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Critical Consensus: The Secret World

Wasn't The Old Republic the last major subscription MMO? Evidently nobody told Funcom, but does the game jusify the pricing model?

The scores are in... Well, some of them are, anyway.

As the second wave of The Secret World reviews appear, the time is right to ponder the efficacy of fitting an MMO into conventional press coverage. The earliest reviews appeared on Metacritic between July 3 and 6, another run hit over the weekend, and it's safe to assume that Metacritic will link to far more than the 20-odd articles that currently contribute towards its aggregated score - maybe even twice that number.

With the vast majority of top-tier PC and console releases, almost every review will be published in the span of a few days. However, despite MMOs being a regular feature of the release schedule for well over a decade, the games press displays a distinct lack of confidence when voicing an opinion and attaching a score. For some outlets a week is enough, for others its two. Still others might hold off for a month, or never release an official score at all.

When is the appropriate moment to judge a game that will potentially be very different in a few months time? Can a game's community be factored into a score? Should subscription-based MMOs be judged by more exacting standards? Do free-to-play MMOs need to be reviewed at all? Questions, questions, questions, yet after seven years in the games press our answers remain basically the same.

One thing is certain: at a time when Star Wars can't comfortably sustain a subscription fee, The Secret World needs positive press. Indeed, that Funcom stuck to its plan despite the transition of so many MMOs to free-to-play is either an impressive display of faith or severely misguided braggadocio. For that result, you'll need to wait a while longer.

For the time being, the critical word is solid, though virtually every review acknowledges that The Secret World is one of the few MMOs in recent years to offer a unique experience. Principally, this is due to the setting: not a Tolkien-y fantasy land or sci-fi dystopia, but a stylised take on the real world in which every conspiracy, myth and urban legend is, in fact, real. The factions are secret societies like the Templars and the Illuminati, enemies range from vampires to mummies to creatures from black lagoons, and points of inspiration include H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman. The Secret World's setting is hardly iconoclastic, but in the context of MMOs it is as daring as a commercial release has any right to be.

"Anyone who fell in love with The Longest Journey will most likely be smitten by the abundance of words and wordplay"

Adam Smith, Rock Paper Shotgun

In a very positive Wot I Think, Rock Paper Shotgun's Adam Smith proclaims the game's world as Funcom's "greatest triumph" - an atmospheric blend of the fantastic and the humdrum that spends as much time on the smallest details as it does on the rotting flesh of its zombie hordes.

"Small touches remind of the world outside the screen: the detailed menus in a café that will never serve another customer, the fact that almost every individual you meet not only has a place but a purpose, even if it's just to survive. The story isn't told through the scattered lore icons...but through the tales of the people you meet."

Like The Old Republic, these are fully-voiced people in cinematic cut-scenes; unlike The Old Republic, these fully-voiced people are given a compelling reason to speak by good dialogue, consistent voice-acting and intriguing back-stories. For Smith, the influence of Funcom's creative director, Ragnar Tornquist, is evident throughout, raising The Secret World far above its competitors.

"At times the monologues are natural, believable, but there's a Whedonesque or even Tornquistian current which makes these seem like witty, often hyper-literate approximations of people. They're an entertaining bunch to spend time with, and anyone who fell in love with The Longest Journey will most likely be smitten by the abundance of words and wordplay."

The abiding impression of The Secret World is of a more considered take on the classic MMO formula. Funcom has clearly tried to avoid giving in to convention wherever possible, and, for Gamespot's Kevin VanOrd, the result is an "unusual game" that builds its world and tells its stories with more care than most MMOs, demanding "patience and focus" from its players as a result.

"Some...quests can be boiled down to the kinds of kill-this, fetch-that tasks you've seen in countless other games. Even when this is the case, however, developer Funcom does its best to give your actions context and chain missions together so that even ordinary objectives are organic to that particular area, and fit within its ongoing narratives.

"If you enjoy online RPGs for the comfortable cycle of 'take quest, arrive at way-point, kill monsters, return for reward,' The Secret World isn't for you. You can queue up only a small number of quests. The downside is that you perform fewer tasks at any given time and earn quest rewards at a slower rate. The upside is that you are fully conscious of why you are doing what you are doing at any given moment. With that consciousness comes emotional investment and intellectual engagement."

