The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shadow Warrior Review

The original 1997 Shadow Warrior was one of the lesser but still lively spawn of the Build engine. The game was explosive and colorful fun but (like many Build engine games) crude, full of heavily pixilated gore and near nudity. It also featured a generous dollop of the kind of racist stereotypes and jokes that are only really funny when you’re twelve, and even then not very. A modern reboot of the franchise can be understandably met with skepticism. The recent Duke Nukem Forever did not establish a good precedent for bringing the old Build engine magic into the twenty-first century. 

The developer might also give pause. Flying Wild Hog has only one previous offering, the frantic old-school shooter Hard Reset. Hard Reset offered solid explosive action but suffered from a punishing difficulty curve and a story that veered off into incoherent around level two and never looked back. 

Retro secret areas pay homage to the original game.
Given the nature of the source material and the mixed success of the developer’s previous work the Shadow Warrior reboot had all the ingredients on hand for an agonizingly bad game. Mercifully, amazingly, gloriously, it is not. Shadow Warrior is far better, far smarter game than it has any right to be. 

No Ordinary Wang


This is a complete reboot of the franchise. Gone are the unfortunate racial caricatures. Still to be found is the playful humor and sense of fun. Improved and polished to a Hanzo steel edge is the explosive combat. New and unexpected but more than welcome is an entertaining story with coherently written characters. Shadow Warrior has grown up.

Lo Wang is back, but strong voice work and a wry personality with ever so slightly geeky sensibilities grow the character beyond a dick joke. A prolog combining a gorgeous Japanese estate, a Katana brawl out of Kill Bill, and 80’s theme song “The Touch” (AKA the music from the Transformers movie. No, not that one. The real one.) sets the tone beautifully.

Sometimes rude but always funny fortune cookies remain worth tracking down.
Wang’s mission to buy an ancient sword for certainly not evil megacorp CEO Orochi Zilla rapidly escalates into violence, and then gets interrupted entirely by rampaging demons. Wang is quickly driven by necessity to cut a deal with rogue demon Hoji to survive. Now wielding potent Ki powers in addition to his own martial prowess the assassin sets off to recover the sword, discover the reason behind the invasion, and dismember a few hundred demons along the way.

Hoji, masked demon trickster, mandatory voice in your head, and source of your Ki powers, is an excellent character in his own right. At first I expected his slightly nasal voice to grate but less than a level later his wit and barbed but never quite ghoulish humor had won me over. Despite being trapped in an expressionless magic mask Hoji is an incredibly emotive creature, courtesy of sharp writing and well choreographed animation. He’s one of the best support characters in memory and steals nearly every scene he’s in. 

Hoji's motion capture is a treat. With an immobile mask for a face he talks with his hands.
It would have been all too easy to make Wang a gruff and serious straight man to Hojo’s snark, but the writers took a different and surprisingly effective direction. Wang and Hoji are both snarky, sarcastic dudes, and they play off one another beautifully. The back and forth between the two makes for an entertaining dynamic and is Shadow Warrior’s chief way of building both character and world. 

A Storm of Limbs


Combat is a frantic affair, very much in the vein of Serious Sam, and Painkiller. You saunter into an area, enemies appear, and you get to leave when they’re all dead. Battlefields are packed with things that explode, burn, and electrocute when shot, proving the Flying Wild Hog learned all the right lessons from their previous Hard Reset.  Battles quickly escalate into lethal Rube-Goldberg machines as one detonation triggers another and then another, sending primed explosives hurtling in all directions.

Never a dull moment.
The action is relentless so long as enemies are left standing. Waves of demons boil towards you, lead by lumbering behemoths that empower their minions or summon skeletal reinforcements. Foes left alive too long enter a berserk state, burning with power as their speed and damage increase. Attacks can and should be evaded with proper use of the handy directional dodge. In the best old school style standing still for a moment is to court brutal death.

The level of carnage is intense, visceral, and eminently satisfying. Demons shred apart under the onslaught of bullets or fall in neat halves from Katana strokes. Maimed monsters stumble across the battlefield, clutching at stumps before acknowledging your supremacy and dashing themselves to death against the ground. Each skirmish leaves the ground littered with blood, limbs, and still twitching viscera. 

Even minor skirmishes leave a mess.


