Preview: Pros and Cons of The Secret World «
Funcom opened The Secret World to the press this week, so I donned my tinfoil hat and began to pull at the threads of conspiracy as a new Templar recruit. We’ve seen these early areas in our last Secret World preview, but after three solid days of monster hunting and clue tracking with my own character, I’ve got a much better feel for what this modern-day fantasy MMORPG has to offer. Here’s a broader breakdown of its strengths and weaknesses to help you decide whether this interesting mix of fresh and stale ideas and mechanics is for you.
Pro: No Levels Restrictions, No Classes
In The Secret World, you’ll never be locked out of an area or dungeon because you’re not a particular level. That’s great, because it makes areas like Kingsmouth feel more open to true exploration. It also adds an element of danger that’s been noticeably missing in MMOs for years. I never knew what types of monsters would be lurking in a particular part of the map. One minute, I was ventilating basic zombies with my dual hand guns; the next I was fleeing from a massive, Golem-like monster that acted like my bullets were of the soft-foam variety.
You also won’t be locked into a specific class, instead choosing the weapons or magic you want to use. As you gain Anima (ability) and Skill points, you apply them to any ability you like: handguns, shotguns, magic, swords, sledgehammers, and more. I decided on a mix of ranged and melee weapons for my Templar, and I know I’ll eventually enjoy the hybrid experience (more on this below). I’m also appreciative it lets me start adding Anima and Skill points to other weapons and magics at any time and begin playing in a different style without having to start all over again with a new character.
Con: Still Too Much of that Level, Class Feel
This is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s worth pointing out: Batman: Arkham City opened the floodgates right away, giving players a ton of combat moves and gadgets from the outset. And rightly so — you should never feel like you’ve got to level up Batman in order to make him a badass. I know that part of the MMORPG experience is about building a character over time and learning the ins and outs of different abilities, but I just wish Funcom had found a happy medium and gave me more at the outset.
My character is supposed to be a super-powered monster hunter, but he still feels like a low-level rookie in desperate need of a massive Anima boost. The problem is highlighted by the fact that only the most barebones active combat abilities are available at the outset — basic attack with the 1 key and a more powerful, cooldown-timer attack with the 2 key — making hours’ worth of early combat a tedious game of pressing 1 and 2.
Because I’m grinding away trying to earn precious Anima and Skill points so I can unlock more abilities, I’ve yet to stray outside of my handgun weapon focus. I plan on adding melee skills so I can become a true hybrid character, but I’ve yet to fill out my ranged skills enough. So I may not be locked into a set class, but I certainly feel like I am for the moment. Again, from experience, I know this will all open up nicely in time. When I played The Secret World last, I was given a pre-leveled character with a ton of Skill and Anima points, and at that stage combat is an option-filled blast. But why does it have to take so long to get to the good stuff?
Pros: A Fresh Look
The Secret World is a visually different MMO thanks to its contemporary, real-world setting. I loved — loved — exploring Kingsmouth, the New England town that’s the combined dream/nightmare of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and George A. Romero. As a lifelong New Englander, I can authoritatively state that Funcom nailed the look and feel of the region with its old clapboard homes, mom-and-pop-store Main Streets, lighthouses, foggy coasts, and maple trees with leaves turning orange just in time for Halloween. It’s all delivered in a realistic style, a smart move given the mature themes, and a welcome, much needed departure from the cartoony style made popular by World of Warcraft.
After running around the castles and spaceports of fantasy and sci-fi MMOs for years, it’s nice to return to the real world. Throw in zombies, ghosts, and Lovecraftian terrors, and you’ve got a great environment for a fun, unique MMO.
Cons: Still Lowest-Common-Denominator Graphics
My character quickly ran into his doppelganger… and his twin brother, and his clone. It’s still early, TSW is still in closed beta, but at this point it appears as if it will be cursed by a lack of real character customization that results in everyone looking basically the same. It’s particularly notable in a closed beta where there aren’t that many players, and I still saw a bunch of characters I felt compelled to invite to a digital family reunion.
The vast majority of characters and environments are also of the ho-hum variety. Hey, it’s an MMO and Funcom wants as many people as possible to have a smooth gameplay experience. I get it. That doesn’t make it any prettier to look at. Even on the highest graphical settings, character models and animation are hit or miss. Zombies, ghosts, and other creatures of the dark do have nice visual touches, like the zombie soccer mom with her three-stripe running jacket and eyeglasses. But for the most part, humans all have disproportionate features — carney-small hands and shoulders like linebackers — and stiff, awkward movements.
Pros: Engrossing Story Removes the Grind
From Bigfoot to the Grassy Knoll sniper to vampires to the Pyramids and everything in between, The Secret World casts players into a storyline that combines every conspiracy theory, myth, legend, and bit of folklore you’ve ever heard — and many, many more you haven’t. Even early on you get a sense of its massive story, and Funcom does a great job weaving various threads of it throughout Kingsmouth in quests big and small.
The depth of the story shines in Investigation Missions. We’ve talked about these at length in the past, but it wasn’t until I had the chance to spend a good chunk of time in Kingsmouth that I recognized just how much Investigation Missions bring The Secret World’s storyline to life.
While searching for clues for the “sleeping priest” all over town, I discovered interesting places (like a strange, rune-covered rock formation on Priest Island) and characters galore. If I was on a standard, “go to point A, kill X number of Ys” quest, I would have glazed over just about every one of these people and locations. But I was on a challenging search for answers, and that search compelled me to dig into every nook and cranny in Kingsmouth. It opened my eyes to how deep TSW’s story runs, and quite frankly, it’s staggering. The amount of research that’s gone into this, and the way in which it has all been adeptly tied together to create a cohesive, compelling story is amazing.
Cons: Not Everyone Will Find the Clues
I could play The Secret World for its Investigation Missions alone, but I’m fairly certain I’m in the minority. These are tough, old-school quests that feature puzzles wrapped in riddles wrapped in word games that require time, research (as in actual reading), and thought. They’re fantastic, but they’re definitely not for everyone.
Without the Investigation Missions in Kingsmouth, I never would have dug beneath the initial “OMG our town has been overrun with zombies!” storyline layer to discover the deep ties to history, literature, art, fiction, and folklore. The basic, bread-and-butter MMO missions simply don’t do enough to draw me in. And without that crazy-deep storyline, those quests end up feeling like your garden-variety grind. Because of the difficulty and requirements of Investigation Missions, I fear a sizable portion of players will miss out on what, in my opinion, is The Secret World’s greatest strength.
It’s also worth noting that the last MMO with a strong story that drew me in, Star Wars: The Old Republic, completely ran out of steam when the story ran dry. Is The Secret World set up to suffer the same fate?
Today marks the opening of The Secret World’s first beta weekend event, and all those who registered for the beta or pre-ordered have a ticket to Kingsmouth. If you get a chance to hop in, come on back and let us know what you think. Is The Secret World a unique new MMO, the same-old-same-old, or somewhere in between?
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