Welcome back for another week of Versus, the column where the opinions are made up and the points don’t matter.
This week we have two story-focused MMO’s duking it out with dialogue in a battle to see who is the best. One, a juggernaut of epic proportions with a huge I.P. and a bucketload of cash poured in. The sensational and scintillating, Star Wars the Old Republic. And in the other corner; the underdog of all that is unholy. Providing a niche experience and narrative, The Secret World.
Let the storytelling showdown begin. This is The Secret World vs Star Wars the Old Republic.
Visuals: 2.4 Points – The Secret World
Both are older MMOs now, and it is a genre that always seems to age incredibly poorly. Even during the release of TSW and SWTOR, neither were exactly praised for their graphical fidelity. They created some nice environments, as well as an atmosphere that enhanced immersion with how well they fit into the lore of the experience but compared to other games at the time, it’s clear how much they lacked. Coming back to both after a couple years away and it’s obvious how much their visuals have aged compared to more recent MMOs like Black Desert Online. Sharp angles on objects, muddy textures, and some rather subpar character visuals. They aren’t exactly winning any awards for best graphics anymore, not even close, but then graphics aren’t everything and to me, it’s more about the aesthetic they are able to create. How well they create an overall environment that contains mood, beauty, and atmosphere. That is The Secret World all over.
There were some areas that felt a bit of a letdown, or wore down on the soul a little while playing, like Egypt and the last stretch through the blue mountains, but they were all environments that enhanced the mood. Solomon Island and that oppressive dark fog did start weighing down on my emotions enough that I would occasionally just have to take breaks from it and well, just about after every car park scene as well, and that speaks incredibly well to the design of the environment.
On the other side, I just can’t remember Star Wars the Old Republic’s environments having the same effect. They were definitely well crafted with interesting set pieces, using levels to create a rather varied questing experience. They were also able to create environments that felt close to the imagined, like Tatooine and Nar Shaddaa, but the atmosphere felt lacking in a few ways.
It was all just a little too bland. I often felt while running and jetting around buildings, corridors, and environments that it all felt a little too similar. This was all too apparent in the larger city areas as you took forever to move across an expanse with literally nothing interesting. This is, of course, in part to using an earlier build of the Hero engine, but it also feels like there just wasn’t enough time or development put into creating many of these earlier areas, or as if shortcuts were constantly used during development such as recycling the same terrain and building materials. This has gotten better with recent expansions; environments have become more detailed, set pieces more grand, and lighting playing more of a part, but there is still a lot that feels unpolished and bland.
The other big difference that I feel brings TSW ahead on visuals is how well they were able to blend and shift the environments to create new unique spaces with the same design foundations of the area. A color shift in the light source. Fog traveling along. Slight changes in the types and density of trees, and many other terrain differences. It created environments that were more interesting to travel through and explore because of these changing visuals and design.
Combat: 1.7 Points – The Secret World
Both MMOs are rather different when it comes to combat, which completely alters the experience while questing and killing. Comparing each combat style is incredibly hard as no style is objectively better than the other. It all comes down to whether you like the old tab targeting model or a more modern, if slightly unpolished, action combat system.
I hated both during their initial release and well after. The Secret World felt incredibly clunky with how the combat played out with builders and consumers, as well as how the animations just felt a little off with activating skills and reacting to enemies. That dodge is still an annoyance, even now. It was combat that felt too routine and rather boring after being involved with it for some time. On the other hand, SWTOR offered absolutely nothing new and an experience that felt like déjà vu. I know I’ve played this MMO many times before, using the same buttons and rotations in many other MMOs across the years. It doesn’t feel that mobile which just felt odd compared to how the industry has been changing. Just cycle between the various enemies, kill, and move onto the next.
After coming back for a time, though, it’s clear to me that The Secret World has the superior system. SWTOR is a mere jumble of skills and rote gameplay while TSW keeps you more active and involved with the combat through using positioning during a fight. I’m not saying it’s perfect, the overuse of your builder is still a boring part, but Star Wars does this as well. It’s also the amount of customization you have in TSW that far surpasses TOR, and well everything else out at the moment. The collection of weapons you can use and the absolute wealth of active and passive skills that utilize various modifiers is rather magnificent. Confusing, often terrifying, but truly magnificent.