Instant Karma


Of course survival is not quite the same thing as winning with style. Each major battle rates your performance between one to five stars. Rating seems to be based on a combination of speed, variety of weapons and powers used, and not getting the tar kicked out of you. The higher the rating the more Karma points you earn and the more skills you can buy.

The flamethrower is pretty, but at this range you're better off with the Katana.
Shadow Warrior features a robust set of upgrade systems and trees, enough to almost make it a FPS/RPG hybrid. Cash, looted from the environment, is spent to unlock alternate fire modes and upgrade specific weapons. (Get the explosive bolts for the crossbow ASAP) Dark crystals, doled out at a deliberate pace but usually hard to miss, improve core Ki powers. Finally Karma points, eared (as described above) through killing demons and looking good while doing so, are spent on skills that encompass a grab bag of miscellaneous upgrades. New Katana moves are probably the most immediately useful, but don’t neglect passive perks like more health or stamina and the ability to wield severed demon heads as improvised laser cannons. 

Katana Enthusiast


First person melee combat takes a lot of work to get just right, which is why so many FPS games relegate melee weapons to stealth kills or a last resort. Not so Shadow Warrior. The Katana is central to the story but also a fun and powerful weapon in its own right. While you do eventually get a suitably destructive rocket launcher this reboot trades the explosives spam of the original Shadow Warrior for an altogether more personal weapon. If anything many of the guns feel a bit anemic compared to the limb-severing, head-lopping, torso cleaving power the blade offers. 

Bigger demons stay dangerous even as they lose bits and pieces.
Simply slashing wildly will only deal with the weakest demons. The combo system, once unlocked, grants access to special strikes like a piercing lunge and 360 degree whirlwind attack. Sword strikes and Ki powers are charged by double tapping a directional key, then holding down the left or right mouse button. The system proves elegant and surprisingly easy to remember even amid a mass of screaming demons.

While there aren’t a lot of special sword moves each is powerful and fills a clear tactical role.  They also combine well with Ki powers. A Shockwave knocks a hulking Troll warrior to the ground long enough to line up a piercing strike that severs the prone beast’s head. Powers and sword moves don’t consume any sort of resource but the seconds needed to charge them are as precious as anything else in the heat of battle. 

“All in the Reflexes”


Shadow Warrior doesn’t try to simulate true swordplay. There are no blocks, clashes, or parries. Most of your foes are too bestial to use weapons or too mighty to make meeting them blade to blade practical. Wang is not a defensive fighter. Mobility, speed, and aggression are your best chance at surviving the Demonic onslaught.

With the right skill upgrades demon body parts make potent weapons.

The core combat loop also neatly avoids the trap of leaving you stuck too low on health to survive the next encounter without throwing up its hands and giving you Call of Duty style regeneration. You can always channel Ki power to heal, but the effect is slow and only good up to a certain percentage. More interestingly the right upgrades add a vampiric effect to special sword strikes and boost the frequency of healing powerups left by slain demons. Once you get to grips with the ebb and flow of combat the best way to stay healed is to hurl yourself into the thick of the fray and stay on the offensive. 

Rising Sun


While Shadow Warrior lacks any sort of multiplayer component the lengthy and challenging campaign more than holds up on its own. The opening act is atmospheric and gorgeous, full of somber temples, meditation gardens, and swaying bamboo forests. These areas are so pretty it’s almost a shame to litter them with burning demon giblets. The engine and level designers work together to do amazing things with colored lighting once the sun goes down.

The graveyard temple at night might be the most striking are in the game.
The environments suffer an unfortunate slump in the second act, taking place in the same sort of industrial haze of docks and warehouses any gamer will have already seen a hundred times. Fortunately the combat only gets better as the game progresses and the story holds up well. Shadow Warrior never quite rises back to the sheer beauty of the opening brace of levels, but the final act in Zilla’s snow-bound mountain fortress still manages some impressive visuals.

Bosses this big take time to wear down. Keep your own health up.
Each act is punctuated by a massive boss; building-sized juggernauts fought one on one in arenas set aside for the purpose. These encounters are epic but can become time consuming and even a slog. Remember to quick save periodically because these guys can easily 1-shot you. Boss fights also stand out as one of the few points where guns are more useful than the Katana. The blade can’t reach their conveniently glowing weak points.

