I’ve had this article bubbling away in my brain for months now, and I still can’t think of where to begin. Now appears to be the right time to write it, with The Secret World going subscription-free, but what do I say? How do I sum up the reasons why I adore an MMO – which, in general terms, tend to be the biggest sort of games – in a few thousand words? And considering its flaws and its very particular bent, how do I avoid recommending this to people who likely won’t enjoy it? Where do I begin, anyway? Should I start with the elements like the deck customisation system? Do I focus on mechanics over style? Oh dear, this feels like an impending panic attack.

No, I think the best way to start this off is to travel back in time and look at what I said in July, when the game launched. Imagine your screen going all wibbly, like a flashback scene in a cheesy sitcom!

Back then, I awarded The Secret World a rather good 7/10. I praised the way character builds worked; the investigation missions; the atmosphere, writing, and general presentation. I lamented the broken Gear Manager, the absurdly useless starting builds, and the number of game-breaking bugs so massive that – at a distance – the game resembled one giant bug. Possibly a housefly. A housefly the size of a house. Wearing a house. A house made of bugs.

What I’m saying is that, at launch, The Secret World had a few bugs.

But we’ll get to that, and how that’s changed since things began. For now, let’s focus on the things I adore in a game about which I said “I love it to pieces, I really do, and nothing would please me more than to give it a 9.”

1: Investigating the game

It’d be churlish of me not to start by discussing the investigation missions, considering that it was while playing one of them that I fell back in love with the game again.

When I dived back into the game a week or two ago, the first thing I did was check out the new quests I’d missed. One of the first I stumbled into was Digging Deeper, which has players locate and explore a buried Illuminati tomb, solving puzzles and evading traps along the way. Solving puzzles in investigation missions is generally not a case of doing something that’s been carefully signposted so that your average keyboard-basher can figure it out, though. Usually, you’re required to do research, apply lateral thinking, and… well, actually investigate.

But there was a specific moment during this mission – a single, perfect instant – which reminded me of why I like this game so much. About halfway through the mission there’s a locked door, a cryptic clue on a scrap of paper, and a set of letters engraved into tiles on the ground. A few minutes later, I was searching Google for a particular Latin translation of the Bible, as it held the last piece of information I needed to proceed.

And then I had one of those peculiar reflective moments, where you stop and analyse what you’re doing. I was playing a game – an MMO, no less – and to proceed, I was searching for something other than a walkthrough. I’d learned who St. Jerome was, I’d learned that he wrote a translation called the Vulgate Bible, and I was using this knowledge in conjunction with other clues to figure out how to proceed.

For an MMO, that’s rather unprecedented. Hell, that’s pretty uncommon for anything other than an alternate reality game. It’s a feature that’s wholly unique to The Secret World, and there are loads of these quests in there. They’re of varying quality, obviously – some rely a little heavily on trial and error, while others rely on rather unlikely skills (like figuring out Morse code that’s playing at a rate which makes it difficult to even note down), but there are ways around.

Earlier, one person doing said Morse code quest refused to use a walkthrough, but had no talent for noting the beeps down and solving it themselves. Instead, they downloaded an app to their (real life) smart phone and had that decode the sounds automatically. Perhaps not the intended way to solve the quest, but bloody clever, and it didn’t involve resorting to a walkthrough.

2: The setting, the atmosphere, the writing, the story, the…

Something that made the aforementioned investigation quest a little bit more enjoyable was the tone, which was straight out of the three good Indiana Jones films. This was me exploring a creepy, dimly lit tomb, full of devious traps and puzzles – right down to the “step on the right letters on the floor or die” bit from Last Crusade.

Indiana Jones is hardly the only franchise from which The Secret World takes inspiration, though. The opening area – Solomon Island – is basically one extended love-letter to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with a number of nods to various horror writers and urban legends. There’s the burned-out shell of a house where an accused witch once lived. There’s the haunted amusement park. There’s the occult university where Bad Things Happened. There’s the tourist-y Native American village. There’s the widow’s mansion. Solomon Island is unique in tone, but not in cultural depth; the rest of the areas draw equally deeply from other aspects of mythology, religion, literature, legend, and fantasy.

