Why The Secret World annoyed me

I played the Secret World Beta this weekend. As many others I spammed my facebook wall with Secret War requests and sent my agents all over the world from Iceland to Equatorial Guinea to get my Beta key. For the first time, a subscription-based MMO actually interested me and even got me pretty excited. What was not to like? Real world horror setting based on Lovecraft and peers, cool factions, free character progression, a minecraft-like crafting system and puzzles! Gimme, gimme, I thought. But I was actually disappointed.

All of the above are true about The Secret World, and yet I didn’t like it. I made a list of things I liked and thought I’d mention them first, to show good faith. But every “awesome” I wrote down, the game immediately countered with a “WHY THIS?!” moment. Some games are mediocre, and we move on. But it’s even more disappointing when a game promises you great features, delivers, and then trumps them with a bunch of weird decisions to keep you guessing.

So I decided to make a list of ONLY the neat features of The Secret World and then immediately counter them with what I believe ruined them. (This does not include graphics or bugs, more on that later.) I do not want to seem like I am needlessly nitpicking the shit out of a good game. I did not hate it entirely, and there are far worse games out there. But I  simply cannot get over the fact that this game made me so angry. I haven’t been disappointed by a game in a while and I played worse games even though they weren’t that much fun and didn’t complain half as much. So let’s try and figure this out.

1. The Atmosphere was brilliant! Too bad my character didn’t think so.

The Secret World promised to be set in the real world and yet incorporate the hidden, the horrific, the fictitious. Both, it did well! The city of London was believable even in the fake area of town you start in. The synchronization was good (when the game let me hear it, more on that bug later). The NPC lines were well written and full of funny real-world-winks like mentioning YouTube or Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn’t restricted by robes or armor, I got to wear real clothes as crazy as I wanted them to be.

The Secret World consists of creepy, unholy places. It is a world filled with dread and secrets. The explorable town of Kingsmouth was really well done. It was big enough to get confused, yet small enough that I managed to orient myself at some point. The music was eery, and there was zombie-filled fog everywhere. I fought humans who had turned into tentacle monsters. This was the stuff of nightmares.

Would all this be too much for my heroine? Which discovery would finally make her lose the rest of her sanity points? Surely, she would undergo a dramatic development from incredulity to mental illness to acceptance? Only, she didn’t. My character was an empty shell. A zombie more to be feared than the ones I was fighting. At least they had a motivation. My character had no line of dialogue. Not one. Against the very individual and memorable NPCs the lack of personality in my avatar became even more obvious. While I go to chose which kind of glasses she would wear, I didn’t get to pick one character trait. And not even that would have mattered, if Funcom had only written a few goddamn responses for her! I mean, I get that you’re supposed to be a warrior in an army of Templars, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an android!

This was just unbelievable to me. Sure, I understand that the game didn’t specifically aim for a great role-playing experience… but even games as old as Guild Wars had a simple, generic hero-speech here and there for me, nicely dubbed. Make my character generic if you will, but make her a character! Otherwise even the grandiose setting loses its meaning to me.

2. The crafting system was fun – if a little annoying to use.

This is the most harmless of all my points of criticism. The crafting system in Secret World is actually really cool. You can disassemble almost every item (weapons, talismans, even energy drinks) to see what “pattern” it uses. This works pretty much like it does in Minecraft: A sword looks like a sword, approximately. Makes sense! You get raw material from a weapon, say a bunch of crappy metal pieces from a sword. Much like the runes in Diablo 2 you can combine five pieces of metal to make one piece of slightly-less-crappy metal and so on and so forth. This is fun, but it’s also effective: My slightly-less-crappy sword kicked ass and I was able to slice through the hordes of evil far quicker than before.

What I didn’t like about the crafting was simply that it was very cumbersome. It took me many clicks to get stuff where I wanted it to be: un-stacking materials was a pain in the neck. Only by accident did I find out that by pressing both mouse buttons you could unstack something. Still needs some little explanation, but this is stuff I wouldn’t expect in the beta, so this is all I’ve got to say about the crafting. It was okay.

