Funcom’s Trying Something New with The Secret World

Well, it’s been a few months since The Secret World (TSW) launched, and of the new games arriving – Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria – this is the one I find myself returning to.  A big part of the reason is the setting – there’s simply no other game quite like it.

The Setting

The Secret World is set in the modern day, but with one critical difference – the stuff of dreams, nightmares and mythology have begun manifesting in the waking world.  Zombies, Lovecraftian horrors, ghosts, the wendigo and sasquatch of indian legend, Slavic vampires and more have made their way into our countrysides and cities, all with the seeming intent of destroying our world.  There’s a hint at some kind of power behind this invasion, and player characters begin their creation by being “selected” somehow by a mysterious force, (imparted by magical “bees”) that imbue them with extraordinary powers.

Once the character has come to terms with these powers, the characters are contacted by one of three secret societies (players choose these at the outset)—the Templars, Illuminati or Dragon, and invited to join them in a “secret war” against the invading darkness.  Each of the factions has a different approach and perspective, but they are not so combative with one another that characters must immediately attack another faction on sight (more on that later)—in fact, many times the factions frequently cooperate to combat the nightmare invasion. But in-between fighting the imminent darkness, each of the societies work to increase their own power and outmaneuver one another.

The London-based Templars are the oldest and most traditional of the 3 factions, and are the crusaders and paladins of The Secret World.  They believe in hard work, order and “abiding by the rules” in their war against the dark invasion.  The Illuminati deal in underground networks, subtlety, and maneuvering within circles of power to achieve their ends.  They are masters of puzzles and obfuscation, hiding their secrets in plain sight.  They are based in New York.  The Dragon are headquartered in Seoul, and are best described as martial artists and chaos theorists (a la Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park).  Chaos is a means to an end, however, and The Dragon are masters of subtly identifying, then riding waves of chaos to what will ultimately lead to order.

The playable areas in its current state consists of the 3 main faction cities, Agartha, which is sort of an “in-between space” portal network that allows players to instantly travel to locations all over the world, and 3 major zones—Solomon Island (New England), Egypt, and Transylvania.  Each of these major zones are subdivided into 3 areas (9 total areas), and players will begin their questing in Kingsmouth on Solomon Island.  Kingsmouth is being overrun by zombies, as well as mysterious, Lovecraftian creatures from the sea.  The 9 playable areas are actually pretty large and contain around 60-70 missions.

Character Creation

Players initially choose which faction they would like to join, then pick their character’s look.  Pretty standard fare here for the base options, with players able to pick male/female avatars, facial style, hair style, color, beards, etc.  There are no options for choosing body style as in other games, but in The Secret World, the one differentiator is the separation of clothes from gear.  A decent number of options for customizing your clothes are offered during character creation, but the game shines later on where a huge number of clothing options are available for in-game purchase.  “Gear” is basically weapons, runes and trinkets that provide bonuses, but, with the exception of weapons, have no effect at all on character appearance.  Players might note that there are only 3 character slots – that’s due to the fact that characters can use every ability in the game, and that there are no character classes; more on that below.

Once you’ve chosen your look, you’re treated to the cut scene introducing you “the bees” and to your secret society.  These are a lot of fun – but the Dragon intro, especially, is on the suggestive side.  Which brings up a point: TSW is rated M (Mature), for a reason – there’s a fair amount of language in the game, not a whole lot of nudity (well, some of the monsters), but parents might not like hearing the F-Bomb coming out the computer speakers.  An informal poll on one of the forums found that players of The Secret World tended to be 30+.

The cut scene basically tells you a little bit about the faction, then transports you to your faction city where you follow the breadcrumbs to the introductory mission.  It’s during this mission where you learn about the darkness invasion—it’s pretty simple, and here you learn a little bit about combat in the game.  But it’s really a device to introduce you to the main storyline – this is handled especially well; The Secret World has a really nice way of showing rather than telling you the story, and this holds true throughout the game.  Once the intro mission is completed, you know a little more about the Secret War, and are transported back to your faction’s home city—London, Seoul or New York.

