Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling reports from the front lines* of the Massively Multiplayer Multiverse.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Points and Counterpoints on The Secret World

So the big Celebration Weekend is over. A lot of people who hadn't had a chance to sample The Secret World got their chance, and while not everyone was satisfied, I'm sure Funcom picked quite a few new acolytes. Kadomi gushes enthusiastically about the game, the themes appealed to her: Lovecraftian horror, LGBT-friendly (I would say neutral, or matter-of-fact). She concludes with this:
I have to say, this was the first MMO since WoW that totally made me forget the time. When my SO told me it was time to do groceries after I sat down to play it at noon, and it was miraculously 6 pm, I was boggling.
Psynister and Fynralyl were, shall we say, less enthusiastic. They bring up valid points, but much of their concern is over stylistic choices made by the Ragnar Tornquist and his team rather than (what I perceive as) flaws in the game itself. Since that is a matter of taste, there is not too much I could say that would change their minds. And that is perfectly OK. The Secret World is not a game for everyone, just the setting—our own modern world, with supernatural horrors—is a turn-off for many, and that is before you even get into the mechanics of the game.

Dark and Profane

Fyn, in particular was not fond of the dark "hyper-realistic" art style of the game. I put that in quotes because while I think that was the goal, we all have a long way to go before fully interactive video games can have the realism of Hollywood CGI. I've mentioned it before, but the uncanny valley that many of the characters live in just adds to the creepiness of the game for me. That said, I myself am looking forward to spending time in the far more pleasant climes of Guild Wars 2.

The lack of PC interaction in the cutscenes was also mentioned, something particularly noticeable to someone coming directly from SWTOR's conversation wheels. In TSW, the NPCs actually make mention of the PC's reticence. I  personally feel this frees me up for RP. My Templar is German; my Iluminata, Texan; and my Dragon, Japanese. The addition of whatever voices the devs decided to use would force me to alter my conception of these characters. Perhaps not as big a deal in SWTOR, though eventually the spoken dialogue of my characters there becomes grating sometimes, when they don't say exactly what I thought they should say. So it's a stylistic choice some people will like and others won't.
The prominent profanity laced through the game is a major turn-off for many. Both Psyn and Fyn found it not only gratuitous, but Fyn said, "It also reminded me of a kid trying too hard to be 'cool'." This is an honest critique; unfortunately, the use of profanity is more widespread than some would like in the Real World, too. Sad to say, I work in a environment where that sort of language is common. I am guilty of using it myself, because it is pervasive. Sctrz doesn't like it at all, she skipped through the junkman's cutscenes completely.

Creation and Progression

Fyn also didn't like the limitation of three character slots per account. Actually, she referred to this issue as her deal breaker. [EDIT] Extra slots are available from you account page on the TSW website. Details below, thanks to Eric[/EDIT] Fyn realized that there was a slot for each faction, and with every character capable of learning every skill and ability eventually, that may be all that's necessary for most people. But she likes to play alts in order to relax at different levels of the game, so for her three slots simply isn't enough. I am playing three alts and therefore repeating a fair amount of content, as well as progressing more slowly through it than Belghast, MMO Gamer Chick, and others. I don't need to play more, because of the classless thing; and you can see from my character pages, Dear Reader, that I am normally an unrepentant altoholic.

Both Fyn and Psyn had issues with the no-levels aspect of the game. Psyn really hit the nail on the head with his section title "Leveling Without Levels." Let's put a stop to the lie that there isn't character stat progression in TSW. As Psyn correctly pointed out, if there were no levels in the game, a newbie straight out of the tutorial should be able to walk into Transylvania (the last zone of zones) and have a decent chance of survival. This is not the case. What TSW doesn't have is discreet levels and a specific signal (The GLOW) that says, "You are now better/stronger/faster than a second ago."

