The Secret World: when fewer is more

, | Game diaries

Secret World has been out for about a year and a half. In an MMO, this normally means the population has fallen off and maybe a bunch of servers have closed. It can be hard to find people to group with. Maybe you can’t talk your friend into playing because he’s playing something else. So you’re on a lonely journey through what should be a thriving world built for parties of adventurers. It’s depressing. Like Baltimore.

Well, as you can imagine, the player population of Secret World isn’t what it used to be. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

After the jump, alone in the dark.

The unique selling point for Secret World is its horror theme, and as anyone who played Dead Space 3 or Fear 3 can tell you, things aren’t so scary when they’re co-op. Those are both excellent games, but they’re about as far removed from their horror roots as they can get. Similarly, the Secret World fares best when it’s lonely and bleak, when it conveys a sense of isolation, when you’re the only one crossing the expanse of sand north of al-Marayeh, or coming down the road in Blue Mountain, or cutting through the werewolf ravaged homesteads in Transylvania, or studying the paintings in Franklin Mansion with no company but the company of cats. The last thing I want in this game especially is a bunch of yahoos playing quests alongside me. What kind of haunted house has a half dozen garishly dressed avatars jumping up and down while they search for interactive hotspots, shoot ghosts, and loiter to sort their inventories? So what would normally be a liability in an MMO — the widespread absence of players in the wider world — is instead a part of The Secret World’s unique appeal. I guess what I’m getting at is that I hope you won’t start playing.

Another advantage of the game having been out for so long is that all those buggy quests from the launch (and at least several weeks thereafter) seem to have been ironed out. Those buggy quests weren’t the usual buggy quests in an MMO. Because the game asked you to deal with sometimes difficult and intricate puzzles, you could never be sure whether you hadn’t arrived at the right solution or whether the game was broken. Secret World had therefore squandered a crucial part of the player/designer contract when I try to solve a mystery: trust that it’s solvable. I should be able to trust that if I try to work out a puzzle, if I try to solve something on my own, if I try to meet the challenge you’ve posed, you will make it work correctly when I apply the solution. If I want a Kobayashi Maru, I’ll watch a dopey sci-fi show from the 70s.

So as I started playing again, I was reluctant to trust The Secret World. It was partly out of habit. Any time one of the quests got difficult in an uncertain way, any time it pushed back, I just went to a walk-through. I opened it in my iPad and followed it along. What an easy way to level up. And what a way to discover that I was missing out on some cool puzzles. What’s more, these puzzles seemed to work exactly as intended.

After spoilering my way through a few quests, I’ve grown to trust The Secret World again. And now some of its uniqueness is emerging, as intended. I’ve run into issues I’d call wonky, but nothing egregiously broken. There are still some unrealistic hoops you have to jump through if you’re not going to consult a walk-through. For instance, all that stuff in Romanian in the Transylvania missions. Am I really supposed to type all that into an online translator? Really? I can’t cut and paste? I’m not sure whether to respect that sort of commitment to immersion or resent it. But as it unfolds in all its demanding glory, revealing itself as the unique MMO it was designed to be, I can assure you there’s no other game quite like it.

And to prove it, I’m going to play through one of the puzzle quests without cheating. Stay tuned. I just have to figure out which one.

5 stars

Up next: so, do I just seat myself?
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