Make it Right


All this builds to a strong ending with memorable tragic elements. Too many games putter to a stop or tack on a “to be continued” sign at the end. Shadow Warrior ends on conclusive and surprisingly stark note. While I certainly wouldn’t object to a sequel it is refreshing to see a self contained story that can stand on its own.

Attractive cut-scenes reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints break up the acts.
The story they tell isn't destined for a happy ending.
If the campaign leaves you still hungry you can take all your karma upgrades and weapons with you and run through it again in the New Game + mode. You can even crank up the difficulty and keep all your stuff, which wasn’t allowed in Hard Reset. A run through on normal is a good way to build yourself up if you’re planning on hunting some of the tougher achievements, many of which are locked at lower difficulty levels. Flying Wild Hog also just recently added a survival mode, a welcome addition that distills the game down to bracing combat with no distractions. 

In conclusion Shadow Warrior is the game Duke Nukem Forever should have been. It’s full of affectionate references to the source material while growing past the immature mentality. The charm and humor are real, but there is a serious story and real character work holding up the demon dismemberment and laughs. It’s one of the best and certainly the most under-rated shooter of 2013.

Reasons to Play: Frantic limb-hewing combat. Sword is a joy to use. Surprisingly strong character work and story. Emulates all the best parts of the source material while still growing up.

Reasons to pass: Later acts have visually weaker environments. Boss fights can become a slog. No multiplayer component, if you crave the classic version’s deathmatch.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lovecraftian Indie Horror

Cosmic Horror is a genre that emphasizes the fear of the unknown and the  unknowable. While not necessarily the first or even best H.P. Lovecraft is considered the genre’s figurehead and founder. Pop culture knows him for his most recognizable creation: the monstrous, slumbering, squid-god Cthulhu. The sleeping cephalopod master of sunken Rl’yeh is so iconic that simply slapping tentacles on something has become shorthand for “ancient, unfathomable evil.” (See the first Hellboy movie, D&D’s mindflayers, and countless other examples.)

Most of Lovecraft’s stories end with his protagonists insane or worse from the mind-shattering entities and implications they encounter. Cosmic horror is about being an insignificant spec in the face of incomprehensible malevolent forces that can’t fought, can’t be stopped, and can’t even be understood without melting your brain. So as you might imagine it’s a difficult concept to build a game around.

At their core most games are about building power, exercising control, and mastering a comprehensible set of rules to achieve success. Concepts like insanity are tough to convey effectively through game mechanics and it’s hard to pit the player against unkillable alien god-monsters in a way that feels fair, much less entertaining.  This hasn’t stopped some intrepid developers from giving it a shot, with varying levels of success. We’re going to take a look at two indie games and their very different takes on Lovecraft’s dark vision.

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land” is a tactical, turn-based RPG set during World War One. The pulpy story pits a squad of British soldiers, adventurers, and mystics against cultists, shambling zombies, and a host of classic Lovecraft Mythos monsters pouring into the Western Front. Weapons, armor, and equipment are all pulled from the time period. 

Trench Warfare

The game plays like a lite version of the X-Com franchise, spending Action Points to move your squad around the map and attack enemies. A basic cover and over-watch mechanic helps keep battles tactically interesting. Other elements are heavily simplified in the name of accessibility. There’s no ammo or weapon maintenance to keep track if. Characters are unable to go prone and you can safely blast away with shotguns and machine guns from the back of your formation without worrying about friendly fire. 

Enjoy defending a trench while you can. Later missions have you pushing across no-man's land.
The Wasted Land is also a short game. The campaign features less than a dozen missions, including a few very short dream sequences. Most missions have you advancing slowly through small maps, beating down waves of enemies that spawn in from all directions. Poison gas, time limits, underground areas (where artillery doesn’t work), and the occasional defensive stand provide much needed variety. The timed missions are arguably the best, forcing you to keep moving forwards and not pick your enemies apart from a distance. 

Later levels start to feature a lot of rushes by bullet sponge melee bruisers. With elephant guns, point-blank shotgun blasts, and artillery strikes in the mix the game needs them just to give you something to focus fire on. Against the background of WW1 it’s hard to argue against humans being brutally effective killers able to match even lesser Mythos creatures. In “The Wasted Land” Lovecraft’s monsters are vulnerable to guns if the guns are big enough.

