PC

The Secret World: The Kotaku Review

As it turns out, I was born to be a dragon.
In the old adage about a butterfly flapping its wings in China to cause a hurricane in Texas, the Dragon are the ones who put the butterfly into position and tell it when to flap. They are agents of chaos, slipping into and moving through the warp and weft of reality, artfully choosing not so much which strings to pull, as which strings to make others pull for them. They see the pattern. They manipulate the pattern. They are the ones who know that there is a pattern.

So I have nobody but myself to blame for finding the Templars rather dull, in the end. That was my own fault. I should have been a Dragon.

It’s been a month since Funcom’s ambitious, modern-day MMORPG first launched. As one of my colleagues has noted, the launch was not without bugs. But I’ve been playing for the whole month, and I’ve experienced many of the emotional stages of playing an MMORPG in that time. There were the initial highs, the bit where it started to get hard, and the sessions filled with rage and swearing.

The sum total is a package both innovative and archaic. In a way, the game that manages all at once to be cutting edge and unique, one of many following current trends, and a throwback to an era of game design coming up on a decade in our past.

The Secret World

Developer: Funcom
Platforms: PC
Release date: July 3

Type of game: Modern-day MMORPG
What I played: Somewhere between 20 and 25 hours, on one Templar and one Dragon, trying solo, duo, group, and PvP play

My Two Favourite Things

  • Class-free levelling. Swapping out equipment and skill sets on the fly really is as easy as promised, and the game provides enough opportunities for earning skill and ability points to make multiple, effective builds for any character a reality.
  • Investigation quests. I’m a sucker for a good adventure game and I like an MMO that actually requires me to engage my brain and/or other players.

My Two Least-Favourite Things

  • Level-free levelling. In theory it’s great but players still find ways to draw boundaries, and it if you get off the beaten path it can be hard to figure out what parts of the world are or aren’t appropriate for you to be wandering through.
  • The PvP zones. I think it’s probably great for some people. I am clearly not one of them.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • “We wouldn’t be in this mess if Lovecraft hadn’t filled New England with eldritch horrors in the first place.” – Kate Cox, Kotaku
  • “A concoction that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the MMOs I’m used to.” – Kate Cox, Kotaku

It’s a strange combination. Sometimes, the game leads you around when you don’t really need the guidance. Other times, it gives you no hints at all, and you could really use a gentle nudge. Sometimes it’s too easy. Sometimes it’s too hard. It’s kind of a crapshoot. Single-player quests guide you by the nose around the world, where other systems — PvP and crafting in particular — seem to throw you into the deep end, with lead weights tied to your feet, and tell you to sink or swim.

The Secret World requires you already to speak the language of the MMORPG, and yet it seeks to alter that language. It’s like hearing something hauntingly familiar in the corner of your brain at all times. Like looking at signs in Spanish and Italian, while being fluent in French, or like hearing a new cover of a song you used to love. It’s something you understand, and yet it’s not what you expect it to be.

Some parts of it do feel fresh and new and genuine. Clearly the story of this world has meaning. For me, in an MMORPG, that’s a first. NPCs in many a game have tried to blather lore at me and I’ve skipped through most of them. It’s a bad habit: find quest-giver, accept quest, follow directions in journal. For all that I put years of my life into other MMOs, I never much cared about the sinew holding the story together.

You cannot skip through the NPCs and still understand the game. And for once, I found that I didn’t particularly want to. They have quite a lot to say, and they say it in detailed, fully voiced cut scenes. The world doesn’t just have stories in it; the world is a story, and you are there to uncover it.

In fact, the NPC writing is so robust (even if the New England accents are enough to make this native Bostonian shake her head sadly) that my Templar’s silence feels strange and alienating; I want her to engage more with the world around her so I can engage in turn. It’s so close to an adventure game or a single-player romp that I expect at least to have dialogue options when cut-scenes appear, and to be forced not only into remaining mute but in fact into total silence creates an awkward distance that I’m not sure how to overcome.

That awkward distance is the core of The Secret World‘s problems. The player character, whoever he or she is, skates in a disconnected way through the world. Because so much of what the player explores is open and overland, as opposed to instanced, there’s that perpetual sense of futility. No matter how many waves of zombies you beat back, they will keep attacking the sheriff’s station whenever anyone at all is working through their quest line. You will always hear the sirens; you will always be able to answer the call.

Working together is automatic and innate: if I am fighting a zombie horde for Quest A, and you are fighting a zombie horde for Quest A, then when the boss spawns at the end of the ring event, even if you and I aren’t grouped, we both get full kill credit, XP and loot. This happens even if I never lay a finger on the boss. It’s handy, and it’s cooperative. Early on I found the /bow emote so that I could easily thank others who lent a hand along my crooked path.

