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ARTICLE

Frontline: The Secret World

Back during the beta, the time span between my logging into The Secret World gradually widened. Even with a month's free access, having to overcome the bad to find enjoyment in the MMO just wasn't enough.

So there was a worry when approaching the "full" game. Yet I've clocked more time in the game world between the early start (granted those that pre-ordered the title) and actual launch, than I did through the entire beta period - more, even, than when I was critiquing it for this review.

The Secret World invests you into a world unseen by the public eye as you become a member of one of three secret organisations - the Illuminati, Templars or the Dragon - and fight against occult threats and mysterious enemies who are beginning to find their way into our world. Your mission is to find out what is happening and put a stop to it.

Character design is mighty limited. With just eight faces, seven kinds of eyes and skin tones to choose per sex, this is one of the least advanced customisation offers in the genre. It's partly offset by a wider range of traits, but it's not enough.

A nice touch is the promotional videos for each organisation you can watch before you select your choice, to give you a better insight into who you'll be dedicating your time to. Funcom has stated that in future there will be much more customisation options, and the pre-made cast will be changing.

The Secret World

After tinkering with character creation, we're off to our secret base and a brief overview of what we're facing. However, before too long we're on the way to King Solomon at Portsmouth Island, northeast of the United States.

The first thing that catches your attention is the atmosphere: you can't help but think of H.P. Lovecraft; limited light, various shades of grey, delicious evocative music giving a sense of constant danger. It's a style I haven't experienced in an MMO before.

Equally as interesting is the first meetings with city residents, stories and personalities of such variety that it's pretty impressive. Childhood abuse, suicides, family feuds - the fact that your interaction with these lost souls is to promote your organization's interests only makes it all the more sinister.

The Secret World

Dialogue is of a high quality, with witty comments and remarks that made me smile more than once, though were rarely realistic. The voice acting is of uniformly a high standard, be it a big name lending their acting chops, such as Steve Blum and Tara Strong, or lesser-known artists.

Your own character says not a word, but moves through the game as a quiet observer. It's easy to forget, yet I feel that here is a little unused potential which could have resulted in a more personal story.

Beside many smaller stories, there is a recurring narrative that acts as the real draw. This is different for every organization, but yet I am still unsure of whether it is enough to entice me to play it all through all three variants. As it is, it's the smaller stories that keep me intrigued.

The Secret World

Apart from the main story, there are a few different kinds of missions: action, sabotage, and object exploration. All tasks are built up of several different levels, and in some ways it replaces the more traditional tasks of this type of game, while also allowing for much more variation.

Action missions are based on combat, and are, in their structure, the closest you get to a normal MMO. There's repetition - x-number of monsters to kill, protect NPCs, kill bosses - but still works better than you would normally expect from the genre.

Sabotage Missions are the opposite, namely to avoid battle and instead use alternative approaches to solve the tasks. These are more varied and interesting, but unfortunately there are also far fewer of them.

Facility missions are associated with objects you find in the game world, stretching from cards, notices and mobile phones to bottled items and the like. One that remains stuck in the mind is the discovery of a suicide note placed on a doorway, and subsequently finding its writer hanging in a lighthouse.

The Secret World

However, it is obviously the very controversial exploration missions that really excites interest. If you are tired of games that hold your hand all the way, this is for you.

You'll almost never get indications on the map to show where to go or what to do. Often it is rather cryptic messages and hidden clues you must follow: adventurous play is rewarded.

For example, I received an assignment in Morse code, without a tool or another way to decode it. I solved the problem by downloading a app to the phone that could decode the audio into text, and thus the coordinates to tell me where I was going. I have seldom felt more satisfaction from a game than the many missions here.

Again, these tasks are in the clear minority, while there are plenty of action tasks. I imagine that it is nearly impossible to fill a game of this size with so many rich tasks, but its still disappointing to be so entertained and then have to go back to the everyday life of monster hunting. There's a worry about the game's structure the further you explore - there are five investigations within the first zone, but only one in the next.

One area where The Secret World stand out from the rest of the MMO genre is the lack of classes and levels of experience. Instead, everything stems from weapons and their properties.

Every player has access to all weapon types - so while everyone may start with different weapons, sooner or later there'll be a huge degree of ability crossover. This is a double-edged sword - on one hand it solves the problem of the holy trinity, but it also makes your character less unique.

The Secret World

You have access to seven different active properties and seven passive ones when going into battle, and there's plenty of scope to experiment. You can tinker just how much detail you get on each one, and you can also choose to use pre-mixed combinations of skills, if you absolutely want to avoid even messing with it.

The combat system was the biggest issue in the beta, and its great to see massive improvements this time round. Animations have been improved and there us now far more weight in each attack. However, more strategic use of the properties would have been preferable, as I mostly just activate them as soon as they become available.

The Secret World

Finally: dungeons, which form an important part of the elite content of the game.

Dungeons are structured as a series of boss fights with very few of the so-called trash mobs. After trying three out of the eight dungeons, I must say I am very pleased with how they are designed.

Boss battles are varied and challenging - just as you would expect from an MMO on the market today. They require cooperation and good tactics, and are brutally difficult if you are not prepared. It's not supposed to be done on the first try, and I should mention I've yet to try them on a higher difficulty level, and therefore can not say whether this means anything for the variation.

I'm impressed with what Funcom has done with The Secret World. The game universe, atmosphere, characters and dialogue are of very high quality. The stories are interesting and inspire exploration. Aside from exploration tasks there's the taste of the all-too familiar though. For example, there's plenty of potential for improvement in the battle system, though it is more bearable now.

To embark on an MMO game is a massive task. These giants require hour after hour to really get a complete understanding of them. Therefore we're not running a full review just yet: this Frontlines special covers our initial thoughts on the game thus far. A updated and expanded proper verdict will follow on the site shortly.

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