Shell Shocked

While ripping apart the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath with massed machine-gun fire isn’t quite in the spirit of the source material The Wasted Land does show that confronting Mythos creatures takes a mental toll. Attacking or being attacked by monsters drains sanity. Spells, while powerful, also cost the caster a hefty number of sanity points. Insane characters can freeze up in terror (which is bad) or go berserk and gain a massive speed and attack rate increase for a few turns.

Massed zombie attacks push body and mind to the breaking point.
Dealing with sanity becomes an interesting tactical consideration. When his sanity drains away a berserk machine-gunner can mow down an entire pack of lumbering lobster-mutants. He can just as easily freeze up and be devoured. Insanity eventually disables a character but the short term boost it provided turned the tide of more than one desperate encounter. 

A character with the appropriate skill and a psychology book can restore lost sanity points, which I like to imagine involves simply smacking the patient with the book while shouting “Snap out of it!” In later missions a designated combat psychologist becomes as much a necessity as a medic, if not more so. A few rounds of holding off skittering gribblies is all it takes to reduce a character’s brain to mush without Psychiatric support.

Over The Top

Between missions you can buy new equipment and spend accumulated XP to upgrade stats and skills. Oddly enough all XP is dumped into a common pool where it can be spent on any character. This means it’s pretty easy to max out someone’s primary weapon skill early in the campaign, playing havoc with the difficulty curve. I’m not sure why XP isn’t evenly split between your squad but doing so would have helped pace character progression.

Dialog is more on the pulpy end of the spectrum.
I played The Wasted Land on PC but the game was originally made for the iOS. It shows in the form of an uneven port. The Character and Inventory screens would sometimes be go completely black, requiring a game restart to fix. The sound-track also tended to cut in and out at random. These bugs were annoying but not game breaking.

I had fun playing The Wasted Land, and I appreciate developers Red Wasp making a PC port. It stacks up better in its native mobile environment than in competition with similar PC games like X-Com though. Additional content beyond the single short campaign would have also added a lot of value.

Reasons to Play: Accessible “X-Com lite” gameplay. Tactically meaningful Sanity mechanic. Solid use of WW1 setting.

Reasons to Pass: Short campaign. Uneven PC port. Some tactical elements can be considered over-simplified. 

Eldritch is First Person action-adventure game that successfully combines Roguelike mechanics with elements of the Lovecraft mythos, with just a dash of Minecraft for flavor. Roguelikes, if you’re not familiar with the term, are a style of game that generally features randomized levels, high difficulty, and perma-death. Being plunged into an unknown but hostile environment full of lurking danger is certainly in the spirit of Lovecraft, so I have to give Eldritch a point right off the bat. 

Strange, Far Places

Each playthrough begins by dropping your nameless character into a mysterious library, complete with tutorial messages, bits of lore, and a few other amenities. Once you’ve gotten the basics of movement and item use down a set of ominously glowing books tempt further investigation. Each book serves to whisk you away to a series of self contained worlds loosely based off the dark gods of Lovecraft’s stories.

From there you’ll shank happily burbling fishmen, flee nameless horrors immune to your paltry weapons, and haggle with surprisingly dapper Star-Spawn over the price of dynamite you need to blast a path to the exit. Or you can murder the inhuman merchant, help yourself to his inventory, and use your newly acquired tinning kit to eat his corpse. While options in the Lovecraft Mythos are usually limited to “Die hideously” or “Go mad” Eldritch grants the player a pleasing level of freedom to meet its challenges.

Cultists and lesser enemies are vulnerable to the classic knife-tickle.
You’re restricted to a mere two weapons (including expendable stuff like dynamite) and a single spell at a time. A few slots for equipment like boots and amulets grant additional abilities, but Eldritch doesn’t bother with RPG style character development. The right equipment or spell will let you tunnel through walls, levitate across a room or create new blocks to form makeshift stairs and seal up enemies. There’s always a way over, under, through, or around any obstacle if you’re properly equipped.

Thoughts and Dreams

Block-based modular levels aside Eldritch should not be confused with Minecraft or its various imitators. While items and abilities exist that let you destroy and create blocks you don’t start with them and there’s always an associated cost. This is a game about exploration and survival, not building things. A well designed map helps tremendously, letting you see the general area you’ve explored and pointing out major features like exits and shops but leaving hidden nooks for you to discover on your own.

