ZAM Editor-in-Chief Chris Tom lays out his ongoing experiences with Funcom's The Secret World.
Showing, Not Telling
One of the cardinal rules of good writing (and good game design) is to "show, not tell." The idea here is that straight exposition is never a good thing. If someone needs to tell you why something is rotten in Denmark, then it's usually because they haven't shown you enough for you to draw your own conclusion. Some of the best games are ones that draw you into the characters and the world, letting you discover things as opposed to telling you about them. Unfortunately, most MMORPGs fall flat in this category, as a majority of players hop, skip and jump their way through the piles of expositional quest text, pausing only to witness the scripted death of an NPC before wondering, briefly, if they were supposed to care.
Not in the Secret World.
Without getting into the heavy spoilers, suspicion and a heavy dose of paranoia are key ingredients in here, although neither are applied with too heavy a hand. Each character you meet has some sort of hidden agenda lurking, and while sometimes your suspicions are rewarded with a sinister reveal, the game is more than happy to leave your questions unanswered. Why is this cop so emotionally detached from the zombie carnage? Who are these Morninglight hippies? In the background of this zombie epidemic, why are machine parts also gaining sentience? The narrative structure (and voice acting, I'd like to add) in The Secret World remain some of the best, if not the best, in the industry.
Ultimately, this pursuit of "showing and not telling" lies at the heart of The Secret World's game design. There are dozens upon dozens of side-quests that can only be found by venturing off the beaten path. Investigation quests will have you decoding Morse code with phone apps or even consulting the website of an in-game corporation. Dungeons are all about engaging in unique boss fights, and never about slogging through endless trash mobs. It's all an extremely layered experience, and Funcom is perfectly fine with letting you discover it on your own (a rarity in today's age of game design).
While The Secret World is certainly the most immersive MMORPG I've played to date (bar none), there are certainly a few problems that Funcom will need to address down the line. Some abilities still feel stiff; specifically, dash skills intended to give your character more battlefield mobility feel - and look - more you're being thrown around, rather than dashing gracefully. Also, while combat does have a lot of depth, it can sometimes feel a little "floaty," especially in group PvP settings. Sometimes it just comes down to whoever can spam their skills faster in the general direction of the enemy, and it can be difficult to appreciate the individual plays of your teammates without keeping a close eye on the UI at the bottom of the screen.
Speaking of PvP, while the rewards from Stonehenge and El Dorado are meaningful for both the player and his/her faction (whoever gets the most wins within the hour gets the faction-wide buff for the subsequent hour), the persistent warzone, Fusang Projects, felt a little lackluster in comparison. While persistent warzone PvPing can be considered a reward in and of itself, there's still something a little disheartening about having thousands of white Venice PvP tokens while earning no black Venice PvP tokens in Fusang (both of which are required in tandem to purchase PvP items). Furthermore, despite Fusang's label as a "persistent" warzone, it feels anything but; the battlefield objectives change hands so quickly and so often that your actions feel small and insignificant in the greater picture. Still, I can understand Funcom's trepidation to attach any significant meaningful rewards to Fusang, as the persistent warzone could quickly degenerate into a situation similar to SWTOR's famous open world planet, Ilum, where players were simply trading kills and objectives for points. Fusang does manage to deliver that open-world PvP skirmishing feel, and that is a genuine feat in itself.
Finally, The Secret World has been remarkably stable throughout its launch week. A majority of players I've spoken to have had little to no problems with the client, although I'll admit that I've been experiencing some heavy load times, and my UI buttons don't quite line up with my mouse (I can click directly on a button, only to have it not react). There are a few glitches with key quests (Something Wicked and The Black House come to mind), but almost every other quest has been working fine.
I will continue to document my experiences with The Secret World as I go along, but I will say that I am extremely impressed with what I've seen thus far. What makes The Secret World resonate with me is the fact that I can see so much potential for this game - both in terms of improvements and new content. There is a unique philosophical and developmental foundation present here that I don't see in any other MMORPG, and it makes me excited to see what's in store. Ultimately, I think that The Secret World isn't a game designed to capture demographics or address market needs; this is a game with a unique vision being brought to us by people who are passionate about making MMORPGs. I hope they keep this up.
Chris "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief