When it comes to MMOs, I tend to take my time with them. While it did arrive a couple of weeks back, I feel like to get a firm grasp on what the MMO offers compared to others, it takes some time to bring it all out. Any good MMO player will tell you that the first three days doesn't count, as it doesn't with The Secret World.
Having said that, The Secret World had me captivated in some areas and scratching my head in others. Let's break it down.
Funcom went into this with no forced expansion in mind. What I mean by this is they created a world where the game naturally expands into other areas, as it should. In this one, I played the role of a newly acquired agent of the Illuminati. They patrol different parts of the globe secretly to help figure out what has happened or what has gone terribly wrong. You're introduced to a system of traveling the globe instantly through a large tree with hundreds of branches that lead to particular areas. It's mesmerizing to see this, as the scale of the system is as large as you can imagine. It clearly shows that expansion is limitless, and more importantly it fits into the scheme of the overall story.
It's a neat set up, though rough at the beginning, but it allows for an entirely creative story to come alive in front of you, especially once you get going. This is by far the strongest part of the game, as you want to continue because of the storyline. It pushes you along and it binds together like an intricate web designed by a very intelligent spider.
For example, the first mission I ran into was one where I was sent to a town called Kingsmouth. Here you're asked to go investigate a mysterious fog that has rolled in and brought with it a great evil. The evil has turned most of the town folks into zombies, while other evil things have brought greater tragedy to the town's tale. It's a great introduction to the game, and it will literally consume you for days to complete the main mission, as well as other side missions around you. The driving point is the atmosphere and the storyline that is put together through these various missions, which are seamlessly connected to the main one.
Funcom did an outstanding job with setting missions like this up, and providing them with life that is a bit more meaningful than 'go get this thing for whatever reason'. The game provides healthy cutscenes to drive you along, packed with decent acting. It's definitely a grade above the original Resident Evil games, but not quite the solid performance from a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Along with a healthy story is actually pretty solid visuals. While I wouldn't define them as detailed as SWTOR, I think they're definitely a cut above World of Warcraft. You get a lot of healthy shadows and environmental details on the lowest graphical setting. Going back to the first mission, I saw the creepy fog hovering over the town. The monsters I encountered looked jarring and deformed, as they should. Even the walk of the zombies in the town really screamed 'shit! that's a zombie' -- especially the running animation. The only knock I have on the presentation is the large amount of pop-ups I had to encounter. For example, when I was wading through the water in the first mission trying to get to a boat, I could see a few monsters in the water. At the time, my intentions were to swim around them, but as I got closer to my destination, I found more monsters popped up in front of me. While I could probably blame this on my graphics card, I still think Funcom should give some indication that there is more in front of you than meets the eye, even if that meant having worse graphics.
Other than this one complaint, for the most part the music, sound effects and overall look/feel to the game was pretty solid. It complimented the story and combined with it to make a very real atmosphere that I could get lost in for days.
With all that said, the game isn't perfect. The worst part of The Secret World is figuring out the GUI, the missions and what the hell is going on sometimes. Funcom made this game for an experienced, every day MMO player. While I appreciate the lack of time wasted with "This is a map', 'This icon is your mission', 'Click here to jump', there has to be some sort of bend for novice players to pick up The Secret World and go. I had a hard time accepting missions and then figuring out what the next step is suppose to be. When you go talk to someone about a mission, the cutscene falls into place and that particular mission becomes the primary. It took me three days to figure out where to access and look at my progress in missions, as there is no obvious onscreen indication of such things. To the right of the screen there are small icons representing the mission you are currently on. If you click on that icon then you get a tier description of where you are in the mission (each mission is broken into tiers). The primary missions are slightly detailed on the map you get in the upper right part of the screen. If you accidentally click on a different mission then you lose your whereabouts from the one you want, as the new one replaces your primary.
While my range of MMOs is limited, I do know that SWTOR doesn't do this. It provides you with all active mission details on the map as you go. If I have six active missions, then the map has six points where I can go. The Secret World doesn't provide you with that luxury, as it's only one mission at a time. Once you get use to the mission and map configuration then it's all good. If you're a novice starting an MMO for the first time then this might not be the MMO to start your MMO career. It's not an intuitive layout at all and it will cause you frustration from the beginning. Hell, I'm still trying to figure out some basic things with the GUI and key commands, and I've been playing MMOs since Final Fantasy XI was released (actually, Club Caribe for the Commodore 64/128, if we're getting technical).
Anyway, onscreen indicators aside, I did enjoy the amount of action and puzzles you get from the game, as well as the leveling system.
