With my Hobo Gamer series becoming increasingly dominated by unreleased sandboxes, I wanted to take a moment to switch gears to write about an actually released themepark – The Secret World. I have played the game on and off for awhile now, and while the game embodies much of what I feel is fundamentally wrong with the modern MMO market, it simply has too much going for it to have that held against it. As I actually have quite a bit of hands on experience with TSW, this post will be a departure from previous writings to be more of an explanation of what the game is and why you should care about it – and you should. If you’ve never played The Secret World before, stick around and see if it could be right for you.
What is The Secret World
The Secret World is a classless, level-less MMORPG set in a horror themed version of the modern day real world, where myths and folk legends are a reality and secret societies vie to maintain power in the face of occult disturbances. As with most modern themeparks, The Secret World focused heavily on solo-oriented narrative elements, ultimately to the detriment of its MMO features. The difference? The Secret World‘s solo oriented narrative elements are amazing, greatly outshining anything done by other MMORPGs in this area. While I prefer my MMOs to be, well, MMOs, I can’t help but have a bit of fun when I find a game that’s traveled the other route very well.
Although initially launching as a subscription game, TSW has since made a largely successful transition to the buy-to-play model. TSW’s implementation of the model is one of the best, and the game’s gearing system, which has completely decoupled gear performance and costume aesthetics, lends itself well to facilitating a non-pay-to-win cash shop. Unlike other buy-to-play games which never get content updates, The Secret World sells new content additions as DLC packs, allowing players the freedom to choose which types of content they want to unlock. Generally I wouldn’t be a fan of this model, but in a game like TSW, which I play more like an adventure game than an MMO, it actually works very well. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have appeal as an MMO, because it does, but it’s best not to play it that way at first.
The Secret World‘s main draw is its questing, which has been phenomenally executed. The writing, voice acting, and detailed cut scenes are far beyond what has ever been done before in an MMO, but that’s not their only appeal. As befits a horror game, everything in TSW is fraught with danger and shrouded in mystery. The game’s dark story hooks you in as you progress through immersive settings like New England, Egypt, and Transylvania.
The real world setting is the strongest tool in The Secret World‘s narrative toolkit, granting unparalleled immersion and enabling the game to rely on your real world knowledge to solve its many puzzles. Most modern MMOs do a lot of hand holding with their quest content. The Secret World does not.
There are five types of quest in The Secret World, each indicated by a different icon and offering a different style of play.
- Story – The story missions are the main story of the game, leading the player throughout each of the game’s zone while progressing a singular narrative. These missions will contain components from each of the following three primary mission types.
- Action – Action missions are most analogous to the standard quests in other MMOs. They’re pretty straight forward, as the what to do and where to go are usually marked on the map for you.
- Investigation – Investigation missions are the most unique type of quest, and will only guide the player with clues and hints as they progress through the story. Out of game research is often a component of investigation missions, which is possible due to TSW‘s real-world setting.
- Sabotage – Sabotage missions are the game’s stealth missions, and the gameplay is more akin to what you would find in Splinter Cell or Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines than a traditional MMO. Avoiding traps and detection is often a key feature of these missions.
- Item – Item missions are spawned when you find an item in the world. These are quick and easy side quests that will almost always lead you to one of the main mission types.
While all of the mission types are excellent, it is the investigation missions that truly set The Secret World apart; if you’ve longed for an MMO that doesn’t hold your hand, this is the one – and its real world setting brings with it a near unparalleled ability to do so. While there are several examples of missions that are a little over the top (involving deciphering Morse Code transmitted through headlight flashes, or diagnosing medical conditions based on patient charts), most of them hit a comfortable stride where many players will be able to progress without consulting a walkthrough – granted, this will often be with significant effort.
One of my favorite examples of a real-life ‘common sense’ mission involved investigating an abandoned black van. You are prompted to investigate the van, and the quest updates to tell you to “Log in to the Laptop”, with no other guidance given. To do so, you access the computer’s password hint, which reads “my wife”. Finding the solution requires players to search the area for a few nearby corpses, a search of which will discover two dead agents with IDs. From there, you access the internet (there is an in-game browser to make this easier) and can either Google the names, or go to the website listed on their IDs. The male agent’s company profile will include a brief mention of his wife, whose name will allow you access to the laptop.