Head on attacks are a bad idea.
Movement is a high mobility affair, reminding me a bit of the old Thief series. You can crouch, jump, sprint, sneak, slide, mantle up low ledges, and lean around corners. Falling damage can kill but never feels unfair. Scrambling, sliding, and climbing around the environment is a tactile joy. 

Stealth and mobility are preferable over direct combat. Sound queues help you track enemy location and alertness level.  Mercifully you’re faster than most creatures and those that can be killed are vulnerable to sneak attacks. Creature loot is generally paltry, and looting the body makes them re-spawn nearby in short order. You don’t necessarily need to get your own hands dirty though. Some enemy types will fight one another and one rampaging Shoggoth can clear most of a level for you if you can stay out of its way. 

Level layout gets quite vertical. Watch your step.
Madness and Death

The difficulty level is high but not impossible. One or two bad decisions can easily set you from well equipped with full health to dead. Your character is fragile and can’t carry healing items for later use. The “Weeping Angel” inspired statues are particularly brutal and will likely kill you a few times before you figure out how they work. 

Death, when it invariably comes at the psuedopods of some gibbering horror, wipes your progress and re-randomizes the worlds. Banked artifacts (which fuel your special abilities and can be spent as currency at shops) are saved and unlocked worlds remain unlocked, but that’s it. Anything you’re carrying is lost, including the maguffins you need to complete the game.

Do not taunt happy-fun-shoggoth.
It is very much to Eldritch’s credit that deaths made me want to jump back in and try again, now armed with the knowledge of whatever killed me, rather than snap my keyboard in half. Most were due to carelessness and overconfidence or not understanding some new hazard. Though you can visit unlocked worlds in any order you’ll likely want to start with the first one each time to properly equip yourself for the challenges of the later. Difficulty spikes sharply as the world’s progress. Eldritch isn’t a very long game, but the randomization and high difficulty give it a lot of replay value.

The Thing on the Hard Drive

Descending through the depths is a matter of constantly balancing exploring for resources VS risking damage and death. Sometimes it is safer to make a rush for the exit and not chance blundering into something horrible. Other times it’s better to carefully sneak and backstab your way past enemies, carefully evading and disarming traps. Learning to read the environment and balance risk and reward on the fly is the key to survival and success.

Eldritch lacks a sanity mechanic (not that one would necessarily have improved this type of gameplay), and the slightly cartoony graphics don’t do much to inspire dread at first. The sound work is wonderfully atmospheric though and you’ll quickly learn to identify nearby creatures and other elements long before you see them. There’s also a certain pucker factor to being cornered by a roiling mass of ravenous, indestructible flesh or picking your way through a group of slumbering ten-foot squid beasts.  Scattered journals and the fact that your character re-incarnates after each death hint that you may not be entirely mortal yourself. 

The free "Mountains of Madness" expansion gets downright unsettling at the mountain's core.
If you have any tolerance for the Roguelike genre Eldritch is an easy game to recommend, packed with challenge, replayability, and character. If you hate losing progress the game will likely make for a more stressful than enjoyable experience. With strange eons even death may die, but Eldritch will send you to your doom far earlier and more frequently than that. 

Reasons to Play: Entertaining mix of Roguelike mechanics and Lovecraft Mythos. Excellent First-Person movement and exploration. Wide range of effective tools and tactics. Strong sound design. Giant Penguin VS Shoggoth fights.

Reasons to Pass: High difficulty and punishing death penalty for players unused to Rogue-like gameplay. Slightly cartoony graphics and most creature design not particularly horrifying.



Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Secret World Review

Reviewing an MMO is a daunting prospect. The sheer size and scope of such games makes it difficult to give more than a limited impression. Every MMO today must also stand in the shadow of Blizzard’s industry dominating 2-ton gorilla. However one feels about World of Warcraft there’s no denying that Blizzard has had nearly a decade to refine their core gameplay into a relentlessly accessible buttery smooth experience that anyone can pick up and enjoy.

Funcom’s The Secret World is definitely not World of Warcraft, nor do differences in scope and age make it entirely fair to compare the two. What not as polished or accessible it is a fascinating experiment. A fusion of traditional MMO mechanics, strong character customization, and surprisingly sharp writing and directing. Since the game recently went Free-To-Play, as all MMO’s seem destined to do, I thought I’d give it a try and share my impressions. 

