The Good, Bad & Ugly of The Secret World, EA's New MMO
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of virtual world and MMO fashion
The Secret World launched yesterday after a lengthy beta period and piles of pre-release hype. This game is not a standard MMORPG, to say the least. Involving a secret world (get it?) of societies embroiled in the occult, it takes place in contemporary locations like London, Egypt, Seoul, and even a sleepy seaside New England town, and arms players with a wide variety of weapons (modern and ancient alike) including sledgehammers, khopeshes, shotguns, and voodoo dolls. Just take a look at the release trailer:
As incredibly cool as I think The Secret World is, it leaves me feeling conflicted. When I write about games, products or pretty much anything I like to present a fairly straightforward opinion-- You know, like "3 Reasons I [Love/Hate] This Game, OMG!". But The Secret World doesn't make that easy. Every part that I love has a bad side to it, and every part that I hate has a good side too. In fact, there are a lot of things that The Secret World does very well, and just as many things that it does very poorly. So... Why not talk about both?
Customization in The Secret World starts out strong with a character creation engine that allows for a lot of variety in terms of faces, hairstyles, and outfits. Because clothing doesn't affect your stats at all, you're free to look however you like with no penalty, and the starter clothing selection is more than enough to ensure that everyone looks different from the start. If you want even more clothing the prices at the in-world store are very affordable, the styles of the pieces available are broad enough to allow for everything from "librarian-chic" to "skanktastic" to coexist peacefully, and you can even try a piece on your avatar before committing to buy it. The Secret World's character creation is also quite racially diverse-- Tons of realistic ethnic facial features are accounted for and included in the character creator, so your character won't just look like they're in blackface (something far too many MMOs struggle with). The result is that avatars in The Secret World are, from what I've seen, way more diverse and interesting than in any other MMORPG.
The character creator is incomplete, in two significant ways. First of all, there are absolutely no sliders or settings for your avatar's body. Even basics like weight and height are completely absent. Considering the high level of customization in all other areas, this feels like a tremendous oversight. Second, they've already announced a plastic surgeon and barber will be implemented in-game in August so people can change their hairstyles and features after character creation. Plenty of games do this, and it's a great idea... except that when these two things launch, they'll come with new features and styles for character creation that aren't available now. The idea of being able to revise a characters appearance after time is great, but using this to push out content that presumably wasn't ready for launch is a little irritating.
I have no problem with cash shops in free-to-play games. A game can't make money off of my enjoyment and appreciation alone, so I don't even mind the cash shop in a game like Guild Wars 2 (of which I'm already a huge fan) which has an up-front cost but no subscription. When a game has that up-front cost, plus a subscription, PLUS a cash shop, it makes me feel less like a customer and more like a cow being milked. This is the kind of thing that can sour the relationship between gamer and game (and lead to a prompt account cancellation the second that my beloved Guild Wars 2 is released).
The way you accept missions/quests in The Secret World is a little limited. There are different kinds of missions, and you can only accept a certain number of missions of certain types at a time, otherwise the new mission will pause the old one (which you can then resume later). This might sould like a Bad or Ugly point, but this system has actually grown on me. It forces you to connect more with each mission and each NPC-- you invest a little more with the story and the circumstances because you're not just checking off points on a list, trying to clear everything and move on. Though this system can feel clumsy at first, it ends up being more organic and human than you would think. The Secret World also has quite a few clever puzzles that require observation and wit to decipher. You can look forward to solving riddles, deciphering codes, scouring employee databases on real websites for in-game companies (which was super cool!), and even Googling a Dutch artist or two. It's wonderfully refreshing when an MMO doesn't just drop everything in your lap once you've killed enough boars.
The icons are not as clear as they could be. A mission with a brown icon will take the same slot as a mission with a yellow icon or a red icon. And you can only have one of those missions, though you can have three of the blue icon missions. I'm sure it makes perfect sense to someone, but I constantly have to remind myself of what I can and can't take at a given time.
Those puzzle missions? Some just don't connect in any tangible way, and others ram head-first into the limitations of the game itself. Here's an example (and a spoiler): You find a message on a cellphone about a secret keypad outside the church. The message mentions that the passcode is a hymn the priest wanted to sing at his first service. So where do you find the number of that hymn? Framed on a panel with a bunch of other random numbers hanging in the church. Why not? The best part of this mission, however, is that if you've turned your settings down so your computer can run this graphically-heavy game at a reasonable pace you might not even be able to see those numbers as the texture will be unreadably blurry.
And don't even get me started on the puzzle that asks you to transcribe and then translate morse-code. Unless you're keen enough to distinguish every dot and dash perfectly, look forward to breaking your immersion by looking up the solution online. Though I don't want the game to hold my hand and walk me through everything, it would be a good compromise if the game game simply updated your journal to include a transcription of the morse code segment after you've listened to the clip once, allowing you to translate it yourself... or hell, just let me slow the audio clip down so I can keep up! Then of course there are the puzzles that involve clicking things in a specific sequence, but if anyone else is around doing the same mission they'll innocently but invariably mess it up for both of you... What it boils down to is this: When the puzzles work they're incredibly satisfying, but when they run into the limits of the game itself it's beyond infuriating.
Skills and Abilities
Abilities in The Secret World are pretty unique. You can have two weapons equipped at a time, and every weapon has skills or abilities that compliment the other weapons. This flexibility lets you build a character that plays the way you want to play them. Because the points for these skills are rewards for doing missions (which are almost all repeatable) and defeating enemies rather than for simply levelling, you can spend them unrepentantly and even level up every single weapon if you want. In The Secret World, skill points spring eternal.
With such a variety of abilities available, maintaining and switching between "builds" (sets of abilities and gear) for certain situations is crucial. For example, I have builds specific to single target, multiple target, and survivability-based fighting strategies, and it makes the games combat much more manageable. Unfortunately, build management is not very easy in The Secret World. Updating a build involves making a new one and deleting the old, and builds have to be updated whenever you change your equipment (called "talismans") at all. This leads to a lot of "Wait, I have to update my builds" moments in a group while you fiddle with the interface way more than necessary. There's a simple fix for this, of course: an "update" button in the gear management window. Until we see that feature added, my groupmates will hear a lot more whines of "Wait!" from me.
With variety comes confusion. While I like the presentation of the ability wheel in The Secret World, I hate how horribly confusing it can be to navigate from tree to tree and tier to tier. Tons of fiddly minimizing and maximizing make it hard to compare one skill to another, and all the subtle secondary effects most skills have can make it tricky to put together a really effective build. While the game currently offers "decks" (which are suggested, thematic builds that give you some guidance... and a cool costume for completing one), there aren't decks for every weapon combination in every faction. Right now, I'd kill to move the Genius feature from iTunes into The Secret World-- Look at what I have now and suggest a couple things I can get that would work well. Is that so much to ask?
For better and for worse, The Secret World still casts off a lot of the tropes and conventions that players have come to expect in their MMORPGs, delivering a one-of-a-kind experience. Maybe it's not going to be a "WoW-killer" (as Hamlet is so fond of talking about) but what makes The Secret World work for me, flaws and all, is that it's not trying to be. It's not trying to have anything to do with that sphere of gaming, and instead it's focussed on its own original ideas and mechanics. Much like Guild Wars 2, it feels like the kind of game we should have had a long time ago if developers hadn't become so obsessed with making WoW-killers instead of making original and innovative MMORPGs. For that alone, I think The Secret World is well worth the price of admission.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.