As I've progressed further into The Secret World's beta, and have cleared most of New England's enormous territory and swathes of quests, I'm hitting that more difficult place to write about in an MMO preview. That's partly because you obviously don't want to know what's going to happen 30 hours into your game, and I'd be an idiot to say. And it's partly because being a beta I'm increasingly hitting buggy territory and slightly unfinished missions, and it's pretty bad form to write about that since it'll likely be gone by release. (And if it's not, it'll certainly get written about then.) I mean, it's hard not to want to tell you about the time I died so hard all my clothes and my hair fell off, and I spent the next hour streaking around in a tiny pair of pants, baldy-headed with my boobs out for all to see. But that's unlikely to be a feature in the finished game. So of course everything I'm writing about here is subject to change.
So instead, I've thought of the big three things I think The Secret World is really getting right, and then put together a list three things I worry it could get wrong.
What The Secret World Is Getting Right
It's different from other MMOs
Every single MMO announces itself with this claim, and even prototypes all sorts of elaborately different ideas, before slowly capitulating and rendering themselves to be WoW. From Warhammer to The Old Republic, great promises were made, and WoW clones were produced. So Funcom's making the same claim was reasonably assumed to be nonsense until such a time that it was proven to be nonsense. And Age Of Conan hadn't helped. And yet, The Secret World is unquestionably unlike other MMOs, in a series of significant ways - meaningful ways. That's not to say it's unrecognisable within the field. For good or ill, many familiar tropes of the genre are in place, but what seems important is that what's different isn't just aesthetic, or perfunctory.
There are many examples, and each highlights a different aspect. Some are incredibly simple, like being able to annotate the map. That's not just a courteous nod to RPGs of yore - it's a necessity if you're going to be able to usefully solve some of the tougher puzzles within. Which leads neatly on to...
Tougher puzzles? Puzzles at all is an unfamiliar notion in the MMO. Hell, the notion is barely present in solo RPGs. But here your quest text might be so damned obscure you think, "Sod that, I want to hit things with my new hammer," before you run past a building with a sign on the side, which on closer inspection offers the name of a former resident, which rings a bell with something you were told earlier by a character back at the Academy. And you piece two things together, perhaps even Google some details and find a faked website extending the fiction further, and suddenly your new hammer is forgotten. You're making notes. Actual notes on paper in front of you, as well as on the map. I think that action alone is unique.
The variety of mission types, the original ideas and twists put into the more normal actions, the removing of levels, the ability to create your own class, and the strong sense of a meaningful meta-narrative all make this stand out in a serious way.
Characters worth talking to
While The Old Republic looked very promising with its fully voiced quest-givers, and recurring characters in your story, they never clicked with me. Generic Star Wars po-face-itus ruled too well, and while there were certainly exceptions, much of the time the people giving the missions only slowed things down by saying the text out loud. Yes yes yes, just tell me what to kill ten of - I've stopped caring why. But The Secret World is bursting with characters from whom you don't just collect quest information, but go back to chat with after. Memorable characters, with backstories, emotions, motivations. And with this, the missions - even the more generic fodder - starts to feel more meaningful. Yes, you are killing ten giant-fisted sea-zombies, but you're doing it because the kid needs your help. (I should add, for those horrified by the thought, you can just skip all this and read the mission text if you so choose.)
You can feel the Ragnar Tørnquist in the writing here - men are a bit too often stupid or gullible, while women tend to be smart, sassy and in charge. The latter is great, but it would be nice to see a few more forthright male characters. But blooming heck - being picky about that is proof we're in different territory here.
Each character that can give missions will not only have a cutscene for every quest on offer, detailed with personal info, meta-plot content, and often banter between those with whom they're in relationship, but they also offer a speech bubble button. This lets you find out lots more about the person, if you want to, and the vast majority of it is well written, often very well written. They're not dynamic conversations, as dictated by your character's mute ways, but they're well performed, and often packed with gags.
That I ended up caring about the family breakdown of a group of Native Americans, told in the chat between the giving of quests, is testament to TSW again being strikingly different as an MMO.
The combat lets you move
Another topic that is always extremely over-promised, and usually ends up being the same as everything else, combat in MMOs is hardly at a point recognised as satisfying. And The Secret World doesn't quite match up to the hype it promised. Talk of all combat making contact, of fights feeling real and dynamic, haven't really made it to being realised. And certainly other recent MMOs have swooped in and stolen the thunder a bit here. But if you've spent a lot of time in WoW, and have bounced off TOR, you'll be familiar with the frustration that to fight means to stand still. Which is plain silly. Not so in TSW, where almost no conjuring of abilities is interrupted by moving. It means you can run around in mad circles while stabbing at the number keys, and sometimes for a reason.
Quite a few of the enemies have flagged attacks that can be dodged. Usually this is indicated by a chalk outline on the ground, showing you the region to try to avoid. And here, well, it works. See the cone of attack, run around behind it, and wallop. It's only some of the time, and certainly not most of it, but its being there means combat is certainly more interesting. Plus it's fun to run in circles for no reason. Oh, and the combat is leant toward fighting multiple enemies at once, which means the game's slight over-propensity for aggro means you're not constantly mobbed to death. Which is nice.
