The difference between clever and cunning.

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.