Character progression in terms of stats is done through the purchase of Skills. Since you can spend Skill points however you choose, there is plenty of room to screw it up. Fyn mentioned that she didn't like having to devote skill points to talisman skills in order to wear higher quality talismans. She wanted to spend them all on weapons. What she may not have realized is that the Talisman Skills are also where you improve your characters' basic hit points, as well as their resistance to physical and magical damage. Also, each weapon has two skill paths, but it only necessary to fill in one path to wield higher quality weapons. On my toons, I have taken to filling all the talismans and the two weapons I wield in a balanced way: the Major Talisman Skill first as it boosts HP, then the weapons, and finally the other talismans. But there's nothing that says you have to do this.
In a related vein, Psyn and Fyn both disliked the inability to easily see the relative strength of their opponents; however as was pointed out in a comment on Psyn's review, the mobs do have an indicator of their strength, it's just not a number. I personally look at the mob's HP and make a judgement call on whether I think I can whittle it down before I am dead myself. I do get in over my head.

Neither Here Nor There

The questing system of The Secret World is designed to slow you down to "savor" each quest as you're doing it, limiting your current list to one phase of the overarching story, one main/investigation/sabotage quest, one "dungeon" quest, and three side quests. Attempting to pick up any further quests will result in pausing the current quest of that type (or one of the three). You can't run around and pick up all the quests. Part of the reason for this is that many of the quests, even the side ones, involve a bit of thought, and maybe some research on the internet.

TSW has a built in web browser to assist in these quests. Neither Fyn nor Psyn mentioned the need for outside research in their reviews, but it's something I've noticed others saying. This is a love-or-hate aspect of the game. TSW is almost an Alternate Reality Game, and as such, the devs have peppered the internet with sites and pages that help with the quests, or at the very least, they have researched commonly used sites like Wikipedia to help build their mysteries. And this is beyond the thorough research they did on the environment itself.

I also can't speak to the complaint that the quests send you all over the map, since I neither saw the paths that Psyn and Fyn took, nor can I gauge their tolerance levels for wandering. I personally don't think there's too much, the quests I pick up seem to flow fairly well together, and I make note of where things are so I can return when my current task is done. This is ultimately another matter of taste.

The story of what is going on in The Secret World starts with the videos you encounter at the very beginning of the character creation process. Psynister decided to skip the videos since he was going to role one of each faction anyway. This is the first time I'll actually say he made a mistake. Those videos, and the quest cutscenes, and the conversations with main NPCs, are integral to understanding what is going on here. Psyn goes further in saying, "I don’t think they did a very good job of actually telling you what the story is." I feel the information is there, but you have to seek it out.

There are two ways of telling a mystery story. One is to let the audience know who the perpetrator of the crime is right off the bat, and then let them follow the investigators as they unravel the mystery. The other is to leave the audience in the dark, as well, allowing them to figure out the mystery. The Secret World is of the second type. You don't start out with a ton of information other than what's given to you through the dialogue. As you progress through the quests, you find out more about not only the main mystery, but the secret world in general. I actually found this very similar to playing vanilla WoW so many years ago, not there is a ton of mystery in WoW, but there is a rich world to discover.
A Swing and a Miss

Psynister would also like more the capabilities of the different weapon types spelled out. Now, when you first open both Skills and Abilities a video automatically starts playing which explains the basics. These abilities are accessible at any time from the help button in their respective interfaces. The only thing I can say to beyond that is The Secret World refuses to hold your hand. Prepare to be challenged. The specifications of every ability in the game is available from the Ability Wheel interface, including suggested decks that mention their purpose or role in a group: Tank, DPS, or Healer. The Skill paths for each weapon are also based on the potential role of that weapon. For example, Blood has both a healing path and a DPS path. But you have to look at the interface to see it. I can't remember  everything it says, but I am curious, since Psyn skipped the faction videos, did he also skip the Skill and Ability tutorials?

I can understand the eagerness to just get the game going already, and I think Guild Wars 2 is a great example of getting you involved in gameplay right away, progression details can come later. TSW doesn't, other than the quick subway disaster tutorial. And even then, I can see how it may give a mistaken impression of the shotgun abilities. However, I am a strong fan of so-called exploratory learning. I am far more adept with Windows and MS Office than the vast majority of my coworkers, simply because I either have played around with the programs so much, or am willing to go to the help file to find a solution to an issue. I found TSW to be the same way. I can explore both the world environment and the UI to my heart's content. For those of you still reading and interested in playing I highly recommend this Deck Builder.