But it also adds to that sense of disconnection. It’s true that combat, while fluid and quick, often feels rather floaty. There’s an old-fashioned sense of disconnection between a player’s combat animations and the reality of monster placement and movement. That’s never bothered me much, and it doesn’t bother me on its own now, but as one symptom of a larger sense of distance it fits into a puzzle I can’t quite solve.

On the theme of “puzzles I can’t quite solve”, the crafting system in TSW feels more obtuse and pointless than it needs to. It’s easy enough to loot and buy certain key components, and simple to break down existing gear for others, but reassembling them into new items makes more or less no sense.

Guides are mandatory for crafting. And I don’t mean an in-game guide. After a pair of early quests that introduce the concept, there isn’t one, at least not that I ever found. It takes player-made, online guides to learn the arcane arrangements of tiles that add up into “talisman” or “fist weapon.” The in-game browser is helpful for finding some. But early in the game, the crafting system is not robust. In later levels — sorry, at higher quality tiers — it seems likely that with some rare parts and some player ingenuity you can make clever and useful items.

The game also launched missing some key features of social connection. Until July 31, there was no player marketplace, auction house, or broker of any kind. Without an easy way to buy, sell, and trade items, there’s no real economy holding players together. Likewise, until the marketplace was added, there was no real reason to take up crafting. Now that the feature is in place, the hunt for gear — and for a good bargain — may well become more entertaining.

On the other hand, the game itself is structured beautifully for social connections. Though players do create characters on a specific server, or dimension in this case, it almost doesn’t matter which. Some are specifically tagged as RP-friendly, and some are specific to non-English languages, but players can still group across dimensions and instances. Nicknames are unique to the whole world, and so if your buddy Bob is on Huldra and your other buddy Jim is on Cerberus, you can still shoot group invitations to both of them and all three of you can use the “meet up” function to play in the same instance together. The only time dimension really matters is with PvP.

As for PvP, it can be either glorious, or a mess. Some dimensions have already formed a population imbalance, and tend to be Templar-heavy or Dragon-dominated. My immediate and overwhelming sensation upon logging into the Fusang Projects for the first time was to swear at the top of my lungs a lot. I felt only anxiety and confusion, and had no practical way to orient myself. Eventually, I came to understand that the best rule for survival in the persistent warzone is to follow the mob. It doesn’t much matter who’s in your group, unless they are friends or in your cabal. The important thing is to follow the swarm. En masse, your faction will migrate from point to point, capturing facilities and spawn points. As in PvE combat, you get credit for kills that are close enough to where you are standing, regardless of who lands the fatal blow.

I found the swarm to be a useful tactic, but ultimately a huge turn-off. Other than playing more and levelling my gear and skills higher, I saw no real way to learn to be better at PvP, only to learn when to swap skill sets if the swarm is low on healing or low on tanks or low on ranged DPS. In the swarm, you are less vulnerable but so are your opponents. The Fusang Projects, on a well-balanced server, seem likely to be a perpetual stalemate. I was not at all a fan of my PvP experience. With a group of friends, or a cabal, I’m sure there’s something to it. As it stood for me, my group didn’t particularly want me and I didn’t particularly want them, either. It’s the only place in the game where I felt like everything was actively hostile to me, and I don’t just mean the players on the other factions.

Where The Secret World has its greatest advantage, and where it displays the most innovation, is in its story telling. Other recent MMO games have been sold on the strength of their narratives, but so far The Secret World is following through. One month in, they’re already adding new story content, and they promise more or less monthly updates going forward. If they can keep the content stream coming, they’ll be in good shape.

The real-world setting is its other strength. Characters don’t tend to speak in portentous, overwrought, anachronistic tones unless they have a reason to. The world stops shy of giving a straight up knowing nod and wink to the fourth wall, but only just. Illuminati in particular have a way of speaking in memes, and NPCs throughout reference not only literature and history, but the world of video games specifically.

The line between “clever” and “too clever” is a dangerous one to walk, and The Secret World lives at the line of many such boundaries. Perhaps it’s only fitting. The game, after all, posits a reality that is ours, but in which all the stories we’ve told each other throughout history are also true.

Maybe Stonehenge really is a seat of power. Perhaps the Illuminati really do own the rich and powerful shapers of destiny. It could be that magic lies at the edge of our world, waiting to seep through. Myths, legends, and fairy tales have to come from somewhere. Perhaps they’re not all allegories and morality plays.

That is the heart of The Secret World: that the secrets are all spilling out, into the open. And not just the big secrets, but the little ones too. The game has bugs, and some of the mechanics could stand still to be tweaked. But the heart is there, to tweak them around. With the world falling to pieces around them, the people who live by the cracks where reality has broken will leak their souls to the nearest stranger. Their worst fears are realised, and their dreams are deferred, replaced by the need to survive. Combat, quests, and metric milestones aside, it’s worth walking through The Secret World just to talk to everyone and to learn how their world and ours are two sides of the same coin.


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