Cities and Lore

Each faction’s city holds the society’s headquarters, and from here you obtain your first set of missions, and pick out which weapons and skills you’d like to specialize in.  London is the central hub of the game, and there players can find the bank, post office and auction house, clothes store, pub, social club, and occult district. Recently added in New York is The Modern Prometheus, where characters can change facial appearance, the Occam’s Razor barbershop in London, a stage for roleplaying, and soon to Seoul, a tattoo parlor.  Scattered around the cities (and in other areas of the game) are little “Lore” icons, which when picked up give characters a snippet of information or history about the secret society headquartered there.  Once characters venture out to other locations, these icons can also be found as well, giving background and context to the happenings in that zone.

Each society’s faction headquarters has merchants that specialize in special items – buffs or crafting kits, and so forth.  Also within the headquarters is the training facility, where characters can test weapons and abilities before deciding which one to pick.  Ability Points—one of the primary means of progression in the game—spent here are not permanent unless verified by the player.

Ability Points (AP) and the Ability Wheel

The Secret World is a “level-less, class-less” system.  That is, any character can do anything any other player can do in the game—the difference is in what abilities are chosen by the player from the “Ability Wheel,” and there is room for a tremendous amount of variation.  The Ability Wheel is basically a round menu of all the abilities available in the game.  At the most basic level, the wheel is divided into three basic “wedges” (think of slices of pie) for each of the various abilities—Melee weapons, Ranged weapons and Magic.  Within each wedge, it is divided again into threes—Fist, Blade and Hammer for Melee weapons, Shotgun, Assault Rifle, and Pistol for Ranged weapons, and Chaos, Blood and Elemantalism for Magic.  There is yetanother division of the wheel, and that is the inner and outer wheel.  Less expensive base abilities are selected sequentially from the wedge of the inner wheel, and the more expensive elite abilities are selected from the outer wheel wedge.  All the abilities of the inner wedge must be purchased before abilities in the outer wheel may be purchased, and abilities do become more pricy as you progress, so it does take some time adventuring to get to those elites.

The Ability Wheel

Individual abilities can be either active or passive and are purchased with “Ability Points” (AP), one of the experience rewards in the game.  Each character has 7 active and 7 passive ability slots that can equipped at any one time, and the equipped ability will determine which skill is being used during play.  Think of it this way: over time, characters can purchase and possess all the available abilities in the game, but they may only equip and use 7 active and 7 passive abilities at any one time.  In this way, players can swap abilities in and out based on the situation they are facing—and indeed will need to do so to face certain monsters in the game.  A build manager exists within the game, and there are a number of add-ons that help with managing the various builds or “decks.”

But that’s where the restrictions end – players are free to choose from any ability as long as it is available and the character has the AP to buy it.  This is where players who are accustomed to pre-built character classes (and the “trinity” of tank, healer and dps) often get confused.  With the freedom to choose any skill, also comes the burden of picking something that works well and fits the player’s style.  Players sometimes don’t know what to pick, then are puzzled why they are getting beat up by the monsters.

What’s possibly not apparent (and something the designers could have done a better job of) is pointing players toward the pre-designed faction builds that come with the game—these are a sort of “class” template that vary with whichever society you have chosen (e.g., the Dragon get Martial Artist, Ninja, etc.) and that highlight certain skills on the wheel.  Players can work towards these highlighted abilities and complete the build (they are rewarded with a nifty outfit once done), but are still free to deviate at any time to try other abilities or templates.  Unfortunately, the panel that shows these templates is a bit buried. My guess is that Funcom really wanted to highlight the freedom of the wheel and play down the “character class” concept by doing this, but as a result some players run into a wall in the harder zones, and find they are unable to take on the bad guys.

Usually it’s a simple matter of going back and studying and updating abilities and gear.  Each ability in the wheel has a short description of what it does, and careful reading will show that certain abilities work well with other abilities; players who enjoy theorycrafting will have lots of fun with the wheel, but it’s fun to play with even if you don’t do this sort of thing.  I’ve found that the synergies are pretty apparent, and it’s pretty easy to adjust—surprisingly, minor tweaks to an ability build or a piece of gear can have a major effect on combat, so it plays to look through the descriptions.

Skill Points (SP)

The other experience reward in The Secret World is the Skill Point (SP).  SP are awarded less frequently than AP, and can be used to purchase increases in offense and defense for each of the weapon types (Blades, Magic, Pistol, etc) or the ability to equip higher level gear (more on gear, below).  Again, any skill increase or talisman from any weapon in the game can be purchased, but the price increases as you move into the higher levels, and here again it pays to look for synergies with the abilities you are purchasing.


If there is one thing that could be considered a “level” in TSW, it’s gear.  Within each major zone of the game, the gear drops will be of a certain “quality level” or QL.  Gear is rated from QL 1-10, and within each level, there exists the standard green, blue, purple rarities that most MMOplayers are accustomed to.  Even with high level QL10 gear, the individual abilities and skills chosen as active will have a profound impact of how the character plays in combat, and once the best QL10 gear has been obtained, it’s really horizontal progression with the ability wheel, skills and crafting that comes into play.  Dungeons drop better quality, and Nightmare Mode dungeons drop the best quality gear in the game.  Gear comes only in the form of weapons, magic foci, or talismans, and the only gear items that affect your character “look” are his or her weapons or magic foci.

A “glyph” can be added to many weapons and talismans to provide additional bonuses, and different glyphs provide different sorts of bonuses, typically offensive or defensive, but also with variation even within those categories.  Glyphs are sometimes already embedded in an item, but can be easily replaced with any other glyph using the crafting system (more on this, below).  Glyphs drop as loot in the game, but can also be crafted using “runes”, which also frequently drop as loot.

Some complaint has been made on the forums of TSW becoming a “gear grind” at the end of the game.  While this might be true for people who believe “endgame” is where a game starts, or people who focus on gear as the ultimate goal within an MMO, I’d argue that TSW’s focus is more on versatility of the character, and on overall atmosphere and story as you progress.  With every character able to operate in any mode – tank, healer or dps – finding unique ability builds that offer great synergies is a strength of the endgame here.  In addition, different gear is required for different situations—sometimes damage is important, but in another situation, defensive or health improvements are necessary, so having spare gear and glyphs is key.


There are no crafting specialties or levels in The Secret World, but almost every item in the game can be created, including weapons, talismans, glyphs, gadgets and consumables.  The game has a special Assembly screen, essentially laid out like a grid similar to bag slots.  Players arrange materials in a certain pattern on the grid (there are many, many pattern “recipes”) and then use toolkits to assemble the item.  There are different toolkits for each type of crafted item, and each toolkit can be a quality level of 1-10.  Materials can also be combined, in groups of 5, to create higher quality materials.  As expected, higher quality materials and toolkits will result in better quality crafted items.  Any item can also be disassembled into its component parts and used to assemble other items.  I find myself frequently disassembling looted items rather than selling them on the auction house, and most of my bank slots are taken up with materials.  The system takes a little getting used to, but it works nicely—finding and exploiting patterns and then matching crafted items with glyphs can be a lot of fun, and some powerful combinations can be found with a little investigation.


The Secret World’s combat is probably the most controversial and criticized part of the game.  Some players say it’s the worst thing in the game, some think it’s just average, and some, pointing to the complementary abilities on the wheel find, it interesting and innovative.  Those who dislike it tend to point to the combat animations, and while I don’t think they are the most fantastic ever created, I don’t think they are that bad either.

Tab targeting is the default, but the October content update will add an option for reticle combat for players who prefer aimed targeting.  As pointed out earlier, each character can have 7 active and 7 passive abilities equipped at any one time, and attacks range from single target to general area-of-effect to ground-targeted AOE.  Some abilities generate points that can be spent on a more powerful attack, and there are numbers of abilities that produce conditions on the targeted enemy—impaired, weakened, and so forth.  The active and passive combinations come into play when these conditions are in effect.  Impaired targets, for example could be susceptible to more damage from other attacks.  Some conditions produce a healing effect on yourself or others in the area.   For me, this is interesting– finding that combination that works well in questing, or in PvP or for specific difficult dungeon bosses.  The game includes a Build Manager that allows players to quickly swap out different abilities, so players can, if they like, create Tank, DPS or Healer builds and use them as the situation warrants.