TL;DR: Different Strokes

Only so many character slots, only so many quests at a time, only so many active and passive abilities in any given fight. Using limitations, TSW forces you to focus and plan. Take the time to really look around and listen to the NPCs. Explore your Abilities to figure what goes best with what based on your own playstyle. Explore the world both for XP and to find Lore objects. I've "wasted" several hours on my characters just exploring the safe Faction capitals looking for Lore. I loved it.

Neither Psyn nor Fyn are dummies. On the contrary, they are both intelligent, thoughtful people, with whom I am glad to share an online friendship, which I hope continues after this post. :) Their posts are insightful impressions of TSW for people coming to the game "blind." I'm sorry I wasn't available to answer questions they had during gameplay; recommending healing weapons, for instance. Ultimately, it would not have made much difference. Stylistically, the game is not their cuppa tea. This game serves a niche, much like EVE. It's not for everyone, but I am glad people have had a chance to play and decide for themselves whether the game is for them. Hey guys, I'll see you in GW2!

20 comments:

  1. You can purchase more character slots from your accounts page. If you go to thesecretworld.com and select my account, then Account-Special offers and upgrades, the top option, currently at least, is character slot. I'm not sure the cost beyond the first one which is $9.99, since I didn't buy one. I don't even know if you can buy more after the first additional slot either. I think it's supposed to encourage you not to have so many alts. Even if you just want to chill on a low level alt, you are probably better just taking your high level character since the majority of quests are repeatable, and still give you a benefit. Only problem is that it might just be too easy, and not as entertaining.

    I think they would probably make more money selling clothing and accessories to altaholics than they would by charging them for each additional slot. I'm guessing most people probably won't pay all that much for extra slots.

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    1. In a game where there are no classes, and any character can essentially be any class, there's no reason to have a ton of alts so I don't think additional slots will do much for them beyond roleplayers who want to have a different personality for each character.

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    2. Hey thanks for the info, I'll revise the post.

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  2. I did actually watch all three of the faction videos, I might have misstyped that in my post (I'll fix it if I did). I knew I wouldn't need to watch them because there are three groups, three slots so no need, but I did watch them anyway because I wanted to know what they were about. Watching the videos was how we decided which faction to play first, second, and third.

    The videos that I did skip were the cinematics with the quest givers. I watched probably 8-9 of them before I grew bored with them and/or was put off by the language. If there were a way for me to skip forward after reading the subtitles to the next bit of text then it would have been better since I read much quicker than most people talk and written swearing doesn't even register w/ me where verbal does.

    In regards to the other videos such as the one for AP/SP, when I played my Templar (my first character) none of the tutorial videos loaded for anything that I did, so I had to stumble through learning it all on my own. The second character I rolled I was already expecting there to not be a video so I was rushing through things I had already seen before I even noticed that Fyn was getting videos that I wasn't. It wasn't until my last character that I saw any of the tutorial videos because of that and by that time I figured I had already learned enough through testing it out for myself that I wouldn't need the video. So I did skip most of the AP/SP videos though I did watch the first 10-15 seconds or so before deciding that I already knew what they were talking about and skipped the rest of it.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that I wish TSW would hold my hand through the process, but I would definitely prefer some information over no information or some direction in discovering the hidden information. The videos were probably the key to that, but like I said I didn't even know they were there until I was on my third character and by then I assumed I already knew all that it was going to show me so there appeared to be no reason for me to bother.

    I did enjoy the actual gameplay, other than the horrendous PvP experience, but overall it was the minor details of the world, the story, the looks, and the method of information presentation that turned me off. There wasn't enough in the game to get me excited about playing it. But, as a niche game aimed at a niche that I'm not a part of, I think they did a decent job considering I did actually play it for two days rather than giving up halfway through the first. The horrendous PvP experience also took place at the end of the first day, so even after I wanted to physically stab someone out of frustration I still went back to play it again.

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    1. I did't touch on PvP since I have not participated at all in it in this game. I felt the same way in the couple of PvP events I did SWTOR. Despite a supposed normalization of HP, etc. Those of lower level were handicapped by not having stuns, for instance.

      I may have misread or misinterpreted your post regarding the videos. I found that they covered all the basics, when watching them again this evening, while still leaving room for advanced study of the skills and abilities themselves.