3. The quests needed me to think. Sometimes.

Another thing promised very early on in The Secret World were the mysterious puzzles. Glorious quests that needed me to think, crack open a bible or google a rare plant to solve the riddles in the game. I ended up doing only two mystery quests on the beta weekend, but both kept that promise. I was able to use previous real-life knowledge in solving them, and that made me feel really smart. I had a hard time with one of the puzzles, since it required the knowledge of a nursery rhyme. I am not a native speaker of English, and everyone who’s ever followed “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in another country will understand that figuring out foreign nursery rhymes and children’s riddles is harder than answering a tough biology question. The ingame browser helped and it was even possible to google clues without immediately stumbling over a TSW community forum.

After I finished playing I read up some more on the riddles and the community’s reaction to them. There are a lot of people out there who celebrate The Secret World for these puzzles, and many will defend it as a matter of principle. Finally, a game where you have to think. Oh, I was meant to take notes? How very detective-like! Awesome! I agree, that is awesome, and I understand what it feels like to defend a game based on the bold steps it takes. After all, I keep defending Guild Wars 2 in the face of sceptics who don’t believe in the event system or a life without raids. I believe in that game and I can understand that there are many who believe in The Secret World.

However, when a game expects me to think and take notes, but only when it thinks fit I just feel insulted. In one of the first quests you need to collect food and medical supplies for the survivors of Kingsmouth. The sherrif points me to the phone book to find diners, restaurants and a pharmacy. I have a street map. So why then, WHY do I get a quest marker? Is it really too much to ask to look up a frickin’ address? Seriously, Kingsmouth wasn’t that big! I connected the dots, thank you, without the game automatically circling the respective places in red in the phone book. Even worse: The pharmacy is locked. Dead end. Really? I wield a katana and goddamn blood magic and I can’t knock a door down? I’ve seen the film Twister! Heck, I’ve seen the NEWS. American houses fall down as soon as you look at them. (No offense, but it’s true. Use bricks, people, there’s a reason they were invented.) The pharmacy had windows. It had a back door. Are you telling me nobody, not even the people with shotguns, managed to get in there? Well, you “desperate survivors” obviously aren’t desperate enough yet.

So on we go to the Diner, where I experienced more of the game’s great atmosphere. Blood everywhere, 50’s music and a couple of zombies. Nice. And there was plenty of food lying around, so here I go collecting. But what’s this? After three packets of rice crispies or whatever (the game doesn’t tell me what it is) I can’t carry any more? But there’s a whole cupboard full! Well, since the quest requires me to only bring three (!) packs of something edible I guess I’ll leave the rest to rot. By the way: Everything I can interact with is marked with a red outline. There were moments when I appreciated this, but it also made me very unobservant. Red outlines and quest markers condition you, as a player. Eventually, and very quickly, we stop looking at the well designed world before us and only search for the next point of interaction. A game needs to force you to look, to find stuff on your own. Sooner or later, that leads to a different kind of conditioning, for example when you’re able to tell apart the usable stuff in the world just from glancing at the textures. Red outlines are just ridiculous. There is no learning curve. And quest markers, well… I played a lot of GTA 2 and needed hours and hours to learn my way around the three cities. But that was part of the fun. Same goes for Mafia. I enjoyed that, because it was challenging and realistic.

Someone pointed out to me that I can’t criticize The Secret World for outlining stuff in red since Guild Wars 2 does the same thing and it doesn’t bother me. The same person also figured out that apparently there’s an option to turn off the quest helpers – so my point becomes invalid. However, let’s treat this as an implemented game feature and take it from there. So in Guild Wars 2 you often have to interact with your environment – always with the same button which makes it very intuitive after a while. Pick up scrap metal or trample spiders’ nests, it’s all the same button and the respective items are outlined in yellow. It really bugged me that I should be so unreasonable to hate this function in one game and like it in another. What’s the difference?

To be perfectly honest, it’s hard for me to give a definitive answer to this. The closest I come is the central aspect of meaning and what makes an action meaningful. Essentially, it comes down to the basics: In Guild Wars 2, it mattered how many pieces of scrap metal I collected and  it mattered that I was doing it right now, because the guy who collected it was part of a larger event chain that only triggered once we were done. When I collected poisonous globs to help repair a water pump I actually saw that I was helping people who stopped being sick. I saw the consequences of my actions. Sure, they may not have been entirely permanent, but these little things, it seems, made all the difference between annoying and rewarding. On the next Beta test coming Friday, I will turn off the red outlines and quest markers and see how that works out for me!

