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7:26pm on Sunday, 19th August, 2012:

Secret World


Having heard a lot of good things from people whose views I respect about The Secret World, I thought I perhaps ought to give it a try. It's tough these days to start a new MMO a few weeks after launch, because by then the bulk of players will have played through the content you're working on and it's therefore hard to get groups for instances (and when you do get one, everyone thinks you already know the fights and are cross that you don't). Still, it wasn't as if I was going to be playing for fun so off I went.

It's now about 3 or 4 weeks later and I've just beaten the gatekeeper, which means I am now able to enter nightmare dungeons. I guess I could say a few things about how it went, as TSW has apparently been categorised as a failure and I don't think it deserves that label.

OK, well to be honest it is a failure in the commercial sense, in that what Funcom's marketers sold was not what was for sale. For sale was an intelligent, non-trivial, story-driven game that could have garnered Skyrim-like plaudits if it had launched as a single-player game rather than as an MMO. What was sold, however, was a conspiracy-theory genre, regular subscription MMO with a promise that it would go free-to-play later once the core gamers had been ripped off. The subject matter of TSW — supernatural horror — was never going to reach a wide audience, but as a niche MMO it's doing better than you might expect. If Funcom's management hold their nerve and keep it subscription, it has a chance of becoming a slow burner that could well attract discerning and experienced players as it continues; if they panic and take the straight-to-video approach, the atmosphere of the game will change markedly and it'll decline. It could make more money in the short term (although given the paucity of vanity items for sale in the in-game shop, Funcom could yet screw that up), but current MMO players have to graduate to more sophisticated games eventually and TSW could have been where they went.

I say "could have been" because although the designers have taken some bold decisions that have actually come off (such as taking out levels) they didn't quite go far enough. For example, TSW's skills-based system means that balance is a fluid concept — people can switch specifications from ranged/melée burst/DOT/aoe tank/healer/dps between fights, swapping in new skills for old ones. This makes for interesting decisions, which is good, but they're not as interesting as they could be because the current paradigm for balance still held sway. For example, my character's main damage ability is a ranged, channelled spell called "exsanguinate": the fiction is that it sucks the blood out of the victim. This is fine, except I use it on things like trucks, stone golems, ghosts and nests as well as on creatures that have blood in them. I shouldn't be able to do that. I should have to consider using a different skill or set of skills to beat an enemy. There is some of this, but it's blunt-instrument level (such as monsters that are universally immune to stun effects, thereby rendering half a paladin's armoury redundant). A little more deference to a realistic feel would have made the decision as to which skills to pack more nuanced, plus it would have made the game world feel more real, immersive and mature.

The levelling game (even though TSW doesn't have levels) is story-led, like SW:TOR except your character never says anything. I suppose that this would have cost too much in voice acting; I don't buy the theory that the player will put their own words into the mouth of their character. The stories are generally strong — stronger and more imaginative than in SW:TOR — and although there are the usual lazy "thin out this number of those mobs over there" sub-quests, on the whole there's enough variety to keep players engaged. The relative rate of improvement of characters is much less pronounced than in most MMOs, so that even if you're wearing quality-level 10 gear you can still find yourself in trouble if swarmed by lower-level creatures while you're sporting the wrong skills build. I very much approve of this principle (if not the fact that a signet that you fix on a QL10 sledgehammer takes up the same space in your inventory as a QL10 sledgehammer); it actually makes some kind of sense, unlike the can't-kill-you-even-when-you're-AFK standard that applies elsewhere. The only cautionary note here is the volume of content available: if I can get from a standing start to the elder game in under a month, that doesn't bode well.

So the levelling game is pretty good — in fact I'd go as far as to say very good by today's standards. Unfortunately, TSW's main long-term problems are going to result from its elder game, primarily because this is exactly the same as in every other modern MMO: learn the dance to beat the bosses in instances you can only complete once a week, for a shot at the gear that will make subsequent completion marginally easier, all the while waiting for the next expansion so you can start all over again. Oh, or PvP. It's not got a great deal to do with the levelling game, nor does TSW have all that many instances anyway. It's a pity, because although the design of the levelling game was fresh and new, the elder game is as uninspired as with every other elder game. Don't stand in stuff, hide if the boss is gearing up for something spectacular: you'll be fine.

Overall, TSW is something of a gem of an MMO. If the designers had been given more freedom to construct a different elder game, it could have had an impressive future ahead of it. As it is, the reversion to type at the end cuts its legs from under it, and the marketing errors that mis-sold it mean that there are not going to be enough resources available to fix it.

I'll keep playing for a while longer, as I want to see what Funcom's next content upgrade does to customisation. They're really shooting themselves in the foot if they don't add more cosmetic gear for people to buy for real money. I don't suppose I'll still be playing it at Christmas, though...

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).