High Society

Character creation in The Secret World (TSW for future reference) is simple. Clothing and appearance can all be changed later and have no effect on combat effectiveness. The only significant and irreversible decision is between one of three distinct and morally ambiguous Secret Societies. 

The New York based Illuminati (my own choice) focus on accumulating wealth and power, with a ruthlessly corporate attitude to building their New World Order and an amusing flexible approach to ethics. In direct opposition stand the London based Templars, featuring centuries of honor, militant tradition, class, and a willingness to pursue Evil no matter who else ends up in the line of fire. Finally the Seoul based Dragon seem to be a loose collection of Asian flavored anarchic hackers and chaos theorists, with a master plan no one else can make heads or tails of. Or they’re just making things up as they go.
Just surviving initiation is an adventure in itself.
While choice of faction is important you can still group with characters from other Societies. Only in discrete PvP battlefields do you find yourself trading blows and bullets with them. Faction nominally determines your home city, but since the bank and auction house are in London that’s where everybody spends their time. Factional differences are largely cosmetic or flavor. All weapons and abilities are accessible to every character. 

Once you pick side you are treated to a cutscene of your character getting magic powers by eating a bee (it makes sense in context) and then being invited to join your Society. Provided you can survive your initiation and a tutorial in the form of a flashback to an apocalyptic outbreak in Tokyo. Finally you’re turned loose in rural Maine, where the real game begins and where the dead rising to devour the living is the least of the problems plaguing the region.

Everything is True

Setting is one of TSW’s strongest elements. This isn’t some random fantasy world, infested with elves that dress like strippers and names with too many syllables. This is Earth, today. And our world is in serious trouble. 

Waves of once-human creatures stumble out of the New England surf, breeding on the beaches and massing to push inland. In the Egyptian desert biblical plagues hammer the land while sun maddened cultists make blood sacrifice at the foot of the Black Pyramid. In the Outer Dark things with Event Horizon mouths watch and wait and hunger. 
A nightmare of broken moons and endless cold.
In short every myth, urban legend, horror story, and conspiracy theory is true. And most of them are coming to eat us. Or worse. Standing against them, though hardly as a united front and often for the most selfish of reasons, are the Secret Societies. As a Society member and chosen of Gaia you’re going to spend plenty of time cracking monster skulls. 

Magic Bullets

Combat is serviceable but not the very best you’ve ever seen, and you’re going to be seeing plenty. Animations are functional but floaty and low on visceral impact. There is no auto-attack, so be prepared to hit the “1” key a lot. More interestingly enemies broadcast powerful attacks by painting shapes on the ground, encouraging you to use the evasive roll to get out of the way. Movement and positioning are crucial. The closely packed enemy population means it’s easy to blunder into more monsters in the middle of a fight.  
Anyone named "King of Red Shadows" probably needs killing anyway.
TSW lacks a traditional class structure. Your attacks and active abilities are determined by your choice of what two weapons you carry. Every weapon can obviously do damage but each also lends itself to certain roles. Hammers generate heavy agro and block attacks, excelling at tanking. Elemental magic comes with plenty of AOE and crowd clearing abilities. Assault Rifles drain health from enemies (just go with it) and redistribute it to you and your team-mates, making them the healing firearm of choice. 

Dead Man’s Hand

While you can always look up workable cookie-cutter combinations TSW doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to buying and choosing powers. You’re restricted to a “Deck” of only seven active and passive abilities at a time, not unlike Diablo 3 or Guild Wars 2. You can freely swap out any powers you’ve already bought any and save favorite combinations, so experimentation is encouraged. I was able to eventually create one deck for bringing down beefy single targets and another that let me rip through packs of weaker enemies. 

It’s easy for a new player to get lost in the giant power wheel. More expensive higher tier powers aren’t necessarily stronger but tend to be more specialized and situational. It is more important to find a set of abilities that work well together. If your basic attack includes a Damage-Over-Time (DOT) effect then a follow up power that does bonus damage to enemies suffering from a DOT would be a good choice. 
You'll eventually want to build a deck for fighting groups. Ghouls rarely hunt alone.
Vertical character progression is strongly gear dependent. While every character has access to scores of powers how hard you actually hit, heal, or take hits with those abilities is mostly dependent on your equipment. Thus far I’ve found simply proceeding through each zone and doing all the quests you encounter will keep you in shape to deal with the current crop of enemies. If you outstrip a zone’s rewards a quick trip to the auction house will keep your talismans and weapons up to date. 

