I love the game that Secret World is supposed to be. This new horror themed MMO from Funcom, the developers who launched Anarchy Online, and Electronic Arts, the publishers who designed Star Wars: The Old Republic, is the genre’s freshest breath of air since DC Universe Online. It takes a unique approach to worldbuilding with a world unique among MMOs. It admirably solves traditional problems like stale gameplay, played out settings, and players scattered among multiple servers. It has style, flair, subtlety, personality.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been playing the game that Secret World is supposed to be. I’ve instead been playing the game that was released.

After the jump, unsolved and unsolvable mysteries

Secret World is a distinct enough game that it can bear up under most of the usual launch issues and design oversights. For instance, the intricate combat system needs better documentation, the skills need a better organizational interface, usable items like potions and gadgets need hotkeys, the player vs player needs to be overhauled by someone who understands MMOs with good player vs player combat, the shameless money grabbing Sims style online store needs to go the way of the dodo, and whatever issues are going on with the chat servers need to be fixed the day before yesterday. But none of these has kept me from appreciating the fine game Funcom intended to create. That dubious honor goes to the wonderful and awful quests that make Secret World unlike any other MMO.

Most of the quests in Secret World are familiar MMO stuff about fighting monsters. The combat is your usual MMO button clicking while waiting on skills to refresh. 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 4, xp. Since this is Funcom’s follow-up to Age of Conan, sometimes you have to not stand in a certain place when you fight a monster. The character development system takes a page from Guild Wars, where you choose two classes and sample various skills from each class. A “no levels” concept is literally true in that your character doesn’t have levels. But taking away the actual number doesn’t mean it plays any differently. It just means you have no shorthand way to say how far you’ve gotten your character. This is all neatly laid out in a generously open world that encourages repeating quests and exploring locations.

But occasionally, and often optionally, you’ll find quests that work like puzzles in single-player adventure games. You’ll have to play with codes, language, riddles, diagrams, and lore. These tie neatly into the game world, giving the place even more of a sense of atmosphere, history, and mystery than it already has. Some of these quests are fiendishly clever for forcing you to think outside the MMO box. Some of them are frustrating. Some of them lead to glorious “a-ha!” moments.

And far too many of them flat-out don’t work.

You’ll come to a fairly simple quest where the trigger simply doesn’t show up, or the quest doesn’t progress, or it somehow just doesn’t work correctly. But you’ll have no idea it’s broken. You’ll naturally assume you just haven’t hit on the right solution in a fiendishly clever puzzle. You’ll conclude that this is where you’re supposed to think outside the MMO box. You’ll trust the developers at Funcom. So you’ll go about trying to parse how the quest works, maybe reading the text more carefully, maybe hunting around the vicinity for visual or aural clues, maybe scribbling down some notes or opening the ingame browser to check something on Wikipedia. You’ll give it the ol’ college try before resorting to Google. And eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll discover that Funcom has simply failed to make a game that works as intended. You’ve been trying to solve an unsolvable broken puzzle.

At this point, any confidence you have in later quests is rightly destroyed. Any subsequent difficult puzzle will immediately make you question whether you need to keep trying to figure it out, or whether the game is broken. Right now, The Secret World is an exercise in Funcom failing to live up to our implied agreement that if I try hard enough, if I think smartly enough, if I agree to approach their challenges on their terms, if I invest in the world they’ve created, then I can solve the challenges presented. Right now, that isn’t the case.

In any other MMO, broken scripting isn’t a big deal because it’s obvious. When you need to collect ten wolf pelts and the wolves aren’t dropping pelts, it’s obviously broken. When you need to kill Gurgash the Barbarian Lord and Gurgash doesn’t spawn, you know Gurgah isn’t spawning. Less ambitious MMOs break less dramatically. But The Secret World breaks differently, crushingly, almost tragically. There are various explanations and workarounds and excuses, and it mostly comes down to the simple fact that making games is hard and making MMOs is even harder. Funcom is simply unable to make the game they designed. The Secret World shouldn’t have been released until our implied agreement was rock solid. Because in its current state, what should have been a unique experience is instead a uniquely frustrating experience.

2 stars
PC

(Note: The Secret World game diary begins tomorrow. Stay tuned for more specifics about the game, which will include ongoing updates on any fixes.)