The Secret World should be less of a secret

So there’s this MMO… you might have heard of it, and you might not have. It’s called The Secret World (TSW), and it launched just over a month ago.

I was aware of it for the past few years but never really got very excited or interested. The premise was interesting enough; it’s a conspiracy-horror game set in the modern world, with no classes and no levels. I’ve played Funcom games before and got into the closed beta some time back. Initially, I found it interesting but it didn’t really grab me. Then, something strange happened… the more I played, the more I fell in love with the game. As it turns out, TSW is a remarkable game, and actually does some new things – and does them well.

So what’s new and exciting in TSW? There are two novel approaches to quest types, a novel approach to questing overall, and a (largely) novel skill-based character building system that allows for surprising flexibility.

The game is afoot!

TSW features a new type of quest called “investigation”. Investigation missions require you to apply real-world knowledge and skills to solve puzzles in-game. Unlike other types of quests, investigation missions don’t point you in the right direction with a quest tracker; instead you have to pay close attention to whatever clues you’re given, and find your own way.

Investigation missions might require you to translate a message sent in morse code, or head to a (real) website for a (fictional) group of people in game, or decode a cipher, or transliterate some strange symbols into the Roman alphabet, or figure out which painting in a given collection seems most like the work of a given artist, or find how to overload an electrical circuit, or find which notes are missing in a song. You never know what to expect, and the designers put a lot of effort into making investigations very lateral and unexpected. That isn’t to say that they use “adventure game logic” – aka puzzles that don’t actually make any sense at all and require you to brute-force through them with trial and error. No, in TSW all the puzzles actually have solutions, sometimes multiple solutions.

Oh, and there are deliberate red herrings, too.

The net result is that, when working on these quests, you’ll spend a surprising amount of time looking stuff up online, taking notes, scribbling pictures, and scratching your head. These are not things I normally spend time on in MMOs, and it’s a wonderful change of pace.

A brief digression is warranted here. Investigation missions really only “work” because this is the kind of game that drops you in the deep end and says, “OK, pick a direction and swim.” There’s very little hand-holding here, which can lead to a lot of player frustration. This is especially true for investigation missions and for the character-building system. Tonally, this kind of approach wouldn’t really work in most MMOs, because… to be very blunt… most MMOs are designed to be incredibly easy, and they hold your hand throughout.

TSW is also a very, VERY lore-deep game. That is to say, it’s a game about conspiracies and ancient secrets, and so you should expect that pretty much nothing is just handed to you and explained. If you want to know what’s really going on, you need to find clues, and you need to piece something together. Why is that fog in Kingsmouth anyhow? Who’s (redacted: the initial villain), and what’s (s)he up to? Why are there norse undead wandering around in Maine? All of these questions have answers, and none of them are just explained outright anywhere in the game.

Little Fish in a Big Pond

Another novel type of quest (or at least one I don’t recall seeing previously) in TSW is the “sabotage”. In a sabotage quest, you’re expected to accomplish your goals without fighting much, if at all. Foes will often be overwhelmingly powerful, to the point where being seen at all might lead to failure. There are no stealth skills in TSW so everyone’s on equal footing here. It comes down to paying close attention and being very sneaky. You’ll need to watch patrolling guards and find holes in their patterns. You’ll need to work out how to disable security measures without being spotted by them. You’ll need to find ways to break into secured areas, and ways to blend in.

It’s a real breath of fresh air, to be honest. We get used to the idea that we’re the biggest, baddest things around in most MMOs. Outside of raids, there are few times in WoW or LotRO or SWTOR when you couldn’t just barrel through everything; at worst, maybe you’d need to bring a few friends. But in TSW’s sabotage quests, there is no brute force solution; if you get caught you’re ejected and have to start over. And that’s pretty nifty.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do

I’ve lamented many times the state of questing in MMOs, especially the lack of agency. I, the player, don’t get to design my own quests – on the most basic level, I’m never doing what *I* want to do but merely consuming whatever content was already designed. But then on another level, my character also lacks agency in MMOs – because on the simplest level, *they* also don’t get to choose what to do, from their own perspective. Instead, our characters wander from one stranger to another, and accept whatever the strangers tell us to do. The only choices we have are which quests to accept, and (VERY rarely) perhaps we’ll have a single limited choice that affects the outcome.

When you get down to it, this isn’t how people act, and it’s always bothered me. Everyone has their own agendas. Nobody is so lacking in motivation and creativity that they’ll literally go from one stranger to another, asking what they can do to help, accepting any nonsensical request, and doing it all for whatever payment the stranger offers – no matter how worthless. This becomes even less realistic when you’re talking about powerful, high-level characters. If I’m e.g. The Wrath of the Emperor, or an honourary member of the Rangers of Eriador… explain to me why I spend my time doing minor errands for strangers?