As any character can eventually obtain every ability and max out every skill there’s never any reason to “re-roll”, unless you really want to see another faction’s handful of exclusive quests. XP rewards increase exponentially in later zones. You’re free, for example, to build up your set of healing powers while continuing to actually play as a damage focused character. A developed character will find it much easier to try a new weapon or role than a newbie.

Transmit – Receive – Witness

In MMO’s the setting and story frequently serve as mere set dressing for gameplay. In TSW it’s almost the other way around. The characters you meet are memorable; from cynical hard drinking horror writers to suave undead merchant-princes. The cut scenes that introduce each mission are a high point, featuring excellent voice acting and camera direction. Your own character is silent (so prepare to spend a lot of time getting monologed at) but it’s worth hearing what everyone has to say. 
You meet a number of immortals. They're not having as much fun as you might expect.
Bits of lore are scattered across the zones, concentrated in the form of golden honeycombs and narrated by a (probably) benevolent entity called “The Buzzing.” While you never actually encounter The Buzzing it’s easily one of the best characters. The entity addresses you with equal parts affection, gentle amusement, and a deep undercurrent of creepiness as it shares the secret histories of the world. The writing is excellent and my only complaint was that many lore nodes were well hidden and required a guide to track down. 

TSW’s quest structure is... different, but not necessarily in a bad way. Aside from the central story you can only have one main quest active at a time. There’s no reaching a new quest hub, grabbing a half dozen exclamation marks, and heading out into the wilderness to do them all on one sweep. TSW’s mission quests are more like ten-to-thirty minute mini quest chains. They can contain as many as a half-dozen or more steps, often leading you through a zone in a circular motion and dropping you off near another major mission or a bread-crumb trail back to one. 

Golden lore honeycombs are always a treat to read. So long as you don't mind being called "Sweetling".
Scores of shorter, more traditional opportunistic fetch-this-kill-that quests also dot the landscape. You can have up to three of these minor tasks in progress at a time. It usually makes sense to be working on at least one or more while doing any major quest in the area. The quest system is well designed and feels rewarding, but can take some adjustment for players like myself more used to loading up their log with a bunch of tasks to be worked through over the next few hours. By far the best feature, which every other MMO should copy immediately if not sooner, is that completed quests can be turned in from anywhere via cell phone.

Digging Deeper

Many of TSW’s missions can be completed just by following your waypoints, interacting with anything you find, and killing anything in your path. Others demand a bit more. “Investigation” missions are among TSW’s most unique and polarizing features. These quests would be more at home in a MYST style puzzle game, requiring intensive research, copious note taking, and a willingness to spend a lot of time working through problems. Be prepared to learn Morse code, translate Latin to English and then into Demonic runes, and dig up obscure literary references.

On one hand I feel Funcom should be lauded for trying a new style of gameplay not seen before in a MMO. On the other many Investigation missions are painfully unintuitive and frustrating. Too many of them require knowledge from outside the game itself, a serious design flaw. To TSW’s credit it includes a surprisingly effective in-game web browser (Another excellent feature every MMO should copy) to aid in research. Still, any fun I was having with the Investigation quests ended the moment I actually had to stop playing the game itself and bring up the browser.
Other quest types provide more accessible fun, like this "Tower Defense" mini-game.
When I log into an MMO I’m there to explore, enjoy the lore, and fight monsters. I’m not playing to take the SAT. I gave the first couple of investigation quests an honest go, but after spending a few hours without making much progress I have to confess I’ve just started looking up the answers. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the ease of gameplay in other MMO’s, and there’s nothing wrong with requiring basic mental activity, but all the information you need to solve a puzzle must be contained within the game itself.  

