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Chaos Theory: How The Secret World has spoiled an MMO vet

Jef Reahard

Well ladies and gents, The Secret World has basically done the impossible: It's turned me into a one-game guy (for the moment, at least). I've been an unfaithful game-hopping MMO tourist for longer than I care to remember, and while F2P has made that gaming lifestyle more affordable than it used to be, it hasn't made it any more fun.

Oh sure, I'll dabble in PlanetSide 2 and Guild Wars 2, but as far as my MMO home goes, it's The Secret World by a landslide (at least until ArcheAge heads west). Why is that? Well, plenty of reasons, more than I can relate in this week's column, in fact. I will say this, though: The Secret World's launch feature set has made me a bit pickier in terms of what I'll put up with in competing games.

The Secret World - Investigation quest
Skill-based progression
First of all, let's talk about the game's skill-based progression. I know that some of you think it's putting lipstick on a pig. After all, the game is heavily gear-based, and group content is still predicated on the (un)holy trinity.

That said, TSW at least offers the illusion of choice early in the game (and actual choice later on). There are, what, eleventy billion skills and possible decks? Yes, most people probably start with Funcom's pre-made decks, and yes, even custom decks conform to your basic tank, healer, and DPS archetypes. There is plenty of wiggle room, though, and this is where TSW sets itself apart.

The majority of the MMO industry is stuck in the old talent tree rut. This is bad news for those of us who've been playing for a while, because there's only so much replay value you can get out of that model. While TSW's spin on the genre seems at first blush to be more of a sidegrade than an upgrade, I think Funcom is at least headed in the right direction. If nothing else, the door has been left open due to the skill-based foundation of the game, whereas most MMOs have a very definite fun ceiling regardless of how you approach combat and regardless of future systemic tweaks.

The Secret World - casting while moving
Cast while moving
While we're talking combat, I'd like to point out that The Secret World has ruined me when it comes to rooted spell-casting. I don't mean crowd-control roots but rather those games that force your character to remain stationary in order to fire off an attack or a special ability. I simply can't stand that kind of limitation any longer. I've dabbled in older games since TSW came out, but my pucker factor very quickly went through the roof, and I returned just as quickly to my free-wheeling TSW Magus.

I'm sure this will bring out the catcalls and the projectile tomatoes, but I just love TSW's combat, both the PvE and the PvP. It's intuitive, it feels good, and it doesn't require an advanced mathematics degree to understand it (although stats and gear progression are a different ballgame, more on those in future installments).

Keep in mind too that this is coming from someone who loathed Age of Conan's button-mashing melee gymnastics. The Secret World's combat tones those absurdities down a notch but manages to preserve the more pleasing movement aspects. It then marries them to some good old-fashioned hotbar cycling and a Guild Wars-style limit on your active skills.

More like this please and thank you, mister next-gen MMO developer.

The Secret World - PC and NPC
No Nolan North
Oh and the Guild Wars mention up there reminded me of something else I like about The Secret World. Well, technically this is related to Guild Wars 2 (and Star Wars: The Old Republic, for that matter). See, even though TSW is as story-based as MMOs come, thankfully my character doesn't sound like Nolan North.

In fact, he doesn't sound like anyone because Funcom wisely chose to go all Gordon Freeman when it comes to player characters. Some folks probably don't like the whole mute approach, but I couldn't be happier about it. For one thing, the lack of protagonist voiceovers probably cuts out some of the unnecessary budget bloat that has infected the latest batch of MMORPGs.

For another, I don't speak like a famous voice actor, nor does any of the dudes I'm liable to roleplay, so from an immersion standpoint, having someone cut in on my story action is unacceptable. It's also rather jarring to have three or four preset dialogue responses that my character has to deliver in order to accept a task. The Secret World eschews this faux choice and simply serves up old-school cutscenes that help with immersion and occasionally provide vital quest-related information.

Subtlety is the key here, and if I have to accept that dev-authored MMO story is a fact of MMO life going forward, Funcom's approach is the clear winner.

The Secret World - cold shower
Finally, The Secret World has completely spoiled me when it comes to appearance customization. I'm not talking about face and body sliders because frankly those could be better. The game has a staggering amount of cosmetic clothing options, though, and it combines them with a terrific gear management system that separates your avatar's look from his stats on day one.

There's no grinding to unlock appearance armor, and there's no paying for appearance slots in the cash shop (I'm looking at you, Fallen Earth); there's just solid functionality that ought to be standard MMO equipment these days. Unfortunately, it's not, as there are still plenty of games out there for which appearance slots and vanity gear are some sort of unattainable, newfangled super-tech.

Here's to hoping that all the new games in the pipeline take a long look at what Funcom's done with this particular system, as I'm hard-pressed to think of a more elegant solution to the problem of customization. That's all I have for you this week. As always, feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions, and flames below.

The Secret World - Sam Krieg quote
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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