What The Secret World Should Avoid Getting Wrong
Keep up with the investigations
I have it on good authority that the beta version of the game is knowingly short on the game's best feature - the investigation missions. These are the ones that are designed to be so tough that many won't complete them, not because baddies hit you too hard, but because they require some extremely lateral thinking, obsessive note-taking and observation, and a desire to puzzle through some fairly opaque cryptic gobbledegook. Rather than have them all be spoiled before the game comes out, I believe the plan is to put a bunch more in for the final version, and then keep adding them. But that doesn't stop me from worrying that they may start to fade as things go on, as the main plot becomes more thunderous, or as you're such a high level that you're only supposed to care about dungeons. That shouldn't happen. While a lot about TSW still sets it apart, these really are the poster-feature that advertises something genuinely new.
That said, as I've been charging around the third section of New England, Blue Mountain, and missing such activities, I do keep getting satisfactorily distracted. Even though a quest may be to kill a bunch of stuff, when it involves time travelling through four different 20th century time points within the same mansion, it's clear effort is being poured in all over to keep things interesting. But, in the end, you are just killing a bunch of stuff.
Don't be a dick to me
Don't have enemies put some sort of life-sapping effect on my after I've killed them. That sucks beyond words. It means I get to win the difficult fight, and then as a reward, drop dead for no good reason.
Don't put res points at the bottom of unclimbable cliffs, on the other side of a river from where I died. Ghost running is a tedious part of any MMO, and it should be refined to be as innocuous as possible. Burying a resurrection as frustratingly as possible is not the way to create a mellow player - especially since the only reason they're there at all is because they got killed, and so are likely already pretty annoyed.
Don't have entire woodlands so densely packed with a certain enemy type that can bloody well impair movement. OH ARRRGH! It's not even the enemies. It's these weird sticks stuck in the ground. Get within 400 million light years of one and you're forced into a tedious trudge until it's far enough away, and that's if you're lucky enough not to get attacked by five of the same damned beast you already killed a hundred thousand times in the last fourteen missions in this area. It's only one bit, but gosh, it's bugged me this evening.
Don't have mobs a squillion 'levels' below me constantly aggro. You'll obviously have to run back and forth across various areas a bunch, and here I'd really like to see a lesson learned from City Of Heroes. Once you were enough levels above an enemy there, it would ignore you even as you ran through their gangs. It made a lot of sense - why would they pick a fight they knew they couldn't win. I admit it's hard to justify why a zombie would achieve such reasoning, but it would be less annoying than constantly batting them off.
Oh, and don't make my bite through my own face. One of the most annoying habits of film and television is the moronic portrayal of binoculars as showing two overlapping circles of view. THEY DON'T. They show ONE circle, or they wouldn't work! So The Secret World's featuring a puzzle that involves looking through a TELESCOPE with a faux-binocular view is enough to have me kill the neighbour's pets. FIX THAT!
Give me some closure
As I said above, one of the game's biggest strengths is the characterisation, and your relationship with the people giving you the quests. That there's a rationale to your actions, and even an emotional connection to your actions, is really very splendid. What's not is that every single one of them ends in... nothing. A character may have three missions to give you. Each comes with its own mini story arc, and accompanying intro cutscene, and often one will lead into the next. As you go through them you build up knowledge about that character, and feel as though you're engaging with them. And then when you've completed their last mission, well, sod off.
While some will then reoccur in the main quest you're doing, perhaps showing up in some denouement, the majority of them get left behind, with nary a goodbye. And it's a shame. Favourite characters you've chatted with have nothing more to say to you other than to repeat the chat you've already had, and entirely fail to recognise that you've done so much for them. Just a line to say, "Hey, thanks - you're the greatest," would make such a big difference. Instead, missions are closed by sending info back to your faction leader, who sends you a note back to discuss the events. I'm playing Illuminati, and that means I get the funniest sarcasm and disdain for the provincial activities I've gotten myself involved in, and that's great. But, well, I want the bloke who set the task to care too. Although let me stress again, what a joyful thing to be complaining about in an MMO. "Man, these incredible calorie-free magical sweets taste incredible, but they don't last for infinity!"
My bias for what I want The Secret World to be is pretty obvious. This is the game where soloing makes sense, and teaming up with others to get through tough patches only underlines a sense of being in a shared world. It's a game where narrative is of crucial importance, not just the wire frame over which the excuses to grind are hung. There are consequences to that. Show a narrative depth, and suddenly you're opening yourself to a new raft of criticism, a new vulnerability that wouldn't even be thought of if you were just running around reading signposts with instructions. And it also shines a spotlight onto the more accepted obscure themes of MMOs, as they start to look somewhat out of place in a more coherent world. Those are the big obstacles TSW has set up for itself, by trying to be different. They've just announced a two week delay, but it's still out in just over a month, so soon we'll see just how many of them it's managed to climb. So far, it's looking like it's achieved the most important: to be different.