There are many theories about the true meaning of Christmas. The local department store reckons the season is all about attempting to overcome the economic tribulations of the year by selling you some underpants with a picture of a reindeer on them. More sensible folk believe that the year is simply breathing a sigh of relief and inviting them to relax for a moment before the next begins. Those theories are fine but there are darker mutterings too. Some of those can be heard behind the next window of the advent calendar.
It's... The Secret World!
Making a new MMO is insane. It's like adventurers setting out to steal the gold guarded by the evil dragon at the top of Dangerous Mountain. The promise of such riches blinds everyone to the near-inevitable failure on the way.
Funcom's idea was a really great one. An MMO that emphasises story, that embraces the reality that a huge core of any MMO's audience doesn't play in a group, but reserve the right to want to sometimes. An MMO you can solo through, where the rest of the world playing with you serve a useful function. And then all that in an elaborate story written over many years, spanning dozens of myths and cultures, from one of the most respected storytellers in the industry. Sure, why not?
And here's the thing: the game succeeds. It's really good. It does tell a great story, and it is a far more interesting world than you'd usually expect from an MMO. There are huge issues, not least the dreary combat (although let's be clear about this: it's less dreary than WoW's, despite the peculiar world-wide pretence from all of games journalism that it's beyond criticism when from Blizzard), and it's hard to shake the feeling that the game would really flourish if it had only been an RPG - its MMO-ness, like The Old Republic, is responsible for everything that's immediately problematic.
The Secret World does everything a game should need to do to be successful, and yet it always felt like it was going to be niche. Either because it was too different, or because it was too smart. It seems Funcom believed otherwise, and hedging huge bets on a mainstream win, they lost 80% of their employees and an awful lot of money. Overcharging for the game from the start, despite a hefty subscription, was always damned stupid, and incredibly obviously a bad idea. I've my doubts that the Guild Wars 2 model is the one they should have belatedly picked, too. I think subs is actually what they should have gone for, after making the game itself free to start playing for a month. "The first one's free, kids..." Right now they've chosen to maintain the significant entry barrier to a game people aren't sure about - that doesn't seem so smart.
The Secret World deserved to have managed to grab an armful of that dragon's gold. It was definitely one of the best games this year. But I fear it set out on that adventure with too much confidence, and not enough sandwiches.
I’m going to end up contradicting myself in these calendar entries and I’m absolutely fine with that. Mostly fine. So fine, in fact, that I felt the need to draw everybody’s attention to it. I’m so damnably comfortable with my contradictions that I’m like the macho university rugby team spanking each other in the showers after a game – no questions to ask of myself, but please somebody notice the exposure of my doubts and quietly acknowledge that it’s OK.
I fully agree with and am defiantly at odds with the opening of the next paragraph.
A brilliant system of possibilities and places is enough of a strength to shatter the manacles of sometimes restrictive mouth-waffle, or ‘dialogue’ as word-scientists refer to it. They’re often wrong, those biblioboffins, because what we’re treated to in games is frequently monologue, forcing us into the role of silent partner to unceasing and oddly directed soliloquies. How often does the screen become an arras behind which we are concealed, witness to the plotting but barely a part of it? And then, with no chance for recourse, some bastard stabs us in the gut. Hamlet, I’m suggesting, had far too many cutscenes.
The Secret World is full of monologues. Every NPC has something to say and they do like the sound of their own voices. Fortunately, on the whole I like the sound of their voices as well so I’m happy to listen to them. In fact, I’m usually disappointed when they run out of things to say. They’re good company, this wide cast of misfits and mystics.
I’ve read about the banality of the combat so often that I sometimes tell myself off when I accidentally enjoy an encounter. Admittedly, my happiest hours are spent exploring the most obscure areas of the globe-spanning locations, avoiding conflict and instead searching for clues, whether they link directly to a mission or not. The views aren’t as impressive as those in Guild Wars 2 and the world is more segmented, but I find much more meaning in the details.
The setting is densely packed with information, whether it’s the murmuring white noise of the mind-messing lore or the rich and witty allusions that fill almost every available surface. Except the desert because deserts are just sort of orange and yellow, which isn’t particularly witty of them at all.
Along with the criticisms of the combat, much of which is deserved, it’s often said that the story is The Secret World’s strong point. That’s not entirely true because it’s stories, plural, that keep me going back. The grand plot is interesting, sure, but I’m in for the long haul because it’s the only game I’ve played this year where I stumble across a forlorn and unexpectedly moving backstory when receiving a fetch quest, or discover the echoes of a surprising relationship in a throwaway line.
Because of its ongoing episodic nature, there’s always the possibility that the writers will lead me back to those diversions one day and if you’re interested in the bigger picture, maybe your favourite myth will make an appearance if it hasn’t already. Maybe you’re that one guy waiting for the appearance of a sidequest about a nachzehrer psychically devouring its traitorous family while still concealed six feet under? No you’re not. I’m that guy.
Whether the dropping of the subscription fee will reverse the game’s fortunes isn’t clear. It will be a great shame if Funcom can’t find a solution – or indeed, if there isn’t a suitable one available – because, despite its flaws and confusions, the writers and content designers working on the game have shown that they can create consistently interesting experiences.
Returning to that third paragraph, I’m struck by how much of The Secret World seems to be in direct opposition to what I most often enjoy in a game. Throughout, it’s a scripted experience in a very real sense, and the mechanics of play distract as frequently as they entertain. But it’s also a richly detailed world, populated with distinct and entertaining people, most of whom are NPCs rather than actual people. In that sense, it has more in common with The Walking Dead than World of Warcraft.
Did I already mention that there are other people involved? I usually forget that I’m playing an MMO but when I do need to team up with people, strangers are more often accommodating than not and, within the niche that it has come to occupy, an ecosystem of engaged and engaging players has sprouted.
It's flawed, sometimes in concept as much as execution, but I expect to return until the updates cease - which will hopefully occur with a bang rather than a whimper - and with the number of games I play every month, there’s precious few I can honestly say that about.