The Secret World Review
Funcom's attempts at making MMORPGs never go quite like the company expects. Starting with Anarchy Online well over a decade ago, their online games have shown a streak of brilliance combined with multiple issues at launch, and unfortunately in the MMO space, that can break the game entirely for some players. I'm not really pleased to say that the same thing has happened again to Funcom with The Secret World, but it has. I do really like what this studio is trying to do, but I can't really excuse them for making yet another MMORPG that feels at least a little bit broken and incomplete.
The premise is pretty great, at least. The Secret World is a modern-day fantasy tale where the Illuminati and other crazy supernatural conspiracy theories come to life, along with more conventional tropes like zombies and magic. The formula works surprisingly well, and it becomes obvious that the MMO genre is a bit short on creativity when a much more conventional modern setting winds up being such a breath of fresh air. But it's not just the setting that adds charm, as Funcom has put a lot of additional effort in to make The Secret World more than just your usual MMO.
The biggest and most innovative thing here is the extensive amount of puzzle and adventure-type quests. Funcom's no stranger to making adventure games, and they've put that knowledge to good use in creating plenty of interesting goals that aren't just about killing monsters and collecting stuff. Unfortunately, I did find that a few of these quests are apparently broken, and unlike with combat-related objectives, it's much harder to determine that a puzzle-oriented quest is bugged, especially since you're not always sure you even have the correct solution, much less whether you're applying that solution properly. This led me to have to abandon a few quests, but I still didn't run into too many of these.
Of course, this is still an MMO and you're going to be spending quite a bit of time fighting, and that's where I feel like Funcom still needs to put some work in. During beta, they improved the combat and made it more active and tactical, but the game's fighting animations and such still feel like they're stuck in the previous decade. At this point, I doubt this will ever change, as Sony Online found out (with Star Wars Galaxies) just how much MMO userbases hate sweeping changes.
I should also point out that most of the things that make The Secret World unique - the writing, story, and adventure game elements - don't really involve much socializing. This game can be enjoyed solo, and adding people to your party doesn't really improve the experience except if you already know the people you're grouping with. Dungeons are mostly well-made, but don't expect much out of the PvP this early. (If you'd rather kill other players, some other promising titles are coming up, like Guild Wars 2 in August and the imminent Planetside 2 beta.)
The Secret World is definitely not intended to be a beginner's type of MMORPG, either, as it's got a lot of systems at play with plenty of windows and interfaces that are not always well-documented. From your inventory to the high-level descriptions that have been attached to the game's many, many abilities, the game doesn't do a great job of easing you into the experience, and while MMO veterans may enjoy this depth and lack of hand-holding, it can be a real challenge for novices. Much of the game's under-the-hood systems are affected by this as well, from how items improve your character to the particular roles you should be setting for your two weapon skill trees (which is pretty much Funcom's way of assigning two "classes" to a character). It's easy to screw up your character, too, as choosing two roles that don't work together well can mean more failure than success in tougher situations. The game includes a browser that you can access without alt-tabbing, and you'll probably need it pretty often to look up character builds, quests, and bugs. Otherwise, you'll be going through a hell of a lot of trial and error on the way to truly enjoying this game, so keep that in mind if you're usually an impatient or easily-frustrated gamer.
Funcom and EA have been billing The Secret World as a "premium" MMORPG, which is to say that this is what the old subscription-based model is now called when it's having to compete with free-to-play games. I'm sure that during its years of development, Funcom and publisher EA at least entertained the idea of turning this into a free game, but then they must have backed off of that after dumping many millions of dollars into the development. As a result, they're still asking full retail price as well as a subscription fee, and the plan is to include a content update every month. I generally really like the idea of developers adding stuff on a set schedule - unlike Blizzard - and doing it every month, the same interval at which people are paying, is a good idea too. At this point, the first monthly update is not out yet, so I can't judge whether this makes the game worth the monthly fee. If you're at all hesitant, you might want to wait until after the first update is out and read some opinions on it before picking up a copy.
For the third time straight, Funcom has released an MMORPG with some unique and interesting features alongside just a few too many problems to excuse. At the very least, The Secret World's issues are small when taken separately, and the charm of the world you'll explore can help you to ignore some of the frustrations. Still, this genre is quickly getting packed with amazing games that are completely free to play - and Funcom is asking you to buy this game and pay a subscription fee on top of that. (Oh, and then there's a real-money store, too.) To ask so much of gamers here in 2012, especially when there's such great competition out there, means that they should be delivering a game that's exciting to play, easy to get into, deep when people get to the endgame, and well-rounded in nearly all aspects - and I can't say that they've done that. This game is damn good in concept but it falters in the execution, so I have a hard time recommending you quit whatever you're playing now in order to jump into The Secret World. Only those with an appreciation for Funcom's adventure games or those who just really want a modern MMO fantasy experience should be getting this game with no questions asked. For the rest: wait and see.
Disclaimer: This PC review is based on a downloadable version of the full game provided by the publisher.