Hands-on with The Secret World's mission system

The Secret World - Kingsmouth quest NPC
So The Secret World's mission system treads well off the beaten MMO path. It's pretty cool, actually, though portions of it may irritate quest-grinders who just want to blow through zones on their way to the game's equivalent of a max-level toon.

For the rest of us, there's a nifty interface, some challenging puzzles, and plenty of well-written quest text and dialogue to keep us entertained for weeks at a time.

The Secret World - Kingsmouth church
Why should you do missions? Well, apart from the fact that they give out the game's largest ability point and skill point rewards, they're the primary thing that sets The Secret World apart from its MMO contemporaries. Funcom has poured a lot of effort into the game's backstory, and it shows in details ranging from quest text descriptions (which, contrary to quests in your typical MMO, are actually vital to understanding and completing some of the more challenging missions) to voiced dialogue to little details like pop-up phone book pages or manhole cover closeups.

There's a classic adventure game feel to The Secret World, which is no accident given the involvement of Ragnar Tornquist (creator of Dreamfall and The Longest Journey). Don't get me wrong; there are the usual MMO kill and fetch quests too, but these are fewer than you might expect, and they're dressed up quite nicely with plenty of atmosphere and a sense of purpose beyond getting to max level.

The Secret World - Quest tracker
Mission types and the UI

The Secret World has seven different mission types: story, action, item, investigation, sabotage, group/dungeon, and PvP. Each of these types is represented by an iPhone-style icon both on the UI's quest tracker (floating under your minimap at screen right) and hovering next to the NPC's head in the game world proper. That probably sounds a bit complicated when you read it, but the actual experience is pretty slick.

It did take me a minute to figure out that I had to re-click each icon to collapse the appropriate menu tree, but once I had that down, the NPC interface really grew on me.

Each mission is sub-divided into tiers, which consist of a series of objectives like talk to this guy, follow these clues to this location, or kill these guys. Tiers must be completed in order, and once all tiers are complete, you'll get an on-screen pop-up directing you to phone in your success to a faction representative. This is fantastic because it eliminates the tedious travel-back-to-the-NPC-who-gave-you-the-quest bollux that is so common in themepark MMOs.

The Secret World - Illuminati manhole covers
The Secret World mindset

Questing in The Secret World requires a completely different mindset when compared to your average MMO. You shouldn't try to finish every quest in a particular "hub" (chances are you won't be able to acquire them all anyway). Rather, concentrate on the story quest for a given area. The Kingsmouth story quest has a whopping 18 tiers, for example, and if you follow it through to completion, it will give you a comprehensive tour of the zone and lead you across other quest NPCs who will hand out supplementary mission types.

That's not to say you should ignore everything but the story quests. There are a ton of other objectives buried inside the aforementioned mission types. And while I'm thinking about them, let's go over those real quick. Rather than a big wall o' text, here's a bullet list for simplicity's sake.
  • Story - blue icon, primary game narrative
  • Action - red/brown icon, combat-focused
  • Item - dark green icon, collection-focused
  • Investigation - light green icon, factional history/challenging puzzles
  • Sabotage - yellow icon, covert/evasion missions
  • Group/Dungeon - purple icon, dungeons
  • PvP - orange icon, PvP
Some of these missions have prerequisites (denoted by a padlock symbol). Some are repeatable, usually to the tune of a 24-hour cooldown (though this is rumored to be temporary, post-launch cooldowns may be longer). Many have spiffy cinematic cutscenes that play upon acceptance (don't skip these, at least initially, because some of them contain vital information). Funcom apparently took some criticisms on Age of Conan to heart, as these quest cinematics are evident throughout the game, whereas in AoC they stopped at level 20 aside from the destiny line.

The Secret World - Deputy AndyQuesting limitations

I should also mention the quest system's limitations. Funcom has made a conscious design decision to limit a player's ability to gobble up quests and mow through them like some sort of steroid-powered MMO Pac-Man. What do I mean, specifically? Well, you can have only a single story, action, sabotage, investigation, or dungeon mission active at a given time. Item missions may be accepted in groups of three at a time. I'm not sure about PvP missions because I haven't done any yet (more on that in a later article).

