After my initial frustration with The Secret World, and some criticism on my post about it, I vowed to take another look at Funcom’s Mystery-MMO. I’ll try and sum up my initial points again and add what I played on this second Beta weekend. No, the nitpicking won’t stop.
Secret World has a great atmosphere – this is what it does best. I even discovered more “real” websites and even Twitter accounts of NPCs in the game. Easy to setup, very effective gimmick. However, I disliked the fact that my character seemed so little a part of this very mysterious world. She seemed more like a puppet, and there was nothing to disguise the fact that I was just one in a million other players here. What I’ve come to realise now is, that The Secret World doesn’t pretend to be a role-playing game, and it really isn’t. It’s a game that lets you experience a story, but your avatar really is only a relay for yourself into this world. I guess this makes sense: the more immediate your experience, the more terrifying it becomes. To put it simply, your character doesn’t get in the way of the great atmosphere.
I also noticed the skill system is part of the reason why my character had so little personality. In fantasy role-playing games we usually chose a class, like druids or warriors, and this goes to define our character in most basic terms. You’ll hardly ever refer to your Diablo 3 characters by their names, right? In The Secret World, there is literally nothing that defines your character. You get to wear any clothes, you get to learn every skill. From a real-world and gameplay point of view, this is awesome! But it also means you lose every simple way to identify your avatar. Since the game (as far as I can tell) doesn’t feature any character decisions, there’s no difference between you and everybody else. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just hard to get attached to a placeholder.
If there’s no character to get attached to, all that leaves you with is the story. Unfortunately I couldn’t progress through the point in the main story where I was stopped in the last Beta. I originally thought they’d let us continue, but maybe I was wrong. We got to re-do some of Kingsmouth’s quests, something you’ll have to do if you really want to learn all skills on the ability wheel. However, this weekend, I got to play in a group of three.
You and what army?
This brings me to my next point: Group play. This may not be an RPG, but it is an MMO, so what was it like to play together with friends. First impression: More fun. Of course, since pretty much any game is more fun when you play it with others over Skype or Teamspeak. The combat is also more enjoyable, since you get to focus on a certain role to fulfil. This was actually the first time I played in a group in a “standard” MMO. I’ve only ever played Guild Wars, which was completely instanced, and any other MMO I tried I only tested by myself. So all these “standards” that World of Warcraft or Ultima or Everquest or whatever set for the genre – I was only aware of them in theory.
It’s easy to dismiss things you don’t know. Sure, easy for me to criticise the most successful games on the market for their obviously successful features. Many gamers on the other hand expected certain things in The Secret World simply because they already know them. That is fair, and it’s really not my place to tell people what is and what isn’t a good game. I think I have a vague idea now why some people get so twitchy about Guild Wars 2 with all the weird stuff they’re introducing to a relatively predictable MMO environment. That said, I don’t think “but this is how MMOs work” is a particularly good argument for a game feature. Besides Guild Wars I never played any big shot MMOs, so I am not the typical MMO-player on the market. However, there are just game features that make no sense to me or aren’t fun, and you don’t have to be an MMO-Pro just to notice that.
Now the group play in The Secret World confused me. Killing zombies together was easy enough, and I had no problem with the “need, greed, pass” system for loot. What was weird were the quests. There’s a neat feature that lets you invite players to your quest, so they don’t have to go see the quest-giver themselves. However, in each quest it starts them on the first Tier – I think it might have been cooler to have them step into a quest midway. Like say, I do a mission that I can do fairly well on my own. At some point I have to kill a horde of zombies, and suddenly I am outnumbered. I call in my friends, they help for this one Tier, get rewards, then go off and do their own quests. I guess this wasn’t an option because then they would have had to introduce a reward system for individual tiers, so… meh.
As cool as killing zombies was, I got the feeling that the quests were designed just as inconsistently as the world. In some missions, all my mates had to do the exact same thing repeatedly. In others, only one group member had to complete a task and it would count for all of us. There was no rhyme or reason to this. We had to shut down the electromagnetic field emitters (or something like that) in the Orochi camp. This was tricky and fun, because you had to avoid getting zapped by the guards. But we all needed to do this seperately – we all needed to shut down the emitters. Why wasn’t it enough to have one person do it? Oh, and I didn’t get to choose which one to disable first, the game only lets me do them in order. One might think that the game would lose some of its appeal if only one person in a group gets to do stuff, sure. But if you design quests intelligently, this isn’t a problem. Here, each group member could have taken one emitter, and if there are more people in a group there’s room for some getting zapped.
In another quest, we had to find and deliver a package. Suddenly it was enough if one person clicked the package and we could just tag along. Seriously, game, stop being so random! If you try to be realistic, at least try it in every quest! If all of us had to do everything, all the time, at least it would have been consistent. There is also no way the game recognized spontaneous converging of interests, so to speak. I go to the lighthouse to slay a ghost with my group – there’s only one ghost. I go there to finish the quest by myself, and another random player with the exact same goal arrives there at the exact same moment? Two ghosts.
Then, there are the instanced quests. Why are they instanced? Because they’re designed for one person. Again, I don’t need an MMO for this. Was it so hard to design quests that challenge a group other than slashing monsters? I get that many people actually prefer to play MMOs by themselves, either out of personal preference or because they don’t know anyone else who plays the game. I think that’s stupid. Sorry, really sorry if I offend people with this, but this is MMOs we’re talking about! You play them with other people, it’s in the concept!
I criticise instances in MMOs, and yet I played Guild Wars! Well, in Guild Wars, there were only instances, so it’s really a different game experience alltogether. It wasn’t an MMO, more like a coop-game. However, Guild Wars 2 is an open-world-mmo and has instances! But they make sense: You either get to do an instanced dungeon run that you do in a group anyway – or you experience the main storyline in a story-instance to keep story coherence intact. In The Secret World, I couldn’t see any justification in the instances, other than that it is harder to script a puzzle for 4 people than just for one.
To Quest Marker or not to Quest Marker
One of my biggest annoyances with the game was the fact that it seemed to challenge my intelligence in one minute and insult it the next. The game gives me really neat riddles but assumes I’m too stupid to read a phone book. I wanted to try the game without quest markers, but unfortunately, disabling them was impossible in the Beta. In some quests, this was a good thing, since they send you off to a specific part of the woods or somewhere on the seaside. But if the quests had been designed a bit more general, even this could have been avoided. So I still maintain that the game could have worked without quest markers and a little bit more freedom.
Was it better, or wasn’t it?
No. It was more fun in a group, and it was generally an okay game. But it didn’t thrill me, didn’t give me the kind of addiction like Diablo, or made the hours fly by like Guild Wars. Somehow, I just lost the will to figure out another quest or discover anything, and I can’t even pinpoint exactly, why. The Secret World didn’t motivate me to explore. I love sandbox games, and I need freedom in a game to like it. Since there are other things in my life that want attention, I am not going to play more than one MMO at a time. So all my nitpicking simply comes down to this: The Secret World didn’t thrill me enough to buy it and continually blow the little money I have on it. Sorry, I hope everyone else has tons of fun with it, any maybe I’ll see you again once it probably becomes free to play in two years or so.