      A lot of information is obtained through watching the cutscenes, but not always. And they are usually not essential to finishing the quest. If they bore you, they are skippable, of course, but then you're missing out on quite a bit of atmosphere or flavor. The language issue is a big one, and I totally get that. I don't notice it much for the reasons I gave in the post. One place I do notice cussing is in music. I'm always like, "Did she just say that?" I usually listen to country, though. Not very much swearing there.

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    2. I think that getting bored watching the Mission cut scenes is de facto proof that the game is not for you. The Secret World *is* the cut scenes and character dialog. Certainly no-one would play it for the combat!

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  3. I may be in the minority here, but I still say -- at least for games, CGI film studios are different ballgame -- we're nowhere near an "uncanny valley" stage in video games yet. TSW or take your pick of recent Rockstar games, and others, at all times look like polygons and textures. Funcom especially botched the eyeball in TSW, they go halfway inside the model's head when it's supposed to be looking at a specific target. But anyway...

    I still haven't played enough to really get into it. My lack of Fun with my initial Blade/Assault Rifle combo got me off to a bad start, as did re-doing a lot of Kingsmouth a second time re-working enough points to put into Blood magic. Eventually I hope to get enough for Pistols too.

    Classless? Sure, it's classless... sorta-kinda. But there are still Trinity roles. So it's a give a take. The plus is that with enough time into a character (and carrying around enough gear... /sigh) you can on-the-fly switch to any full-on role or hybrid role. A few clicks and you go from a Tank to a DPS or Heal (or any hybrid support role).

    As for no "levels" there sure are levels, they just don't call it that. My initial (again, not much play time still) impression are that the skills are horizontal progression. Putting more and more points into a skill seems to be more a diagonal slow incline progression, but putting points into your three talismans seems to be directly vertical progression. Bam! QL[N] gear and your power, health, mana, etc. immediately jump up. But rather than N XP and Ding! you get to choose when and where you "level up" your talismans.

    I do think TSW could use... I don't want to say hand-holding per se, at the start, but overall it could use consistency. Sometimes you just get near the objective and the mission continues. Other times an object flashes for you to interact with it. Other times nothing whatsoever happens and you just have to know via osmosis or communing with the spirits to click something or someone. It's completely inconsistent, which would be fine if this were a life simulator, but it's not, and interactive inconsistency bothers me when it comes to game design and execution.

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    1. I have noticed the same inconsistency., especially in cases where I think I know where to go, and it turns out I didn't step enough to a tree along the way. I think some of that stems from either different designers, or maybe a conscious decision that some quests should involve more thought on the part of the player. I don't really know.

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  4. I made a comment on twitter earlier this week about how I know TSW is a niche game: 1) When the negatives that are being pointed out aren't so much about the content, but rather the presentation or style (as you've pointed out), or 2) When many of the criticisms aren't over true "faults" but what are actually the features of the game.

    Yes, the game requires you to slow down. One does not simply walk into TSW (hee!) and if you are used to skimming over text or any pertinent information it's easy to get lost. You almost need to possess a certain personality type or gaming style to be able to get through the game's almost sadistic treatment of players who are new to the game.

    Like you said, having patience and the drive to explore helps a lot. I generally enjoy hopping in a game and, in your words, "getting it going already" and luckily there are many MMOs that allow me to do this. TSW on the other hand, drew me in almost immediately because it was different. It actually forced me to research and utilize my problem solving skills, and instead of being turned off, I actually looked at it and went, "Challenge accepted, bitch!" Like you, I like to explore and find out information on my own if I don't know something, and so the game scratched this itch of mine.

    Amount of time spent playing this game also plays a factor, I think. Some people say to know how you feel about the game you have to give it at least 10 hours, some people say more, but honestly, I don't think there's a magic number, I think it just takes as long as it takes to "learn" the game. Granted, time is still important because this understanding does not happen with the snap of the fingers.

    One last thing, I noticed right away that Psyn and Fyn rolled three characters pretty much right off the bat. As a recovering altoholic, I understand the love of alts and even now in TSW I have to fight the temptation to roll a brand new Lumie. But it strikes me that the game doesn't mesh too well with a many-alts playstyle, especially at the beginning if you are still learning. Just thinking that it could have been a factor, as dividing the time between alts cuts into the time available to do what you called "exploratory learning".

