As with Fallout: New Vegas before it, The Secret World is a videogame that I had to admit I had thoughts and feelings worth sharing around the time I realised I’d burned something like a full week of my life on playing it. This is after I’d told myself that I was ‘over’ MMOs, and that without the vast creative canvas offered me by City of Heroes, I was not going to click with any similar game. There was always this conflux of factors; a lack of creative freedom, samey fantasy settings, reward-free grind and of course, subscriptions or poor play experiences based on payment.
Lookin’ at you, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
It was therefore quite a pleasant surprise to go back to my old account on The Secret World, and examine the game that I had there, that had gone unexamined… for some pretty good reasons.
First things first, on a technical level, The Secret World is a cluster of awful things. The game is lavish in its geography, detailed in its character art, full of unique textures, fully voice acted and orchestrated, and the entire thing at base weighs in at something like thirty gigabytes to download. It is a behemoth. It is also terribly optimised, which is why my computer, which could run Dishonored quite smoothly, and multitasks excellently, simply can’t run it.
Quite a bummer.
My laptop, which thankfully, is quite a bit newer and better, is able to run it, but that laptop has a maximum resolution of 1386xsomethingsmall, which is to say, playing the game is often a matter of physically moving the chat window out of the way of the combat.
Plus it’s an MMO with lots of reactive positioning, meaning that even common mobs do area attacks you have to get the hell outta, and that means that if you’re playing on a laggy internet connection (like, say, I am), you get to feel the mockery of Bad Play Mistakes when they are in fact not bad play, but a failure of your play equipment.
If I wanted to throw this game into the dustbin, that would all be a pretty compelling reason to do so.
With any MMO game, of any stripe, what gets you in and keeps you in is people. I know I was a reason people kept playing World Of Warcraft beyond when it was fun, and I know that I played some MMOs despite my antipathy towards their subject matter. The thing that made me play this game and keep trying to play this game, despite the technical elements, was someone I loved, and, in turn, the introduction to other players, other people I loved.
As with all social experiences, consider that weight: The Secret World is still an MMO. It still has some elements of social experience. You can play it as a single-player experience for quite a bit, and it’s a pretty decent one, at that, but not as good as a more polished, tuned, single-player experience.
With that social element set aside, though, The Secret World is a pretty interesting MMO. The levelling and scaling system, the equipment system, and the character customisation all represent deliberate, distinctive departures from the overall structure of MMOs that we’ve been dealing with since World Of Warcraft and Eve Online started defining the edges of that mechanical formula.
Store And Systems
First things first, The Secret World doesn’t have classes. A character is not defined by a single choice made at the start of the game, they’re defined by the two weapons they’re currently holding, and the collection of abilities they have equipped. You can start the game with a sword and a shotgun, decide to exchange the shotgun for an assault rifle, the sword for a fist, then a hammer, then a blood magic totem. Rather than your powers being determined by some single, large value that unlocks ability, you level up three values at once:
- “SP” that let you equip better gear.
- “AP” that unlock abilities related to your equipped gear.
- “XP” that determine the level of plot you have access to.
Thing is, XP advancement goes up to about level 13. 10 is officially ‘the end game’ and further advancement is sort of incidental. AP levels up fast, very fast, so if you try a weapon and don’t like it, you can change gears and pick up different skills very easily. What’s more, the abilities bought with AP are either active or passive – and passive abilities work regardless of what weapon you’re handling. You like the passive effects in Hammer that care about weakened opponents? You can use those while you wield a blade and a shotgun just fine!
This is obviously a bit too much to grok here. Look instead to the outcomes: These three interconnected systems allow for a classless character progression, reward you for doing small side quests without demanding them, and most strangely, rarely have obviously bad powers. Despite the choice of powers being in the hundreds, there are very few powers that are just straight-up worse versions of anything. Powers often have a variety of triggers and related traits that let you nest and connect them to do different things.
The devs know this system is confusing to approach. It’s more like building a character in a point-based tabletop game, or building a deck in a CCG. You have your passives, and your actives, and they relate to the four groupings of harm that impact your enemies, and you want them to have synergies and they can come from these families and – yeah, it’s confusing! In order to make it approachable, then, the developers made the game come with Decks: a set of abilities that, when gathered together, represent a sort-of-class. If you get a Deck, you get a costume and a title associated with that deck, and each of the major factions of the game have different decks.
The online store is the main way the game seems to make money, where I suspect the income is split tidily between new game content (regular releases of more missions), and the character customisation (new costumes, new ways to change the visuals of characters’ weapons). This is unfortunately, one of the areas where The Secret World lets me down.
See, when I first started to really sink into this game, I was thrilled to see the character decks’ outfits, the unlockable gear the game gave you for collecting all the abilities of a character class, were really pleasantly egalitarian. A lady Goon and a dude Goon looked pretty much the same. A dude Paladin and a lady Paladin had pretty similar outfits, even if the colours were inverted. And for some outfits, they were flat-out identical. When you coupled this with the hints of representation for queer characters, I really did think of this game as being pretty good about sexism.
But then I looked at the online store, the stuff that you buy rather than the stuff you can earn or pick up with in-game currency, and… it’s not heartening, okay? It’s snake charmers and sexy witches and bikini bits and there’s a pretty clear bias towards allowing women characters to Look Sexy (with one particular definition of the aesthetic of Sexy), while men are allowed to Look Ridiculous or Look Tough. The store bought clothing is a lot more binary than the other clothes you’ll find.
