When one intends to talk about The Secret World’s strong points it’s hard not to start singing hymns of praise about its phenomenal quest design right off the bat. And I’ll get to that, promise, but as the quests weren’t changed significantly for SWL (as far as I’m aware) you don’t need to play a “dead” game to enjoy those. Since I’m talking about the original game specifically I’d like to start off with something exclusive to that version: the skill system.
The basic premise isn’t actually all that complicated. You get to wield any two out of nine available weapons at a time. These are (categorizations mine):
- Blades (tanking / melee damage)
- Chaos (tanking / melee damage)
- Hammer (tanking / melee damage)
- Assault Rifle (healing / ranged damage)
- Blood Magic (healing / ranged damage)
- Fists (healing / melee damage)
- Elementalism (buffs / ranged damage)
- Pistols (buffs / ranged damage)
- Shotgun (buffs / ranged damage)
Once settled on a combo you choose a total of seven active abilities from the two corresponding skill trees, and additionally seven of all existing passives. Those fourteen abilities make up your build or ‘deck’.
However you need to unlock those actives and passives by spending XP first, and this is where things can get a bit hairy for beginners as there are something like 60 actives and 270 passives to choose from for every weapon-pairing. In a perfect world any combination of abilities that sounds fun would also be totally viable to use, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Since you can unlock the whole wheel eventually it’s not really possible to ‘ruin’ your character, but whatever you unlock first is what you have to make do with for a while.
We know that many people have given up on the game pretty soon after release, and one reason that I’ve heard quite often was that they’d run into a brick wall of difficulty in Blue Mountain, the game’s third zone, and that they either weren’t willing to repeat the first two area’s quests over and over to earn enough XP and fix their builds, or that they had no idea how to even fix them in the first place.
Me? I didn’t even get that far until I had the same problem. In Savage Coast, the second zone, I had my first encounter with a monster type whose appearance still gives me the chills even today: the Ak’ab.
Not only do these fuckers have a (very briefly telegraphed) dash attack that knocks you on your butt if you don’t dodge in time, they’re also extremely social. Attack one, and all of its friends come running posthaste from what feels like miles away. I just could not finish the quests in that wretched forest shown above, and it wasn’t fun.
I was in love with the game and not willing to give up though. The Builds & Decks-section of the official forums was, unsurprisingly, very lively at the time, and there I found a guide that was a game-changer for me. I actually only clicked on it because I liked the name, “Regen like Wolverine”, but its underlying idea seemed sound and once I’d unlocked the necessary abilities I became basically immortal indeed. I cleared all of Savage Coast with ease, and when I quested through Blue Mountain afterwards I couldn’t even imagine which area or monster type might have given so many folks a hard time.
I guess the gist of this is that the skill wheel offers everything you need to succeed, but there’s not enough guidance about how to start and build an efficient deck. The game does have deck suggestions – they even have cool names and matching, quite fancy outfits you earn by unlocking every suggested ability – but unfortunately none of those decks is really that good in practice. In my opinion Funcom should have updated those early on by implementing tried and trusted community-made builds to help new players better understand what works and what doesn’t.
Wait a minute, I hear you wondering, didn’t he say at the beginning that the skill system is one of the game’s strong points?
Yes, I do think that it is. Because you know what? I had so much fun while taking the first few steps with it, and even more fun once I’d overcome that hump in Savage Coast. Using that build suggestion really opened my eyes for the vast possibilities this system provides. From then on there was no stopping me. I always poured over the skill wheel wondering what I should unlock next, which powerful combo I might have not yet discovered.
And the kicker is: once the whole thing had ‘clicked’ for me I was able to make almost anything work. It’s just like with everything, cluelessly flailing around rarely gets you anywhere, but once you got the fundamentals down pat you can expand, experiment and improvise around those and become more successful than ever.
Later on even more complexity was added. You can now equip one of five auxiliary weapons (fun stuff like a flamethrower or that chainsaw above) in addition to your two main weapons and choose one active and one passive ability for it, expanding your deck to eight each. Also, various augments can be attached to the seven main active abilities for additional effects and bonuses.
The possibilities are pretty much endless, and I love it. Sure, it’s not easy to wrap your head around at first, but once you’ve ‘got it’ the freedom to play just the way you want is unmatched, which is something that has always been very important to me.
Of course, to make optimal use of your dream build(s) you also need the right gear to match. I’ll talk about that next time.