Raving About The Secret World, part two: The Thinking Man’s MMO

My last post wasn’t big enough to contain all my gushing about The Secret World, so here we bring you part two of why I’m in love with this game.

A game for brains, not brawn:

A Jinn in The Secret WorldIf I had to come up with a single tagline to describe TSW, it would be: “The thinking man’s MMO.”

Nearly every MMO I’ve ever played is built on the assumption that the player is dumb. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, necessarily. Games should be approachable. Even smart players sometimes need help getting into things and can benefit from some dumbing down.

But games need not be homogenous. It’s fine that most of the industry is built with stupidity in mind, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also very refreshing for a game to buck that trend.

The Secret World is a game that assumes you are smart. It has been built from the ground up with intelligence in mind.

I’m not just talking about the puzzle-based investigation missions, like the one the other day that had me spending several hours translating ancient Roman ciphers. Which was surprisingly enjoyable.

Solving a cipher in TSWNo, even the kill quests trust you to use your wits. For example, one stage of a mission in Egypt had me battling a massive golem. It facestomped me on my first try due to a number of powerful buffs it possessed. As I examined my options, I noticed a number of clickable artifacts on the surrounding towers.

Activating each one placed a beam in the golem’s patrol path. Once I’d activated them all, it walked through them, and the beams dispelled its buffs, allowing me to kick its enchanted ass back to the Old Kingdom.

The plot also places this trust in the player. One of the great mysteries of the game’s first region, Solomon Island, is the true identity of its main villain. The game never explicitly answers this question, but hints are dropped, and if you have enough knowledge of the source material they’re drawing from, it will become clear to you.

Speaking of the plot…

Everything is true. Everything:

The dread gaze of Aten in the City of the Sun GodOne of the things I like best about the story in TSW is how much Funcom has clearly done their research. They draw deeply from many relatively obscure elements of mythology and history. This is a game where I’ve spoken to Odin’s ravens and battled modern followers of Akhenaten (Tutankhamen’s father).

And they blend these disparate elements of real world lore with each other, and with their own fiction, so seamlessly. Cramming so many different things together should feel strange, but it works.

Perhaps the best example of this is Agartha, the game’s main transport hub. Agartha is a myth from our own world, an idyllic kingdom supposedly located within Hollow Earth. In the game, Agartha is a seemingly infinite tree infused with earth magic whose portals allow one to travel to nearly any place on Earth.

So in a sense, it’s also Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology. Yggdrasil was supposedly a cosmic tree upon which the nine worlds rested.

As a deeply spiritual and sacred place, Agartha also calls to mind the Tree of Life, a concept found in kabbalah and various other spiritual philosophies.

Agartha in The Secret WorldSo you can see how all these disparate myths and philosophies from around the world could stem from a single place, the magical tree of Agartha. It all makes so much sense that you can almost believe Agartha must be a real place that you could go visit if you could only find the entrance — and if the bees would let you in.

I’m sure some people wouldn’t care at all, but I’m a big mythology nerd, so I think stuff like this is just awesome.

Difficulty:

As promised in the comments section of the last post, I’d also like to talk about the high difficulty of The Secret World.

It’s not the hardest game I’ve ever played — Kerrigan portrait says hi — but it’s up there. Enemies have high health, the fights are lengthy, even low level enemies have powerful special attacks to counter, and a low progression curve makes out-leveling things difficult.

The Hell Dimensions in The Secret WorldAnd that’s not even getting into the puzzles or the stealth missions. I’ve spent more time cursing at this game than most any other in recent memory.

But yet, I don’t mind.

This is a bit odd, as I’m on record as saying that MMOs should be relatively easy to accommodate all sorts. But that was about group content. I’m okay with solo stuff being difficult. Honestly, if the group content in TSW turns out to be as unusually difficult as the rest of the game, I’ll probably hate it. But I definitely enjoy testing myself against the solo content.

I should clarify, too, that when I say the game is difficult, I mean it’s difficult. Too often, the MMO community says “difficult” but means “tedious” or “obtuse.”

When I say TSW is difficult, I don’t mean that I have to spend hours grinding for gear to progress, or that I’m simply lost as to what to do because the game is poorly laid out. The game always gives you the tools you need to succeed. You just need to have enough cunning and awareness to put the pieces together.

A rift to the Hell Dimensions in The Secret World's City of the Sun God

I do end up pretty baffled by most of the puzzle missions, and I think these do go a little too far sometimes. How was I even supposed to know the blinking lights were Morse code, let alone translate it?

But even then, it’s not the end of the world to get stuck. You can ask for tips in the mission hints chat channel, or you can just fire up the in-game web browser and find the solution. I don’t consider such cheating; Funcom had to know what would happen when they added that browser. It’s more of a roundabout easy mode setting, in my view.

And you know what? I still enjoy most investigation missions, even if they kick my ass. Completing even a single part of one without looking up the solution feels like a great accomplishment, and they’re full of great story and atmosphere.

The secret fashions:

Shifting gears, the character customization in TSW is something I’d like to mention, because it seems to mostly get ignored in favour of the game’s other features.

My Templar showing off her clothes in The Secret WorldNow, the customization options, or lack thereof, for the character models themselves have often been criticized, and not entirely without cause. It’s not so bad as some say — TSW still has Warcraft beat as far as options go — and Funcom has done a decent job improving the options since launch, but the character creation does feel inferior by modern standards.

However, there’s a silver lining, and it is the game’s clothing system. In The Secret World, the clothes you wear and the gear you get your stats from are two completely separate things, meaning you can always look how you want without the need for any transmogrification or transmutation system.

That’s bloody brilliant, if you ask me.

Not only that, but the amount of clothing options is simply staggering. Even if you don’t count the cash shop offerings, the selection is enormous, and getting bigger all the time.

My Templar alt moments after character creation* * *

God damn it, I didn’t mean to make this such a long post. Why am I so long-winded?

I’m not trying to say The Secret World is a perfect game. It can very, very frustrating at times, and it has some glaring flaws. Many will hate it, and at least some of them will have good reasons.

And I’m still not done, so there may be flaws I have not yet seen. I hear Transylvania can be pretty brutal…

But it’s like I always say: the true measure of greatness is not a lack of flaws, but whether something has sufficient strengths to make you forgive the flaws.

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2 thoughts on “Raving About The Secret World, part two: The Thinking Man’s MMO

  1. I agree with most if not all of your points. The game is certainly a breath of fresh-air in a stale genre. I do wonder why Funcom tacked an action combat system onto this “thinking person’s game” though? I find the combat frustrating at times, and boring to be honest (e.g. slogging through Kaiden mob’s inflated health pools).

    The puzzles are pure joy though and I can cope with sabotage missions in small doses, although I do dislike the “instant kill” mechanics in some of them – especially because I only really play this with a trio so your little mistake can wipe the party so very easily in those.

    The lore and world-building is exquisite throughout, as you say, because they interweave legends and their own fictional version of our world. It’s a game I happily continue to play and buy the Issues for simply because the elements that they do well, they do so well!

    • “I do wonder why Funcom tacked an action combat system onto this “thinking person’s game” though?”

      I would assume because it requires more thought than just working through a rote rotation as you do in tab target games. You’re welcome to dislike the system, but I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to imply it doesn’t fit with the rest of the game. A more challenging, involved combat system makes sense for a more challenging, involved game.

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