But all of this is combined with a real-world twist and a bit of self-awareness that makes it far more delicious than if it were just played straight. It’s reality twisted 90 degrees, and the result is familiar enough that it’s easy to relate to, but also fresh and a little bit eerie.

And, obviously, it helps that it’s rather well written. Here, have three consecutive in-game Lore entries:

It creeps in through the crawly cracks of 3 AM. That weird dimension. There are thoughts that can only hatch in the human skull at 3 AM. It is always 3 AM somewhere. It is happening right now.

A woman wakes with a headache. She seeks aspirin in the bathroom. Black mold grows thick on the wall tiles. The stain forms a face. She hears a terrible howling from the sink drain. She bends to listen. When she looks up, she does not recognise the reflection in the mirror. The face in the stain smiles.

Night after night she listens to the howling in the pipes. It gains a curdling cadence. She hums along. She can almost sing the words. She scratches the pimples dotting her body. They swell to boils. They burst, revealing new eyes. The eyes show her unutterable truths. Soon, she sticks thumb tacks into her tongue so she can better explain these truths to the weeping children whose beds she hides under.

It is always 3 AM in the Filth. It is liquid 3 AM, black and dripping.

Shakespeare? No. Decently written and creepy? Yes. Funny to copy/paste to cowardly friends on Skype at 3am? Definitely. Did I mention there are a few hundred Lore entries, and they all offer background on the areas, the secret societies, the characters, or the beasts you’re dealing with? Totally optional, obviously, but they’re there if you want to hunt them down, and they all help tie the world together into one cohesive whole. Some are informative. Some are creepy. Some shed entirely new light on what’s happening. The best are all three at once.

3: Character building

Of course, a game that focuses on story and writing at the expense of gameplay is, at best, rather flawed. Happily, The Secret World has a good few unique mechanics, the most important of which is the way you build your character.

It was touted early on as “horizontal progression.” In a standard MMO, you level up and immediately become more powerful. In The Secret World, you level up and… well, you get some points you can probably spend on new skills. Those new skills won’t necessarily be more powerful than the ones you already have – they may just have different utilities. Instead of an attack that does 50 damage, you might get an attack that does 40 damage but will also poison any slowed enemies.

To that end, your character build is pretty much all on you. There are nine weapons to choose from, and you can have two equipped at any one time. After that, you can choose seven active skills (your attacks) as well as seven passive buff skills. With over 50 skills linked to each weapon you’ve got a fair bit of choice, and you’re not locked into any particular role as it’s possible to learn every single skill in the game with one character.

And the thing is… well, cookie-cutter builds actually appear to be a bit less effective than in most MMOs. Generally, there’s a rough “recommended” build for each class in any given role, but in The Secret World that hasn’t really been my experience. Back when most people in my guild were healing with Fist weapons, I was healing with the “less effective” Blood magic, and arguably doing better. Part of that, I’m sure, is simply because I knew the build. I’d been tweaking it since I started, after all.

Now, I haven’t touched the game’s newly-added raid dungeon, but I’d be extremely surprised if there were suddenly only one or two viable specs. Just about everything seems viable if you know your spec and how it works – and assuming you’re not hopelessly undergeared.

The only sort of hard progression here, in fact, is tied to gear rather than intrinsically linked to whatever arbitrary amount of experience points you’ve gathered. The only real difference in stats between an end-game player and a complete newbie comes from the gear they’re wearing, because that’s the only thing that actually confers stats.

Which gives you some rather obvious benefits if you have newbie friends. If you’ve cleared all the Nightmare-difficulty dungeons, but your friends have just started playing, then you can just equip some low-level gear and fight fairly alongside them.

The fact that every player can temporarily hop over onto any other server also means that regions and servers are no restriction to players having fun together. Just joined a online community, and they’ve got an active set of TSW players which are on a different server? No problem at all.

