care disappeared. Quests became grindy, and there was no voice-over or real story. This is not a problem with The Secret World.

In fact, the game just seems to get better the more I play it. Quests become more interesting, the quality of the writing and characters remains, and the world becomes even deeper and better designed. I'm told that the quality is maintained right up until endgame.

5. The (Secret) World

The game breaks the mold in world and art design. First of all the setting is unique, and being based in the "real" world allows a great connection to be made. It's such a great change from the traditional medieval fantasy land which has become so tired and cliched now as a basis for an MMO. The story and world creation is not just told through the cutscenes, but by the world itself. NPC conversations, newspapers, maps, the quests... all have an input into making the world seem bigger and deeper.

The maps are open and very large. It's an explorer's paradise, with quests being found all over the place, from out of the way NPCs, to dropped cellphones or on dead bodies. The world design is excellent, with a whole host of unique, diverse and atmospheric environments. When you die and run around as an anima ghost the world changes (check out the hanging corpses on the Hangman's Bridge). This is a world I want to explore.

Right, so where is Slade the Leveller?
Things happen in the world. Helicopters fly overhead, pointing the way to emergencies. Radios crackle and read out the shipping forecast. Pubs are full of the chatter of the locals. The police talk amongst themselves about the latest gossip.

You can watch an infected zombie walk out of the sea in Kingsmouth, turn into a pod, then spawn an Impaler. You can talk for ages to NPCs about the world, their history, their political views without them ever giving you a quest. You can explore to find all the lore items in each zone, some of which are hidden away in hard to locate tunnels or on top of buildings that are hard to reach. You can spend hours looking at "real" websites about the game world, researching, investigating.

It feels completely different to any other MMO world.

6. The Writing

Regular readers will know I'm a big Bioware fan. I've always loved the storytelling and writing in their games. There was absolutely nothing I had seen, heard or played that made me think a Funcom game would not only meet Bioware quality writing, but actually far exceed it.

The writing in this game is second to none. Characters seem real, and they spout quotable line after quotable line. There is a dark wit to much of the writing, and the themes are truly mature and dark. This quality extends to every aspect of the writing, whether it be NPC conversations heard in passing, lore entries in your log, or simple newspaper articles found whilst questing.

The game is properly mature. Too many games think being mature means excessive swearing and ultraviolence, but that's just cartoon maturity. This game feels mature in a real way. Sure there is plenty of swearing, but it's all in character and in context.

It's maturity comes from it's dark heart. This is a properly dark game, that makes you think about things you've seen and read. Whilst questing I was given a task to locate Larry and Derrick Creed. I found the now zombified Larry feeding on a corpse. It was only later that I realised Larry was feeding on the corpse of his own father...

You've got red on you...
 7. The Audio Experience

The voice over work in this game is almost of the same level of quality as the writing. Every character sounds unique, with their own mannerisms and voice.

The music is incredible, and very diverse, and the atmospheric sound design is excellent and used in some surprising ways. Some quests utilise excellent sound design (I'm thinking of the Siren Song in particular). It's an often overlooked component of a game's design, but the quality and imaginative use of sound in the game raises the atmosphere created by the world and the writing.

8. Character Progression

No character classes and no character levels. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and at first it can be very difficult to get to grips with the concept, but it really does open up the players' options. It feels more like a pen 'n' paper RPG than an MMO at times. There is no need to race to max level, because there isn't one, and the effectiveness and combat role of your character is defined by your selection of skills (7 active and 7 passive) rather than the number of skills you know.

I've already spent countless minutes staring at the ability wheel, thinking about what skills to equip on my hotbar and how they will synergise to give the required effects.

The combat has been called simple by some. It sure starts that way, but as you progress you learn the hard way that you absolutely have to change out your skills to defeat some foes. If you play a melee character you will have to learn to dodge and move during combat but your ability to pick the right skills at the right time are just as important as your ability to react to an incoming blow.

I also like that the progression of your equipment does not affect your character's appearance. Clothes are completely separate from character progression, meaning that you can look how you want, when you want.

9. The Little Things

Every time I play the game I notice something new. There are hundreds of pop culture references (I loved the Dan Brown reference on joining the Templars) from the names of streets in Kingsmouth to the names of characters ( a famous Maine-based horror author with the initials S.K?!) to the fact the Miskatonic River flows through Kingsmouth.

