The Secret World did a lot of things differently than its contemporaries. Of course different doesn’t necessarily mean better, but one of the design choices that truly seemed like a stroke of genius to me at the time – and still does – was to entirely separate player characters’ looks from their stats.
Sure, pretty much every MMORPG provides some sort of wardrobe system nowadays, but most I’ve fiddled around with require exactly that – a lot of fiddling around. There always seem to be some caveats too, like certain consumables being necessary to convert stat items into appearance items, limited wardrobe space (until you buy more, of course) or other inconveniences.
TSW went a completely different route from the start. It’s quite simple and elegant, really. There are stat items and there are clothing items. With the exception of weapons you never get to see the former on your character, and the latter will never have an impact on your (combat-) performance whatsoever.
Clothing items don’t take up space in your inventory either, they go directly to the corresponding tab of your Dressing Room. As far as I’m aware there’s no limit to the amount of clothing you can store. I have lots and lots of stuff to choose from and can swap around at will knowing that my stats won’t be affected in any way.
The bulk of your stats, on the other hand, comes from talismans. They’re called rings, bracelets, belts etc., but you won’t ever see them on your avatar.
Just like the skill system gearing your character is a rather complex and unfortunately not very intuitive matter, but once you’ve dug into it you can tweak your stats just so to make your build work the way it’s supposed to.
At least the weapons are very simple at a basic level. They only have one intrinsic stat, Weapon Power; the higher that score, the more damage all attacks done with that weapon deal.
Additionally you can wear a total of seven talismans, with each of them boosting one of your three main stats: Attack Power, Healing Power or Health. Here you ‘just’ need to find the right ratio for your build. For instance, if you’re going to be a tank you’ll want to have enough HP to give your healer a chance to keep you alive, but not more than absolutely necessary as you’ll also need to deal some damage to hold aggro. An effective solo-build might even utilize a mix of all three stats to kill stuff and stay alive while doing so.
Of course these aren’t the only stats you need to think about. Each talisman and weapon also has a slot for a Glyph and another for a Signet, which is where things get complicated.
Glyphs add well known RPG-stats like chance to hit, crit chance, crit power, evasion, block and stuff like that to the talisman or weapon you slot it in. Unfortunately the game does a very poor job at teaching you how to actually weigh these. Oh, sure, in order to do damage I obviously need my attacks to hit their target. But how much chance to hit do I really need? How exactly do block, evasion and defence work, and how much of each should a tank have?
Signets add even more complexity, as most of them don’t give a flat bonus but some kind of proc. For example, the Signet of Breaching I use in my sword adds “When you penetrate a target you make that target take 16% more damage from further penetrating hits for 7 seconds”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how much penetration rating do I need to a) actually proc this reliably and b) make the most of the damage bonus it gives?
To be honest, while gearing up as a tank for Nightmare-dungeons I relied very heavily on some great theorycrafters’ expertise who’d posted their findings on the forums, primarily this very thorough guide (still worth a read if you play or have ever played the game).
So, just like with the skill system, the game should definitely have done a much better job at explaining things, and the failure to do so is most likely one of the reasons why it wasn’t a big success.
But, also just like the skill system, once I’d weathered the initial storm of bewilderment and wrapped my head around it all I had so much fun gearing up my various builds, getting the different talismans and chasing the right Signets – I really think it was more than worth it to persevere.
Being able to swap your whole build – skills, augments, gear, everything – at the touch of a button is the icing on the cake of course. I’ve never much liked being locked into a specific role at character creation, but even MMORPGs that didn’t do that, Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies come to mind, at least made me level up my new skills or professions the hard way every time I’ve swapped. TSW lets me keep everything I’ve unlocked once forever, and I can now run one dungeon as a tank, the next as a healer and then do a scenario as a Jack of all trades no problem.
Doesn’t this take away some of a character’s identity though? Maybe a little bit, yeah. But I feel my character expresses most of his identity by way of his looks, and he also uses his trusty blade as the main hand weapon for most of his builds anyway, so a common theme is still there.
In any case, of all character- and gear-progression systems I’ve experienced this was and remains one of my favourites.
Next time around I’ll finally talk about the game’s outstanding quest design, as promised.