As I continue to make my way through The Secret World, I find that I’m beginning to get a very bad feeling – one that has absolutely nothing to do with the incessant itch I probably shouldn’t talk about. Watching my Templar-y adventures continue to progress, I’m beginning to seriously doubt that the ambitious story that Funcom set up at the beginning of the game will ever manage to reach the potential it has.
This has, in a way, less to do with any flaws in The Secret World itself, and more an inherent problem with trying to present an engaging and immersive story in an MMO. I had a similar problem with Star Wars: The Old Republic (back when it was still a subscription based title). Simply put: a story that deep cannot be the main focus of a MMORPG. The genre itself defies the association.
The mechanics that keep people coming back to MMOs are much the same as those that keep the genre from being able to weave an appealing narrative. It’s the grind, you see: the sheer number of things that you can do in an MMO. A player who’s interested in grinding to gain top tier gear probably won’t be the one who reads every bit of text that crosses their screen. There just aren’t enough hours in a day for that.
Let me try and be as clear as possible. As I’ve been playing, this has been bugging me, and I really need to get it out. As I mentioned in the first part of this write-up on The Secret World, I’m not a huge MMO gamer. Realistically, I have noteworthy experience in three: World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and now The Secret World. I’ve played others: I’ve tried out free trials of Rift and TERA; dabbled in free-to-plays like Aion, Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan, and gave brief attention to Guild Wars and DC Universe Online. In most of those games, there is one undeniable constant: the story takes a backseat to the gameplay.
Stories in MMOs are usually doled out in huge blocks of texts from NPCs – sometimes quest givers, other times not – and, inevitably, make for very uninteresting reading. WoW in particular has such a massive lore behind it, but it’s impossible for me to become invested in because it’s just too arduous. There’s too much to focus on: too much history and backstory; too many characters and locations and rivalries. Now, I know there are players out there who do dive into the lore of the worlds they’re exploring in MMOs, but, as far as I can tell, they are in the minority.
A problem then arises when an MMO leans too heavily on its story: I saw it in SWTOR, and I’m seeing it in The Secret World. They both tell rather engaging tales, but all of the grind prevents them from being immersive. Because, no matter how good the story is, there comes a time when, in order to see more of it, you have to grind your way there. Whether it’s to get more experience to gain that extra level and, hopefully, an edge in the next area, or completing side quests to replace that one poor piece of gear, the flow will eventually break, and, once it does, it becomes difficult to pick it back up again.
As far as The Secret World goes, when I first left London, and emerged from the crowded Agartha to find the mist-shrouded, zombie-infested forest of Kingsmouth, I had an idea of what was going on: an incident in a Tokyo subway had provoked the alarm of my fellow Templars, and now the loss of contact from Solomon Island had put them on high alert. As I began battling my first zombies, I knew that my purpose was to find whatever had caused the mysterious fog to enshroud and isolate the island, and, if possible, reverse it.
Somewhere along the line, though, I lost that thread. I can’t really go into detail without revealing the sort of spoilers that make people boo me when they see me on the street, but by the time I had moved from Kingsmouth Town to the Savage Coast (the second questing area), I had more or less lost any coherent idea as to what the story was driving at anymore.
This isn’t so much a problem with the story itself as it is with the concept of telling a deep story in an MMO, as I was trying to illustrate earlier. In doing all of the extra missions that littered Kingsmouth Town, instead of simply pushing on with the story – which, given the increasing difficulty as I progressed, I wouldn’t have been able to do – I wasn’t able to become engaged by it. Funcom tried to balance that out by making the missions outside of the story give background info about people and locations, fleshing out the lore of the world you’re playing in, but that almost makes it worse, because I don’t know how much of that background information is immediately relevant. It makes following the story very difficult.
I’m still holding out hope, though. I’m hoping that, as I progress, something will finally click, and I’ll be able to become enthralled with the story. It’s just that, at the moment, the realistic part of me severely doubts that will happen.
But, I spoke enough about the story last week. This time around, I said I’d try out instances and PvP, to see how well (or poorly) playing with others went in The Secret World. So, that was what I did. Or at least what I tried to do.
The result, so far as PvP is concerned, is an impassive ‘meh.’ This isn’t because the system itself is uninspired, though: actually, I quite like the setup. There are three PvP battlegrounds live right now: Stonehenge, El Dorado, and Fusang. The former two are score-based contests, and the latter is a persistent, capture-the-control-points style match-up. For every objective the Templars held in Fusang, I got a buff for my character outside of PvP that was part of a blanket ‘World Domination’ buff. Because Fusang is constantly underway, the points my faction holds change on the fly, and so, consequentially, do the buffs I have. Even outside of PvP, my chat window constantly informed me of when one of the other two factions were attacking one of the points Templars held, and since Fusang is more or less an instant queue, if I wanted, I could immediately jump into the fray to help defend a point that was being attacked, or to assist in an assault on a point that we wanted to capture.