Fight together, Die alone

There aren’t a lot of open world zones in TSW, but they’re large and full of plenty to do. Monster populations are densely packed and respawn quickly. Most missions eventually reset and can be completed repeatedly for additional rewards. While this means you never run out of content it does contribute to the sense of a world frozen in time that many MMO’s suffer from. There were zombies attacking the police station on your first visit and there will still be zombies attacking it on your hundredth. It would have been interesting to see what the developers could have put together if they’d had access to the “Phasing” technology used to great effect in WoW’s later expansions. 
For an engine not really built for it Funcom does a credible job of faking some stealth missions.
Most of the open world content can be tackled solo by an appropriately equipped character. You’ve got a certain amount of leeway in personal skill, build, etc… TSW’s 5-man dungeons are much more traditional affairs, built around the expectation that players are bringing the holy trinity of tanking/healing/DPS to the fight. On the plus side there are very few trash mobs between bosses and most boss fights emphasize fun and clearly communicated movement and positioning mechanics. A party wipe simply drops you back before that specific boss.

Ancient evils, Modern technology

Like so very many MMO’s today TSW began its life as a subscription based game before transitioning to Free-To-Play. You still need to buy the actual game so it’s a pleasant surprise that it holds up well without needing to spend any more. The cash shop is unobtrusive and stocked with largely cosmetic and vanity items. Almost everything else can be earned or bought in-game for a reasonable time or in-game money investment. The only exceptions are a few “Issues” of new content, but these are only relevant to high level characters and after scores of hours of gameplay. 

If TSW has a technical problem it is the load times. Teleporting back to the hub dimension, going to London to use the Bank, and then getting back to whatever zone you were questing in can take a combined five or more minutes of loading screens. Moving full speed through some zones can outpace the game’s ability to load creatures and other elements, resulting in running into invisible walls and enemies. London itself is especially problematic, possible because of player and NPC density. I’ve had to wait a few minutes at the bank just for the clerk to load in and let me access my stuff. 
This isn't space/time warping magic, the bank's walls just haven't loaded yet.
Crafting exists, requiring arranging materials on a grid not unlike Minecraft. An in-game reference for the different shapes and patterns would have been invaluable, and it’s of limited utility and unlikely something will be an upgrade by the time you can make it. PvP is also present, though to be honest I haven’t tried it much. Following the zerg in the “Fusang Projects” warzone was a fun distraction.

Home for the Holidays

The Halloween events that went live while I was playing make a nice microcosm of everything TSW gets right and wrong. One extended Halloween quest had you roaming the starter area of Solomon Island, investigating and collecting entertainingly written spooky stories from the inhabitants.  Despite taking place in the starter area these seasonal quests were tuned for characters in max level gear, making them suicidal for new players who stumbled across them or wanted to get in on the fun.

One Halloween quest in particular took place in its own little basement subzone, pitting you against wave after wave of organ harvesting fiends. When they invariably killed any low level character (like myself) the game would respawn you still in the basement with 10% of your health. Right next to the pack of now fully healed machete wielding maniacs. I ultimately had to log out and back in to escape.
TSW's support staff isn't this bad, but they're clearly stretched thin.
A pumpkin themed world boss caused hair-pulling frustration, requiring players to place a group of jack-o-lanterns just so to summon the beast. Each player attempting the quest received exactly one jack-o-lantern, which would de-spawn a short time after being placed. If you miss-placed a single pumpkin, misunderstood the quest, or otherwise failed to use your jack-o-lantern exactly right the very first time, well too bad for you. There was no way to get a new one to try again. All you could do was hang around the pumpkin patch hoping a different group came along and got it right. 

In the interest of fairness Funcom did eventually patch these and other sundry problems, about a week into a limited time two week event. I suspect they were less a result of any sort of negligence or systemic incompetence and more due to the severely limited development and support resources available. No MMO will ever be bug free or introduce completely flawless new content, but much of the seasonal event was an unwelcome reminder that not every company has the raw dollars and manpower to throw at problems that Blizzard can muster.

Ultimately the excellent setting and writing and strong character customizability make The Secret World a game I can recommend to experienced MMO gamers looking for something a little different. Entry level and casual player will likely end up frustrated and confused. 

Reasons to play: Strong setting. High production value writing and mission cinematics. Flexible “Deck” based character customization. Free to play without intrusive cash shop. Investigation quests try a different style of gameplay.

Reasons to pass: Long load times. Middling combat. Investigation quests often highly unintuitive and require outside game knowledge. Uneven support and bug response. Limited content for PvP addicts.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.