In London I love the music in the disco above The Horned God pub, the names of the beers on the real ale pumps, and that guy trying to retrieve his money from the games machine in the Fish and Chip shop.

I like how crafting blueprints look like the item you are making.

I like the fact that the in-game cash shop only sells cosmetic items (pets, clothes, titles, fireworks) and no xp boosts. I love the number and variety of animated emotes. I love Danny Dufresne's T-shirt.

I daresay I'll find something else tonight.

10. It Dares to be Different

This is one of the most interesting and unique MMOs for years. For all the hype surrounding The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, this game innovates in a whole host of ways, and truly pushes the boundaries compared to those two behemoths.

The world, the questing and the character progression are all unique and feel very different to other hotkey MMOs. So much so that I can see some people having real trouble adjusting. It's just this innovation that completely blindsided me and blew me away however.

So, there you have ten of the reasons I am hooked on The Secret World. It's a huge, complex and demanding game that won't be for everyone. It has flaws (some clunky animations, a steep learning curve, and a complete refusal to hold your hand and make things easy), but they only serve to highlight the amazing design, writing, quests and world Funcom have created.


  1. Nice read , I am playing it great game apart from no crossfire support,
    probably win game of the year.

    1. Thanks :)
      I doubt it will win GoTY, though I think it may deserve to. It's a little too niche for that I fear, and I think the players will rate it higher than the professional critics.

  2. I totally agree, I haven't had the chance to play as much as I would like to but I know that this is a game that won't bore me anytime soon, excellent review ^_^

  3. The Secret World is absolutely the most anticipating game, and it brings a whole lot more than people anticipated! And Funcom are saying that they have so much ideas and stuff that will come later. I have bought the lifer pack, because I will play this far longer than LotrO. Ragnar, Bylos, Bruusgaard and the other on the team have done a MARVELOUS piece of work. Computergames, you love it or hate it, or marry it! (lifetime subscription :)

  4. Amen to this. I really need to stop playing this game so that I can catch up on my sleep, but there is just about no chance of that happening. Ever.

  5. "It has flaws (some clunky animations, a steep learning curve, and a complete refusal to hold your hand and make things easy)"

    In what way are the second two you listed flaws?

    1. Good question, and of course it's a matter of opinion. I guess I meant that both the learning curve and difficulty are going to put a lot of people off. That might not be a bad thing actually as far as I'm concerned (I wrote in a different article it may act as a filter) but I want Funcom's excellent work to be rewarded with subscribers too.

      The game does seem to get better the more you play it. For the first hour I played I really wasn't sure about it. That's a hurdle some people will never get over unfortunately.

  6. game wont make it due to its lack of end game but its not as bad as i expected. expect F2P soon especially with the cash shop already in.

    1. I wouldn't be so sure. If they sell only Age of Conan numbers they can still make a decent profit. Funcom release their business plans publicly. See here for figures that show what they need to sell and how much profit they will make (page 17 of presentation): http://www.funcom.com/investors/funcoms_first_quarter_financial_report_for_2012

      Also, don't discount the excellent word of mouth the title is getting. However, like I said, it certainly isn't a game that will click with everyone.

  7. Really good post. I am really enjoying the game. The only thing I feel like the game falls short, in my opinion, is your own character's reactions to the world and interactions with other NPCs.

    When you take a quest or talk with someone and the real time movie plays, your character feels out of place most of the times. As if he's overhearing a conversation that he shouldn't or getting into a conversation between two other people to have no input whatsoever. Your character has no opinion or voice. You are just there. Some NPCs will have this monologue that they seem to be talking to themselves and you're just awkwardly standing there waiting for them to direct their attention to you, and they never do. It feels like you're being rude interrupting their moments.

    I guess I'm spoiled by SWTOR where your character talks back and seems to be have a personality. Other than that, I really enjoy it.

    I liked Inferno, but I felt that Polaris had a more epic boss fight.

    1. Hi Rickey

      I actually agree with you. The silent protagonist does feel weird coming from TOR. For me it's one of those things I can overlook due to the excellent nature of some of the other gameplay.


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