The Secret World review as it happens

Phil Savage

The Secret World releases today. I'm deep into Funcom's MMO of conspiracy, magic and invasive insects, and will be writing down my impressions as I go.

Intro

  • 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 their 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

Sunday

  • 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.

Monday

  • 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.

Tuesday Afternoon - Discovering The Savage Coast

  • Reservations aside, I am definitely enjoying myself. Here's the proof: it was gone 3pm this afternoon before I remembered that man can't live off coffee alone. The atmosphere of a world just recognisable enough to be in the here and now is compelling, despite the technical compromises.
  • I've just wandered into an area by the airfield, where the zombie type "Weekend Warriors" have - I'll not mince words - annihilated me. My attacks barely touched them. Across the road are giant roaming mud beasts that make for a tough fight, but fall well before my health bottoms out. I'm not sure what the deal is; perhaps some group area that's given absolutely no cautionary signposting.
  • Back to my investigation mission. Coordinate tracking is a slightly clunky matter of spamming F9 while running around the town. Still, my persistance pays off, and after a couple of instances of running into monsters because I wasn't paying attention to where I was going, I find the location and the purple mercenaries guarding it.

  • A cutscene has raised the question of what the collective noun for superheroes might be. "A flight," the quest giver suggested. My guess would be a hive.
  • I'm about done with Kingsmouth, but first I want to try the area's dungeon. Before that, I'll need to boost my equipment with the crafting menu. Crafting is a simple, if unnecessarily awkward process of disassembling unwanted weapons for metal, upgrading rubbish base metal into imperfect metal, then combining it with a toolkit of the quality you want by arranging the pieces in a vague recreation of the weapon shape you're after. Think TF2 crafting meets Pictionary, then wonder why anyone thought it'd be a good idea.
  • Top tip if you're starting the game: favour tanking or healing abilities. The game's swarming with decks that can be broadly classed as DPS, and as a result I'm having a hard time of getting into a group.
  • So instead, I've decided to head straight to the next area, coming back when there are more people looking for players. My plan immediately goes wrong when, instead of jumping over a skip, I get caught in mid-jump, becoming permanently stuck in the corner. That's it folks, this review is over, my character damned to an eternity of slowly rotating in the air. By a bin.

  • No wait, we're saved. Each character has a device that lets you teleport back to the magic tree. It would be nice if that teleport extended to places within Kingsmouth itself, or that some form of transport existed. It's not a massive area, but thanks to being restricted to one main mission at a time, I feel like I've been traipsing around this bloody island all day.
  • Enough complaining, I've reached a new area: the Savage Coast. This time zombies and fish monsters have been replaced with zombies and demons. Demons on a nudist beach apparently...

  • My skill set is slowly shifting. I've just added the Martial Discipline defensive skill, which makes me harder to hit for a set time. I've also swapped in a passive ability that heals me while it's active, massively boosting my survivability amongst the tougher mobs.
  • But while the fights are harder, the enemies just haven't got any more interesting. Harder areas simply mean bigger health bars. My attack chain remains the same - punctuated by the occasional bit of movement to dodge an area of effect - it's just taking longer for the baddies to go down.
  • I've hit a stumbling block in a mission. I'm supposed to kill a thing called Shadowrunner, but when I go to the marked location, he doesn't appear. A big problem at the moment is it can be hard to tell if a quest is bugged, or if there's some clever solution you're supposed to be figuring out.
  • The quest givers in this area seem less interesting, but boy do they make up for it with some of the location designs. It's a hodge-podge of horror classics, from apocalyptic motel...

  • To creepy treehouse...

  • To spooky fairground...

  • Towards the bottom of the map is a lighthouse. That's where I plan to head next, because if a game can't make a lighthouse eerie and awesome, there's no hope for it.
  • Mlls067 reminds me in the comments, the digital download for TSW is a whopping 14.4 GB. You know, sometimes I see console folk getting upset over an install that takes up 5 GB, and can only think "aww, how adorable."

Tuesday Night - Dungeon Run

  • While alt-tabbed out to update the last section, my character somehow died. Clearly I was right not to pick a career as a war correspondent. You can resurrect at specific points on the map, sending you into an ethereal other dimension. From here you can either shift straight back into the regular map, or go and find your body, resurrecting when you get near it. All told it's an effective system, letting you skip past monsters you've already battled (albeit with the natural time penalty of having to trek back to the location), or to instantly get back in the game and try something else.
  • I'd hoped to try out the PvP tonight, which isn't open-world (sorry gankers), but instead takes place in separate battlefields and warzones. Unfortunately, after an hour of hoovering up minor quests I was still waiting in the queue, so abandoned that plan for another attempt at the first dungeon.
  • "LFG QL3 DPS Polaris." The QL3 refers to the figure each weapon and trinket has, denoting its quality and therefore its damage output. The stuff available from vendors is generally pretty terrible, but you'll find plenty as quest rewards and loot, and the crafting doesn't take long.
  • New tactic: "LFM Polaris". My PM list explodes.
  • Dungeons are another great example of the flexibility offered by the ability wheel. When one of our healers drops out, we're able to compensate by switching up our move sets to relieve the medical void. When our tank drops out we're in slightly more trouble.

