From the very beginning, complaints about combat in The Secret World have been all but omnipresent. It’s virtually impossible to read about it anywhere on the web without someone lamenting that they would have loved the game if not for its awful, awful combat.
I, of course, never agreed. In fact TSW’s combat ranks among my favourite combat systems in any RPG, and none of the arguments against it have ever made sense to me. It was always frustrating, but in time I learned to grit my teeth, ignore the faulty logic eternally present in criticisms of TSW’s combat, and move on.
But now things have come to a head. TSW is being shut down to make way for a new game with different mechanics, and a large part of the reason for this is to allow for a new combat system. I’ve been robbed of my favourite MMO, and while I don’t think that can necessarily be blamed on the combat haters, I don’t think you can entirely separate the two issues, either.
I try to respect other people’s opinions, but I can hold my tongue no longer: The Secret World’s combat is fine, and those who say are otherwise are wrong, period.
The double standard:
The easiest and most obvious argument to make here is to point out that TSW has almost exactly the same combat system as Guild Wars 2, a game where nobody ever seems to take issue with the combat.
There are differences between the two systems, but they’re negligible.
Really the only major mechanical difference is that GW2 has more realistic mechanics surrounding projectiles. If I fire at an enemy, and there’s another mob between me and my target, my shots will hit that mob rather than whatever I had targeted. In TSW, my shots will always home straight to their target, as in other tab target games.
But that’s it. It’s exactly the same system otherwise.
Even the tuning isn’t that different. It does take a bit longer to kill mobs in TSW — or at least it did before the global nerf; maybe not now — but not by so much. I haven’t exactly sat down and timed myself with a stopwatch, but having played both games heavily, I never found it to be a drastic difference.
So we have two games with virtually identical combat. One’s combat is beloved, the other is despised. Honestly, that alone should be enough to shoot down criticism of TSW’s combat, but I think it’s worth delving deeper to understand what’s really going on here.
The real issue:
As an ardent TSW fan, it would be very tempting for me to write all the combat criticism off as merely a meme parroted by haters. And I do think that is true in some cases. Funcom seems to have unusually devoted detractors, even for an MMO developer, and I think in some cases “bad combat” is just an easy thing to seize on for people who are looking to trash the game.
But the complaints about combat are too widespread, and they can even come from people who do play and enjoy the game, so as appealing as that narrative is to me personally, I have to grant that this isn’t a purely imaginary issue. There is something going on here.
But I don’t think it’s a problem with the combat. I think the “problem,” if you can even call it that, has to do with the build system.
In most MMOs, you choose a class, and that’s it. The game gives you a pre-designed rotation that works and should hopefully be engaging to play. Worst case scenario you reroll until you find a class you like. It’s easy to hit the ground running.
TSW isn’t like that. You basically have to build your own class from the ground up — you’re almost playing amateur game designer — and it can often take significant trial and error to find a build that works for you.
By that I don’t just mean a build that lets you complete content without dying. I also mean a build that is efficient, that doesn’t make killing enemies into a miserable chore. I also mean a build that feels fun to you personally, a highly subjective affair for which there are no guides. Contrary to popular belief, there are many different playstyles and rotations available to TSW players, but there’s no way to know which one is right for you without trial and error.
If you haven’t found a build that you like, it would seem as if the game has bad combat.
Never step outside the builder x5/consumer x2 paradigm, and you’ll probably get bored fast. Neglect self-healing, and you’ll probably get slaughtered. Run around with too much health on your gear, and it will take a miserable amount of time to kill anything (I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect a large majority of complaints about TSW’s combat come from people who stack too much HP, because that’s the only way the comments I’ve heard make any sense).
Even if you’ve been playing the game a significant amount of time, you still may not have found a build that’s entirely right. I’ve encountered plenty of people suffering through with terrible builds even at endgame, and even if your build is effective, again, it still may not be the right build for you.
There are other issues that could contribute. TSW’s combat has also traditionally been unusually challenging, and not everyone can hack it, even with a good build. I have definite sympathy for such people, especially if they’re being held back by age or physical disability. I’d like to see some solution to help people like that, but I don’t know how to do that without making things too easy for everyone else.
Some people are honest enough to admit the challenge is an issue for them, but I also suspect some people have let their gamer’s pride get in the way and have fallen back on the “bad combat” meme rather than admit they’re not up to the task. I have less sympathy for that.
A lot of people also like to bring up TSW’s mediocre combat animations. This is the one criticism I can agree with, because they’re definitely not great, but the same is true of nearly every other Western MMO of that era, so I’m not sure why TSW gets singled out for it.
Ultimately, though, I think the build issue is the biggest contributor. Not everyone is willing to put in the time and effort it takes to find a build that works for them.
And here’s the thing: I totally sympathize with that. It is a lot for a video game to ask of someone, and I can’t blame them at all for not wanting to put that level of effort into an entertainment. That’s totally understandable.
But it doesn’t mean the game has bad combat. It just means you weren’t able to find the build that’s right for you. TSW’s combat is actually pretty amazing once you find the build that truly clicks.
And what you have to understand is that for a lot of us, the challenge of the combat and the amount of experimentation it takes to find a good build aren’t bugs; they’re features. I like that I can spend limitless time tinkering with my build. I like feeling overwhelmed by it all.
I’ve never been that big a fan of investigation missions. I find them more frustrating than fun. I’d benefit greatly if they were simplified to let me focus on the story instead of tearing my hair out trying to translate Morse Code or whatever. But I also recognize that investigation missions have fans who are hugely passionate about them, that they are a very unique form of content not found elsewhere, and that the game would lose something very special if they were changed to suit me.
The same is true of the combat/build dilemma. You can’t “fix” it without alienating those of us who do appreciate what Funcom has done, without robbing TSW of that which makes it such a special game.
The no-win scenario:
And now we come to the real heart of the problem.
TSW has always been a very niche game. Everything about it holds back its mainstream appeal in some way. Its gameplay is challenging. Its build system is overwhelming. Its story is almost absurdly complicated. Its setting is bleak. Its subject matter is disturbing.
All of those things can drive people off, but they’re also what makes the game so unique, so special. You can’t change any of it without losing something important, and you can’t change its niche nature without completely erasing the soul of the game.
This is why I am so skeptical of the new game. It’s changing so much that it threatens to drive away the fans TSW did have, but I still don’t think it’s changing enough for it to be a game with truly mainstream appeal. Funcom is tossing aside their loyal fans for people who never have and likely never will take the effort to appreciate what the game truly represents.