One of my friends coined the term “Games Pusher” to represent the force I have when it comes to getting people to try a game. She said she called me a drug dealer in the nicest possible way, but the term has stuck in my head. It is true, I get super excited about games and enjoy trying to introduce people to ones they are not currently playing. The thing is… originally I thought this was just me vying to get more people to join me in the game I am currently playing. However I feel like there are dozens of MMOs that are really good and that people should play all of them at least for a bit. So we zoom to earlier this week when a friend of mine… one @zerena_hoofs made the innocuous comment that “I need a new mmo in my life”. At which point I ended up flooding her with suggestions. I jokingly said that I could keep it up for hours… and in truth I really could. While I generally suck at sticking with “columns” I always have the desire to spawn them. This time the idea is to do a short run of posts each Friday talking about the awesome things relating to one MMO that is “worth playing”. Since it is October, I thought I would start things off with the most Halloweeny of all MMOs… The Secret World.
The game is set essentially in an alternate reality version of our own world, and with that comes a lot of pop culture references. When your character is awoken to your own latent abilities by a mysterious bee flying into your mouth while you are sleeping, you are recruited by one of three different secret organizations. It seems while the world “slept” there has been a secret cold war going on between three ancient powers: The Knights Templar, The Illuminati and a mysterious and relatively unknown organization called Dragon. Each organization has its own agendas… for the Templar based in London it tends to be to keep the order. For the Illuminati based in New York it is all about hoarding knowledge and making a profit. For Dragon based on Seoul it is about sowing the seeds of chaos throughout the world. This secret back and forth between these clandestine entities would have remained like this for continued centuries were it not for the fact that something is changing. A darkness is bubbling up from the bowels of the earth in the form of “The Filth” which is this black ichor that infects anyone who touches it with a sort of deliberate madness. Now each organization is trying to get to the bottom of what is going on, while at the same time protecting their own assets and vying for supremacy over the other orders.
The game relies upon urban legends and myths to weave a tapestry of strange happenings throughout the world. One moment you are investigating a small town in New England overrun by Lovecraftian horrors and zombies, and the next you might be uncovering a lost city in the Egyptian desert forgotten to time and filled with its own unknown dangers. All the while you are trying to sort out what is happening to the world and what you and your chosen order can do to fix it. What makes all of this work is the fact that this game has some of the best writing I have seen in any game, MMO or not. The quests are interesting and actually require some pretty damned devious puzzle to solve. There was one quest in Egypt that I remember vividly that actually provided data that you had to decode that was included in a number of real world encoding mechanisms. Only after decrypting all of them could you get the clue needed to solve the riddle. To make life easier on you, the game provides an in game browser and Funcom operates a number of “fake” websites for people and corporations in game that contain clues that are needed to solve certain quests.
The game claims to not have levels or classes but in truth… neither of these are absolutely correct. What the game offers is a free form character creation system, but that freedom is actually fairly dangerous. You can in theory build a character that is so screwed up that you cannot actually function in the game. The game provides a few specific templates for each of the professions and earning all of the abilities for this template gets you a nifty costume. These also serve as relatively functional builds for you to work towards, that will hopefully prevent the problems of absolute freedom. The challenge here is the fact that there is no “respec” or skills reset system. Doing things in the world gains you ability points and skill points, each with their own uses. Ability points are spent learning new abilities in several different weapon based trees, and Skill points are used to level your ability to equip higher tiers of gear. In its most basic form a “build” is a combination of up to seven active abilities on your hotbar, and up to seven passive abilities that hopefully interact with the actives you chose. Later in the game they introduced new weapons that also take up space, but those won’t unlock until you have completed a quest.
The game itself feels almost like a card building game like Magic the Gathering or the Guild Wars 1 skill system… where you are trying to build a “deck” of abilities that interact in interesting ways together. For example you might have a passive that does something really interesting when you push an enemy into a “hindered” state, and then you would want to use that with abilities on your hotbar that trigger that hindered state. What makes this extremely interesting is the fact that you can swap your abilities at any time out in the world, and when we were running dungeons we often found ourselves swapping around what specifically we were using to better synergize with what other players were bringing to the table. The biggest problem is that the game takes a lot of careful research to play well. One of our challenges was the fact that we each had a specific idea of what we wanted our character to be… and some of those options simply were not viable when you got to the hardest content. I have not played the game in some time, but one of the challenges was that there were certain required abilities and not every weapon tree could provide those.
