"The secret is to wait for it go free-to-play."

The Secret World is the latest title from MMORPG developer Funcom, makers of the classic Anarchy Online and the forgettable Age of Conan. TSW is definitely a better effort than Conan, implementing many new and mostly successful gameplay mechanics, but squanders whatever goodwill the innovations would have generated with a poor business model that just isn't sustainable these days.

Most MMORPG worlds fit neatly into one of three themes - swords and sorcery fantasy, lasers and aliens sci-fi, and comic book superheroics. The Secret World doesn't really fit into any of these classifications easily. In fact, it feels almost like a spiritual successor of sorts to The Matrix Online, which defied classification and earned the ire of many due to its poor state at launch. Taking place on modern-day Earth, you join one of three secret societies and ship out to battle evils that most people regard as the stuff of myths and conspiracies. Players can wield firearms like pistols and shotguns, melee weapons like swords and hammers, and occult magic channeled through old tomes and talismans.

The core concept behind The Secret World is that there are no classes. As you complete quests and vanquish enemies, you earn experience which builds up along a familiar bar at the bottom of the screen. Upon filling it, however, you don't just automatically gain a level - you're given Skill Points and Ability Points which can be invested in a vast array of different areas to specialize your character. Theoretically, if you were to play long enough, you could earn enough SP and AP to purchase every skill and ability. However, at present this would involve an insane amount of grinding repeatable quests. It's an MMO, though, so someone's sure to do it.

Similar to games like Guild Wars, you are limited in how many skills you can equip at any given moment. There are only 7 slots on your hotbar, meaning you can only equip 7 active skills. There's also a secondary bar for passive skills that confer a constant effect onto your character. It won't take long before you have more skills than you are allowed at your disposal, necessitating that you spend some time studying the descriptions of your abilities to try and put together a loadout whose skills play off of each other and give you the power to pull off powerful chain attacks.

Combat in the game is a mixed bag. Even while you're soloing, typical rank-and-file enemies will make you dance around in a fashion that is usually limited to dungeon and raid bosses in other MMORPGs. You'll have to dodge powerful super attacks and flee out of nasty ground effects like poison and fire. Enemies also have considerable endurance in this game, often taking quite a while to whittle down. The end result is that two-thirds of the enemies you fight feel like bosses in their own right, which is an interesting concept at first but soon grows tiresome. Special abilities are what make bosses in other MMORPGs stand out from regular mobs. By forcing you to dodge, leap, bob, and weave around constantly the game's combat grows even more tiresome than MMOs where positioning is less important. When so many fights require the same types of mobility - move out of the bad goop on the ground, dodge the forward cone attack, etc. - the WASD keys end up being little more than honorary number keys. 1, 1, 1, A, 2, 3, D, 6, 1, 1, 1, A, and so on, and so on...

Apart from the leveling systems, active combat, and a couple interesting mission types (discussed later), the gameplay is traditional MMO fare. About half of the quests in the game are gussied up with introductory cutscenes, but in the end the objectives boil down to having you go to certain areas and do certain things - defeat enemies, escort NPCs, click on glowing doodads, and so forth. An interesting little 'feature' of the game's questing experience is that your quest log is prohibitively tiny. It can hold one over-arching epic quest that spans multiple zones, one main quest, and three side quests. You'll often come upon quest hubs that feature a half-dozen or more main quests, but you can only pick up one at a time. That means you'll have to run back to quest hubs constantly since you can't just gather up quests like in other games in the genre. This was apparently implemented to prevent players from losing track of the game's plot, but I don't believe we're as stupid as Funcom thinks. In the end, it's a pointless restriction that pads out every hour of your gameplay time with ten minutes of backtracking and revisiting the same quest hubs again and again.

The Secret World literally gives you the run-around, and when you mix in long and drawn-out enemy encounters, it becomes obvious that half the game is repetitious fluff. You've made it out to the forest and killed a few projectile-vomiting zombies - that's great. The scenery is interesting and the first few battles were nicely tactical. The remaining nine zombie kills and the long trek back to town so you can pick up the second of the eight quests there aren't nearly as fun. Other MMOs with less dynamic content and shorter travel times stay interesting by changing up the scenery frequently and sending you to new places on a constant basis. The Secret World has you trudging around the same zones for far too long. In fact, there are only really three areas in the game - a stretch of New England coastline plagued by undead, the mysterious and occult Egyptian Desert, and good old Transylvania which I have yet to reach but is likely to be plagued by handsome vampires or somesuch.

