For a title that has spawned more hype over the past year or so than most of its brethren, The Secret World has been the recipient of a particularly anemic marketing course so far. Its strategy of running various open(ish) beta weekends, obscure flash games and odd preview presentations has been designed to represent the nature of the game world; abstract and mysterious. But a very buggy and badly managed beta coupled with poor information on how the game plays and what it contains has put off almost all but the most dedicated or those, like me, who are being paid to play it.
The Secret World is easily one of the most ambitious, complex and intelligent MMOs to release over the past few years, and as a result, is stymied when marketed like just another (gritty and dark) WoW. Shoehorning players into beta weekends, which are almost now designed to be time-limited demos rather than actual live tests, does nothing but confuse and disorient players who are not used to managing complex skill-trees or loose mission structures. Almost the entire beta period was filled with players who were completely baffled by what was in front of them; rookie questions flogged the in-game chat system.
Players are offered a reasonably irrelevant choice, at the beginning of the game, as to what faction they will align themselves with. This only comes into play around the story-based missions, some faction-based gear and a few guild mechanics. You can’t make a wrong choice and it’s fitting that the game doesn’t limit or punish you for this, but it’s worthwhile making a few alts if you want to play through the various paths. But it’s when you find yourself in the starting zone, Kingsmouth, that things start to get a little bewildering.
As many guides and other players will instantly advise you, the game “starts” at end-game. There are no levels in TSW, thus there are no metrics on which to moderate where and when you should play. Skill points are assigned to you as you complete quests and tasks, kill enemies or reach other benchmarks, and it's the choices you make with assigning these points that advances the strength and performance of your character. The number of available abilities is just staggering. There is a custom build available for almost any type of play style on the planet.
Sound confusing? It is, at first. Outside of the (very inadequate) tutorial mission, the game relies almost exclusively on your ability to read the manual and discover how things work on your own. There are no tooltips here folks, so deciding on what weapons or magic to use is entirely up to you. There are no warnings for poor combinations of skills nor (outside of some basic ratings) if you are too weak to complete objectives or take on enemies. Just like another hardcore MMO, Eve Online, the game rewards investigation, learning and collaboration, and punishes ignorance.
It’s in this situation that you will probably spend your first four-to-five hours of play gradually learning how to fight and work the mission system. Combat is tricky at first, (using GW2’s mixture of movement and hotkeys), since the strength of your enemies will dramatically outweigh the power of your abilities, forcing you to move around as you fight and utilise the active dodge system. It’s in this experimentation with various weapons and magic that you will slowly settle in to the groove. I highly recommend that you take advantage of the early opportunity to try various fighting styles out before deciding on one or two to grow.
Over time, you will become not only more powerful, but more skilled at chaining various abilities together, or understanding the cues of strong enemy attacks. Want to wield an assault rifle but also like the ability to self-heal? Done. Want to control the elements and carry a machete? No problems. There are abilities that attack and exploit every type of status and ailment. You’ll also quickly notice that mobs aren’t willing to sit back and take it easy, as demonstrated from the very first time you walk down a street in Kingsmouth, where you will be mobbed by brain-munching zombies at every opportunity, 28 Days Later
All of this comes to a head when you take on large group missions or bosses with other players. While there are builds available for people unable or unwilling to go it alone, known as “Decks”, many players will notice quickly that they have certain advantages in combat. Healing spells, for example, are pretty good across the board, and certain items lend themselves to obvious boosting capabilities. The same thing applies to tanking; it’s not difficult to choose gear with high health or abilities that offer crowd-control. Since it’s difficult to fight by yourself without some particular major strength, your place in group combat won’t take long to realise.
As a result of this focus on difficulty, you will be rewarded with a fantastic, actually intriguing story lead by some brilliant voice acting and a number of cut-scenes that aren’t too long or too boring. Thankfully, not every single quest is harangued by long, drawn out dialogue, since the majority of them tend to spread out across four-to-five various tasks before they are completed. The tasks are, for the most part, interesting to complete, however, there are still various hooks (kill x, find y) that tend to bulk out some of the objectives.
But questing is not linear, nor is it designed to be based around “safe” hub areas. Many of the tasks you require will not be marked on your map, but designed to be found as you walk around; maybe from a discarded cell phone with an unopened message, or a postal van full of undelivered parcels. You can take one “story” mission, one “red” mission and three “green” missions at one time - this restriction keeps you from being overwhelmed with objectives, along with keeping you moving from point to point, rather than running back constantly. The added bonus of being able to complete quests remotely (via your mobile phone) helps to keep things flowing.
This is all cocooned by some very creepy aesthetic, with locales ranging from sleepy New England towns to desert struck Egypt and the gothic locales of Transylvania. You really do get the feeling that the whole world is gradually turning to shit, and as you uncover more about the overarching plot and “the filth” that is taking over the world the more you just want to dig deeper and discover who or what is behind it all. I won’t spoil anything; but I will say that the story is leaps and bounds ahead of even SWTOR’s impressive efforts, although I have yet to come to the final conclusion.
But it’s not all peaches and cream, as anyone who has played a Funcom title before can attest to. Although many of the bugs from the beta have been squashed, many oddities still remain, like mission objectives that don’t exist (goddamn ravens), or enemies constantly trying to re-align themselves back to their spawn points. Combat, while being significantly tighter than it was in beta, is still sloppy, with targeting still a little flakey and hits occasionally not registering. I’ve also had some situations where frame-rate suddenly became atrocious before working itself back to normal after a period of time.
PVP is another point of contention. TSW has two open-world areas that incorporate both questing and combat, and signing up to PVP gives you the option of choosing a faction-specific role for making group objectives simpler to manage. It’s fun, but it still seems a little unfinished and chaotic. The issues with grouping in PVE are still an issue in PVP, as the lack of a dedicated system for finding like-minded players makes things difficult. I will, however, congratulate the developers for allowing easy transition (teleporting) between servers for grouping.
But it’s the difficulty and how it’s managed that has me sitting smack bang in the middle of a love/hate argument with myself. I can appreciate the sheer amount of work that has gone into one particular factor; the investigation missions, that famously require the use of the in-game web browser. While most of the Google searches inevitably show up the discussions (and ultimate solutions) many of these quests are still very cryptic and require astute observation or research skills to complete.
TSW is certainly not scared to take prisoners, torture them and finally line them up for execution. The early game is, at points, so frustrating, seemingly random and disjointed that unless you are prepared to invest a significant amount of time (if you paid/subbed, then you may have already done so) in learning and growing at a gradual pace, it won’t be a fun experience. It’s almost always impossible to know how you are progressing, or if you are strong enough to invest time in a task.
Time invested, however, is rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment. Overcoming the initial obstacles and progressing, albeit slowly and carefully, through the world sees you actively growing into a true individual. Many games promise this, but few deliver like TSW does as your skill and ability choices are very rarely going to be copied by others. As you grow stronger, so do your opponents, making every fight and win that much sweeter. Missions always have purpose, and exist to further your connection and understanding of the world, an element missing in many other MMOs.
If anything, TSW was released just a little too early. There are still quite a lot of bugs, latency issues and the early experience requires even a modicom of structure and patience. It launches out of the gate too quickly, and many players from other MMOs will find themselves simply lost and annoyed as they attempt to learn from scratch. This is because, although not marketed as such, the game is not designed for people who are used to or are expecting a traditional experience.
But if you’ve been waiting for a true challenge, a sense of adventure, genuine progression and a world that is filled with complex actions, real people and real threats, than you could do worse than entering The Secret World