One of the best aspects of the game for me personally, were the awesome cosmetic gear options. I am a huge fan of transmogging or whatever a given game calls it, and if my character looks awesome I feel awesome about playing it. One of the coolest things that The Secret World has going for it, is that essentially all visible gear is cosmetic by nature, and you can swap between looks freely while you are out in the field. All items you pick up go into a dressing room and you can swap bits whenever you feel like it. The actually “gear” that gives you statistics are your weapons and a number of talismans… necklaces, bracelets, rings etc… that are other than your weapon non-visible gear. To make weapons cosmetic as well, they give you the ability to create a weapon mold that can chance the appearance of an item. Combined this gives players extreme freedom in expressing their characters… but sadly that means that the majority of players are going to be women running around with as little clothing on as humanly possible. The above screenshot is one of my favorites, because my friend Tam and I essentially both arrived at super similar looks while doing a mission completely accidentally. We jokingly dubbed this our Blues Brothers pose.
Another great thing about the game is that it is truly a mega server experience. There are “servers” but they really don’t actually matter. All of the characters span all of the servers, and you can group freely with anyone regardless of faction. This means that there is never a situation where two friends playing this game won’t be able to play together. The only negative is that Cabals themselves aka Guilds… don’t span multiple factions. I’ve spent most of my time playing for the Templar, but I know just as many diehard Illuminati and Dragon players. The only problem is with the Cabals not spanning factions, it made it mildly frustrating for the folks who didn’t want to play Templar, since the guild was in that faction. The workaround is that the game supports social channels and we used them prolifically when we were playing actively. Another really cool thing about the game is that it has an extremely devoted and active role-playing population. If you wander around London you are going to find pockets of players acting out their characters, and that adds a certain depth to the environment.
The growth of the game comes in the form of comic book like “Issues” where a batch of content is released with a common theme. To date there have been twelve issues spanning from July 2012 to August 2015, each with their own themes and usually their own comic book cover to go along with it.
Issue 1: Carter Unleashed
Issue 2: Digging Deeper
Issue 3: The Cat God
Issue 4: Big Trouble in the Big Apple
Issue 5: The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn
Issue 6: Last Train to Cairo
Issue 7: A Dream to Kill
Issue 8: The Venetian Agenda
Sidestories: Further Analysis
Issue 9: The Black Signal
Sidestories: Love & Loathing
Sidestories: The Last Pagan
Issue 10: Nightmares in the Dream Palace
Issue 11: Reaping the Wind
Issue 12: To the Dark Tower Below
Monetization for this game comes primarily in the form of purchasing these issues, and in the various cosmetic items that you can purchase only through the store. They have a number of really cool themed outfits that you can pick up, and for subscribers they give you a unique batch of items each month. I purchased a lifetime subscription when the game was released that converted when the game went free to play to one that gives me access to all the subscription content, and a stipend of cash shop currency each month to spend. While we call this game “Free to Play” it is in truth “Buy to Play” meaning you have to purchase the base game in order to do anything. From there to get these new stand alone issues you have to purchase them one by one. Right now on Steam the game is running $29.99 but quite often it goes on sale for as little as $10. Similarly there is an ultimate version available for $59.99 that includes all of the content as well as a custom costume and some other consumables. I fully expect that as we get closer to Halloween we will see both of these versions get discounted heavily. The long and short is.. this is one of the most enjoyable questing experiences I have ever had in any game. The story content is amazingly well written and the quests themselves are extremely inventive. That said occasionally the solutions are insanely difficult to figure out. Thankfully there are plenty of awesome guide sides out there like Unfair.co for if you find yourself stuck. This is one of those games that I think everyone should try, just be willing to devote some effort into sorting out just what kind of character you want to build. Once you get into the game world however… it becomes extremely infectious… just like the Filth.