"You are fully conscious of why you are doing what you are doing at any given moment. With that consciousness comes emotional and intellectual engagement"

Kevin VanOrd, Gamespot

For both Smith and VanOrd, The Secret World's "investigation" quests are a highlight in this respect: a series of puzzles and mysteries that fit perfectly within the game's fiction, often asking you to apply pressure to the fourth wall by using its in-game browser to chase down clues on the internet.

"This might mean identifying a painting, sorting out a word-logic puzzle, or even figuring out the meaning of an Arabic scrawl. Such quests give you pause, particularly when you must piece together clues that provide your next destination. Make no mistake: many investigation quests are challenging, and bring your adventure to a halt as you sort through them. But when that "Eureka!" moment comes, elation kicks in as the game showers you with experience points for your mental efforts."

However, VanOrd also accuses the game of failing to "fulfil its obligation" to the player in its quests. While bugs are to be expected in the early days of any persistent game, and reports of their abundance in The Secret World tend to vary, VanOrd believes that "basic execution flaws" can obscure the path to a solution, occasionally leaving the player staring at the right answer with no way of recognising the way forward.

Complaints like this can often be outliers, frustrating quirks experienced by a small handful that won't plague the majority. However, Quarter To Three's veteran reviewer Tom Chick claims that such inconsistencies coloured his entire experience with the game. "I love the game that Secret World is supposed to be," he says in his two-star review. "Unfortunately, I've instead been playing the game that was released."

For Chick, the puzzle-based quests that set The Secret World apart from so many MMOs ultimately become its downfall, their ingenious design allowing them to break in unique and "uniquely frustrating" ways.

"Some of these quests are fiendishly clever for forcing you to think outside the MMO box. Some of them are frustrating. Some of them lead to glorious "a-ha!" moments. And far too many of them flat-out don't work.

"You'll come to a fairly simple quest where the trigger doesn't show up, or the quest doesn't progress, or it somehow just doesn't work correctly. But you'll have no idea it's broken. You'll naturally assume you just haven't hit on the right solution in a fiendishly clever puzzle. You'll conclude that this is where you're supposed to think outside the box.

"So you'll go about trying to parse how the quest works, maybe reading the text more carefully, maybe hunting around the vicinity for visual or aural clues, maybe scribbling down some notes or opening the in-game browser to check something on Wikipedia... And eventually, if you're lucky, you'll discover that Funcom has simply failed to make a game that works as intended. You've been trying to solve an unsolvable broken puzzle."

"As it stands, The Secret World is still a few steps short of being the saviour that massively multiplayer gaming so badly needs"

Oli Welsh, Eurogamer

Eurogamer's Oli Welsh gives such concerns only a passing mention in his 7 out of 10 review. But despite his admiration for Funcom's world-building, storytelling and general attention to detail, he describes significant concerns with The Secret World's focus on solo play. Almost all of the game's strongest content can be completed alone, and the multiplayer options are either limited or "sloppy" in their execution. As with all aspects of an MMO, there is potential for improvement over time - and Funcom has committed to a monthly content update schedule - but Welsh expresses doubt over how long The Secret World can ask for £11.49 a month when it, "simply doesn't encourage social play."

"You won't find any elite zones or roaming world bosses to throw players together. There isn't a compelling reason to mill, chat and trade in the cities, which are handsomely mounted but lacking in amenities and distractions. There's no group-finding tool. The only option is to dive in at the deep end by responding to one of the incomprehensible strings of acronyms in the chat channel that starts with 'LFG'."

"[Ragnar] Tornquist is a writer, the man behind adventure games The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, and it seems like he's more interested in telling stories than building adventure playgrounds, never mind emergent worlds.

"But at over £10 a month, others might ask for something more substantial and cohesive for their money, and I can't say I'd blame them either. Many of the issues are fixable, the update programme is impressive on paper, and Funcom is the studio that turned Age of Conan around - so it's not impossible that The Secret World will fulfil its potential. But as it stands, it's still a few steps short of being the saviour that massively multiplayer gaming so badly needs."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.