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The Secret World Hands-On: Questing, Skill Trees And Is It Any Good?


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Adam Barnes

Can The Secret World live up to the expectations of innovation, and just how exactly does it play? We get hands-on to find out.


Published on May 22, 2012

The Secret World isn’t quite as innovative as has been made out. Early previews and brief hands-on concealed the fact that Funcom’s intriguing MMO is still as grounded in traditional genre conventions as any other.

But there’s more to it than just that.

After having an extended hands-on time with The Secret World in closed beta, we look at how the game plays and why – despite its limited innovation – you should still be interested in this MMO.

This seems important to the storyline. How, we're not yet sure...

How Does The Quest System Work?

There have been a lot of details from Funcom about The Secret World’s ‘inventive’ quest system, but – just so we’re clear – you should probably lower those expectations a little.

The reason for this is the division between quests, which can be separated into two very simple categories: story and everything else

Unsurprisingly the story quests are the most interesting, with regular cut-scenes, intriguing plot and more bespoke quest tasks – this is where the quest system ignores the majority of MMO staples.

The rest are a mix of branching character quest lines and random found-in-the-field quest objectives. The majority of these follow traditional MMO tasks – kill an X of number enemies or collect Y items from location Z. Your typical MMO formula, really.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. While it’s disappointing that The Secret World does resort to traditional quest types like this, it’s hardly unsurprising.

The investigative quests add enough variety to the pacing of your objectives, however, where instead of fighting you’re asked to discover clues and solve a puzzle or two.

This might be collecting items in the world, deciphering clues to find a specific location or even using real-world knowledge to discover passwords to locked computers.

It’s necessary to relearn your usual quest intake too. You won’t be able to accept all available quests, head out to an area and tick them off one by one. Here it’s only possible to have one quest active at one time.

Even then you’re limited to the number you can accept. Sounds frustrating – and initially it is – but the result is a closer care for the objective at hand, the world you’re in and how it all ties together.

Some of the characters you meet are very distinctive, it's just a shame you don't spend more time with them.

How Are Dungeons Affected By The Quest System?

Dungeons are the least original aspect of The Secret World. As a separate instance for a team of five players, these events are largely the same as any other MMO.

A series of tougher-than-ordinary enemies lead toward a string of bosses, each of which are themed for that particular dungeon. Familiar, yes, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? 

What The Secret World does bring to the template is a little more variety in how the boss fights unfold, tasking your team with sensible awareness of the whole arena.

Particular parts of a fight might require careful environment navigation to avoid taking damage, while unique boss abilities will need understanding to counteract whatever debilitating effect it might have.

This could be hiding behind a rock, as seen in the game’s earliest dungeon Polaris, to prevent the Ur-Draug from locking on, slowing you down and slicing off the majority of your health.

It’s not much, but coupled with additional cut-scenes and a reason for being there helps make the dungeons in The Secret World as entertaining as any MMO, if not particularly inventive.

The contemporary setting of The Secret World is refreshing to see in an MMO.

How Does The Character Development Work?

Having access to over 500 abilities might seem overwhelming, but this is probably the most innovative part of The Secret World.

You’re free to pick and choose the abilities you want, though you can only equip seven active and seven passive abilities at once.

This is limited enough that each ability you choose to equip is painfully pondered over, so while the system enables you to play a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll be hard pressed to find a successful one.

Which is why The Secret World enables you to save your gear and abilities as kits, and switch them out on the fly so long as you’re not in combat. Anyone can fill any role, providing they’ve got the tools to do so.

As a point of interest, though, it’s not possible to re-spec a character. Once an ability is unlocked, it’s yours forever.

If you decide you want a change, you’ll have to continue to rebuild your character from that point on – there’s no option to pay a fee and reset your setup. Frustrating, perhaps, but it’s intended to enable careful decisions.

It’s an interesting system, the depth of which is hidden behind hundreds of hours of play. Will you want to be bull-headed in your search for specialisation, or prefer a more casual, experimental route to picking your character?

There's a lot of knowing references to gaming and even the wider society. It's not forced, however, and well done.

Is The Story Important In The Secret World?

Simply put, yes. Naturally this isn’t going to be the MMO equivalent of Shakespeare: it’s still a videogame and so the storyline isn’t going to make grown men weep.

It’s well done, however, with a series of cut-scenes and voice-acted dialogue to introduce quests or storyline points – which is enough to distinguish it from most MMOs.

The contemporary setting is surprisingly fresh as well, eschewing the typical fantasy elements in favour of a range of settings that no MMO has tackled before. 

It’s all about the characters you meet, however. Whether it’s the police officer who grounds himself on classic cop shows or the false fortune-teller who suddenly finds herself the victim of real visions.

Each NPC is unique, fleshing out a genre that is known for its countless uninspired NPCs, quest givers and even story characters.

There’s a dark humour to The Secret World too, such as the aforementioned cop who laments the death of his pet kittens, but not the suicide of his father.

This black comedy is apparent from the start alongside many fourth-wall breaking comments of social commentary from other NPCs.

These are the reasons to get involved in The Secret World, providing an intriguing enough hook that will keep you on the hunt for more and more to see and do.



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Electronic Arts
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Summary: It's not quite as innovative as has been made out, but it's still an exciting MMO and well worth your attention.
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