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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Playing too much of The Secret World

I started playing The Secret World this summer when it was on sale on Steam and Guild Wars 2 had started to bore me. It has eaten up a lot of my time since. So here's my review of the game.

The Secret World is an MMO with a modern horror/magic/conspiracies theme. Each player character is in one of three factions, the Templars, Illuminati, and the Dragon. Think paladins from London, manipulative business types from New York and agents of Chaos from the Far East for organizational flavor text but pretty much mirror image functionality. All three are in a low level secret war for dominance but basically go through 95% the same quests to make discoveries and save the world as they go through the game. Missions are undertaken in places that are being overtaken by various evil magical or mysterious forces. There's a lot of Cthulhu mythos type magic via invasive power from other dimensions in the lore. That's not much of a spoiler since you encounter it very early in the game. The first mission zone is basically Lovecraftian New England in the middle of a mini-zombie apocalypse.

It came out last year, but after one of their pre-release weekends I had trouble trying to buy it from them online, so I passed for awhile. Now it is buy once and then "free" but you can figure on spending at least another $20 or so in the cash store for two paid content expansions.  They give you some free bonus points to try the store that will buy one of the three. The cash store also offers extras like titles, potions, clothing, and the like, but the two issues are the only "must have" items and only you keep playing after a couple months (assuming 10-20 hours a week). Optional subscription gives some benefits, but I haven't found it compelling.

Mechanically, it has an interesting skill and gear based progression system. You have two kinds of points to spend on your character as you gain experience, APs and SPs.

APs buy skills you can slot in to use (up to 7 active skills in use at any one time split between two weapons and 7 passives, later on adding one active and one passive for an auxiliary weapon). They start cheap but get progressively more expensive in APs, 1-50. There's an inner wheel of two banks of AP skills for each weapon, each bank scaling up 1-7 points for basic skills, and several banks for each weapon on the outer wheel with costs starting at 9 and going up to 50 in each bank. You'll start off with skills in two weapons, but as you fill them out, you branch out and do others, and can build up decks of abilities that mix and match pairs of weapons, plus possibly complimentary passive skills from other weapons. There are also three special non-weapon outer banks that can be mixed in, one for tanky skills, one for avoiding aggro, and one for some utilities. I currently have about half of the skills unlocked and can do some pretty interesting mixing and matching to vary the playstyle as I get bored or to fit the situation or adjust to be more damage or heals or tanky for trinity dungeon play or make more subtle tweaks when refighting a tough encounter in a dungeon.

SPs accrue at a bit less than half the rate of APs and are used to unlock progressively better gear. Each weapon has two scales that go 1-10 in terms of cost to buy the next level and the level of the item you can use. Your character has seven other magic item slots for Talismans, that also get skilled up. It is worthwhile to keep these within a point of the skill level on the weapons. I gimped myself for awhile by concentrating on weapons first. The stat bonuses from weapons and talismans provide enhanced damage dealing and damage reduction along several mechanical axes. There are three basics - Attack, Hit Points, and Healing, and several secondary ones to enhance penetration or blocking of penetration, critical hits chance and effect, evading being hit, damage reduction from physical and magical damage sources, etc.

Eventually you can unlock all the skills, and your only differentiation from other maxed out people is deck preference, not actually having a fixed class specialty like in most MMOs. This is both good and bad.

While levelling up gear was pretty much a matter of using a mishmash of whatever dropped or came as quest rewards or turned up at a reasonable price in the auction house. Doing an occasional dungeon can load you up with some blue items that are statted better than the basic greens you get while wandering around the world, making it worthwhile to do the 5 player dungeons even if you typically solo. Once skilled up to use level 10 gear, you'll want to do either a lot of dungeons or the 10 character raids into raid zones, to get filled up on a mixed set of blues, and to do all the dungeons at elite level to unlock nightmare level for further gear progression.

Crafting is a matter of breaking items down into materials and combining lower tier materials into higher tier ones or following recipes to combine materials with a toolkit to make stuff. I laid out the first page of my bank storage as a big 2D array of crafting materials with a vector for each kind of material in its different grades. Every so often I pull out stacks and do the 5 to 1 render of the stacks up to the next level, then that level to the next, etc, until I accumulate most of them at the top tier. I haven't actually made too many items yet, as I usually haven't been positioned to make useful things. I made my gadgets, a couple weapons, and a few glyphs that go into weapons to imbue them with secondary stats. Mostly I am stacking up materials for when I eventually get useful blue or purple toolkit drops.