I also concede this point to The Secret World as Star Wars the Old Republic’s combat feels a little too unrewarding now, especially earlier on due to the many combat changes that have taken place over its lengthy development. Much of the content has been redesigned to make it much easier, as well as the companions feeling much stronger now which is good for just playing through for the story but it doesn’t create combat that feels as engaging during the moment.
Dungeons: 1.2 Points – Star Wars the Old Republic
Dungeons form the basis of the theme park experience in many ways. They are the foundation of end-game content, providing people with a goal post for working towards as well as a guide once there and as such, I feel like adding this as a distinctive point scoring category is important.
Both games have some well-crafted experiences when it comes to instanced dungeons with an integrated story and some interesting bosses. Both feel rather familiar to other dungeon style experiences I’m used to from many other MMOs but with their own personal touches and aesthetic differences.
The Secret World certainly has the aesthetic edge when it comes to a comparison of the dungeons with some really interesting environments and visuals. The detail in the environment is there, and even the enemy and boss designs are top notch. Those large imposing monsters and bosses truly spark a tinge of terror deep down when facing them for the first time, and the animations are well planned and timed so you are able to judge the enemies attacks effectively. Now while SWTOR does have some interesting dungeon and boss designs they still feel a little bland compared to TSW and other MMOs which is weird considering the amount of history and lore available. I think that has to do with having more humanoids or faceless robots being the majority of the enemies as well as the engine and art style they used.
Unfortunately, the number of instances TSW has is rather minimal. Only a selection of dungeons that are often recycled into a hard, or nightmare mode with tweaks to the mechanics. SWTOR has a huge collection of Flashpoints and Operations already and while they may be slowing down this development there is still a wealth their to play through. It’s quantity over quality here, which is a little silly but when you are spending so much time replaying dungeons it’s good to have a little variety.
Mechanically I also feel like SWTOR’s instances are the stronger overall. TSW utilizes some interesting boss animations and attacks but often times I feel like they become hampered by the more complex design around the Skill wheel. It doesn’t matter too much earlier on but later, enemies have numerous strengths and immunities that need to be accounted for and built around which makes these dungeons not as accessible as I feel they should be.
On the other side SWTOR does offer the more vanilla experience that uses the basic trinity formula and while it does feel familiar, it is a system that works and works well. Dungeons don’t use too many mechanics but seem to refine a certain basic style and gameplay within each of them. Each new dungeon seems to have a good mix as well. It’s also something they have continued to refine, especially with the most recent Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion where they added level scaling to dungeons, allowing for groups of different levels to play together, as well as a story mode for the main dungeons that lets you play through by yourself to experience the story. It’s a great addition to an MMO that focuses more on the story.
Other: 1.9 points – Star Wars the Old Republic
It’s no denying that SWTOR is the more complete MMO experience. While Funcom did create a great MMO, and one that is still improving it just can’t compete with the size of their development and the amount of resources they had and have now. It is a metaphorical David and Goliath battle, and while TSW does have certain strengths, SWTOR has the breadth, size, and muscle behind it.
Both have personal instances that bear certain similarities to player housing which can be enjoyed, although Star War the Old Republic does have the edge with its more customizable housing system. There are various options for houses on a few of the planets that range in size and while the plug mechanic can be a little limiting, it is rather adaptable with being able to slot objects, furniture, tools, and even companions. On the other side, TSW introduced a player museum for you to showcase your collections and achievements. It’s an interesting addition but fails to capture my interest as much as real housing.
Crafting is a part of both but I often felt like TSW’s system was more of a hindrance than a help. The Minecraft-style system of creating patterns with various materials was often confusing, and always annoying. I just wished for something more simple and less time consuming. Crafting in theme parks is, to me, something of a side dish to the main course and the more time you take away the worse it is. SWTOR is the standard crafting experience with a few changes, namely the management of your crewmates to gather materials as well as craft. You can do it yourself throughout maps but this does take out some of the time and effort.