  • Second attempt with a new, hopefully more committed group. The Polaris dungeon has some interesting environmental tricks to pull during combat. You're exploring a shipwreck, and the standing water is occasionally mixed with electricity generating mobs. It's effective, because for once there's a movement concern besides where the enemy is looking. In the first boss encounter, we're restricted to using freight containers as a gangway, while also avoiding a giant smashy crab thing.

  • Or there's the final boss of the quest. He shifts dimensions, forcing you to hide away behind rock pillars to avoid attracting his gaze. I recklessly attempt to grab a screenshot of him during a shift and discover why you shouldn't: he holds you in place and pummels you to death. Still, it should have made for a great screenshot.

  • It didn't. Again: not a war correspondent. Luckily, the rest of the group soon dies as well, so I get another attempt at actually being useful to the team. As bizarre as it is playing hide and seek with some eldritch god, the mixture of environmental, area-of-effect and additional mob attacks actually make for a satisfying and tense fight. More of this please, Secret World. As we kill it off and complete the dungeon, I gain another faction rank. Which seems like a good place to leave it for the night.

Wednesday - PvP

  • Something I've noticed about the various areas I've visited: there really aren't many places to spend money. I've got loads of it, but all the equipment I need is being provided by questing, looting and crafting. There's nowhere to buy weapons of a better quality than I already have, except for the faction Quartermasters, who require PvP tokens.
  • Yesterday I mentioned that it would have been nice if there was some transportation system across the maps. Turns out there is. By killing myself with the /reset command, I'm able to pick which of the resurrection points I respawn at. Admittedly it feels like cheating, but given that the player's death state has been used as an integral part to one of the missions I've completed, I can't help but wonder if it was intentional.
  • PvP queues are way down from last night, and when I join up for the Fusang Projects warzone, I'm instantly placed in a game. The warzone is a massive battle between hundreds of players on all three factions for four facilities that are fought over in perpetuity. As you spawn, you can enable three missions, one to capture a facility itself, one to capture a respawn well, and a final to kill ten players of another faction. The result of all this?

  • Giant roaming gangs of Templars! We carried on like this for a while, stopping at objective points and steamrolling through anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the wave.

  • Respawn wells are easy objectives for a small group to tackle, but capturing a facility takes a concentrated effort from your faction. They're guarded, first by a turret, then by a giant Custodian. He never seems to pose much of a threat but holds the team up, increasing the chances of an ambush from the defending side. The above screenshot doesn't do justice to how hectic this can be.

  • Pretty damn hectic.
  • Annoyingly, the three warzone missions count as sidequests, and so will overwrite any you already have in progress for the main PvE content. They remain in a paused state, so you can pick them back up from where you left off, but doing so means remembering where you received the quest, which can be difficult when sidequests are littered about each location.
  • The kill 10 players mission can be problematic. Players tend to travel in packs, which can make getting the kill credit on the opponents you encounter difficult. Lone wolfing is also discouraged, as your as likely to run into a band of 10 enemies with no chance of survival. Eventually, after five credited kills and a 10 minute cooldown timer left on the other, I quit out.
  • Let's run through a typical sabotage mission, because they're an unusual mix of interesting objectives and awkward stealth systems. This one has me investigate some strange occurrences at the amusement park. Or, at least, strange in a different way to all the other strange occurrences at the amusement park. The first stage is following a trail of corpses around a path to the side of the park. As I went, I was ambushed by the purple mercenaries from my investigative mission earlier in the game. Climbing up to their hideout, I found an entrance through to the basement.

  • Here's where the stealth factors in, taking the form of a solo instance in which lasers and cameras will explode the building if tripped. This time it's a fairly short and simple section, negating some of the issues I had with an earlier mission that included much more involved - and more frustrating - camera avoidance. At the end of the basement is a computer, which can be used to disable the security and access a report detailing cameras set up around the park.

  • Back on the surface, my next objective is to use the tracker found by the computer to locate and destroy the security cameras. I'm given a vague area in which each will be found, then must use the quickening radar pings of the tracker to pinpoint them. Finding the last one shortly before the incessant beeping of the tracker drives me insane, I kill the unique mob that spawns, then cash in for my rewards.
  • Second PvP attempt, this time on the El Dorado battlefield. It's a ten-man per side fight between the three factions to pick up and hold four objects on the map. Points build at set intervals based on how many your side is currently holding. It works, but the scenario falls apart if, as in this case, there's a lack of communication from your allies. To be clear, that's not the game's fault, but I'm yet to experience the proper flow of this particular map.

  • The third, Stonehenge, is perhaps my favourite of the PvP zones. It's another battlefield map, this time with 5-man teams in a king-of-the-hill scrap for Stonehenge itself. The small scale prevents it being a complete clusterfudge of three-sided warfare, and the single objective keeps the action tight and pacey. I'm still not wild about the combat, even in the more chaotic and freeform PvP environment. In fact, I'd argue that here it suffers as a result of the freedom of the ability wheel. Planning attacks when you can't predict what skills, abilities and weaknesses a player may have can make the outcome of any given battle something of a crapshoot.
  • To give you an idea of where the main storyline is heading: evil wizards. I approve. It also looks like I'm close to unlocking the next area.

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