Seshat and Feldspar visit The Secret World

Two people stand in varying stages of readiness. A man with pistols and a woman holding metal claws. Both are sensibly dressed, in a field in front of a stone church.

In the wake of the release of Funcom’s new subscription-MMOG, The Secret World, my minions, Seshat and Feldspar delve into this new offering in the MMOG market and return with their impressions.

The Secret World drops players into a modern, yet magical world where most of the conspiracy theories are true. As the unexpected recipient of strange, magical energies, players align themselves with one of three vast, secret societies, to further their faction’s interests and thwart or avert whatever the apocalypse du jour may be.

Seshat: The Secret World. If you love a good story, an intense atmosphere, and well-crafted characters, you’ll enjoy the Secret World. If you’re looking for innovative gameplay or a first person shooter, go elsewhere.

The world is – well, it’s now. But it’s a now with a dark side. Yes, yes, you’ve heard that before. Magic and vampires and zombies and secret societies.

Trust me when I say that this is a version that’s well done.

Zombies prowl or sprawl around a graveyard adjacent to a church

Feldspar: The quest material is clever; with a nice balance between short, simple quests with lots of hints; and more difficult quests that require pen, paper, and access to Google and Wikipedia. The easier quests have obvious directions to goals; pointers on the map, direction arrows, circles on the map to indicate likely locations. The investigative quests usually require information from outside the game – or require you to pay attention to details in the game, perhaps to visit locations you may not have yet visited.

While you don’t need to do every quest – and could, in theory, just follow the main storyline until the endgame – don’t. Really, just don’t. The side missions are interesting and give you a better sense of the world; and you also will find the difficulty level rises sharply if you don’t develop your character enough.

Seshat: Of course, being an MMO, you could develop your character in PVP. There are four zones for PVP in The Secret World.

Fight Clubs are intended for practice; they’re just open-ish arenas, one in each major city. You walk into the arena floor, ten seconds later you’re flagged PVP, and it’s a free-for-all. Leave the arena floor, and you unflag.

The Fusang Projects are a persistent warzone, and you and your faction attempt to claim specific locations within that warzone. It’s up to your faction whether you decide to try to hold them as long as possible, or simply run around constantly re-taking them.

Stonehenge is a 5-player-per-team limited-time event; each team attempts to claim and hold the altar stone for as long as possible, or to defeat the opposition. Points are awarded for each. The game ends when the time runs out, or when a team reaches the goal in points.

El Dorado is capture-the-flag with a difference. There are four relics; each team wants to claim relics. There are advantages and disadvantages to placing the relics on a location of ground; or to carrying the relic.

Of course, the key thing to remember here is that each combat site – other than fight clubs – has three sides; not two. The Templars, The Dragon and The Illuminati. The three Secret Societies.

Feldspar: You can start being involved in PVP almost from the moment your character is created – or at least, once your whole ‘tutorial’ series is ended and you arrive in Kingsmouth.

But you don’t have to. And Kingsmouth is interesting! The early Kingsmouth quests also help you develop your combat skills; so it can be worth waiting a little before you involve yourself in the PVP elements of the game.

Seshat: Actually using the combat system is fairly simplistic. It’s the classic ‘tab to choose a target, hotkeys to use abilities to kill the target with’ system. The difficulty – and the interesting part – is how you choose the skills. You have a choice of nine weapons, each of which has 56 – yes, you read that correctly – 56 distinct abilities.
You can wield any two weapons simultaneously; giving you 112 abilities to choose from. There are also three sets of ‘misc’ powers, so there’s another 21 abilities. Half of the 112 powers are ‘active’, and half are ‘passive’ – as in, half are hotkeyed, and half are constantly running.

The Secret World's ability system looks confusing at first, but it is rich with options and abilities.

But, you can only have seven active and seven passive abilities selected at any one time. Managing your powers is where a min-maxer will be delighted: and it’s actually kind of fun if you’re not a min-maxer, too.

