do_you_know_the_way_to_San_Jose

Videogame site Polygon has paved the way for reviews to be living breathing documents, like the Constitution, the Bible (the Catholic one), or a Star Wars movie. Their reviews can evolve and grow, like a Mitt Romney position. One day, SimCity is a nine. The next it’s a four. Tomorrow, it might be a seven. What’s Battlefield 4 today? Let’s check. It’s a very Buddhist approach to reviews: the only constant is change, never stepping in the same river twice, let a thousand scores bloom, yadda, yadda, yadda. Where some people might see a lack of commitment, others see a willingness to change one’s mind. You say potato, I say waffle.

Fair enough. Why hold a game accountable for any given single state? Let’s roll with it by re-reviewing Funcom’s Secret World, a game I really wanted to like when it was released, but couldn’t because its launch issues undermined what was great about it (although I followed the two-star review with about ten articles detailing what was great about it). Now that Funcom has had about a year and a half to tidy everything up, let’s take another look and give it a new rating.

After the jump, a first chance to make a second impression.

One of the unique design decisions in Secret World is to limit fast travel and simultaneously encourage a reasonable amount of back-and-forth. The game isn’t structured like your usual progression of hubs, where you load up on quests, clear them out, and then move along to the next hub. You can only have a few quests active at a time, so any time you accept one quest, you’re keenly aware the quest giver still has more content for you later on. And then the running to and fro reveals a sense of geography. You come to appreciate the various landscapes and even their relationship to one another. Some bits of the landscape are more evocative than others. It took a while for me to warm up to Transylvania, but I’m starting to come around, particularly as I see the way the vampire, werewolf, gypsy, and World War II mythology feed into the area. I could do with about half as much Egypt. But I never had any misgivings about any part of Solomon Island. I could twirl my way through the foggy streets of Kingsmouth slicing up zombies forever and a day. I think I have, too. Innsmouth Academy, the lighthouse, the Native American trailer park and casino construction site, Franklin Mansion, Black House, that amusement park. Oh lordy, that amusement park.

However, there’s still a hub in Secret World. It’s called the Agartha. It’s basically a giant tree that connects every map to every other map. I’m convinced it was based on a dream Funcom designer Ragnar Tornquist had when he was working on the game. “Guys,” he said excitedly one Monday morning, “imagine a cross between a tree, a rollercoaster, and a poorly designed maze that you have to pass through anytime you want to change maps and your recall token is on its extended cooldown period! It’ll have a train conductor and giant robots that just stand around.”

“Can’t we just have waypoints and hearthstones,” someone might have said.

“No,” replied Ragnar.

Guess who won that discussion.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse hub system in any MMO, or any other game for that matter. The Agartha is bad enough — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, along every blessed branch between me and the map I want to reach — but the “cities” are even worse. Every time I have to go to London, the framerate screeches to a halting stutter and my hard drive spins and whirrs as if I were running an intensive defrag session. Why is it loading so much when there’s absolutely nothing here? Why do I even have to come here? Couldn’t I just access a London menu? I wish I never had to go to London. By the look of all the people loitering at the Agartha’s city entrances, as if they’re dreading having to actually go in, I’m not the only one.

So for today’s review, I give Secret World one star. Sorry, Funcom. But I can assure you it gets better! Tomorrow, I’ll review it again. In fact, I’ll review it again every day for the next week or so. And I’ll be enlisting the help of an expert.

1 star
PC

Up next: alone in the dark