The rest of the quests were okay – classic MMO stuff. Find this, locate that person, investigate these people, that sort of thing. Although I needed to run around a lot to fulfil my errands, the game implemented a very neat feature for reward collection: Instead of returning to the original quest givers for some cash, you send a report back to your faction. The answers of my friend at the Templars’ office in London were worth reading, for he commented on even the worst tragedies with snide comments and sarcasm that made me grin with glee. The heartless Templars made it very clear that they’re not interested in saving individuals but only aim for the “Greater Good”. Every time I reported back on somebody I saved the guy was really more interested in my discoveries in Kingsmouth in general. This is a neat way to convey atmosphere and saves me some pointless running. But it’s all the same: creepy story, nice synchronizations and yet too many quest markers.

So I resent The Secret World for taking me by the hand one moment and leaving me with hard puzzles only some of the time. If the game world was more consistent in its demands I think even the hard puzzles would have seemed easier after a time.

4. The main story was pretty gruesome and horrible. Again, the game mechanics deflated it.

The main playable storyline in Kingsmouth was awesome and could have been taken straight from a Lovecraft book. Basically a bunch of mariners on a ship called the Lady Margaret discovered a strange artifact out in the ocean somewhere in what seems to be a ship cemetery that dates back to the vikings. They come back and bring the fog with them, and most of the people in Kingsmouth are turned into zombies. Strange creatures ascend from the ocean, terrorizing the survivors and breeding their unholy spawn next to Elsies Lobster restaurant. You spend some time investigating and the climax of the beta was finding the captain of the Lady Margaret, who has almost entirely been turned into a sea monster himself: half of his body is covered in shells and mucus and from the other a bunch of tentacles are sprouting tentacles. (This of course never bothered my character in the slightest.)

Sadly, the same that is true for the side quests is true for the main plot. I am asked to investigate some clues lying around to figure out where the suspicious Hippies went. So I find their notes and they have a colourful leaflet stapled to them. I recognized the leaflet from an airport advertising poster I had seen earlier and felt proud: After all, I had paid attention to the world around me and been rewarded, right? Wrong. As soon as you pick up the notes, a quest marker directs you to the airport. Insult!

But what really bugged me about the main plot was the way the backstory was conveyed. I was supposed to find out more about what had happened to the mariners out at sea, not for credit, just to fill my journal. In the journal there are lists of many unlockable “secrets” in the world, like a sticker album really. I was really curious here, and wanted to find out more! After all, this was what kept me going in this game, the plot and the puzzles. But do I look for diaries, notes, audio recordings? Maybe even check youtube for creepy video recordings of something sinister? After all, the game explicitly tells me that all the mysteries will have to be contained since “they’re on national television now!” But I have to take their word for it, because I never saw this. In fact I am so futuristic, I don’t read paper. I get my information from floating yellow symbols that hover semi-hidden in the world.

Yep, that’s how you get your “lore”. You collect yellow floating signs that randomly reveal a piece of previously locked knowledge. I felt like in a Final Fantasy game. I discovered one such symbol behind a stack of crates by the seaside and was immediately privy to the secret, scary thoughts of one of the mariners. Narrated in first-person. How is that possible?! I understand that sometimes games have to be unrealistic to save the developers time and money, but was this really necessary? Wouldn’t it have been just as simple to have me discover something more substantial?  In fact, many of the quests do include written notes, plaques, newspaper clippings, blotted photographs… all this adds to the atmosphere! Why choose this weird way to transport essential game lore to me? I may never know.

5. Freedom! With your skills, that is.

Something The Secret World really does right is the skill system. I loved that big skill wheel – it was a welcome change after many a talent tree. There are no character classes, only skills to learn. I get to choose and even combine whatever I wished. I ended up with a Katana in one hand and some blood magic in the other, and the switch worked even in the heat of battle. The choice of weapons is wide – there are swords and hammers next to shotguns and machine guns, and three different kinds of magic: blood, elemental and chaos. Your character doesn’t level up, but only gains Ability Points (AP) over time to buy more skills. This also means that you can never quite gauge what area of the game is too hard for you. Some sea monsters are simply to big for you at the beginning and finding this out via trial and error adds to the dangerous atmosphere. It worked for me, great system.

