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The Secret World Has Me Now

Signing up for a $50 game with a $15/month subscription price is a bad, bad habit.  Such is the over-glutted nature of the MMORPG genre that such a price is hardly competitive. Even worse is when a company double dips, charging you both $15/month and having micro-payments to buy frills.  That $15/mo was supposed to cover the frills, otherwise why not just go play a subscription-free game that makes the frills the means of paying for it?

Despite the ridiculously steep price, and my limited income, I found myself shelling out for The Secret World, Funcom's latest such game.  I don't know why.  Perhaps there's still an angsty teen inside of me who hopes that this game would prove a little portal to escapism instead of what these games inevitably are: theme parks, where nothing ever changes no matter how many mobs you whack, where you are directed to toil in repetitive tasks to gain a sense of achievement in something of no more consequence than a few bits on a hard drive in some server you'll never see in your life.

I've played more MMORPGs than I can conveniently remember.  I've burned out from this formulae time and time again, to the point where I suspect it may have killed brain cells and/or some level of my will to live.  I've outgrown them, I've done my time, there's no way this kind of game could possibly entertain me.

Yet, somehow, I'm glad I bought The Secret World.

As some who study online environments (such as Richard Bartle) and countless game developers have observed, different people play games for different reasons.

A friend of mine seems to play games wholly for socialization (it seems he refuses to play anything alone) and for the competition (or perhaps the power fantasy) of hardcore player versus player.  I greatly suspect that he would hate The Secret World, because this theme park game eschews the inconvenience of working with others - except for the rare dungeon or group quest - and grants them as close to zero power over you as possible.

My taste in games is wholly different.   Being an introvert, I don't care much for socialization, and I'm far too nice a guy to enjoy bullying others.  I would say that my two highest priorities in gaming (at least by current reckoning) would be along two tangents: How Does It Play and Will I Be Fished InAlong those lines, The Secret World succeeds very well.

How does it play?  By evolving through devolution.

Whoever designed the gameplay of The Secret World was taking a very common approach in recent MMORPG design: drag in everything the competition seems to be doing and try to do it even better.  For example:
  • The overall flow of The Secret World is, of course, based on big daddy World of Warcraft: wander the world and complete quests for the natives to earn the lions share of experience points before wandering on to the next area.  Sure, the hubs are more spread out and you don't need to turn in the quests directly to the natives anymore, but it's still the same thing.
  • Like in Guild Wars (and possibly Guild Wars 2), the Secret World actually allows you to assemble "builds" of your learned abilities.  Though you may know hundreds of abilities on a single character, you can only have 7 "active" and "passive" abilities running at once.  (Fortunately, it's a lot better implementation in The Secret World than when Champions Online tried to do it, largely due to balance and additional depth.)
  • Like in Tera, the gameplay in the Secret World is a lot more twitchy.  It's not quite as twitchy as Tera - this game is based on the Age of Conan engine and has about the same pace - but it's a lot more involving than, say, EverQuest 2.
  • Core to the combat in The Secret World is a "combo point" system I first saw in The World of Warcraft used by their Rogue class.  There are three different ways it plays out depending on if you're using guns, melee, or magic, and little variations within each, but it always involves building up to 5 "resources" with some abilities and spending them with other abilities.
  • Like Final Fantasy XI and Runes of Magic, you can actually play two "classes" simultaneously and mix them for unique results.  Except in The Secret World you have no classes, instead it's determined by which weapon you are wielding - like in Final Fantasy XIV - and you can actually wield two weapons simultaneously.  (This mainly governs "active" abilities - you can equip "passive" abilities from just about any weapon you know without equipping it.)
The Secret World certainly feels like a wholly different kind of gameplay experience, and I've read many reviewers refer to it as such.  However, is this truly an evolution of gameplay, or is it really just a devolution?  It seems what they've really done here is throw a bunch of established game mechanics into a blender and hold down the "puree" button.  Sure, it's going to look and play a bit differently than the originals, but it's still those same games deep down.

Fortunately, they didn't stop there, or it would be an unplayable mess.  Funcom took this mushy slurry of established ideas and weaved a simple structure that props it up into fairly substantial core gameplay.  It's always a good sign of game design solidity that mashing hotkeys at random is not a credible method of success.  This is a sadly rare occurrence in MMORPGs, many have trivialized their hotkeys to "hit me to progress closer to winning" functions, and this is part of what makes The Secret World's core gameplay so easy to recommend. 