Funcom mixes together a healthy amount of sword play with easy to medium puzzles. You will more than likely fight your way through to the end of a mission, so expect a lot of hack/slash/gunfire/magic. In between the action, enjoy the easy-to-medium amount of puzzles you'll run into. You won't find a lot of challenges in this department, but there is enough to make you think a bit. Going back to the original mission in my game, there was a point where I had to follow some crows on a side mission and eventually end up at a boss. Along the way, I had smaller bosses to fight and they provided feathers at the end of each fight. I had to take the fallen feathers to the end of the mission and put them in a pentagram (in order of creation) form. So one in the north, south, east and west. Once that was done, the final boss in the mission appears. This is an example of an easy puzzle, but you won't get leaps and bounds worse than this because Funcom wants you to keep playing. Don't get me wrong, there are times where you will have to stop for a second and think, but nothing where you're going to take a night off to think about it. This type of mixed gameplay keeps your mind engaged, and leaves little room for stopping in The Secret World. That's a good thing, since most of the generation who will be playing this game needs instant gratification.
Shifting gears a bit, the leveling system is interesting. You gather AP (action points) and SP (skill points) by completing missions and tasks. Once you gather enough of those, you can apply them to your honed in abilities. For example, my guy was great with the sword, so I applied most of my AP earned to sword play. This allowed me to gain more brutal strikes and also defense during battles. You can also apply the AP to other things like magic (which I didn't use, but I know it probably would have made life easier), and the choice to apply the AP is represented by a giant leveling wheel in the game. It's very easy to understand, and even easier to use.
The SP is related to the AP, in a sense, but allows for leveling the 'power' of the things you leveled with AP. For example, if I wanted a bigger, tougher strike then I would spend my SP in that area. I could also use my SP to make my magic more powerful and whatnot. Just like the wheel in AP, the SP is easy to use and understand. It's represented by a a rectangular chart where you can choose what you wanted leveled.
Partnered with the AP and SP is achievements you obtain as you play.
So, is there anything else you need to know about The Secret World? Well, we should talk about the AI and dying. The AI in this game serves one purpose, detecting you. If you get close enough to an enemy then it will activate and run after you until you're dead, or it runs out of its range. More than not, you'll be dead if you try to run for some reason. It's best to stick it out because you at least have a fighting chance. You have to be very careful not to run in the middle of a group of enemies because they will eventually detect you at once and start killing you faster. I know that sounds like common sense, but you'll find a lot of those type of areas in The Secret World. This also plays into what I mentioned earlier when talking about graphics. Just because you see two enemies doesn't mean there aren't more. Don't run into a place thinking you're clear or there are only 'x' amount of enemies. The more, the unmerrier
The enemies are also tough to gauge. Going back to SWTOR, in Bioware's baby you can click on an enemy and you can tell through words/numbers how tough he/she is going to be. With The Secret World, there is no pattern, no clear indication until the fight begins. The numbers are so tiny on their life meter that it's difficult to gauge if you should or shouldn't enter the battle grounds with whatever beast you're staring down. I died many times being incorrect on the guess, though not enough to frustrate me into quitting. If anything it made me strategize a different way, but I didn't want to completely avoid the hard stuff, as it meant less AP/SP. You will have to test the waters a bit more when it comes to this part of the game, or at least grab friends you trust to help you out.
Speaking of dying, the game does some creative things when you die and some not so creative things. There are certain checkpoints in the game where you are resurrected, and The Secret World provides you with choices of where you want to come back to life. Depending on the proximity of death, you may run a long distance to get back to your broken body or you might end up on a short route. You are timed on this decision, though plenty of time is given. It's not bad, in fact it allows you to explore some unknown lands as you make your way back to life.
The problem lies when you make it back to your body. Not to harp too much on SWTOR for comparisons, but it does a great job with this sort of deal. You find your body, you're given 10 seconds to go wherever you want before you reappear on the screen. In The Secret World, you find your body and you instantly pop back up on the screen. Why is this bad? Well, what if you died in the middle of a group of enemies? More than likely you're going to die again. Then you have to run back to your body and pray that you can get further away from your enemies. Also, the little thing of having only HALF your energy when you come back to life, kind of gets in the way of the survival aspect of the game. This is a very frustrating part of the game that needs to be corrected. I had a moment where I died and came back 200m away from my body. Once there, I came back to life and was promptly detected by the same enemy, and then killed again. It sucked having to run all the way back again.
Plain and simple, this needs to be corrected with a patch. Give the player at least 10 seconds to clear the area they're in. It couldn't be that difficult to fix, though I am not a programmer.
All of this aside, The Secret World has a ton of potential. It doesn't quite live up to the very best MMOs on the market (WoWs and Diablos of the world), but it does have a solid backbone to build on. It does better in the story department than most games and it certainly deserves some proper attention from the MMO community. Still, it does have some items it needs to work on before it reaches elite status. I feel like it can get there, but only if Funcom identifies and understands the game's weaknesses. They're not bad weaknesses, but they're in need of improving.