It's also worth noting that you can't drop a mission. Let's say that I'm frustrated with The Kingsmouth Code investigation mission. I can either try one of the other mission types in my journal or accept another investigation mission, which will then pause The Kingsmouth Code. Whenever I feel like resuming The Kingsmouth Code, I'll need to go back to the original NPC to unpause it. If I've already completed several tiers, it will unpause with those tiers marked complete.

Now that we've got the technical nuts and bolts out of the way, allow me to give you a few impressions on questing in the game's Kingsmouth zone. Don't worry; I'm not going to spoil anything, as figuring out some of these mysteries is a large part of what makes The Secret World a unique title.

Action mission impressions

I took an action mission called Supply Run from the Kingsmouth sheriff. She's holed up in the police station (which is under constant siege from the town's plague of rampaging zombies). The quest's first tier had me find a phone book, and interacting with it popped up a pretty cool page graphic with some circled numbers, straight out of one of those old adventure games I mentioned before.

The design here is interesting because it seems like Funcom wanted to make a straight-up adventure game but decided to rein it in a bit because of MMO audience expectations. Supply Run has seven tiers, each of which involves going to a local Kingsmouth business and picking up various objects (canned food, first aid items, etc.). After a couple of the tiers, I came to a pharmacy, the front door of which was locked. My quest tracker said to go to find another phone book and find an additional place to look for supplies.

A nearby pay phone featured a phone book, which in turn featured several more entries. One of these was a fire station, and I supposed that that might be a good place to start. Then I looked over at my quest tracker and it said, in effect, go search the fire station (and there was even a big waypoint indicator on screen that took me right to it).

I daresay the quest would've been a bit more immersive (and certainly more challenging to complete) without the visual bread-crumb. It also would have elicited howls of rage (or yawns of disinterest) from the optimization crowd who want to power through everything ASAP.

The Supply Run quest was also the site of my first real ugh-this-is-an-MMO moment. There were several players flitting about, most of them ganking zombies, a few of them running for their lives from pulls gone wrong. As I jogged by one girl who was locked in mortal combat with a trio of undead, I did what any well-trained MMO player would do: I kept right on running.

I didn't stop to offer assistance. I didn't scream "holy sh-- look out behind you!" like you would probably do if you saw a girl kicking undead ass on your local street corner. Nope, I kept on truckin' to the next quest objective, and there went a large part of the immersion for that particular portion of my play session.

Now, I'm not blaming anyone but myself here. I certainly could have stopped and lent a roleplay hand (because the girl clearly didn't need my help dealing with the zombies in a gameplay sense). I've been conditioned to go-go-go! and to complete quest objectives above all else, though, and that mentality works against the nifty world that Tornquist and company have spent all these years building.

The Secret World - Kingsmouth Code clue
Investigation mission impressions

My first brush with an investigation mission came courtesy of the aformentioned Kingsmouth Code quest. Investigation missions have a reputation for being crazy-hard puzzle things, and this one didn't disappoint. The "hobbyist" Illuminati NPC who gave it to me didn't seem to mind that I was a Templar sort, but then again, I didn't exactly advertise that I was, either.

The quest was broken into tiers like the other types (there were five on this one), and the first stanza had me following a set of Illuminati symbols scattered about the town (on manhole covers, no less). I'm not ashamed to say that I got pretty wrapped up in the Kingsmouth Code. I even went to the "official" town of Kingsmouth website to suss out a few clues. The first couple of tiers went swimmingly enough, and the clues were such that it didn't take a whole lot of effort to make sense of them and get my avatar to the proper locations. I still haven't finished it, though, both because of time constraints and because it takes some actual mental effort.

It's also interesting to note that I was so engrossed in it that I almost didn't realize that Funcom had also addressed my earlier concerns with hand-holding, as this particular mission type does encourage you to use your noggin' and refuses to grant you the crutch of onscreen waypoints. Sure, I could have gone to the game's forums for help or simply watched a walkthrough on YouTube, but doing so robs you of a major reason to play The Secret World.

Ultimately, understanding the game's mission system (and buying into Funcom's decision to design for immersion rather than for traditional MMO quest mechanics) will go a long way toward determining whether you like the game. The mission system is really the meat and potatoes of The Secret World experience, with apologies to the many group dungeons and the PvP. If you're expecting to go through a traditional laundry-list of quests and you're bent on rapid content consumption, you're doing it wrong. If you're open to a new approach, and you're fond of the brain-teasers commonly found in old-school adventure titles, you may have a new favorite MMORPG.

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This article was originally published on Massively.