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The Secret World: still sucking us in six months on

Six months, five content updates and one less subscription fee later, The Secret World has finally gelled for our resident MMO newbie, Brenna.

It started so innocently one afternoon. “Help me do a few of the last quests in Kingsmouth; they’re too hard for me to solo.” Then it was 0200 and we’d smashed our way through two zones and were ready to hit up a third.

The Secret World really upset me when it launched last year, filled with wondrous lore, but as impenetrable as Aunty Hilda's year-old fruit cake and buggy enough to make spiders slaver. "I want to love it," Pat told me recently. Me, too - so much so that I wrote to Joel Bylos and demanded answers. Unfortunately his sane and considered response was not enough to keep me forfeiting my subscription to pay for removalists.

Now the MMO has gone if not free-to-play than subscription free, adopting a Guild Wars approach with a one-time cover charge, and I have a new housemate with more quests under his belt than I ever knew existed. It's time to back to Kingsmouth, the zombie and Draugr-infested New England town which is the landing zone for Solomon Island.

It started so innocently one afternoon. "Help me do a few of the last quests in Kingsmouth; they're too hard for me to solo." Then it was 0200 and we'd smashed our way through two zones and were ready to hit up a third.

It turns out going back to redo older quests can be pretty rewarding, especially if you're in a group and can speed through. My housemate was earning reasonable experience and more importantly ability points and skill points, handed out with lavish abandon as quests are completed, which in this level-free game are how you count your progress.

It's an odd sort of progress, though. The gigantic number in the middle of your ability wheel, which shows how far along you are towards achieving everything, doesn't really mean much. A much less progressed character with a clever build adapted fot the situation has a better chance of success - and survival.

Impromptu dance party, everyone is invited.

The build I favour at the moment uses blood magic (one of nine primary ability trees) exclusively, because I've been stacking all my points in that tree on my way to unlocking a deck (collection of synergistic skills which earns you a special uniform reward).

I don't have any mind-blowingly good gear but what I do have is a variety of active and passive skills I've chosen to keep me alive and wear down the enemy. If I get caught in a battle beyond my current capacities I grit my teeth, fire off a few damage-over-time sbilitieswhich I've teamed up with some nasty status effects, and heal myself until all the other cooldown timers vanish. Rinse and repeat; everything gives up in the end.

This is not a tremendously exciting way to play, and when I have my housemate to tank I switch to spike damage or multi-target skills, but the point is: it works. No, the point is: I put it together myself.

The Secret World's decks are nice targets to aim for, representing solid builds designed for various group roles or soloing, and it's particularly nice that a range of low-level decks have been added since I last played, giving new players an achievable goal. But the real fun comes in just putting the pieces together.

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Issue #5 brought plenty of
new content, features and fixes.

This took me a long time to figure out because I kept dying so much on my own, and playing with Pat - both of us equally befuddled, for The Secret World, bless it, is simply terrible at explaining itself to players - was not much better. Just reading the skill descriptions isn't enough. You need to see them in action, think about them, and start scanning ahead for way to multiply them - something that doesn't feel easy until you've got one or two more effective high level skills to play with.

Grouping up with my housemate, who smashes through low-level bosses and shouts "thanks for showing up" into the mic as they fall to his elemental and blade combo, gave me the time and space I needed to start experimenting and thinking for myself. Now I'm clever enough and strong enough to solo the early zones; I'm looking forward to more challenging areas where even my fearless housemate minds his aggro; and I'd dearly love to revisit some places I've been with a new player or two, so I can be the monster smashing the boss's face in and showing off just how cool The Secret World is.

The Secret World has come a long way since launch, despite two rounds of lay-offs, and new features and content are being added all the time. It still has some problems, notably in the user interface and inventory, but the buggy quests and weird glitches of launch week are now infrequent enough to be surprising.

What is happening here. I don't even know.
Whatever it was, I liked it.

More importantly though, I've also come a long way: from not knowing a thing about MMOs besides a few buzz terms common to party RPGs (holy trinity, aggro) to chatting with my housemate about my plans to carry two sets of gear specced for different group roles as well as my solo setup. I understand crafting; I've unlocked a faster sprint; I have strong opinions about various enemies and quests. I still can't reliably use the chat window.

I've been told that The Secret World is an MMO for people who love MMOs. It doesn't hold your hand explaining basic MMO tropes (then again, it also doesn't bother explaining its own unique features, either). It ramps up the difficulty sooner rather than later. It offers good rewards for replaying existing content, and it never locks you into any particular role; there are no respecs when you can unlock a good slice of a new tree in a few hours of questing.

But for me, The Secret World is the MMO I play even though I'm not into MMOs.

The Secret World has noted a 400% increase in activity since dropping its subscription requirement.

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