Choosing the right powers is also critical to defeating bosses.

Feldspar: So does remembering to turn to face your targets! Almost all your attacks need you to have your character facing the target, or you’re just wasting your time. You have to remember to keep turning to face each new enemy; the game won’t do that for you.

The interface takes a little getting used to, and it would be nice to be able to switch between holding down the right mouse button to turn your character and locking movement to the mouse (a la “T” in Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online). As you get used to attacking with the action bar and number keys, things get easier, and easier yet as your attacks change to ones that take more time to reset – more time to find the right key.

Shooting at zombies

Seshat: I find it awkward – I am doing so much at once with my left hand; moving and selecting hotkeys – but my right hand is trapped on the mouse.

Feldspar: Using two weapons is interesting at first, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself focussing on one or the other over time.

Seshat: Or setting up one ‘gear management’ slot for one weapon kit, and another for the other. Oh yes – there’s a method for storing selected groups of abilities and talismans (talismans are ongoing buff objects); so you can quickly switch from being a tank to being a healer to being a ranged DPS or a close-up DPS or whatever other specialised kits you’ve developed.

A map of the town of Kingsmouth

Feldspar: The maps are well done; as easy to read as your local street map (or Google Maps!). Important people and locations are usually marked, as are vendors – little stacks of coins that look like an ‘I’ symbol. It can take some searching to find the vendor you actually want to buy something from, but you can sell things to any vendor, and they can all repair your gear.

Seshat: The characters are amazing. Distinct personalities, distinct backgrounds, you get a sense of being in a real world with real people. Not very many surviving real people, admittedly – at least on Solomon Island – but real people, with real pasts as complex as any from an Agatha Christie novel.

A bald woman with glasses talks to a bespectacled priest in front of the altar of a church

As for your own character; there’s a wide variety of ways to personalise your appearance. Right now, there’s more options for clothing than for faces and hair; but expansions for faces and hair are planned for August.

Feldspar: But try to save a little money (in-game money – Pax Romana) for upgrading skills!

Seshat: Indeed.

I will ask this, though: why so many solo adventures in an MMO? You’re working with your friends, humming along, do-de-doo, then suddenly a solo instance slams you in the face and you have to do it on your own. Wha?

Feldspar: I don’t like that all that much either.

Seshat: On to the important things: The sound is crisp and precise, and audio cues for trouble are readily available.

Feldspar: The animations can be a bit repetitive; though when one is watching zombies it actually makes sense. The graphics are stunning.

But why can’t we ever go anyplace nice?

Ravens cluster around a municipal pond in which two people desperately fight a strange creature

The Secret World Minimum System Requirements
  • Internet Connection: 512 KBPS or faster
  • OS: Windows XP (SP 1)/Vista (SP 1)/Windows 7 (SP 1)
  • DVD-ROM: 8X or faster DVD drive
  • Processor: 2.6 GHZ Intel Core 2 Duo or equivalent AMD CPU
  • Memory: At least 2GB RAM for Windows XP / 3GB RAM for Windows Vista and Windows 7
  • Hard Drive: At least 30GB of free space
  • Graphics Card: NVIDIA 8800 series 512 VRAM or better
  • DirectX: DirectX 9.0c Compatible
  • Input: Keyboard & Mouse
The Secret World Recommended System Requirements
  • OS: Windows 7 64 bit
  • Processor: Intel Core i5 3.0Ghz or equivalent
  • Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB
  • Memory: 6 GB

While The Secret World has now officially launched, apparently it is still selling at the pre-order pricing (US$49.99) with pre-order bonuses. Go figure. This price includes the first 30 days of game-time – but you’ll probably spend all of the first day just downloading the game’s data files.

Unusually, while The Secret World is a subscription-MMOG (US$14.99 / €14.99 incl. VAT / £11.49 incl. VAT per month or less for longer subscription plans), it also sports a cash-store offering vanity items and other such add-ons in exchange for Funcom points.

Overall: Recommended.