Now the investigation missions are challenging, and as a result, will sometimes be frustrating and brutal. They are both in the minority and clearly indicated as investigation missions, so it is easy to put them off until you’re in the mood. I’ve found these to be great group content, as while they can of course be completed solo, pooling your knowledge and creativity makes them less painful and more enjoyable at the same time.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of the game’s storytelling is its mature handling of, well, mature themes. The game has a mature rating, and it uses it damn effectively. While many games use the rating gratuitously to create environments full of gore, TSW does not, instead waiting for the opportune moment to display a jarring, horrific scene that will move the story. This sparing use makes it a powerful storytelling tool.
The game’s narrative is full of mystery, and it’s not going to give you all of the answers. Hell, the answers it does give you will often need to be coupled together with either your own wits, or the game’s rather clever community. I actually like this. When it comes to the story, The Secret World really treats its players as intelligent adults, and it’s rare to see that anymore.
I think it goes without saying that if you want to enjoy the game, you need to take your time, watch the cut scenes, and immerse yourself in the story. Do that, and you won’t be disappointed.
However, I doubt most of the people reading this blog are the type to play a game just because the story is awesome (even though you totally should). After all, you’ve made it through my well documented dislike for this type of content while continuing to read. So what makes The Secret World interesting as an MMO? Let’s take a look.
One of its coolest features is The Secret World‘s classless character progression. TSW features a daunting amount of abilities and passives (and that’s only one of the wheels) which players slot to create their builds. Unlike many deck building games, TSW does not strive to balance every possible build; the game is based upon a rigorous system of continuous build optimization, and players will often run into brick walls of progression while questing if they haven’t been planning their build from the beginning.
The way it works is that each character can equip two different weapon types at any given time, and can use abilities from either weapon at the same time (no need for weapon swapping). Passives can be slotted from any tree regardless of what is equipped. With this system, active components of a build can be quickly unlocked to allow for fun play, while the build’s true power-progression comes from slowly unlocking the right passives from the right trees.
Unlocking one build won’t get you too far, either. At the very minimum, you’ll want one build for questing (focused on survivability – combat is not easy), and one for dungeons, but as you progress into the more difficult tiers of dungeons (and even some of the later quests), you’ll often find yourself having to switch builds in between encounters to adapt to different mechanics. As you might imagine, PvP requires its own build as well.
While excellent in theory (previous writings on level-less progression systems), The Secret World‘s level-less progression system is not perfect. As with all themepark MMOs, the game is subject to power creep – both from builds and gear. While the curve is nowhere near the steepness of a level-based system, you will have to remain in high-tier content if you wish to maintain any semblance of a challenge once you have reached endgame. While you can return to low-tier content without completely overpowering it, the reduced rewards and relative lack of engagement from combat means this is typically reserved for playing with friends you’ve managed to recruit into the game. As such, a lot of the benefits of a level-less progression system are negated as leveling is simulated by progressive and predictable gains in power.
Surprisingly, The Secret World contains one of the most hardcore dungeon PvE endgames on the market today. While “leveling” players will experience normal mode dungeons, best thought of as casual friendly story-driven experiences. Upon reaching QL10, a gear level equivalent with reaching max level, players will knock out a few quests that reward low-tier epics in preparation for the game’s elite dungeons, the equivalent of heroics in other MMOs. Progressing in difficulty in accordance with the order they were encountered while leveling, these dungeons will reward players with blues of increasing quality. The Secret World is the only modern MMO where obtaining a full set of blues has left me with any sense of accomplishment.
Once through elites, players will be able to engage The Gatekeeper, a brutal solo encounter meant to simulate a few of the mechanics players will encounter in the game’s next dungeon tier – nightmares. The Gatekeeper is both a gear and skill check, with challenges designed for tanks, healers, and DPS as appropriate. Players will not be able to enter nightmares at all until they have defeated this encounter, and it is impossible to bring a friend. When you form a group for nightmares, you at least know that the members of your group won’t be completely terrible, as they would not have been able to beat this fight. As I progressed through here as a DPS, I’ll describe the encounter as I experienced it.
