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The RPG Scrollbars: Back To The Secret World

Dark days were three years ago

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You know those games that you can never really get into, but you keep dipping back into, time and again? For me, they tend to be MMORPGs, and two in particular – City of Heroes, which I’d often feel the urge to just fire up for a weekend and clobber some stuff, and World of Warcraft, which I always jump into each expansion pack to take my Undead Mage out of storage for one more adventure. The Secret World is also on my list, but from the other direction. It’s a game that ticked every one of my boxes when it first came out, save the one about actually having fun with it. Yet I’ve been back several times, always secretly hoping that at some point it will have morphed into the single-player Vampire: Bloodlines type game its world constantly cries tortured screams to have been.

Well, spoiler: It hasn’t. And yes, I know in my heart that it never will. However, last month… actually, wait, we’re in May. Bah! Fine. Back in March then, Funcom launched what it called ‘The Enhanced Player Experience’. Well, it’s been a quiet week. I thought I’d see if it’s helped things out any.

Make it quick, I'm waiting to be a character in a Joss Whedon movie.

Just in case you’re not aware of The Secret World, it’s an MMO that placed its bets almost entirely on story and narrative and quickly ended up losing its shirt as a result. It came out mid-2012 as a standard subscription MMO, sold around 200,000 copies at launch, and became (shudders at the term) buy-to-play within six months. It was a bomb that reportedly took out about half of Funcom, and almost immediately faded into obscurity. This isn’t intended as a scientific analysis or anything, but I remember seeing more stories about Anarchy bloody Online’s latest patch than this one.

Still, better late than never, right?

For the second time this year, I fired up the epic download and jumped back in. Speaking as a member of the Illuminati, I’m always a little surprised not to log in and find 50,004 increasingly angry phonecalls from faction handler Kirsten Geary (quite literally Kieron Gillen’s alternate universe self in high-heels) demanding to know where the shit I’ve been. She’s one of the best reasons to side with the Illuminati, along with the fact that Jeffrey Combs is their doctor – as well as the headmaster of an Illuminati run school on Solomon Island who is easily one of my favourite characters in the whole game so far. It just goes to show, everything’s better with Jeffrey Combs. Except Gotham. (Seriously, every genre show gets one chance to play the Combs card, and it spent it on that? Good grief…)

The Secret World is of course the clash between secret societies at the end of days. Lovecraftian horrors are invading New England, an ancient evil is rising in Egypt, vampires are stalking Transylvania, and that’s to say nothing of each side’s schemes and counterplans and mutual distrust for other organisations around the edges, notably the Orochi Group and the Secret World equivalent of the UN, The Council of Venice. You’re a new recruit given magic powers by swallowing a bee… just roll with it… drafted in to push your side’s agenda in each new trouble spot, while being repeatedly reminded that being able to throw magic lightning from your fingers or whatever doesn’t make you a superhero. It makes you cannon fodder, and just another conscript in an army.

Weapon specialisation, Cane! Skills include Time For Tea, A Darn Good Thrashing and the Threat builder, Listen You, Sonny Jim.

Dipping in is all the reminder I ever need that The Secret World isn’t a bad game. When it’s on form, it’s a fucking brilliant game. It’s easily the best written MMO ever made, even if the unfortunate decision to make the characters mute generally leaves everyone else with little to do but monologue incessantly. That’s definitely one of the Big Mistakes that sunk it on release, making it too tempting to just skip the characters and especially the more casual dialogue that fleshes out the world. The occasional quip about your silence and cute slapstick moment aside, it’s too much. In fact, hold that thought. We’ll be back to it quite a few times over the next few hundred words.

The brilliance is there though, and all around. I could go on for hours just about its location design alone, from the fact that you can actually visit the Illuminati HQ if you go to New York, to the amazing level of detail and craft of the original locations. The Blue Mountain, with the tourist Wabanaki Village next to the trailer park where they actually live. The city of al-Merayah in the Scorched Desert. The fact that you can walk from the exquisitely detailed Kingsmouth Town to a fully rendered funfair (complete with rideable rollercoaster in one mission) to the divine Innsmouth Academy almost works against it. In most MMOs, those would be high-points to point at and praise. Here, the world is so lush and well made that it’s easy to become blind to just how gorgeous it is.