Characters also have the ability to dodge (with a cooldown), and it pays to learn to dodge early, as some of the monsters will severely punish characters who are simply standing in place.  In fact, movement in general is recommended—moving characters can take up to a third less damage than stationary ones.  The later zones, especially Blue Mountain are challenging, and most players will discover there whether or not they have an effective build.  While general questing combat is not “hard,” it’s certainly more engaging and challenging than some other MMORPGs, where questing combat is especially free and easy.


The second most criticized feature of TSW is its player-vs-player options.  There is no open world PvP in TSW, and PvP is limited to the Fusang Projects, the largest warzone, and Stonehenge and El Dorado, which are smaller scale battlegrounds.   Fusang, set in an abandoned Chinese village, has a number of  missions attached to it, but is also a place where all 3 factions can vie for control over a temple guardian and then use it to hold 2 of 3 in objectives  the zone to win the engagement.  Hundreds of players can play within Fusang, and factions have the option to team up with another faction to defeat the faction who is in the lead.

Stonehenge is a 5-man “king of the hill” style battleground, and El Dorado is a traditional “capture-the-flag” style battleground set in the City of Gold.

Fusang is by far the most popular of the 3 PvP arenas, and opinions range from it being a lot of fun to being a pointless “zerg-fest” where the faction with the highest population of players automatically winning.  Another criticism is that the rewards for Fusang are not truly tied to factions, and that most players run it simply to get their individual mission objectives, then bow out of the real player-vs-player action.  Another complaint is that there are no incentives for defending facilities and staying through to the end of the battle.

The complaints about the other two battlegrounds have more to do with queue times as a result of the game’s attempt to pair players of the same gear level.

In general, PvP has been roundly condemned as lacking in TSW.  Funcom has announced a number of improvements in the Oct/Nov patch, specifically to address the incentive, reward and scoring issues in Fusang and queue times for the battlegrounds.

Some players lament no open world PvP in the game, but this is a common complaint about all themepark games .  An interesting idea floating about is the idea of “opt-in” open world PvP similar to Star Wars Galaxies where characters can “go rogue.” PvE players who have not opted in could not be attacked, but players who choose the PvP option could attack players from other factions in the open world.

Questing, Dungeons and Story

Atmosphere, setting and story are where The Secret World shines.  Quests are called “missions” in TSW, and each character can have, at any one time, one central storyline mission, one dungeon mission, one main action, investigation or sabotage mission, and 3 side missions.  The central, dungeon and main missions typically have cut scenes, which are nicely acted and voiced, and often very funny.  Several of the characters in the cut-scenes have actually gained fans in the TSW forums, something of a testament to how well-drawn they are.  Side missions don’t get the cut scenes, and cut-scenes that are there are pretty rare so don’t get in the way of gameplay.

Each of those missions, even the side quests, have multiple “tiers” so missions are generally not simple one-off errands, but rather full-fledged storylines that are advanced by completing the tier.  By limiting the number of missions the character can hold, the game helps the player focus on the story at hand, and that become especially important for the investigation missions, which often require the player to think, and possibly research the clues in order to progress.

All quests have a cooldown, and many of them can be replayed once it has expired.

The central storyline mission threads throughout the entire game, and often crosses multiple physical zones.  These quests have action, investigation and sabotage elements, and are always the longest and most complex of the single player quests.  The central storyline quest also has the most frequent use of “single-player instances,” sort of mini-dungeons designed for one player and often where major plot points are resolved.  Some of the best storytelling in the game is in this questline, but those who wish for major replayability may balk at having such a single-player/story focus.

Investigation missions and mind-bending puzzles are something that been around since Myst, but have inexplicably vanished from the MMORPG genre—it’s a welcome change to see them return.  TSW includes an in-game browser set to Google to look up historical information and such for the investigation missions—hint: type “-tsw” into the search block if you want to search a clue without getting TSW spoiler sites.  Some great examples of clues within investigation quests include translating Morse code, researching a Bible passage to gain access to a secret entrance, and using Latin to translate a magical language.

In general, TSW has fewer “kill 10 rats” missions than just about any MMORPG I’ve seen—in fact, the number of these types of quests are so reversed, that when you do get one as part of an Action mission, it’s actually kind of a nice break.  More often, you’ll be investigating something and may need to take out a few bad guys on the way, but taking out monsters has the story woven in so nicely that it doesn’t feel like grinding.