The Secret World has the better customization and clothing system. There are a wealth of clothing items to choose from; and with various clothing types from shirts to jackets, jewelry and such that each show on your character. They are well organized and easy to switch between and I like the modern flair, even if some are rather old-fashioned and just plain odd. ToR does have some of the same functionality as well as a wealth of items to choose from but it’s often cumbersome to organize and constrained by the class design.
Both have PVP although TSW is trying to do a little more with having both PvP instances and the larger Fusang battleground. There have been issues with them over its development: how they function, the design, the reward structure, and even the balance between the factions but they have been slowly worked towards and they are their as content. SWTOR has the standard battlegrounds as well with battling over control nodes, as well as other modes like Huttball but these haven’t seen the amount of attention and quickly became boring to me.
And then there are a few more features that Star Wars has that TSW just can’t keep up with like having the space missions. These things are just mini-games but they are complete experiences with their own missions, progression, and gear to gain that keep you a little busy and act as a distraction when you need time away from questing and Flashpoints.
Story: 243 points – The Secret World
And now we get to the most important point and probably the most subjective of it all and I’ll be honest and say I’m incredibly biased in the mediums and genres I enjoy, so it probably was never a very fair contest to begin with. Yep, unashamed supernatural fangirl right here so the winner is obvious to me.
I love how The Secret World is able to blend the myths, legends, and lore of so many cultures into its modern day setting. It’s not only that it is able to do this so seamlessly, and in a way that feels believable, but also how much research they have gone through to do it. The amount of time and effort they’ve spent reading, researching and documenting these various factors ranging from monsters to gods and secret factions is just amazing. It is and always has been a labor of love for the staff and writers, and this shows.
I remember when first playing it just how many theories about the characters, monsters, and larger beings were propping up. The long forum threads debating various characters and their relations to myths and legends. What was being referenced where and when, and the larger overarching message behind it all that I myself have probably spent many thousands of words writing about already. And it’s all still continuing and apparently we have so much more to look forward to with both season two and three having been written already.
I am also constantly amazed by how well the story elements intersect and reveal themselves at various points through the story. Small, inconsequential threads and environmental cues that later reveal themselves as part of this massive narrative. It is purely brilliant and deserves so much more praise and admiration than I have time for in this wee little post.
Now this isn’t to say that Star War the Old Republic doesn’t have certain interesting aspects as well. Some class storylines are definitely weaker than others, like the Trooper, but others like, well, all of the Empire-side create some amusing and thought-provoking choices and story elements. I will be honest that I found much of the earlier experience to be lacking and the overload of the weaker side-quests in the beginning was a bit of a failure but once they narrowed their focus they were able to create more meaningful and memorable characters. With Knights of the Fallen Empire being the culmination of that.
But it just isn’t a story that feels as deep, or as interconnected. It doesn’t have characters or create memories so memorable that I still keep them with me years after like Secret World is able to do. I still remember listening to poor Sheriff Andy. I remember gasping and squealing at the lovely relationship between Emilia and Octavian. And then there is the amusing character Said with his arrogant thoughtful tone that brings with it a wealth of knowledge and experience from throughout the ages. SWTOR won’t ever evoke emotion like the tensions and terror I feel crawling through bloody corridors, or crying at the anguish of these characters, but it is still a solid experience.
Ps. Federation > Force
Winner – The Secret World
Yes, I have declared a winner. The savior of storytelling. The narrative knight that shines above all in the MMO world. The Secret World showcases a world that feels more diverse and interesting and because of the modern day theme, one that feels more relatable. A minimalistic combat style that promotes movement with the crushing complexity of the skill wheel that will honestly keep you busy deciphering it for months. It also has some of the best story I’ve experienced in MMOs to date, that even rivals many AAA single-player titles, and while Star Wars the Old Republic is a solid experience, it is rarely exceptional.Related: Column, F2P, MMORPG, Star Wars The Old Republic, The Secret World, Versus