I really liked this idea. It gives initiative to compete in PvP outside of the standard ‘gain a specific kind of currency that you can then use to buy gear specifically for PvP matches so that you can, hopefully, do better in PvP.’ It has a direct effect on the strength of my character when questing, which, personally, makes me more apt to participate. I’ve never been much good at PvP in WoW or SWTOR, so grinding honour points or PvP rank has always been really difficult for me, though it’s something my friends enjoy, so I tend to have to partake. Seeing an immediate, appreciable result from PvP is refreshing, rather than only noticing a slight difference after grinding away at it for hours.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether what I liked about Fusang carried over into Stonehenge or El Dorado. I couldn’t get into them. Unlike Fusang, which, as I mentioned, is persistent, El Dorado and Stonehenge are shorter, score-based matches. I have a sneaking suspicion that a queue won’t pop for either until all three sides have the maximum number of allowed players – 5 a side for Stonehenge, 10 for El Dorado – and that, the reason that I never saw a queue pop is because no one is playing them. Over the course of this week, I’ve tried queuing for them at various times of day, and no matter when I enter the queue, and no matter how long I sit in it, the queue just never pops.
I didn’t have this problem with Fusang: it’s persistent status meant that, no matter how few players were actually in it, I could still manage to get in. Unfortunately, the lack of players still carried over. Generally speaking, one faction always has more players in Fusang at one time than the others, so I either found capturing points extremely easy because I and my fellow Templars were uncontested, or found defending them nearly impossible because I had no support whatsoever.
The sad thing is, Funcom went to great lengths to set up the PvP in this game as more than a simple excuse to be able to attack other players. They give a reason for each match constantly repeating (the Council of Venice refuses to let one side dominate the other two), and I’m sure that, somewhere in the game, there’s even more backstory to the ‘secret war’ than I know. I’m not entirely fond of the fact that, when I entered a battleground, my character was stripped of the outfit I gave him, and instead shoved into a uniform and mask, but, considering it’s a ‘secret’ war, it kind of makes sense. It all seems well-designed, but I can’t really judge one way or another because there was no one else around to play with.
It wasn’t just the PvP that suffered due to lack of players, either. My plan was, in between battlegrounds, to run each of the group instances I’d come across so far, but aside from Polaris, the very first instance, I couldn’t ever manage to get into a group. I had almost given up on Polaris, as well, but I happened to be near the area where you pick up the dungeon quest, and another player asked if I wanted to group with them. As for the others, either I could never get a response when asking for a group, or we could never manage to get a full group (five players) for the run.
It was a shame, too, because I rather enjoyed Polaris. In most MMOs, early group instances are more or less a breeze. You have tougher enemies, but as long as everyone knows their role, you’ll get by without a hitch. It’s not until later instances where you start having to pay careful attention to attack patterns, and actually learn the fights. In The Secret World, though, you’d better be ready to jump in the moment you warp to the dungeon. Otherwise, you’ll end up dead. The last boss of Polaris in particular (who had a suspicious resemblance to Cthulu, I think) did a real number on the group I was in. We wiped two or three times, since only one of us had been in the dungeon before.
The Secret World isn’t an MMO that has any interest in holding your hand. The cursory idea I had about how to play when I first entered Kingsmouth Town is all the game will hand you: the rest, you have to figure out for yourself. It’s a tough game, and that’s a nice thing to see in an MMO: it means that early quests and instances aren’t completely dull. But it suffers from a severe lack of players, and I think, ultimately, that’s going to be its downfall. The amount of people speaking in the general chat was ridiculously lower than what I saw last week: for all the complaints I saw people making there about how Guild Wars 2 was no good, I think that’s where a lot of players migrated to. It is free-to-play, after all. I have a funny feeling that, once SWTOR enacts its F2P model, and Mists of Pandaria releases, The Secret World is going to get very barren indeed. The scary thing is, I’ll be able to watch it happen: I’m still going to be playing it.
Well, probably. I’ve started to hit some bugs that are severely dampening my enthusiasm for the game. I haven’t hit any bugged quests yet, but there have been a few glitches that have hampered my playing. The most notable one is, after being struck by dash attacks from ak’ab (large, insect-like things) and getting knocked down, I end up in the world geometry, instead of on it. I fall through the ground, so that, from about the knee down, my character appears to be underground. That means I can’t jump, my walking speed is severely reduced, my ability to walk is restricted since some of the ground you can’t walk through (go figure), and, most egregiously of all, I can’t even attack the ak’ab I’m fighting anymore. Every single one of my attacks is interrupted, somehow. This wouldn’t bother me very much, except that it happens quite often while fighting these things. They’re annoying enough to begin with, without being rendered incapacitated by glitches.
The other bugs I’ve experienced are minor: a graphical hiccup while crossing a bridge results in me falling through the bridge into the water below, an enemy getting stuck on a tree, and, once, the game freezing up and sending my computer to a blue screen. Blue screens are never a good thing. But, from an MMO that’s still, realistically, in its early stages of release, this is all quite tolerable. I’ve heard worse things about WoW when it launched, and I experienced worse when I first played SWTOR. It’s really not until a few months in that the most overt errors in an MMO are smoothed out. I probably won’t still be playing when that happens, since the point of an MMO is to play with other people, and there’s a severe lack of those right now, but, if you are thinking about playing the game, it’s something to keep in mind.
It really is a shame, though. There are some unique design elements to The Secret World that I think could be very successful. I just don’t feel like it was marketed well enough, and, perhaps, released at an inopportune time. It’s also very hard to push an MMO with a subscription model right now, so Funcom is contending with that. A lot of what I say to myself while playing is that ‘maybe later that will make sense,’ (the story) or ‘further in, this will be easier’ (getting a group for instances), but really, I don’t think a lot of the big problems I’ve noticed are going to be smoothed out by continued playing. I still will, of course, but even now, I’m starting to get a final picture of The Secret World in my head, and it’s not at all what the earliest moments of the game suggested it would be.