TSW doesn’t give the player agency, but they do something interesting to give the characters agency in this regard. Quests, you see, are not “given” and “accepted” by and large. In fact, you’re never really “working” for the people you meet. Instead, you’re working for your own faction. Frequently, quests are started based on overhearing someone say something, or noticing a clue; it’s pretty rare for someone in TSW to outright ask you (a complete stranger) to help them. Instead, they might just talk a bit about something that’s been going on, and your character then decides what to do. When you’re done, you don’t run back to the “quest giver”; you call your faction and tell them what happened.

Sometimes, you end up more or less betraying the person who started the quest; you might take the treasure they seek, or undermine whatever they’re doing. You’re not their puppet or their lackey. I really, REALLY appreciate this. Hells, once or twice you’re even put in a position where you might end up betraying your own faction. From the perspective of my characters, there’s actually free will. This is astonishing; I cannot think of another MMO that has done this.

In Kingsmouth, most quests feel more traditional, in that people often ask you explicitly to help them. You might or might not actually “help” them though, in the process of completing the quest. By the time you’re in Egypt, most of the quests are more freeform; you’re acting as a free agent and troubleshooting for your faction, instead of explicitly helping anyone.

I Got Mad Skillz

TSW doesn’t have classes; instead, it has weapons. Right now, there are nine different types of weapons; three each of magic, melee, and ranged (guns). You can wield two weapons at a time.

It gets a LOT more complicated from there. 😉

The powers you wield are called abilities in TSW. You might have unlocked dozens or hundreds of abilities, but you can only use 14 at a time: 7 active and 7 passive. The active skills are limited to the weapons you wield; you can’t fire a gun, for instance, if you don’t have one in your hand. The passive skills can come from any weapon though, which leads to a surprising amount of flexibility in building characters.

But wait, there’s more…

Abilities are of three types: builders, consumers, and “specials”. Builders are things that build resources – go figure. Consumers… well, you might guess that they consume resources, and ok, I’ll give you that one. Resources can accumulate for each weapon you have equipped, and you can have up to five resources built up per weapon. Consumers can cost anything from one to five resources, or can simply state that they use up all the resources of a given type (meaning the more you have to spend, the more powerful the effect). Naturally, there’s a cycle here, wherein you build up resources using builders, then spend them using consumers.

“Special” abilities generally don’t cost or generate any resources, and instead simply have timers. They might allow you to deal a lot of damage, or stun a foe, or heal yourself… and they’ll work maybe once every 30 or 80 or 180 seconds. I call them “specials” because generally speaking they’re not part of the resource system, but they’re mixed in with everything else.

And that’s not all…

There are also three miscellaneous categories of abilities: one each for tanking, dpsing, and healing. These are not weapon types but merely groups of abilities, so unlike weapon-based abilities, you can use abilities from the miscellaneous trees regardless of the weapons you wield. A tanking active ability might be something like a taunt; a healing active ability might be something that removes crowd control effects from you or heals you; a dpsing active ability might be something that boosts your damage output for a while.

There are also special abilities called “elites”. Elite abilities are generally just flat-out better than other abilities, and so we’re restricted in how we use them. You can only have one active elite ability and one passive elite ability at a time. And yes, it’s generally a good idea to have one of each, no matter what else you’re doing with your build.

So, those are the basics. No, seriously, it gets yet more complicated from there…

Abilities can be linked to effects, which come in four flavours: afflict, hinder, impair, and weaken. An affliction is a damage-over-time effect. A hinder is something that slows someone down, possibly to the point of being stuck in place. An impair is what’s called a “stun” in most MMOs; it leaves foes unable to do anything at all for a short period. A weaken is something that debuffs your foes, either by reducing the amount of damage or healing they can do, or by making them less able to mitigate damage done to them.

Abilities also have subtypes, based on how the ability manifests. An ability might be a chain, for instance, meaning it strikes one foe then chains to another close by, and so on until done. Or an ability might be a focus-type, meaning you channel the ability for a certain period.

Abilities can also be linked to triggers, such as hitting a foe, or penetrating its defenses, or evading a blow, or having a blow glance you (glancing blows are a special class of “partially-mitigated” attacks that can be linked to various things via abilities).

Finally, abilities can cause certain things to happen, such as healing a target, putting up a shield around the target, increasing or decreasing hate, removing debuffs from allies, removing buffs from foes, or leeching the life from foes to allies.

What does all of that mean, really? It sounds pretty overwhelming, and to be honest, it is at first. But then once it all starts to make sense, you’ll find yourself with a truly impressive amount of flexibility.