While this skill-wheel provides ultimate freedom, the open world restricts me in the most random ways it can find. I understand that Secret World wasn’t meant to be an action game or some kind of parcour training. But my character was awfully restricted. I couldn’t roll out of the way, I couldn’t climb, I couldn’t sneak or duck. By contrast, my character must have had some superhuman abilities to compensate, since she could jump over a two-meter-fence just from standing before it. Seriously, no walls can hold this woman! Or can they? I walked through some of the alleys between the Kingsmouth houses, and there were fences there, too. With locked doors in them. So I thought I could jump over them, maybe if I jumped onto the trash cans next to me. Of course I couldn’t, I had to walk around the entire block. Funcom really wants to keep their players guessing, right?

I realise it may seem unfair to compare the skill system with the level or character design. But this discrepancy presents a problem common to video games today: the lack of consistency. I am not only referring to the fences, I mean the discrepancy between the game’s mechanic and its version of reality. There will always be things you just can’t do in a video game, no matter how realistic they want to be. There will always be walls, mountains and rivers you can’t cross in story-games, since they can only provide so much canvas for you to explore without running out of cloth. Of course I accept that, but I was just confused by these seemingly simple things that didn’t work out the way they should have.

Sure, developers must focus their resources on what matters to their pitch. No game can do everything, least of all a game set in the real world. Inconsistencies will appear more blatantly to us because we have the real world right in front of us. Many fantasy games do not have to fight that particular battle. But there have been many successful games set in the real world that were consistent enough to not piss me off so much. And there are ways to disguise inconsistencies. For example, in Kingsmouth there were ladders on some of the houses. They were outlined in red, of course, so that I couldn’t miss them. All of them led me to important places, either to find a quest-item or to discover one of those yellow lore symbols. The only roofs I could climb were the ones I needed to climb, even though there was no height difference. I was able to jump from a house without injuring myself, but I couldn’t climb accross to the next roof. This is unrealistic and was way too obvious. Why didn’t they put some more ladders around town that led to nowhere? Why didn’t they allow me to stroll around the roofs of Kingsmouth, if only to scare off a few crows and take in the scenery? Would that really consume that much more money or development time?

To sum it all up – what went wrong?

So this was my rambling take on The Secret World. I realise that much of my criticism is mean and nasty, nitpicking on things that don’t necessarily make a game bad. I am sure there are many aspects of this MMO that warrant another look, and I will be there next Friday to give it another go. There are many good and brilliant aspects to this game, and I also had fun on the weekend. That said, it must be added that I experienced a lot of performance issues. Almost none of the spoken dialogue worked, and one didn’t even have subtitles so I had no idea what was going on. Some bugs prevented me from completing quests. The graphics weren’t stellar. It didn’t annoy me, but they just weren’t. Again, these are all things I don’t expect to work smoothly in a Beta test, so I didn’t include them in my appraisal.

Now to be fair, Secret World is an MMO, and therefore there were other players. Mind you, I didn’t see too much of them since the game uses zones to prevent overcrowding. Still, they were there – how did that work out? My first-hand impression: not so good. Yes, it’s a little premature to vote on the multiplayer part of the game. Still, it just didn’t feel comfortable. Since there’s only enough loot in a kill for one player there’s no actual game incentive to get me to help others with their mobs – on the contrary. Even if another player and I are doing the same quest (“Kill 5 Zombies!”) we need to stay out of each other’s feet because each zombie only counts as a kill for one person. It felt as if the game wanted me to avoid others and quest on my own. At this point I couldn’t test whether this is different if you play in a group, but it certainly didn’t encourage group play in the first place. And I don’t care if this kind of quest design is an MMO standard. Guild Wars 2 showed us it can be done differently with good results.

This leads to my final sum-up of The Secret World. All the things the game did right, all the stuff I loved, the atmosphere, the stories, the lore… I would gladly pay money to play this as an extended zombie apocalypse mixed with Dan Brown. So far, I didn’t test the PvP and I have no idea what the content will be in later levels, especially the conflict between the three factions. But why did it have to be an MMO? And if they market it as a puzzle game, why be afraid of following through with this premise? There are enough neat grinder MMOs on the market for people who don’t like puzzles – why not go the whole nine yards and really make Secret World a consistent, creepy, puzzling and terrifying world? It could have been done. In fact, it was done! Only they saved money in the wrong places and watered it down too much. Verdict: Cool, but not cool enough to warrant monthly subscriptions. Not yet anyway.

There you have it. I would appreciate comments & thoughts on the subject.

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