Breaking up the monotony of 'Kill X' and 'Click X' quests are Stealth missions and Investigative missions. Stealth Missions almost always take you to a solo instance where the enemies can one-shot you. In order to complete the mission, you'll have to avoid them, and any security measures they've set up - these can include cameras, laser tripwires, and other traps. A lot of these missions were bugged when I played them in August 2012. Cameras were especially frustrating. Each camera beams a circle of light onto the ground below, which plainly represents the area you need to avoid in order to pass without being spotted. If you step into the light, the camera will begin beeping. At that point, you have a few seconds to get out of sight before the alarm sounds. Unfortunately, I kept running into cameras that would sound the alarm on me before I even stepped into their circle of sight, as well as cameras that wouldn't register my escape after I accidentally stepped in front of them. I'd flee, sometimes even hiding behind solid walls two rooms away, yet they'd continue beeping and beeping and eventually sound the alarm as though I was still dancing naked in front of them.

Investigative missions require research. You might be tasked with gaining access to a password-locked computer, which in other MMOs would require you to slay enemies until one of them dropped the password for you to loot. In TSW, however, you'll have to search for the password. Sometimes this is accomplished in-game. You might be given a hint that the password is the name of the woman who the computer's owner is married to, and that name might get dropped during conversations with NPCs or revealed inside phone books helpfully scattered throughout town. There's an frustratingly equal chance, however, that the password is scribbled on a wall somewhere nearby - necessitating a lot of sleuthing about, and a lot of combat against enemies that get in your way. Odds are good you'll end up killing the same respawning packs of enemies over and over as you prowl around looking for clues.

Other investigative missions have you go onto the internet - the real internet, helpfully accessible through an in-game browser - to search for clues. Funcom has set up real web sites for its fake locations and characters, but Google's top results are almost always fan sites and forum threads that are designed to outright give you the answers. At first, I tried to avoid those sites, and figure out the answers on my own. That didn't work out well. Most Investigative missions are incredibly obtuse. They must have made sense in the developer's minds, but to average players, they won't make a lick of sense. One quest required me to enter a locked jail cell. Instead of there being a nearby key or switch to open the cell, the real solution was to let yourself be killed by monsters, because as a ghost the cell door is inexplicably open. Afterwards, you must kill yourself again so that you can see a tiny ghost bird sitting on a random car who will fly away in a certain direction when approached. You have to follow the bird. Another ridiculous investigation was a scavenger hunt of sorts in which a character having prophetic visions kept giving me vague descriptions of places and asking me to find them. The first few were easy to figure out, but eventually I started getting descriptions of far-away places I hadn't been to yet because the monsters and quests there were too high-level. Sure, you could leave the Investigation mission in your log and check off the places as you get there, but wait - the game won't let you do any other 'main missions' simultaneously. Investigative missions were a neat little idea but in the end it's much less frustrating to just google the solutions, or wait until the solution is inevitably posted in the game's general chat channel.

The Secret World would make a perfectly serviceable free-to-play MMORPG, but at the time of this writing, it is a retail game with a monthly fee. The software costs $50 (though there have been some sales bringing it down to $40 already) and each additional month of play after the first free month included with the initial purchase of the game is $15. On top of that, Funcom has shoehorned in an in-game store which sells pets, cosmetic clothing, and titles ('Dudeguy, Hand of Justice') for more of your hard-earned real-life cash.

Let's face it - the MMORPG genre is stagnating. We've seen just about every MMORPG launched after World of Warcraft go free-to-play in short order. Star Wars: The Old Republic announced it would be going free-to-play a scant seven months after its release. There is nothing about The Secret World's launch that seems to indicate that it will be the sole exception to this phenomenon, especially when both of Funcom's other games have gone free-to-play.

There are precious few reasons to play the game now. It's a newly-released MMO, so naturally it's quite buggy and there's a shortage of content, and though it would make a fine F2P title there just isn't enough here to justify a $50 price tag and a monthly fee on top of that. There's already a cash shop in the game, so the infrastructure for the inevitable free-to-play switch is already in place. Funcom is just getting as much cash out of diehard fans as it can before it switches business models.

The Secret World will one day be a game worth paying, for certain, but that day is still a ways off. In the meantime, let me share a little secret with you: play something else. I guarantee you that by this time next year, there will be more content, fewer bugs, and you won't have to spend fifty bucks just to earn the right to pay fifteen bucks a month to play. Pass it on.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 08/07/12

Game Release: The Secret World (US, 07/03/12)


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