Speaking of communities…

4: The community isn’t a sack of dicks

The TSW community isn’t a sack of dicks.

Every community has its trolls, obviously, but for the most part it seems that the friendly TSW players are the more talkative ones. With the dropped subscription fee, a fair few people have been encouraged to give the game a try – and there are always a few players around the early areas who are happy to help.

A lot of the same questions are asked again and again, but for the most part, people around those zones have been answering happily without getting annoyed at the repetition. How do I know when I’m ready for the first dungeon? Can I refund ability points? Is this quest broken? What weapon combines well with Blade? Where can I repair my armour?

One question in Kingsmouth (“Is X deck any good?”) actually led to an in-depth discussion between the experienced players who were present. At no time were voices raised to CAPITAL LETTERS. No exclamation marks were thrown in anger. It was actually a measured, reasonable discussion. On an MMO. In a newbie area. Sign of the apocalypse, I know.

There’s even a thread on the forums listing the names of players who are happy to help out newbies. It’s like a community-run mentor project. How lovely is that?

I mean, there are a few trolls who’ll tell outright lies/spark “This is a WoW clone” arguments/tell you to just Google the solutions to investigation quests, but not as many as you’d think. Oh, and if you run around spoiling Investigation quest puzzles or plot points then players will probably try to lynch you – but you wouldn’t do that, would you? ‘Course not.

5: Dungeon master-y

The other thing I really like (without going over my entirely arbitrary limit of five things, at least) is something that, in most MMOs, I’d normally avoid like an all-you-can-eat earwax buffet: the group PvE.

The first reason is as noted above: there are plenty of other easygoing players around who are entirely newbie-friendly – if you’re careful not to just attempt joining the first group shouting LF1M DPS NM HR 6/6, at least. Because those people will eat you.

Secondly, the actual encounters are enjoyable. The Secret World uses a fairly similar combat system to Guild Wars 2 in that attacking doesn’t render you stationary, and the boss fights use this to full effect: you will be dodging attacks constantly. In most fights, everyone is under threat of damage, but – if executed perfectly – nobody but the tank will get hit.

But you have to move. A few bosses uses big AoEs that require players to hurriedly get out of the way. Some battles take place on ground that regularly becomes lethal, forcing players to move back and forth to avoid damage. One demands you regularly hide as the boss hunts you down. Another wants you to kite the boss through a set of interlocking corridors which contain monsters that will ruin your day if you accidentally pull them. Most of the encounters have something going for them.

In short: find a good group, and the dungeons have more in common with a fast-paced action game than they do a game in which you just tap your attack buttons in a cycle.

6: In conclusion…

So you’ve read through all seven billion words, and you’re maybe thinking that The Secret World is worth a try. Good news and bad news! First, it’s Christmas, so I will eat my delicious hat if the game doesn’t drop to an impulse-buy price in at least one online sale soon.

As for the original review… well, most of the bugs are fixed, and broken quests are now a rarity. The Gear Manager still bursts into tears and wets itself if you confuse it by, I dunno, putting equipment for one build into different bags or something, but it’s a lot more functional than it was. Generally speaking, the game’s in a good state. (Except the PvP, which is still pretty rubbish.)

But this still doesn’t mean The Secret World is for you, because I think it takes a particular breed of person to really get into this. Let me ask you some questions.

Are you the sort of person who thinks the investigation quests sound fun, and wouldn’t resort to walkthroughs unless necessary? Are you the sort of person who’d love to tinker with builds rather than check online for a cookie-cutter build? Are you the sort of person who actually wants to read quite a lot of background info and pay attention to a story that often hints at important plot points rather than beats you over the head with them? Well, if you’re all of these things, then I think you’ll have a good time.

If I had to sum up The Secret World in one sentence, it’d be that it’s the sort of game which rewards the time and effort you put into it. If you want a quick, easy, entirely familiar MMO, then this isn’t for you – but if you want a well-written game that requires thought and effort, and you have enough patience to get through the early game, then come join us.

Our wisdom flows so sweet. Taste and see.

Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.

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