The other type of mission, which is almost as fresh as investigation missions are the Sabotage missions.  In these, there may be some action, but more often you’ll attempt to sneak into an enemy camp undetected.  Being caught in these can result in can result in quick unconsciousness or death, so it pays to walk carefully.  Often the goal of these is to obtain secret information or to destroy a key facility.

There is no “fetch and return” aspect to any of the quests.  TSW is a modern setting, so missions are typically completed by calling in to your faction by cell phone.  There are mission “hubs,” but typically finishing up a mission puts you physically in another location, sometimes a different “hub” where another mission can be picked up.  So players will typically not be returning to the hub every time to pick up a new quest, but rather follow the mission breadcrumbs that are sprinkled geographically throughout the zone.  Side quests, especially, are hidden all over the map, and are serendipitous affairs.

5-man dungeons are available in both normal and Nightmare mode, and are also nicely tied to the ongoing story.  Dungeons have fewer “trash mobs” than most players might be accustomed to, but monsters are set so that player ability builds will become important.  Finding out what works on a particular boss is tricky, and the mechanics, settings and situations in TSW dungeons are some of the most unique and interesting I’ve seen.  Once again, the deck swapping feature of the game may become important in dungeons, as player may need to switch over to different abilities between, or even during, fights.

A 10-man raid set in New York City is due to arrive in Oct/Nov, and based on preview, this appears to be once again more story-driven and immersive than is typical for these.  Funcom has also mentioned bringing in the investigation and sabotage aspects to raids, playing up the puzzle aspects to the game in addition to the combat.  These are already being referred to as “puzzle raids,” and have garnered quite a bit of speculation and enthusiasm.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

Of the criticisms that have been leveled at The Secret World, the most prevalent are (1) combat animations, (2) weak PvP and (3) content quantity.  Combat animations are certainly not the best ever created, and certainly could be improved.  But they are certainly passable and no worse than many other games available today.  Criticism of PvP is certainly valid.  It needs improvement, plain and simple, and for players that have PvP as their primary requirement, I cannot recommend The Secret World; there are better PvP options available.  Quantity of content may be somewhat valid as well—players who power quickly through content, who are uninterested  in immersion, plot or story in their game, do not like solving puzzles or mysteries, and are accustomed to quickly looking up answers on Google—these players may end up dissatisfied.

The final question that gets asked is the actual multiplayer aspects of the game.  How easy is it to group up with other players?  Is there enough to do as a group?  Does the game do enough to force player interaction?  While some criticism has been leveled at the multi-player aspects of the game, there are plenty of well-known ways to group up in-game, including chat channels, a group finder and guilds/cabals.  There is nothing terribly innovative in the social space—there is some integration with Facebook—but it isn’t any harder to find folks to group up with than most other multiplayer games.  But as far as forcing grouping, the one thing I will say is that as players encounter some of the harder missions and zones, and run into trouble, it could very well be a reason to group; the game has been designed so that it’s easy enough to switch out a build so that it’s possible to solo a mission, but folks often forget that the game is multiplayer, and players can seek friends or other player and team up.  I think that says more about the solo orientation of players in the MMORPG space than about The Secret World itself.

But for players who enjoy setting, immersion and story, there really is no better MMORPG on the market.  Storylines are deep, mysteries are intriguing, and the game oozes atmosphere.  Players who are interested in thinking to solve in-game puzzles separate from game mechanics will find hours of enjoyment in the game; in this, The Secret World has brought back an aspect to the MMORPG that has all but disappeared.  The ability wheel is a unique addition, and the class-free system is fun.  And while TSW is primarily focused on PvE, the pieces are in place to build more PvP and “sandboxy” elements.

My overall recommendation is this: if you are looking for a pure sandbox/PvP game, TSW is probably not for you, at least as it currently stands.  If you are looking for something new in the themepark/PvE space, The Secret World has some great things to offer, and I heartily endorse giving it a try – the game is only $30 on Steam currently, and includes 30 days playing time, with a $15 monthly subscription if you wish to continue.  There also is a free 3-day trial on The Secret World website.


One thought on “Funcom’s Trying Something New with The Secret World

  1. gretch05 says:

    Thorough and engaging review!

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