Okay, so yes, Transylvania does look suspiciously like New England with mountains on occasion. By the time you get to that point though, you’ve been to New York, London, Seoul, Shambala, Egypt, a dream world of ice and Tokyo, to name just a few places, and all of them have looked great. The odd phoned-in zone now and again is forgivable in such a generally lovely bit of gamecraft.

So what went wrong?

Does this game have permadeath? Shit. Well, call me if that changes.

As simple as it would be to say that The Secret World got an unfair rap, it didn’t, particularly. Instead, it fell victim to a few serious mistakes, and a handful of unfortunate elements, most notably length and complexity, that soon drown out the immediate appeal. Levelling for instance. The game promised horizontal levelling, but in practice was a good deal more vertical than that due to the tiers of gear and talismans (as attempting to take a walk in the world soon demonstrated). The system itself was fine, but poorly explained and hard to get a grip on while being surrounded by so much other stuff to learn – the plot, the active combat, the different mission types…

Similarly, the skills on offer demand an unusual level of synergy from the start – skills building and spending resources, playing off various debuffs, and never being particularly intuitive in use. Once in the world it was impossible to ruin your character, true. There are always more skill points. However, it was very possible to inadvertently design terrible builds, especially before you had the points to upgrade to one of the preset ones the game suggested, and end up struggling or trapped redoing the overly long missions to get more skill points and ability upgrades instead of making progress. Progress that, incidentally, was already made to feel glacial by the first story mission being eighteen tiers long over three maps instead of being split into three more accessible chunks. See also the individual missions, which hate to offer one tier of objectives if it can possibly stretch to six.

The result was that The Secret World almost seemed to want everything to outstay its welcome, with players confused, Solomon Island especially becoming interminable, and most simply bailing early. I’m aware that hardcore fans may disagree with these things as criticisms, hold up the complexity as a sign of greatness. Fair enough. However, and I think this has to be kept in mind when defending it and its core mechanics: The Secret World was a flop. And not because of any conspiracy.

Combat Roles: DPS, Tank. Combine with fedora and pistol to unlock the Pretentious Douche class.

The Enhanced Player Experience… really makes a difference. It doesn’t change that much, but what it does play with helps far more than I was expecting it to. One of the most basic yet useful tweaks for instance is to the skill bar. The Secret World’s basic system involves some skills that build up resources, others that use them. An Elementalist for instance has Wildfire, which deals minor area of effect damage on its own, but also builds up charges that you can spend on, say, Electrical Storm – a more powerful AoE attack. Or perhaps Shootout, which deals a ton of damage to one enemy.

Remembering what does what in the heat of battle though can be tricky, especially if you’re chopping and changing skills and trying to react quickly while also diving around and avoiding enemy fire and otherwise dealing with the complexities of the combat system. Now, builder skills have a plus sign at the top of their icon, while consumer skills have a little star at the bottom. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s incredibly helpful. (And if you hate their presence, you can switch them off.)

That’s just a basic tweak though. The big push is to help people like, well, me, get to enjoy the story stuff without too much messing about. Even by Personal Quest standards, The Secret World is largely a single-player game that just has other people running around, until the dungeons and PvP stuff of course, and even then, not many. My server is Cerberus, named after the three-headed dog. Appropriately, that’s about as many heads as I saw in the PvE areas until hitting Transylvania. As such, the quest rewards have been rebalanced to basically shower players with damage-dealing talismans, allowing everyone to punch through the story and see the content without too much headache. Early enemies have also been rebalanced, especially on maps like the Blue Mountain, making the difficulty curve smoother and less painful, and there’s far, far more feedback given about how tough things are and what you’re ready for. Monsters have tier levels to look out for. Endgame ‘Nightmare’ zones now look scary from the map itself and in the UI, with funky Filth effects.

(Though I do like that at least once, you end up going into one when dismally unready – scavenging items and trying not to trigger the enemies at all. The Secret World has some truly inspired quest design that I wish other MMOs would learn from. It really is on another level at times.)

Don't ask how I attached an assault rifle to this e-mail. Ask what I'll attach to the next one if you let me down.