You arrive on a platform with a golden man and three interactable nodes, one for each role. You select the appropriate role, then the fight begins. For DPS, The Gatekeeper begins attacking you. His basic attacks do minimal damage (you don’t need healing or mitigation as a DPS, after all), but that’s not where the challenge lies. For phase 1, The Gatekeeper will begin dropping AoEs damage pools all over the platform; stepping into even the tiniest bit of these will instantly kill you. This goes on for quite awhile, then phase 2 begins. At this point, The Gatekeeper rises into the air, requiring the player to purge a buff within a few seconds; again, if you do not, you will die (this also requires players to have a build with a purge). This happens a few times during phase 2, while the AoEs from phase 1 continue to drop. Phase 3 begins with The Gatekeeper summoning an add that will chase you around. You must kite it, because if it hits you -you guessed it- the result is instant death. All of this is timed, so if you’re below the required DPS threshold, he will eventually kill you with an attack called “too slow”.
Nightmares expand on elites, offering a higher level of challenge and new mechanics, many of which are completely brutal. At this point, there is also a raid for large groups to attempt.
Unfortunately, the endgame in TSW is an enormous, massive grind, the likes of which would make even the Koreans envious. Black Bullion, the nightmare currency, is collected in a brutal grind for gear collection and improvement that will last a very long time.
In addition to dungeons (and one raid), The Secret World recently added scenarios, randomized PvE encounters scaled for one, two, and four people to grind to progress their augment wheel, which supplements the main skill wheel by allowing players to access passive increases to specific abilities. It’s a pretty neat feature, but unfortunately is an even bigger grind than the gear grind. This is meant as the ultimate endgame, giving players a way to continue using their ability points well beyond unlocking all of the game’s 525 active and passive skills, as well as the game’s auxiliary weapon wheel (supplemental weapon types outside the scope of this overview).
The Secret World features three-faction instanced PvP, including one persistent battleground – Fusang. I want to like this – I really do. I love three-faction PvP, but I can’t lie. It’s just not good here. There is no world PvP, and players of different factions are even able to group and quest or dungeon together (though they cannot guild together, inexplicably). PvP is worth a try if you’re already playing TSW for another reason, and has some cool costumes you can unlock while you’re doing. However, this is not the main attraction.
Combat is reminiscent of Guild Wars 2, but not quite as smooth. There is tab-targeting and a dodge roll heavily utilized by the game’s mob telegraphing system. Solo combat in particular is significantly more difficult in TSW than in other MMOs. You will not be able to roll your face on the keyboard and succeed. One downside is that mobs seem to have a bit too much health when soloing, though this may be one effect of the game’s level-less progression and the resulting high impact of gear.
Given that the game shows several different regions of the real world, it goes without saying that The Secret World cannot boast a seamless, persistent world. That said, its environments do manage to be fairly open. Each region is made up of 2-3 broad, square regions, which the level-less progression allows you to travel at your own pace and discretion. The game seamlessly integrates its servers ensuring that zones will always be populated. Unlike many MMOs, TSW seems to hit just the right balance of population to where you feel engaged in a world with other players, but aren’t put off by the amount of them.
While I do prefer a seamless world, TSW just wouldn’t be the game it is if they had attempted to go with one, and its best feature – the narrative – would have suffered from an attempt. The world they have created is more than passable, and was clearly the best way to go for this specific game.
All in all, The Secret World is far from an amazing MMO. However, I don’t feel uncomfortable saying that you might find it to be an amazing adventure game that you can play with a lot of friends. Flaws aside, the endgame is completely passable, but if you delve into it, it will be done as a way to remain immersed in the game-world, and not as the main attraction – and with the game’s buy-to-play model, that’s totally OK.
The quests are the king here; there’s no doubt about it. If you like what you’ve heard on that topic, I highly recommend picking up the game’s Massive Edition the next time it goes on Steam sale. If you do, let me know. The Secret World is due to release a major content patch (Tokyo) any time now, and as soon as that happens, I’ll be returning to its creepy, wonderful world.
Since the initial draft, The Secret World has begun tweeting from some of the in-character Twitter accounts they used to support the game’s roleplaying community. These have teased content before in the past, so the tweet below may be an indicator that Tokyo is imminent.