One Year Later: Remarks on The Secret World

A little over a year has gone by since I first walked out of Agartha and into The Secret World. My mind feels as though there must have been more than twelve months between now and June of last year when Liling was born. The steady march of time slowed and devolved into a weighty shambling gait as I dreamed my way through the entirety of the fantastic narrative found within this story’s seemingly endless main missions, side missions, investigation missions, and sabotage missions. My journey now takes me into the harrowing fields of instanced group content where I’ll lie nose-up on the ground with my extra-smiley face on as lore bombs rain down from the sky. I like to imagine myself as a sponge absorbing all of the water in this ocean of half-formed remembrances and allowing its filthy abstractions to seep from the pores of my nocturnal body like honey.

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Most remarkably, The Secret World chooses to straddle the line between reality and fiction by populating its world with inhabitants who reflect the diversity of people who live in our world: Madame Rogêt is as old as I am, Amparo Osorio has an afro and speaks Spanish, Zaha likes girls, Ricky Pagan is pansexual, Kaoru is transgender. You grow up amongst these people and understand them as fellow human beings. My character is smitten with the leader of the Marya who may be too busy to consider such things or uninterested in romantic relationships altogether. In a way, it mirrors Sandy “Moose” Jensen’s deep and abiding feelings for Deputy Andy – feelings which remain to this point one of the many hanging plot threads in a strange and complex tapestry of painfully interesting lives.

See also: “Funcom Nailed Representation in The Secret World” at Geek Girls Pwn

Perhaps it’s better that they remain unresolved. It’s fiction with a human touch that provides a fertile breeding ground for the imagination. I’m spending time outside the game reading forum entries written by people with more insight into the workings of things who can fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the overarching plot after having played through its fragments. I know what’s going on, generally speaking, but the juicy details have gone over my head and I leave it to others to recall and speculate on the parts that are missing from my mental catalog. The Secret World is a hive of busy bees that set my mind buzzing.

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The combat that I had dismissed as simplistic when I first started out has come full circle and now offers a moderately satisfying amount of depth. My exploration of the fully unlocked ability and auxiliary wheels has most recently evolved into trying out optimized damage rotations on various adversaries during the Guardians of Gaia event and looking over the post-encounter statistics in Advanced Combat Tracker (ACT). It’s one of the rare instances in which I’ve installed damage meters. I’m doing it as part of a comprehensive evaluation of different loadouts and playstyles so that when I go into the most difficult content, I’ll have the added advantage of maximizing my personal contributions.

I don’t normally care about such things – and, indeed, there is very much a “play what you like” culture in everything but the really hard stuff – but I’ve warmed up to this dark and moody world so much that I’m willing to dive deeper into its fighting mechanics. To this end, I’ve relaxed my purist philosophy in favor of situational pragmatism and installed a handful of quality of life modifications: a top bar that displays several useful bits of information in one place, resource bars that have been relocated to the center of the screen for easier viewing during combat, and automatic AEGIS selectors that operate based on what I’m targeting. It wasn’t until I had reached the epilogue of this novel that I even began to consider the desirability of these add-ons.

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I know we said you could wear anything, but you’re not exactly dressed for a firefight, honey.

Truth be told, I didn’t really need anything fancy while reading through the chapters. I was able to use my preferred weapons, Blade and Rifle/Hammer, and the same basic set of ten or twelve active abilities for the entirety of the journey. It was only in the toughest encounters that I found it necessary to rethink my otherwise globally applicable approach; I do not recall any place in the game’s varied environments where I was not able to brute force my way through a situation with a combination of gaming experience and mechanical execution. Many of the missions recalled my days playing the Nintendo Entertainment System: failure would result in being sent back to a checkpoint and doing it all over again. Soldier on, methodically, and you prevail.

Being in possession of such a mindset is paramount for the intermission activities – the gap between the end of the current batch of storytelling and the next – which involve acquiring massive amounts of currency and points to upgrade talismans, unlock augments, and curate one’s personal museum. Much in the manner of Final Fantasy 14, whose difficulty skyrockets dramatically at the very top end, once you’re finished with the story in The Secret World, the personal fortune you’ve amassed is but a drop in the bucket if you’re interested in taking on the Big Bads.

Even if you choose to forgo this “capstone” project, the long and winding path is still worth the foot aches. From the very beginning, the missions you undertake are thematically relevant and impress upon you the feeling of being an actor in unfolding events as opposed to a bounty hunter or a fur trader. You may be seeking out vistas and haunts based on a psychic medium’s interpretation of a vision she had. It could be that you’re spelling out the missing piece of a bible verse on letters of the alphabet carved into a stone floor (and being fatally poisoned if you make a mistake). The world conspires against you and sends you battling your way through train cars as you defuse a tense situation by removing all of the deranged cultists on board. A local racketeer politely demands that you tend to the grave of his gang’s founder by gathering a water bucket and incense from the shrine in a graveyard filled with illimitable kyonshi beings who need to be mortally wounded and bound by ofuda, giving you enough time to clean up the Venerable One’s final resting place and light devotional incense sticks before a gust of wind sweeps through the headstones and frees the infuriated kyonshi from bondage.

