The Secret World review

Phil Savage at

The Secret World review

The problem with hell is your clothes are always burning off.

It doesn’t help that the combat is so uninspired. It’s not bad as much as perfunctory. Average. You hit the number keys of your hotbar in a repeat pattern as your character chip, chip, chips away at the enemy’s health bar. Build Focus, which allows you to perform special moves, then dodge an attack, then repeat. As you progress through the levels, the mobs don’t get more challenging, they just take more time to kill.

It was only a few hours in before I started blatantly gaming the system. Weaving a path between the attack triggers of mobs, sprinting through sections until my trail of pursuers tapered off, stepping up for an attack only when absolutely necessary.

At least the group dungeons make things more interesting. There, monsters can utilise the environment, electrocuting standing water, for example, to restrict the movement of players.

It’s strange that the solo instances rarely take the same approach. Enter certain buildings or caves as part of a quest and you can trigger plot-heavy one-man areas that advance the story of your character. It’s a more naturalistic system than The Old Republic’s giant green and red barriers, but the monsters inside mirror the patterns of those in the open world. It took the entirety of the lengthy Solomon Island plot strand before I finally had an interesting boss fight.

Criminally, the combat even dampens The Secret World’s most striking departure from the MMO norm: the removal of classes and levelling. Instead, XP gained from kills and quests is put towards ability points and skill points, which are generated at the same rate throughout the game.

The Secret World review

Glad I don’t have to clean this up.

Ability points dictate the attacks and passive bonuses you can use. Seven of each can be equipped at any one time in a customisable deck that makes up your character’s build. These skills are bought by means of the ability wheel – a branching list of weapon-specific actions and traits that can be swapped in and out of active use at any time.

The game attempts to direct you, by providing faction-specific decks to follow. Despite this, the open nature of the system is evident. My Paladin build could be followed by any player of any faction, but only the Templar agents would get the special outfit rewarded for completing a deck.

In solo PvE it makes for subtle shifts rather than dramatic changes to your attack style. There’s a lot of wastage, as the more expensive highpowered attacks are only available by first buying all the lower branch abilities for that weapon, followed by all the preceding ones on that particular segment. Your optimal attack patterns will remain unchanged for large periods of time, punctuated by occasional experimentation and alterations.

When grouping, the amount of extra, seemingly redundant attacks you collect start to make sense. When my party’s healer dropped out during one dungeon run, we were able to cobble together enough spare abilities to take the strain. Similarly, each person had a couple of threat-generating actions. Not enough to fully switch to tanking, but a helpful backup if the need arose.

The Secret World review

This is why you don’t bring shotguns to a swordfight.

The system breeds a lack of specialisation and definition, but the freedom to shift into whatever gap needs filling makes for a welcome change. Combined with the user-friendly grouping system – which lets you join up and play with friends regardless of what server or faction they occupy – it ensures playing with others is easy and enjoyable.

Your skill points, meanwhile, act as a granular and customisable levelling system, allowing you to put points into weapons or stat boosting talisman items. The higher the point level, the better quality equipment you can equip, and it’s this equipment that decides the power of your character.

Given the scarcity of shops in the game, you’ll need to create most of the weapons and equipment yourself. Crafting isn’t complicated, just needlessly obtuse. Unwanted weapons and items can be disassembled into metal and elemental components. These can then be upgraded into better quality versions which, when combined with a toolkit of a specific level, will create the item you need. But actually doing this requires you to make the crude shape of the object in the blueprint panel. It’s like someone looked at Team Fortress 2’s metal crafting and thought it would be neat if there was a memory test at the end.

The Secret World’s faction system feels underdeveloped. Whether you choose Illuminati, Templars or Dragon, your experience will be broadly the same. Despite each having a separate starting location, used to pick up the small number of faction-specific quests you’ll encounter, the main drive of the plot is identical for each character. The idea that each side exists in an uneasy truce is only really explored in PvP.

The Secret World review

Area-of-effect attacks visibly charge up across the ground.

There’s no open-world PvP, so combat takes place on two objective-based battlefields and the Fusang Projects warzone. While the hundreds of players clashing over the warzone can be an impressive sight, the whole thing feels like an afterthought, tacked on because it’s an MMO requirement. Ironically, the reason it doesn’t work is the same ability wheel that makes PvE grouping so good. With no set class definitions, it can be impossible to predict the tricks your opponent is bringing to a fight, making each encounter a gamble.

Also lacking, at least for now, is the endgame content available when players eventually finish the story. Currently there are nightmare-difficulty dungeons for players to tackle, but the direction taken with future updates will determine how long it’s worth renewing your subscription for.

Perhaps tellingly, there’s already a microtransaction store for cosmetic items. Whether that’s a hint of the game’s ultimate direction, or just a sign that people are happy to pay for bunny slippers, remains to be seen. At the moment, it’s not enough to keep me playing beyond the conclusion of the story, and I’d imagine all but the most hardcore of stat-tweakers would feel the same – especially with PvP so flimsy. If Funcom don’t apply some serious and quick work to the endgame, then don’t bother renewing your subscription after your second month, when the story and dungeons have run their course.

The Secret World shows a lot of ambition. The story is engaging, the setting atmospheric and the user-friendly core systems are a welcome progression. I’m happy to forgive – even celebrate – the things it attempts, even when they don’t work as well as intended. But it still feels uncomfortably shackled to familiar MMO compromises, and you’ll spend much of your time trudging through the same tiresome genre filler: the padding of content and lackluster combat are both things done better by other games in the genre. That it’s still worth a look is testament to the quality of what it does get right.



The weak combat and MMO padding hurt the experience, but The Secret World has innovation,