Perfect Ten: 10 problems that really hurt The Secret World

There were problems.

For whatever reason, The Secret World is one of those games that people keep going back over mentally, an MMO that still collectively has our attention and imagination even when the game and its failed reboot are both deader than Funcom’s goodwill from players. It’s still held in high esteem by people who miss it and all the unique things that it did – alongside plenty of people more than willing to point out the various ways that the game did not even come close to delivering on a lot of its promises.

I am an avowed fan of the game, but I think a lot of the discussions of what was wrong with the game tend to start and stop at some combination of awful combat and the general problems of having Funcom manage anything. Both of these facts are true, but there were myriad other issues that dragged the game down as well. And those tend to get talked about less because they feel more… special to the game. But today, I want to talk about them.

Less than conspiratorial

1. “Every conspiracy is real” makes for a jumbled world

Look, it’s not exactly a novel observation to say that most conspiracy theories wind up heading into… let’s say dubious territory before very long. But the problem is that TSW started from the stated premise that every conspiracy and modern myth idea was totally real and actually out there, which was a bad idea. Not because modern-setting fantasy is a bad idea, but because most of them have a focus.

If everything is real, then you need to have psychic powers and magic and old deities and about 17 different mythologies all running into one another simultaneously while also fitting in some nonsense about how many people killed JFK to the point that The Onion made that joke ages ago. Instead of creating a compelling hook to ground people – like “old gods are slumbering across the world and you have to fight them” – the game just kind of smooshed everything together without a single animating impulse.

2. Funneling players together weakens the story

No matter what faction you start as, your course of zones to clear is identical. This was, in all likelihood, a reality of budget; there were three player factions, and quests were voiced and took no small amount of resources. But the result was that basically all of the factional differences take place in bubble space. In practical terms, everyone is trying to solve the exact same problem at the same time in the same location. This is fine when it’s the Horde vs. the Alliance, but here, well…

Yeah, great work.

3. The factions run together

In theory, the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Templars are all great ideas. Three factions trying to steer the high-chaos state of the world in their own direction? Sure. But the problem is that not only do you always wind up doing the same thing, you’re all doing it for basically benevolent reasons. In fact, far from feeling like conspiratorial organizations, you feel as if you’re working for The Grand High Order of Charlie Brown Getting The Football Pulled Away At The Last Second.

There’s no sense that all of these factions have insight that random people lack; far from it. These factions are trying to make sense of a conspiracy pileup. This means that no matter what you’re doing, you feel like a standard MMO adventurer cosplaying as someone who is constantly tripping over your own feet and then claiming you meant to do that.

4. Tone is a persistent issue

There are a lot of possible tones that the game could have gone for, and none of them is wrong. The darkly humorous moments of the Illuminati are fine. The cosmic horror tone? Fine. The gothic crusade of the Templars? Fine. But the problem is that all of these things just keep running together and creating a consistent tone issue where nothing ever quite congeals to a specific voice. And the conspiracy angle doesn’t help, either.

Is this a world where very smart people are working at steering the unseen events? Is it a world wherein people who think they are smart think they’re guiding people but are actually kind of idiotic? Is the latest crisis worse than usual? The same? Actually not a big deal? It’s impossible to get a good handle on it.

And if you think I’m being a bit harsh on tone for having comedic moments, consider that the original Men in Black movie is an indisputable comedy that absolutely nails its tone and makes the stakes incredibly clear while still being a rapid-fire collection of jokes.

Hey, we spoke before, could you ask me to do the same thing over again?

5. Character building was opaque

The cool thing about TSW‘s ability wheel was that you had a lot of range to pick out the different things you wanted to do and explore them at your leisure. That’s some good soup! But the problem is that because of the ways the game was structured, it often felt less like you were being given freedom to play how you wanted and more like you were handed two hundred individual Magic cards, told to build a deck, and given no explanation of how anything worked.

From stats to ability interplay, nothing was very clear, so it was easy to just feel like you were left to just slap things together until something worked. There were good builds in there, definitely, but there were also probably fewer than were originally advertised. Which is compounded by the fact that, as you know, Bob…

6. Combat really was bad

If you are one of the four people who is still in denial about this, it’s time to let it go. Combat was bad. It just was bad. It’s all right if you liked it anyway; you can like things that are not good. I like idle clicker games. Most of those are kind of awful. If you liked TSW‘s combat, you are very much in the minority, and it was just not good. I could write a whole column about it, but I have other points to get to today.

spooky, kinda

7. Puzzle missions kill the game flow dead

The idea of having puzzles that you had to stop and solve was kind of a bad one, but I mentioned in a prior column how it sucks when a game gives you challenges that feed into enhancement without your being able to enhance them. Puzzle quests are a neat idea that the developers really leaned on hard, but they kill the flow of the game dead as you start looking up websites and doing research and not, you know, playing the actual game based on hints within the game properly.

Now, I admire ARGs as a concept. I do not enjoy playing them and instead waiting for others to sum them up. The moment I have to start playing an ARG to continue playing my MMO, I react in much the same way as I would react to being told that if you want to keep watching this movie you’ll need to submit a book report at the front desk. I find something else to do.

8. The zones felt too isolated

It’s a good thing that the game in no way stopped you from going back to earlier areas or repeating quests. However, the game also gives you no reason in the world to actually do so outside of re-doing old quests or when a new quest was added to an area you’d previously explored in a patch, which makes that good thing kind of pointless. Once you are done with a zone, there’s no real need or reason to go back, and that is… kind of a problem. The zones exist to go through once and then forget about, and they are the only things you can go through. This ties into another problem…

Why are you here?

9. There wasn’t much MMO to the game

Why does TSW have dungeons? Don’t misunderstand me; I understand their purpose. But what do they do to enhance the game? There isn’t really crafting or housing or gathering or reasons to go back to old zones or a whole lot of social features that would be aided by having other people present. It seems as if this game was an MMO to be an MMO, not because any part of the game design actually benefitted from having other people around in any serious fashion.

This is hardly a sin unique to TSW, of course; there are other titles with the same problem, perhaps most notably a game about aged representative government that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it does underscore that the game didn’t really make use of being online and suffered from it. This leads to my last point.

10. It was a niche title on a blockbuster budget

There is nothing wrong with being a niche title. There is, however, something wrong with being a niche title that is also budgeted like it is a gigantic blockbuster. If your budget is $50 million and you expect 1.5 million subscribers to last for at least three months, that’s peachy. If you make a game for 150,000 subscribers with that same budget, you’re left wondering where the money went. (This is purely speculative math, before you start trying to analyze it.)

For those of you who are more familiar with movies, TSW was like if you shot The Green Knight for the budget of Avengers: Endgame. Except that The Green Knight was actually excellent rather than a lovable but heavily flawed work.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
Previous articlePlayStation boss demands ‘accountability’ on Bungie’s spending and development timelines
Next articleRIFT celebrates its 13th anniversary with a splash of Carnival of the Ascended

No posts to display

Subscribe to:
oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments