The Secret World: building a better character

Tom: Secret World is not an easy game to jump into, especially after you’ve been away for a while. You only ever have a few skills slotted, but the array of skills and how they fit together is incredibly meticulous. This is a tinkerer’s game. Or a game where you just load one of the preset templates and mash the buttons. But who wants to do that?

After the jump, let’s get meticulous.

Tom: When sitting down to play after a long absence, I rolled up my sleeves and studed the tooltips. The very detailed tooltips. All those lovely lovely specific numbers! It was time for a coffee. I used the crazy ingame spreadsheet with the filter options to check skills. I took notes. I plotted it out on a legal pad. I even had to turn down my music, like when you’re driving and you have to follow street directions very closely so you turn down the radio. When it comes to combat, Secret World isn’t playing around.

First you pick two weapons. Easy. Then you slot seven active abilities and seven passive abilities. Still easy. The complicated part is that there are literally hundreds of skills. Their interaction is astonishingly intricate, based on non-intuitive concepts like the difference between afflicted and weakened, focusing, channeling, or chaining. Do you want PBAoE or TAoE? Would you rather impair or hinder? What are your feelings about barriers? You have to respect a combat system that lets you really dig into the clockwork. And that furthermore leaves you free to make whatever unholy mess of a character build you want to assemble. Because there is no such thing as a class in The Secret World. There is only the set of skills you choose.

When I returned after being gone for over a year, I had no idea how I got my current character build, based on swords and blood magic. Did I read it online? Is it one of the recommended “decks”? Did I craft it myself? I may never know. But as I considered how the abilities fit together, I discovered a pretty smooth operation. Therefore, I must have read it online. There’s no way I grokked the combat system well enough to come up with this. Here’s how it works:

My main ability is Boiling Blood, a ranged attack that builds up charges for both blood magic and my sword. A passive skill called Corrupted Blood means every Boiling Blood attack applies a condition called “afflicted”, which is Secret World’s term for damage over time. Another passive called Blood Bank stacks bonuses on my afflicted damage. Then there’s an elite passive — elite abilities are the expensive goodies at the top of a weapon’s various branches, and you can only equip one passive and one active — called Gross Anatomy that applies a final burst of damage any time an afflicted condition expires. So I’m a damage over time machine.

I also have a passive skill called Circulation that heals me as I apply afflicted conditions. If my target is impaired — that’s Secret World’s term for stunned — Circulation also puts up a shield around me. That must be why I’ve slotted Anaesthesia, a blood magic strike that impairs, and Trail by Swords, a whirling sword area attack that impairs.

Once I’ve built up five blood magic charges, I use a skill called Exsanguinate, which involves a lovely animation of pulling blood from the victim. If the target is impaired — Anaesthesia and Trail by Swords! — the target takes additional affliction damage. Yep, definitely a damage over time machine. I start slow but build. If I can stay alive long enough, I’ll bring down pretty much anything.

My sword charges, which I’ve built up with Boiling Blood, are used for a skill called Destiny, which applies additional affliction to a target that’s already afflicted. A blood magic ability called Liquidation spreads a gooey blood texture around the floor and applies affliction to anyone standing on it. My active elite ability is Plague, which does considerable affliction and also spreads that affliction around to other victims if the target dies.

Just because I’m using blood magic and a sword, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’d play this build. I could be a healer, I could use the sword for concentrated damage, or I could do any number of things that I wouldn’t know about until I studied what other abilities do. Right now, this intricate set of synergies determines how my character plays far more than pressing the one through seven keys on my keyboard.

Chris: One of my biggest discoveries playing through the game from the very beginning is understanding that a great deal of the enjoyment that can be pulled from it lies in how strong a build you’ve put together. If your build stinks, The Secret World gets painfully frustrating by the time you get to the second area. Without a good build, you’ll be too preoccupied worrying about dying and your equipment getting damaged (and the costs that entails) to be able to really dig in and feast on the content and setting.

This time around I set aside my passion for the guns. Not that I’m a gun nut, but it seems like the gun-based decks always get the coolest outfits. Instead, I went with a melee oriented build. I’d heard about it on a podcast called The Lair. They discussed something called “the Build” in ways that made it clear this particular collection of skills merited a capital B. I co-opted that, decided it was a bit heal-heavy, and added my own extra damage twist in a variant that’s served me remarkably well through the badguy-heavy areas of Egypt and even into Transylvania. I feel pretty fearless (at times probably a bit too fearless) with this setup, and it’s allowed me to really get into the story and lore beats of the game.

Tom: I can attest to the power of Chris’ build. We struggled mightily through some of the scenarios, but it seemed to me Chris was having to struggle slightly less mightily.

Chris: The build (or should I say The Build) is great because of the way it uses the condition states it sets. The best builds in the game create those conditions and then key off them. So, The Build uses a passive skill to create the damage over time state of afflicted, and then keys everything off that to create more damage and to leech healing hit points back to my character. Stuff like this is the fascination I have for combat and build theory in The Secret World. It is worth noting that the game’s actual combat mechanics feel pretty much like a standard MMO once you’re in the game and shooting a zombie with a shotgun. There is a reason to use your active dodge skills, and the way certain monsters have their attacks forecasted keeps movement and maneuver part of a fight, and that’s fairly satisfying.

Tom: Yeah, what makes the combat special isn’t the combat. It’s the build you assemble before the combat.

Chris: Funcom seems to understand where their strengths lie — the varied and creative builds — and the changes in the game over the last year reflect that. The first modification to the build structure was in Issue #2, with the addition of auxiliary weapons with their own build trees. It isn’t necessary to have these specialized weapons to succeed in most fights, but with rocket launchers, chainsaws, and even a whip — my choice — available for that space, they offer a chance to flesh out characters. So far my personal experience with an auxiliary weapon has been…interesting. I haven’t unlocked all the abilities of the whip, so there are fights where I almost forget to use it, and I’m not sure it’s ever been a deciding factor in winning or losing a scrap. Still, I feel like there’s some efficacy to having it and using it.

Tom: The main benefit of the auxiliary weapons is that they exist outside the usual structure of “resources”, which are charges you have to build up for each weapon’s abilities. Auxiliary weapons function strictly on cooldown timers. This makes them a great choice for filling in the gaps as your other skills spool up. Perfect for my slow build blood boiler. Unfortunately, I also use a whip. I intend to swap it out for a flamethrower because I don’t want it to look like I copied off Chris.

Chris: If auxiliary weapons didn’t cause major changes in the build and combat aspects of the game, a new system just introduced in Issue #8 almost certainly will. The augments have the potential to exponentially increase the number of viable and interesting combat builds in the game. I think this is a smart move by the folks at Funcom. There’s a great satisfaction in seeing the way certain skills set up other skills and chaining them together in a sequence to fit the situation and targets can feel almost artful at times. The game already enriched that layer somewhat with the customization of weapons (which acts almost like adding a permanent passive skill to them). Taking it deeper with augments feels as if it will broaden that choice palette even more.

Tom: Chris is right about how the augments broaden the choice for character builds, but I’m not too keen on them at this point. And not just because Chris got the only one we found when we were doing our scenarios. The only one! Why did he roll an 84 when I rolled a 14? It should totally be best two out of three rolls. Anyway, I’m not bitter. But augments seem inordinately based on grinding scenarios over and over, which are on a daily timer that you can circumvent for a microfee. Up to now, The Secret World has been mercifully free of the usual reek of free-to-play shenanigans. I can’t help but get a whiff of the future when I consider adding augments to my character build.

4 stars

Tomorrow: Setting Secret World free. To play.
Click here for the previous entry.