It’s always tough to say exactly how effective balance changes are, since expecting them is to be as primed for seeing something that might not be there as when the pretty lady in the mall asks how much cleaner your hands feel after bathing them in brand new Pig Urine Wash. The difference did seem notable though, with trash mobs quickly swept away and far more time spent on the awesome missions that The Secret World offers – things like its genuinely challenging end of zone boss fights, or dramatic moments like fighting an entire legion of reborn Roman legionairres. At times it still writes checks its mechanics can’t cash, with a truly appalling stealth mission between Egypt and Transylvania winning the Bowl Of Chilled Piss award for Unforgivable Excrescence In Design.

Those moments are the minority though, in a game that pound for pound produces more great single-player moments than any other MMO. Even if the actual mission is fairly bland, I always look forward to the ending, which usually features my girl Kirsten shooting over one of her sarcastic e-mails about how totally ordinary shutting down arrogant gods of evil actually is. Certainly for the first time since launch, I’m seriously considering finishing up before again waving it ciao-ciao.

You couldn't get better narrative storytelling if the whiteboard regularly updated with the latest Jeopardy rerun times.

One change that absolutely, 100%, unequivocally helps the game be better is being able to get around it faster. One of The Secret World’s many annoying methods for stretching itself out like Scrooge McDuck working a taffy stand was its love of backtracking, made harsher by not even being able to stock up on missions, go get the job done, and head back and turn them in. (You get one story mission, one main mission, three side missions, and that, bucko, is your lot.) Now, you get to teleport between anima wells at any time, except in combat, for about the cost of beating up one random enemy on the field. There’s no cooldown on this either, letting you bop around at will. Died? Zap back. Want to replay a mission? Zap over. Broken equipment? Zap to a vendor, then probably zap back. There’s still enough running around to enjoy the scenery, and enough to reward going off the beaten track. It’s just not punitive in the way it sometimes used to feel. Hurrah!

This doesn’t fix The Secret World’s overwriting problem, says the guy who’s about to hit 2000 words about a month old patch, but they do make it far easier to handle. Solomon Island is still somewhere between ‘too long’ and ‘way too fucking long’, but nowhere near as painful. The new presents are very helpful, and if you’re still hurting, the feedback from monsters makes it clear that when you’re outside your comfort zone and when you’ve just completely borked your build.

I don't know where I am, but I'm glad I bought this blazer.

Along with these changes came a whole lot more, including basic stat changes, and a reworking of a number of Elite skills, and trying to reinforce the difference between AoE skills and single-target ones by making them hurt less, but hurt more enemies at once. Whether any of these improved or ruined the higher level game, I don’t know. My interest going back in was very much on whether the changes could help it for someone like myself, who wants to like it, but has always had that initial interest quickly eroded away by a few of its more irksome fundamental design decisions.

Yes. Yes, it does. It’s not a magic wand, and those problems still exist. Missions have too many damn steps, the mute characters are still infuriating enough to have even Gordon Freeman screaming at them to say something, and like The Longest Journey before it, the script calls for an editor armed with a machete. It’s still a potentially brilliant single-player game unfortunately forced into an MMO’s body and restrictions, much like the Imperial Agent storyline over in The Old Republic.

Some will have you believe this isn't complicated as hell. DO NOT HEED THEIR LIES.

With that said though, the changes make it far, far easier to enjoy what it does well. The mission design, where you genuinely never know what’s around the corner. The world, in all its complexity and beauty. The great moments in the script. The sense of humour. The bosses and systems that, while not necessarily well explained, don’t treat you like a moron and pull out every stop to create a proper world where you can be awesome even if you don’t care about the group-play stuff.

If you’ve already got a copy, and especially if you burned out early on Solomon Island, it’s worth giving it a shot. As a new purchase… eeeeh, that’s trickier. It’s still a pretty expensive game, even just for the base package, and you need to track down a trial key (which only lasts 3 days) to get even a brief taste of it. As much as there is to enjoy in the world, there’s a lot to deal with in terms of things like floaty combat and the general feel of it, and I’d definitely recommend seeing how you feel about that first. There’s a thread on the Steam forums where people regularly offer keys, and quite a few offered upon the official forum as well. Certainly though, if you’ve previously considered giving it a shot but been discouraged, this is the best time since launch to hit it and see if it chimes.

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Richard Cobbett

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