Last week, I finally gave into the guilt and hopped back into the game. I had kept my subscription running, as I knew that even if I wasn't actively playing, I still wanted to support Funcom's endeavors with what I felt was a remarkably refreshing entry into the stagnant MMO marketplace. Last I left my Illuminati agent Rouage, he had hit something of a brick wall in Blue Mountain thanks to a very short-sighted and subpar character build. I figured I'd probably be replaying Kingsmouth and/or Savage Coast just to get the AP to rectify my build anyway, so I scrapped him and started from the beginning. This time, it clicked. So here I am to tell you why it clicked, and of course, why I play The Secret World.
Let's start by talking about one of the game's main draws: the skill wheel. Amusingly, one of The Secret World's best features is the very one that caused the game to not "click" with me at first, and I think I've determined why that is. When I jumped into TSW for the first time, I knew that the entire skill wheel was open to me, but I was still stuck in the mindset of a class-based game. I thought to myself, "I want to build a DPS character, so I should take only the abilities that maximize my DPS, wear only DPS gear, and basically breathe DPS day in and out." I wasn't even listening to myself. All the times I had raved to my friends about the exciting, varied builds you could create with the myriad combinations on the skill wheel hadn't sunk in.
What finally clicked is that there was no reason to take just the DPS skills, and in fact the game was encouraging me to use those interesting, flexible builds I'd yammered on about. So this time around, instead of going knee-deep into a single skill category, I spread out. A few DPS skills here, a couple of heals there, some complementary passives, and voila! Everything suddenly went much more smoothly than before. This is really the beauty of the skill wheel. It's a buffet, really. You don't go to a buffet and eat a metric ton of General Tso's; you get some rice and crab rangoon to go with it (anyone suddenly craving Chinese?). Anyway, questionable analogies aside, I love TSW's approach to character progression. It may not be as intuitive as it could be, but the depth and freedom are astounding.
Investigation missions are also one of TSW's biggest appeals to me. The cerebral challenges that these missions pose are fiendishly clever at times and borderline impossible at others, but they all twist your brain in ways that MMO quests never have before. During my time in The Secret World, I've discovered the existence of Dutch painter Frans Hals, I've "hacked" into the "real-life" Orochi Group website to learn the name of some dead guy's wife, and I've even learned to translate Morse code (sort of). Each and every one of these missions requires a degree of lateral thinking, and I adore the ARG elements that Funcom uses to reinforce the idea that TSW's game world is the real world. It makes it that much easier to suspend my disbelief and pretend that I really am a covert Illuminati agent prowling the streets of New York rather than sitting in front of a computer in some podunk Floridian city.
On top of the fact that they're simply fabulous challenges in and of themselves, they also serve a secondary purpose. They break up the tedium of the kill-X and Fed-Ex quests that (let's face it) are still alive and well in TSW. But investigation missions aren't the only thing to alleviate the drudgery usually associated with standard MMO quests. The Secret World also features fully voiced cinematics for almost every mission. These cutscenes manage to breathe life into the world, making you feel truly immersed and full of purpose even when all you're really doing is killing five zombies. You're not just killing five zombies, though; you're putting down the infected family of a man who sorrowfully asked you to put them out of their misery. If you're the sort of person who gets overly attached to fictional characters (hint: I am), you'll feel a tinge of regret with every squeeze of your assault rifle's trigger as you mow down poor little Joey and his mother.
The game's over-arching story also keeps me hooked, as I'm always eager to see what piece of the mystery will finally unravel next. The Secret World delivers the lore of its world masterfully through a combination of quest dialogue, in-game documents, and subtle hints and rumors. For instance (and minor spoilers ahead), you first encounter wendigo in the first zone of the game, Kingsmouth. It's not until two zones later, though, that a few off-hand remarks start to clue you in on what the wendigo really are. First they're off-handedly referred to as skin-eaters, but hey, what in this game hasn't been trying to eat your skin from the start? Then the local native tribesmen start referring to some dark event that precipitated the change, and soon enough you can piece together that the nasty buggers are former natives that resorted to the heinous sin of cannibalism.
And that brings me to the final reason that I love The Secret World, and that's the development team. I'm not just kissing ass here, I promise. Funcom catches a lot of flak (much of it rightfully deserved) for things like the infamous rocky launches of its two previous MMOs, Anarchy Online and Age of Conan. The studio's earned itself a rather unflattering nickname for its troubles. But The Secret World's team, especially newly seated Game Director Joel Bylos, seems to be truly dedicated to righting TSW's wrongs. This is evident by how frankly (and it would seem, transparently) Bylos addresses the game's shortcomings in his recent announcement on plans for the future of TSW.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.