That made me a little sad, because the store feels like it’s closer to the developers’ pulse than the rest of the game economy is. It feels like this is the stuff that means more, and there’s more direct behaviour. Once, the devs offered Mankinis for men and Wetsuits for women as a gag item, and after the gag had run its course, revoked those items, claiming they were a bit too silly to keep around. This is despite the fact that there were some pretty damn silly outfits available for women already in the store.
Things That Work
Technically a mess, confusing in its character construction and frustrating in its costuming of women. What then, is there to recommend this game, aside from its mechanical curiosity?
First things first, content. The Secret World doesn’t give you quests that are just designed to keep you moving around in particular spaces, and engaging with local mobs. Games like World of Warcraft developed the idea of Quest Stacking, where you pick up a dozen jobs in a safe area, then chart your path through those quests to do them all at once, return to the safe area and shower yourself in XP. This creates a cycle of play.
I can talk about why that’s bad (mostly), but in essence, these quests are all designed to do one of three things: Move you through an area, force you to stay in an area, or move you to the next area. Quest Chains are the natural extension of this, where you loop back around in the safe area and ever increasing areas of difficulty. The upshot of this, however, is that there’s only a thin patina of game theme over the system of the game, and when that patina wears off, players stop engaging with the theme. They engage almost exclusively with the system as a system: individual quests are not parts of a story, they are beats in a greater play experience. Efforts to address this have in fact worked in the other direction – quest trackers and the removal of quest caps mean that players engage with their theme even less, and focus heavily on the system element.
I seriously fear that quest text in World of Warcaft is some of the least-read text that’s ever exposed to millions of people. It’s up there with the Bible.
The Secret World brakes hard in the completely opposite direction. Rather than let you pick up every mission in an area all at once, the game limits you enormously in the number of quests you can do at once. There are Side Quests (little things), Active Quests (which are larger and more involved), and the Story Quest, which is what pulls you onwards in the main plot arc of the game. (There’s also dungeon quests, but they’re not important at this point).
Active Quests often involve doing a large number of things in sequence. Thing is, these things are often very well woven together actively. They involve things like breaking into people’s homes and computers, finding puzzle pieces around an area and pulling them together in the right order. Even things like hunts are handled well – and best of all, when you do a thing, when you’re done with content, you get a phone call and a note and that’s that. There’s no expectation that you will run back to a safe space to refresh; and most quests will leave you near places of other quests. The sequential nature of the content is reinforced, so most of the time, you’re doing things and engaging with the world, rather than just looking for the enemy mobs who make your quest tracker ping.
Sometimes this is pretty obtuse, but when it works, it works really well. There’s one mission where you have to find a number of bugs around an office, and the are hidden so well it’s astounding. When I plucked the last one of them up, I was genuinely impressed with myself.
The thematic this game tries to get you to interact with is also something I personally find really engaging. It uses a lot of modern myths, reaching to Lovecraftian myth, Zombie Apocalypse and semi-Mormon ancient American civilisation style (er, but less racist (not that that’s hard)). Normally I’d find any of those elements tired as hell, but thanks to its framing device – all myths are true – and the twisted interpretation of conspiracy theories, it keeps them relatively fresh.
Also, the open-slather nonsense feels really welcoming as a creative player. If I tell people my character is X in World Of Warcraft, there’s an inevitable question and double-checking. Even modest things like ‘veteran of this war’ can lead to asking and double-checking. There’s an attitude of no, rather than an attitude of yes for your own form of expression.
That’s pretty charming, considering how I like to play MMOs, with characters as expressions within a world. The game encourages you to create and express, two things that the more structured systems tend to avoid. This is again, a social element – the game creates a common context for you to meet people, and in that space, this is a game where you can meet a Steven-King like shooting zombies from a lighthouse, where you can find Native Americans in history teaming up with Vikings to kill demon dragons, where the Religious Terrorists you find in Egypt are working for Sun God cults, where the sinking of Venice is a literal expression of the failing power of old conspiracy theories, it’s a world full of things, and of those things, you won’t find Tolkein’s Elves reimagined for the fourteenth hundred damn time.
The central plot sufffers from a lot of the problems that MMO writing does, in that the player protagonist isn’t really the protagonist as much as they are an observer, an instigator. Heck, in narrative terms, the player could be seen as more of an antagonist: A lot of the plot is about people moving you out of the way. But when you look at the characters around you, there’s a lot of heart there. There’s some soul. Ultimately, good or ill, the characters you interact with are characters that some writer, somewhere, cared about and tried to imbue with some meaning – rather than making snide jokes about how nobody reads the quest text.
One final detail is that because ‘level’ is a narrow range, it’s actually pretty easy for two characters to play together. Most missions are repeatable, most content is forgiving in permitting multiple players to go along. Higher-level characters don’t necessarily ruin everything by going along with lower-level characters, which means catching up with friends is more doable than you’d expect!
One final note about it, this game has a lot of content I’d consider being cautious about if you’re sensitive. There are queer characters talking about being lovelorn, there’s a deliberate horror aesthetic, there are serial killers and zombies and tragedy and plague. Ultimately, there are some folk who are distressed by this kind of game, so, just be aware. I still like it quite a bit, but it’s not a perfect game by any measure.
Buy it if:
- You want a casual-access MMO that you can share with a friend or two.
- You want a MMO you can leave and return to without worry about subscriptions.
- You want to examine some really interesting quest design.
Avoid it if:
- You crave big, refined end-game content like World of Warcraft.
- You’ve got a low-end system and internet connection.