Perhaps the star of The Secret World's claim to innovative gameplay is just how flexible the character mechanic is.  It's actually not all that complicated:
  • While you have an experience bar to fill, there are no levels.  Filling the bar just gives you more skill points and ability points you have to invest.
  • Skill points are invested in skill levels which determine the highest quality level if equipment you can wear: the individual weapon categories and three types of talismans.   Ability points are invested in unlocking "active" and "passive" abilities for your use.
  • Though skill investment has some influence, a character's base stats are mostly determined by what equipment they are currently wearing.  Thus, a player can switch between roles by changing equipment on their character.
  • In practice, your "level" is the "quality level" of your gear, of which there are (currently) ten.  As your gear mostly determines your stats, this will determine the toughest enemies you can face.
  • A player can potentially unlock all of the skills and abilities in the game for a single character, although they can only have 7 active and 7 active passive slots running at a time.  Also, only one active and one passive ability can be an "elite" ability.  Elite abilities are the last ability unlocked in a category, and more powerful than the ones that are not elite.
As base statistics (determined partly by skills unlocked and mostly by currently-worn equipment) and the abilities (currently set in your "active" and "passive" slots) make up 100% of what influences the combat mechanic, your character can be considered completely mutable.   In other words, you can develop your character to be anything you want (as long as it's within the confines of the abilities you have unlocked) and change your mind to your heart's content

Considering you can eventually unlock all the skills and abilities, you'd have to be a pretty determined altaholic to find a need to reroll.  About the only thing you can't change is your character's name, physical (non-clothing) appearance, and faction... and that's not to say that future patches won't rectify that.  (Being a pretty determined altaholic myself, I still manage to quibble over which of the three major factions I identify with the most.)

Despite the incredible character system flexibility, the inner pessimist tells me that, in the long run, there's going to be a game community consensus that there's only a few good "builds" for each needed roles.  In that scenario, at higher "levels" of play, if you try to run a character with a unique build, you may be considered an inferior player by those who have "theorycrafted" the most efficient choice.  Time will tell if this pattern repeats in The Secret World as it has in classless games I've played in the past.

Does it fish you in?  Actually, this would seem to be the definition of "The Secret World" itself.

Dark Days Are Coming - if your character seems to forget, don't worry, some non-player character will be along to remind them shortly.   Once you've gone down the proverbial rabbit hole, there's no escape, and that's what The Secret World is all about: you can't unlearn that the world is in peril; when things go bump in the night, it's now your character's job to bump back.

To facilitate this interesting premise, fishing the player into the world of The Secret World, Funcom has used every trick in the book and even invented a few new tricks of their own.  For example:
  • You'll be treated to fully voiced, very well-performed, cutscenes when meeting major characters and taking quests from them.
  • The atmosphere is gritty, realistic, reminiscent of the very times in which we live.  You don't need much of an imagination to believe in places modeled after the real world.  Thus, it's that much more compelling of storytelling when occult influences manifest within them.
  • You'll regularly happen across nuggets of in-game lore that provides extensive back stories to all the locations and major players (such as the Illuminati, Templars, and the Dragon - the three secret societies the players will join).
The player is left feeling they're uncovering something real.  This is reinforced by perhaps the coolest thing that they have done to encourage immersion: "investigation missions" that involve looking up things in real life.  These are quests where you have to dig up real life information for clues in order to progress them.

To these ends, the Secret World client even includes an in-game web browser you can use.  It's not very well featured, but it's a real browser going on the red Internet, and gets the job done.  In addition to cool spoof sites that Funcom has set up, such as The Orochi Group and the Kingsmouth websites, you may need to just find information in general with Google (e.g. a bible phrase).

(Of course, you can also abuse this built-in web browser to simply look up walkthroughs to these quests - I know I did this rather than attempt to decode morse code for a step of a quest - but it's really a whole lot more satisfying to puzzle through it on your own.)

Despite all it has going for it atmospherically, Funcom has dropped the same ball in The Secret World that very few MMORPG developers have done anything about: the world is immutable, static, and unchanging.   Despite all your player character's efforts, Kingsmouth (for example) is doomed.  No matter how many zombies you slay, they're just going to re-spawn a few seconds later.  You can even repeat most quests every 24-hours.  (A concession likely added to support the idea of unlimited skill and action point gain.)

To Funcom's credit, the story in The Secret World often weaves in an explanation for this.  For example, the characters you speak to in Kingsmouth actually point out that it doesn't make sense for a sleepy little town to have produced so many zombies, that the dead have to be replenishing their numbers somehow, and there are sources of additional undead far beyond the population of the doomed townsfolk.  That's a very nice touch, and one that's absent from most MMORPGs.

To be fair, nevermind my complaints about how there's no room for heroes.  Yes, The Secret World is a "theme park" design of an MMORPG, but that's par for the course in the genre.  Within a more reasonable expectation, the presentation of The Secret World and the aforementioned unique gameplay will make it that much more likely that you'll enjoy the ride while it lasts.
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