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    1. Agreed. And other than flavor, there really isn't much difference between the factions. I played only one character during that last beta weekend, which was my trial period like this weekend was for Psyn and Fyn. Sctrz and I got all the way to the first house in the Savage Coast, but we had skipped a lot of side and and even main quests to do so. I don't know how long it took. I have usually decided whether to I would like a game within an hour or two of playing, though I'll play a little longer just to make sure.

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    2. I should say though, I don't know how many quests like "Into the Darkness" there are, but you'll only get the full story there by playing all three factions.

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    3. TSW's the first MMO I have played seriously in as long as I can remember, possibly ever, where I have only made one character. In almost all MMOs, even ones I ended up playing for years, I'd have made three or four characters by now. I keep thinking of making an Illuminati or a Dragon but I'm stuck on the treachery that would involve. I don't think I've ever bought into membership of an in-game faction the way I've bought into being a Templar.

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  5. If you want to skip through cutscenes and dialogue *waves hand* then this is not the game you are looking for.
    There is a wonderfully rich story just under the hood and I find if you try and consume content like the stock standard mmo then you are going to miss a lot.
    It took me a while to slow down and smell the roses, once you do though it is definitely a very different style of play and quite agreeable. There is no hand holding either which makes you feel pleased with your deductive powers one moment, then a complete moron the next.

    Also don't skip poor Edgar, I know it can get a little crude but it adds to the diversity of the characters. His story actually has a strong emotional heart to it, during the dialogue he actual starts sniveling at being left out by the town.
    It made me have an awwwww moment.

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    1. I am guilty of skipping through cutscenes when I repeat solo quests, but I think that is fair enough. I play most quests at least two or three times, because I branched out early for different roles, so I need a bit extra time to keep up with the monster Joneses. I mostly do it on characters I don't like all that much, or who just talk much, but say little (Wolf anyone?)

      I noticed the language myself, and thought it was a bit overdone in parts, but it didn't turn me off completely. Must be my German side, we love to swear. ;)

      Other than that, mmogamerchick hits the spot: a lot of gripes people have with TSW are actually about design decisions. That's of course totally valid, and they have every right to dislike the game for it. However, it also shows that the game is everything but boring and probably a mandatory tick on your list of "games you should try out (and potentially dislike)". There's the chance that they might go F2P reasonably soon, so you can always wait.

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    2. Oh yeah, I try to go throught the cutscene on my first run through, but if repeating a quest, I'll cut straight to the chase.

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  6. I think that a big part of whether the game is going to click for you is whether you dig the setting and the atmosphere. I liked both enough that I was willing to muddle through not having the foggiest clue what I should be doing to build an effective character the first few hours I played (on that subject I'm still learning). However, if the setting doesn't float your boat pretty hard, I can imagine the game would seem like a pointless exercise in frustration to a new player.

    Even if you dig the game enough to get the basics down, there are definitely some spikes in the difficulty. I personally hit a wall when I got to Blue Mountain that forced me to heavily re-tool the build I was using.

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    1. I anticipate having to retool when I get to Blue Mountain. It seems like a lot of folks have a rough time getting through it. Use that deck builder I linked above to help you figure out what you can mix and match. I want to do a post about the Ability Interface, hopefully I'll have time tomorrow.

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    2. I am in all Q10 gear now. I can waltz through most of Transylvania all the way to Carpathian Mountains. I just went back to Blue Mountains this weekend to do the new mission and some of the ones I'd missed. And guess what? Blue Mountain is *still* hard work.

      I have the hit points and defence to stand there and get hit now but I still end up being knocked seven ways from Sunday by those revolting moths. Blue Mountain is not and never will be fun, with the sole exception of the Haunted House, which is excellent and must be visited.

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    3. Well, OK then. :) Honestly it's good to know there are still challenges in the game, even for people decked out in QL10

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  7. I'm going to second MMOGC and say I think the key to enjoying TSW is how you approach the game and the time spent to get past the learning curve.

    Rowan great way to break the game down and interpret the pros and cons, and attempt to demonstrate why gamers are all over the place when it comes to TSW. It's a testament that our community can have these differences in opinion and stay close knit.

    Now it's time to solve the mysteries of Egypt!

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