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All of these activities are part of the bigger picture, one that only comes into being after completing everything on the map and some of the things that aren’t. Even once you’ve collected all of the pieces of the puzzle and read between the lines, it may be that you don’t even understand half of what’s going on.

Which is exactly the way it’s intended to be. You’re not supposed to know everything. There’s an intoxicating attraction found within the unknown and The Secret World riffs off this to infinity and back. It boasts the best story I’ve ever enjoyed in an MMO; only the Imperial Agent class story from Star Wars: The Old Republic is even in the same league.

Would I recommend it? There are several shortcomings which may put one off: a clunky physics engine, poorly optimized graphics, and a handful of infuriating missions. Initially, I found the writing to be abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. (Once I was able to characterize the happenings in the first area as “a bunch of occult stuff,” things started making more sense.) These quibbles do not constitute deal-breakers, however. If you’re comfortable with playing MMOs and think you have the knack for dealing with challenges, then the answer is: yes. Buy the game and play it for a while. Enjoy the dark and cryptic story. If you really like it, you can then consider paying the optional subscription fee of $15 per month and gaining access to several benefits.

It took me nine months before I decided to start subscribing because that’s how long it took for me to really get into the game. I still find many of the missions to be too similar to video game levels for my liking, but now that I’m more powerful and experienced I can usually go back and soak in their connection to the narrative without feeling overly harried. Since that’s what I’m here for and there’s so much of it to go around, it stands to reason that I’ll be staying a while.

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13 thoughts on “One Year Later: Remarks on The Secret World

  1. A perfect writeup. There is not much I could add, and nothing which would not in some way also detract what you have written.

    I play the game since launch, I bought Grandmaster (the lifetime account) in the first month after launch, which was perhaps my best spent money on gaming ever. (It actually feels like I ripped off Funcom by buying the GM account. )

    I very much advise everybody who did not play TSW yet, to take a look, with the only two warnings being:
    1. the game is a terrible resource hog, it’s not well optimized. If you don’t have a 64bit OS and at least 4 GB or RAM (better have more) then the game won’t be fun to play. 😦
    2. The skill wheel at the start is overwhelming. But as written here, you can get quite far with a basic setup. (Like one of the starter decks the game also holds. )

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    1. Of course it’s perfect. It was written by ME and I’m gushing about a game which has absolutely no flaws whatsoever.

      Okay, I’m being a bit cheeky there. Sarcastic, if you will. 🙂 “Thank you for your compliments” is what I’m trying to say.

      When the Grandmaster option was being retired permanently it was at a time when I wasn’t even interested enough in the game to pay the subscription fee, let alone shell out $150 for a lifetime account. Now, I’d be interested in doing so but would not be able justify the expense. I’d still recommend subscribing to anyone who really likes the game; the benefits – which seemed rather trivial to me when I first started playing – are much more tangible once you’ve decided you’re in love.

      As you said, the game is not optimized very well and the ability wheel can be daunting at first. Some of the starter builds on TSWDB should work well enough until one has a firm grasp of the basics of their chosen weapons and can then start looking at creating their own deck.

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  2. I would heartily recommend TSW but with one caveat: it is MUCH harder than you suggest. If you aren’t a “proper gamer” then you will get stalled and frustrated long before you get anywhere near Tokyo. I beached on step 27 of the main storyline and I don’t foresee ever getting beyond that hurdle.

    To re-iterate, in terms of simply proceeding along the main storyline and “leveling” it is probably the hardest MMO I have ever played.

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    1. Hmm. You mean you got stuck on Mortal Sins Tier 27? Can you please tell what the problem there is? Also, I think that’s an open world passage, so help can be provided in varied forms.

      The next passage after that, a dream sequence I could give little help with, but there’s also no combat in there, the difficulty lies in other aspects. [And I very much advise to not cut corners there. I can’t explain why without spoilering, but the choices you make in the dream sequences have influence later. ]

      If you decide to give the game another chance and can use a help, feel free to contact me in game, character name: Slad. (Although the next two weeks can be complicated, i’ll be abroad for vacations for a while and won’t have internet access there. )

      Alternatively, I think I’ve left some comments on your blog already with my e-mail address attached, you can always use that to contact me and we arrange some assistance, be it in advice or fire support.

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    2. I think fondness may have caused me to gloss over the parts where the game is hard. I used TSWDB to expedite the mechanics of anything I wasn’t interested in including the mechanically challenging combat missions. I suppose the other part would be a product of reflexes and willingness to endure being crushed repeatedly.

      If I’m counting the steps from the beginning (and skipping the faction-specific starter story missions), you’re talking about the video game “boss” fight inside the pyramid. Unfortunately, the mechanics only get more difficult later in the game. If I can help in some way, look for Lilyann.