The "missions" are well written as MMOs go and full of lore flavor.  Many are surprisingly atmospheric. A few are very funny. A few missions have puzzles that either make you do things like copy encoded text to decrypt by writing an appropriate script or finding a tool on the web, or foreign languages text to translate. I'm sure there is great satisfaction to puzzle solvers who actually take the time to solve those. If I could have control-C copied out the encoded data and pasted to a text file instead of retyping it from the image, I might have done so when I recognized the encoding schemes. But I tend to want to get on with it and hit the guides at or one of the wikis rather than playing out the trickier puzzles like a purist. There are a LOT of missions. I completed the main story line a few weeks ago, and between ones I missed and ones from the expansions for issues 5, 6, and 7, I still have plenty to do the first time.

Solo mission and open world hunting play is almost all DPS or DPS hybrid decks. Though for the odd get in and get out without killing things scenarios. This morning I decided to try to finish collecting the exploration locations for a map in Transylvania. That meant tagging map locations without a raid group in the lethal to solos monastery raid zone. Eventually I optimized on a tank/heal hybrid casting stun-heal-heal-heal as I ran past and away from monsters, which meant fewer deaths and an amusing variant stealth/ flight survival minigame.

The dungeons I've been to so far are well done. I haven't played all of them yet, since I do more open world mission play. If you stick with the game you'll run the dungeons at three levels, normal as you level up or help lowbie friends later, elite when you hit 10, and then when you've done all at Elite and beaten The Gatekeeper you unlock the ability to go back and do them at Nightmare level and start getting purple items as boss drops, and earning a currency that lets you buy purple items and kits that upgrade them. So far, I've only done three at Elite, so I haven't experienced Nightmare level. Most people tend to break out the 5 character group as Tank, Healer, 3 DPS, though it can shade with some people doing hybrids to beef up on the tank or heal side of DPS. In raid groups before my healing skills and gear were very good, I did a fair amount of DPS/backup healer hybrid, especially for the big boss fights. I did my first main healer runs yesterday.

For PVP there are a couple short game grab and hold the widget zones for small teams and a bigger team continous conquest zones. There are some benefits to players of the side that is winning the secret war but not enough to be really noticeable. PVP is another source of equipment, prestige rewards and costume parts. I have not played much PVP in TSW yet, finding it less compelling than prior experiences in DAOC, Planetside 1 and 2, and GW 2. I've been trying it a bit lately but not enough yet to get my first PVP purple item which from what I can see in the most significant reward.

One thing I did not notice for a long time is that permanent run speed buffs are available from a merchant in your faction headquarters for the basic currency. As you gain faction rank you can buy higher buffs to run faster. You'll do a lot of running to get around maps and tactically for evasion, so it behooves you to buy these sooner rather than later. Its much nicer to buy a speed buff than a couple more costume pieces. I did not realize when I first encountered them that these were permanent and then kind of forgot about them until I asked one of the guys that kept having to wait for me to catch up where he got it.

I joined a very pleasant Templar "Cabal" - TSW's synonym for guild, The Order of Pie, with my main toon. It's a nice bunch of people for raids, dungeons, or paired mission runs. They are friendly, helpful, and low drama.

There are some glitches in the game that annoy, like the alt key to retarget heals to yourself not working well, so you have to hit it a few times to make it stick, and the usual MMO server sync lag and mission bugs, and some weird UI decisions in missions.

Overall, the experience for me has been about as good as my previous favorite MMORPG, Dark Age of Camelot, with a different batch of plusses and minuses, and that is pretty good for a game that comes after so many others in the genre, factoring in the been-there-done-that element. Its an excellent solo PVE game, very good group PVE game, and okay PVP game. Might even be a good PVP game for awhile if you are in the right cabal that is focused on the PVP experience and not doing it as a sideline.

At least up to the point where I'm at there are always several competing goals to work on. At the moment, I have the flamethrower auxilliary weapon to finish collecting SPs to unlock, fist weapons to finish the healing skills on, the missile launcher to pick up more skills on, blood magic and shotguns to develop to be interesting, blades nearly complete to finish off as my skills to do list, with a lot more skills around the wheels for later. I'm in the first mission of Issue 6, trying to figure out how to get into a date processing plant guarded by cultists and surveillance cameras. I need to complete the rest of the dungeons on Elite, so I can unlock Nightmare and start improving my gear again. I am getting close to a purple item from PVP,  and I can rerun Issue 7 to get a purple signet for the reward item from the first time through.

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