Periodically, I revisit "old" computer games, the ones which I have played through and got satiated with. One of those more notable ones was The Secret World. The mood it oozes out of every trailer, announcement and every single one of the dialogue-monologue quests in game is absolutely the best I have ever encountered.
Plus, I loved the setting, it reminded me so much of my all-time favourite quasi-philosophical pen&paper RPG "Mage: The Ascension". Except, Secret World does not go as deep. Of course, it lives by assuming mages and mackical power in a setting close to our real world, throw in a bit of Cthulhu horror aspects. It mixes shotguns with fireballs, katanas with chaos magic, rifles with warhammers (just for illustration, the FOTM builds go a bit different).
However, this is where the comparision ends. Missing is the very most interesting philosophical assumtion of the mentioned early "Mage" RPG, where the core concept behind magic was that belief was reality. Everyday reality is governed by commonsense rules derived from the collective beliefs of sleepers. Because they're awakened, Magi can consciously effect changes to reality, either in an unassuming, coincidal form, or blatantly defying collective belief of reality, thereby vulgar magic. I loved the potential for mindgames and inventiveness of that setting and I swear I will gladly be part again of any a good old pen&paper session of "Mage: The Ascension".
The Secret World is what comes closest to this fond memory of mine, so I gave it a shake somewhen last year. As said, it has a superb mood and I was sure this game would capture me for a long time. The skill system was deep and sported at least some variance to your playstyle (although in the end it came down to only few FOTM builds). Alone the starting scenes for aspirants of the Dragon was worth it; it included a certain chick in red dress and some kind of ... surreal experiences. And I do not mean the infamous suggested blowjob (well, not only...); I mean the reality-defying concepts which are so well introduced and came so close to my "Mage" pen&paper experience.
However, after I was through two of the four chapters, something was naggingly wrong, and once I finished the story line, I could put a pointer on it.
- First, this game is riddled with cliffhangers. Nothing is ever really resolved. Maybe this is true horror-movie-style, where you would always get a hint in the closing scene that it is not over yet and all happiness and relief just delusional. But I do not like, as it is contrary to why I play computer games; I am here to shape and control my environment, something we are often barred from in real life, so I draw respite out of the moreless total ability to do so in a virtual reality.
- Second, this game sports an itemization and inventory system which is so much yesterday. Constantly, you have to manage and switch around updates to your equipment to stay hot. I am so tired of this. IMO, Mass Effect 2 did the right thing to get away from this, although they went too far. Mass Effect 3 then stroke the right balance, with a few central pieces of equipment, modable to your liking, but nothing is really ever outdated anymore. EVE Online also has no ship which would not have its use in the "end game".
- Third, the game degrades into a horror-flick-show and greatly neglects character development. A rise to power, a personal conflict, even a personality, are not really included. Even the excuse of a levelling-concept does not help here, because more so than e.g. in World of Warcraft, you basically are forced to level up just in order to keep on level with the enemy strength; meaning that you never really feel more powerful, more in control. But in a good levelling game, you should.
Those factors finally drove me away from The Secret World, more quickly than I expected, as I saw them as obstacles and not means of enjoyment. My realisation dawned after the first set of 20 or so end-level dungeons, thereby slowly grinding my way up from green to blue to purple items. Still, there were again superb cut scenes at the end of each dungeon, but it simply was not enough of a red line in the mood, the plot and the story in order to keep the game together for me.
The lesson here is, and most modern games seem to learn it slowly, to not put barriers in front of enjoyment. Whereby "enjoyment" is the games primal mood and setting, which, after all, was advertised to the player. Cliffhangers and item grind are artificial game elements, and World of Warcraft was just lucky to still maintain close links to Diablo-style of play that it was an acceptable part of the game. But nowadays, I ask myself, why are game designers not able to emancipate their games from this itemization mechanism. It is so old and stale, in fact it stinks like a rotting fish corpse.
Updating myself now on the current status of The Secret World, the great finale in Tokio seems to get closer, which is good. Finally maybe some closure? However, looking into details, as of yet it seems to be just another cliff hanger. And a new combat mechanic, the AEGIS shields. Basically, some additional colored lifebars, and you need to activate now different abilities in order to cancel them out. However, the last thing I wanted is an additonal level of complexity in combat, which force the use of more items, more stats, arrrrgh.
Around three corners, my musings here can also be seen as a good reason why the good old fashioned Elite is new land, or at least very much refreshing, in these days. No cliffhangers, no artificial barriers, no item hunt, on your path of which way you want to play the game.
That being said, I still think it is a pity that The Secret World failed for me because of those fallacy gameplay elements. It has such a superb mood, otherwise.