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      1. Hmm. If it’s the pyramid boss, yea. That one is a little tricky, as it’s in a solo instance.

        My rough advice would be:
        – Have a little regeneration on yourself, be it by using a healing weapon or by having some self-healing passives. This advise is true for any boss-like fight in the game.
        – The actual problem of the fight is the AoE which hits the complete platform. It’s helpful to use weapons with range, so you can stay near one of the bridges while fighting, so you can escape quickly. As the bridges can get destroyed into the fight, be ready to move to another bridge in case of need. Bonus points for bringing a movement ability, e.g. death from above from the rocket launcher or flicker from elementalism to be able to move quicker.

        The only other thing to note, if bridges were already broken and repaired as you died and repeat the fight, it sometimes can happen that there is a small invisible “ledge” in front of them. Jumping when running on them works around that.

        If that does not suffice, a little more info on what the problem seems to be would help. I remember the fight to be harder than the usual content, but far from impossible, even for the wild-mix-setup I ran at that time. (It’s still amusing to remember that I shared that setup with people and they were all like “wow, this setup is good, it makes things much easier”, considering how bad and it appears based on todays knowledge. Deck building has come a long way… 🙂 )

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  3. I’ve read all your Secret World musings, but this is the first one that’s made me want to play the game.

    I realized that I owned a copy, couldn’t convince my gaming group to play it a few years ago, then abandoned it.

    Time to dig it up again.

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    1. It took me this long to be able to write a piece that recommends the game whole-heartedly with the experiential knowledge needed to convey it with sincerity. The Secret World will be better off for your presence in it.

      Read it like you would a novel. Skip the missions you don’t like. Take it slow. Really, don’t even play it like an MMO. If you need help with anything, you know where to find me.

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      1. I doggedly finish all missions I can find, even if I hate doing them (see: most of CotSG) in the hope that it pays off with a tidbit of lore from the report mission screen – usually Richard Sonnac in my case, but I’ve seen Said and the Buzzing butt in as well.

        I’m only up to investigating the Draculesti in Shadowy Forest, but I’m going back to BF to do that zone’s missions again with my friend. Still only just cleared 50% completion of the Ability Wheel, thanks to the anniversary event. You’re right, it feels like a good deal to become a subscriber again now that Black Bullion is the common currency for most upgrades.

        Great post, by the way. 🙂

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        1. City of the Sun God is my least favorite zone in terms of terrain, atmosphere, and story. Scorched Desert at least has nice music and interesting people. Ptahmose appeared to be a loving father and then I read the lore entries for the Sentinels.

          Transylvania is much better. I think you’ll enjoy it. Subscribing has many more benefits including being able to use anima leaps for free.

          Thanks. 🙂

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          1. Actually in terms of the writing, I consider City of the Sun God to be among the best. It’s a sad story of love and sacrifice. To make things worse, it looks like all the sacrifices might have been in vain. The characters and voice acting of the sentinels, which are the sacrificed children, is very well done and together with the good writing very well tells their story and mindset. (And shows that they haven’t really changed that much in stone form. Those sacrificed as older teenagers are still such, and the ones sacrifices as small children still thousands of years later sees the world through the eyes of a child. )

            That being said, I also have to say that the zone suffers from a few problems. The first is that while all the sentinels have their different characters, they are always represented as stone statues. While that gives them kind of an “omnipresence” and allows conversations which otherwise would be impossible, it makes them harder to connect to.

            The other problem is navigation. Once you learned your ways, the zone is easy enough to travel through, but unlike any other zone, it requires some time to find all the hidden passages, underground tunnels, climbable slopes, etc. That learning time includes some frustration of yet another dead end or far reroute to get to your destination. Thus learning to navigate this zone requires work and is not that much fun.

            On the positive: since we now can map-travel to anima wells, you basically only once have to get all over the map, then things are much easier than they were in old times.

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        2. Just a sidenote on “50% of the ability wheel”: unless you somehow messed up terribly, you should have all the tools you need for like 99% of the game, with the remaining 1% being specific roles in nightmare level difficulty group or raid content.

          So yes, while there might be a little optimization hidden in the other 50%, it’s nothing which should trouble you. Also note: AP comes by itself if you just keep playing the game. By now I drop a pile of AP (usually 50 or 100) into the museum every evening I play, and the benefits of the museum boil down to a few more in-game t-shirts, once I reach the corresponding levels of museum decoration.

          If I was you, at 50% of the skill wheel I’d now cherry-pick a few auxiliary weapon skills and then perhaps get the first augment for healing and attack to level 5. (If slotted, they provide a bonus for attack rating and heal rating, which is equivalent to a purple signet. But while the signet cost several millions of pax in the auction house, the green augments are sold very cheaply. ) After that, just let the skill wheel and aux wheel complete themselves in the run of time, simply by playing. 🙂

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          1. Interesting that this posting is added at the end, considering that it was a reply to the posting above, made by Dahakha. Guess I clicked the wrong reply button.

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