Say, for instance, that you like damage over time. No matter which weapons you wield, you could add a passive ability from Fists called “Bloodsport”, which afflicts your foes every time you strike them. That means every attack with every weapon adds an affliction. Add in the passive ability “Unholy Knowledge” from Blood Magic, and all your damage over time is increased by 10%; and again, you’re dealing damage over time with every single attack here. Now you might add on something like the passive ability “Salt in the Wound”, also from Fists, which adds some bonus damage every time you add an affliction (and remember, you’re adding an affliction with every attack). Now, to vary things up a bit, maybe you want to use an ability that takes advantage of your foes’ afflictions, so you add an active ability from Blades called “Clearing the Path”, which is an area attack that penetrates any foes it hits that are already afflicted. Now that you can automatically penetrate a foe’s defenses using that attack, maybe you’ll want to add in a passive from Blades called “Twist the Knife”, which is a self-buff that increases the damage you deal by 3% for 10 sec; every time you penetrate a foe you gain a stack of this buff, which can stack up to 3 times. Well hellllllllo synergy!

Let’s take another example. There’s a passive ability in Shotgun called “Close Quarters”. It modifies your attacks such that anytime you attack a foe that’s close to you, that foe is Hindered, and will move more slowly for a bit. You could mix this with a passive ability from Assault Rifle called “No Contest”, which states that any time you apply Hindered to a foe, your next attack cannot be evaded. Well, remember, with Close Quarters, literally every single attack we make from close range has a Hinder effect, and so every single blow after the first such could not be evaded. That’s pretty spiffy.

Let’s take another example. In Blades, there’s a nice Focus attack called “Dancing Blade”, which consumes resources to deal a lot of damage to a single foe. Now, we could pair that with some passive abilities that take advantage of Focus attacks, such as “Seven and a Half Samurai” from Blades (all Focus attacks are 7.5% more effective), or “Torture” from Blood Magic (every time you finish a Focus attack you deal a little extra damage), or “Ready for More” from Pistols (which removes debuffs from you and nearby allies when you finish using a Focus ability), and so on. Now that you have all of those neat ways to improve Focus attacks, we might want to add a few more of them to our build, so we can use them more often, so we might add something like “Chop Shop” from Blades (an area effect consumer Focus attack) or “Exsanguinate” from Blood Magic (a single-target ranged builder Focus attack).

It’s hard to understand how much flexibility you have in TSW until you’ve played for quite a bit and built up your character. The important thing to remember is that, except for elites, new abilities won’t be more powerful or overall “better” than the ones you already know. Instead, they’ll simply offer new synergies so you can mix them with other abilities to do new things. This is very much a game where you grow horizontally moreso than vertically, in keeping with the “no levels” claim. Yes, there are objective ways to measure character power anyhow, and yes, gear is one  such method, but in general, TSW has a very different approach to how characters grow in power over time.

There’s a “gear manager” in TSW which allows you to store character builds, including ability choices and gear. You can then quickly switch between one build and another, so e.g. if you normally solo, you might want to have a hybrid build that has some self-healing. Then if you joined up with a second person who’s running a healing build, you might switch to full-dps or even add in some tanking abilities. Then if you joined a full group to explore a lair or venture into a dungeon, you might want a more specialized build yet. In most MMOs, this would entail rolling a new character, but in TSW this just entails swapping out one build for another.

There’s a profound downside to this kind of powerful and flexible character-building system: it’s possible to make mistakes. That is to say, you’re free to create a build and wear gear that really won’t help you complete content. You could e.g. create a build with consumers but no builders, and thus you might not be able to use any abilities at all. Or you might equip nothing but tanking gear, and then find that your damage or healing output are mysteriously low. Worse yet, you might just find that things get harder and harder until you hit a wall and seem unable to defeat any foes at all.

The key in TSW is that most of the “work” goes into choosing your abilities. Combat is still active and fairly dynamic, but what you’re able to DO in combat relies completely on which abilities you’ve chosen for yourself.

So what happens if you hit that wall? What if you find your build just isn’t working? Luckily, the game’s set up for this contingency. The first adventuring area in game, Kingsmouth, is designed such that complete newbies with newbie gear can complete almost all the content. Quests can all be repeated in TSW (except for the main storyline and investigations), so if you do hit a wall, all you need to do is backtrack to whatever content you were able to complete before, and repeat it. You’ll earn just as much exp the second time as the first, and can then alter your build to get you over, around, under, or through that metaphorical wall.

In a very real sense there aren’t actually any “mistakes” in building characters in TSW, because the long-term plan for every character is to earn all abilities. If you buy something today and have no use for it now, that honestly doesn’t mean it’s “wasted”; tomorrow you might find that something that seemed worthless to you previously is now the linchpin of your exceedingly clever and unique build.

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