Chaos Theory: The Secret World was worth the wait

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|07.12.12

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Chaos Theory: The Secret World was worth the wait
Chaos Theory - The Secret World - worthy and worth the wait
Folks, I have to be brutally honest: I'm old. I have a family, two jobs, and more time-consuming hobbies than one man should. And yet it pains me to log out of The Secret World.

Last Saturday I slew demons (and Illuminati) in Funcom's new MMORPG for 10 hours straight. Actually, I took a 30-minute dinner break, so I guess it was more like nine-and-a-half. The point is that I looked up at my clock, said holy crap when it told me that the sun was about to rise, and scratched my head trying to remember the last time that happened.

I've been playing MMOs since the late 1990s, and when I say that I've pretty much played them all, that's not hyperbole. Right now, TSW is running a close second to Star Wars Galaxies as the most enjoyable title I've experienced to date. And keep in mind that it's been live for two weeks.

The Secret World - scrapyard defense
Why the gushing fanboy praise? I can't help it. I've been jaded about this genre for so long now that I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to really dig one of these games. The idea of an MMO never lost its luster, of course, but as each new title moved the goalposts away from virtual worlds and toward mass market homogenization, my personal pucker factor went through the roof.

If you're in the same boat, I'd strongly encourage you to toss Funcom 50 bucks and take TSW for a 30-day spin. Yeah, I know. Your mates said the combat sucks and the animations are lacking. They're partially right about the latter, but they're pretty far off base with the former. Combat is dauntingly complex, no doubt about it, and perhaps this doesn't sit well with people who have no experience with anything beyond classes and talent trees. I've heard some folks bad-mouthing the mechanics while running around Kingsmouth, which is OK, but realize it's also like smack-talking World of Warcraft at level 5.

The Secret World - Dragon operativesBut wait, don't go away mad just yet. This is not a get-to-the-endgame-so-your-opinion-matters editorial; the endgame in The Secret World starts right after you create your character. Funcom's skill system -- and the sheer amount of combat-related gameplay choice it makes available -- shames every MMORPG not named EVE Online.

If that comparison makes you throw up in your mouth a little, let me ease your mind. Funcom has done what CCP could not: It has created an MMO with old-school complexity that is also quite fun for new-school facerollers who may not have the time or the desire to suss out the difference between afflicted and hindered.

You don't have to spend hours poring over deck builds or wrapping your brain around the talisman system, but it ups the enjoyment ante considerably if you do. You can just go pick up a weapon and frag a sizable portion of the game's early content, soaking in Funcom's peerless world design and Ragnar Tornquist's fun story threads along the way.

If and when you get tired of facerolling, you'll find one of the deepest, most engaging character development systems in any MMO. And just for the record, how cool is it that you can go pick up any weapon and use it whenever you want? The fact that you're not locked into some class-based bind-on-equip nonsense (yes you can trade weapons and other gear with your friends!) is long overdue in terms of both gameplay and immersion.

Now, before some of you starving sandbox folk get all hot and bothered, understand that The Secret World is not a sandbox. That word means different things to different people, but in my opinion, you can't be a sandbox if you have an auction house, quest-driven advancement, and a lack of player-owned land or the opportunity to affect the game world in a lasting/meaningful way.

That said, The Secret World is brimming with sandbox-inspired mechanics, and it has married them to a nifty questing system and a pro narrative. The resulting amalgamation is utterly unlike any MMO you've played before.

Let me say that again for effect.

There are sandbox MMOs, and there are themepark MMOs, and then there's The Secret World, straddling the fence between them and gleefully giving the middle finger to design convention that says you must serve one audience or the other.

Anyhow, whew. I think that's more positivity in a single column than I've managed over the past six months of work combined, and you can thank Funcom for my sunny attitude. I'm also pretty sure that I just (unintentionally) veered into territory occupied by our new Why I Play column. It's funny because I sat down to write a guide for this week's piece, but the preceding lovefest found its way onto the page instead, without any pretense or preamble.

So, look. I know you're jaded. I know you're tired of hype, ham-handed Blizzard wannabes, and the fact that MMO designers are more concerned with business models and metrics than fun and immersion. I'm tired of all that stuff too. Things are changing, though. And somewhat ironically given its grim subject matter, I think The Secret World is the first real hint of light at the end of our tunnel.

The Secret World - Priest Island boss
Yes, Jef Reahard is paid to play The Secret World. But he's not paid by Funcom; Massively leaves the bribes and the bad grammar to its imitators (it's a conspiracy!). Chaos Theory comes your way every Thursday, bringing you Gaia's latest news, guides, and commentary.
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