At this point I have spent about 6 hours in total running around in Funcom’s latest MMO, The Secret World. Up to this point I hadn’t really fully decided if I liked the game or not. From what I am seeing floating around, seems like most people are having similar mixed emotions. The game is an odd mixture of really good elements, and horrifically bad elements. Up to now I wasn’t quite sure if the good were good enough to make me ignore the bad.
The Ugly and Awkward
The Secret World focuses heavily on the story of this dark setting. The problem is, the cut scenes and voice acting that make up the otherwise well written story are tragically bad. The motion of the characters are rigid and mannequin-like as then bend in impossibly puppet like directions. The voice acting varies greatly between extremely well done, to tragically confused accents.
The saddest part about this is that the dialog is actually extremely well written. The characters are interesting enough to make you take note of them and remember their names. They weave a story of a world gone wrong. Instead of giving it to you in a sea of quest text that you likely wont ever read, you have to draw it out of the characters a line at a time. In traditional roleplaying game fashion, each question has multiple answers, and talking to the NPC yields different results each time. When you have heard all the possible results, a green check mark shows up at the end of the prompt.
So the game world is intricate and engaging, but you are forced to sit through a sequence of awkward cut scenes and often times lousy voice overs to get to the meat of the game. In SWTOR you could skip through the voice over, and still be able to read the text by hitting the spacebar. Unfortunately right now there is no option like this, and you are forced to make a decision between sitting patiently through the rough movies, or skipping them entirely with the escape key and having no clue what is actually going on.
The biggest detractor the game has right now is the fact that in order to get into any action at all, I had to sit through literally 45 minutes of cut scenes and fed ex quests in London before I could actually go do anything interesting. I’ve heard this intro was unique to the beta weekend, and I really hope they either greatly reduce it, or remove it entirely. Once you get to Kingsmouth the game becomes fun and interesting, but up to that point you feel like you are having to suffer through a mile of bad road.
The Really Good
The atmosphere of the game is amazing. When you land in Kingsmouth you are surrounding by a town besieged by zombies and other things that go bump in the night. Little gatherings of survivors fight to stay alive in the midst of the ravenous hordes. The game feels like a really good World of Darkness gaming session. I was expecting to need to roll 7d10 for Initiative at any moment. It has been years since a game made me physically jump, and as I wandered around the small town, I jumped several times as a zombie horde rushed out of hiding at me.
The game is pretty much standard role playing game fare, talk to NPCs, get a quest and them complete it by following on screen guidance. Where the game differs greatly however is the fact that your standard MMO trope of batching up a bunch of quests simply does not work here. The system really is designed for you to focus on a single quest, and then follow it through to its logical conclusion. When you pick up additional quests they go into a 6 quest queue, but only one can be actively worked on at a given time.
I actually found myself taking notes as I played, trying to remember where I had seen quest objects in the world to interact with and accept the quest after I finished the one I was on. I found a severed arm, a damaged pda, a suspicious body, forgotten mail, all beckoning me to figure out what exactly was up with each. Over the hours of play, I have been working my way through a laundry list of objectives I found both from various NPCs and out in the “wild”.
Level-less system still has levels
I went into the beta assuming this would be the case, but there is no such thing as a level-less system. While there is no magical number that appears on your character, there is a mechanism in place that determines how well you perform verses the various mobs. I have not entirely reasoned out how it works, but it seems as you gain more Skill Points and Anima Points you gain additional hit points. So essentially, the number of points you have accumulated roughly equates to your level.
Monsters in the world have a “con”, just like they do in any other game. White mobs are roughly equivalent to your own level, and Yellow are much harder. I’ve heard there are other colors that denote different relations, but to this point I have not encountered them. Normal mobs are marked with a dot, if you see more than one icon on their nameplate, it means they come as part of a group. I’ve run into several mobs that are marked with a flag, and they seem to be some form of a mini-boss classification.
Atmosphere: Dice Included
So essentially you have all the same characteristics of a traditional mmo, they are just wrapped in a more pen and paper dynamic. Honestly the entire game feels like it came from one of my late night Werewolf: The Apocalypse sessions, tracking down the taint of the Wyrm. One of the first equipable items I got as a drop, were Dice. I can see several different games here. Parts of it feel like Matrix Online, other parts like Grand Theft Auto 3, and even others like the early PSX Survival Horror titles.
As I walk down the foggy streets near the shore, I had multiple flashbacks to playing Silent Hill. Honestly so far I have yet to see any reason why this game has to be an MMO at all. The atmosphere is great, I love the town, the abandoned cars, and the crude fortifications the survivors have thrown up. One of the early quests I did involved helping the Sherriff defend the barricades against hordes of oncoming zombies. Each time a new wave would spawn in the distance, a “tornado” siren would start up warning against their arrival.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I had withheld my opinion on whether or not I was able to look past the bad and see the good. As I have played the game more, around hour three, it started growing on me. I can see the potential I guess. The game is still very rough, there are a good number of awkward and confused things about it, but there is also a good deal of raw intricacy there. Part of the reason why I love Everquest 2 so much, is because the game exudes depth, and even in one small coastal town I can see depth to spare.
There are going to be several folks that will be turned off as a whole by the game. I’m nearing the end of at least one of the skill trees, and to this point combat is still wholesale forgettable. I went with a blades build, that overall feels much like the Katana Scrapper in City of Heroes. So far however, it seems like my PBAOE resource builder attack, is somewhat of an I-Win button. I can run into a pack of zombies and just brainlessly spam it until I win a prize.
When I face bigger baddies, I have to use more or two other attacks, but overall the combat is pretty mindless. So long as I am careful with what I attack, and watch out for drawn areas on the ground to avoid, I can pretty much defeat anything without much issue. That isn’t to say that I have not taken more than my fair share of deaths. Before I had the basics of the “con” system explained to me, I was trying to take down mini bosses and much higher level monsters that I could realistically handle. The big problem is, nowhere during the tutorial does it ever explain how you should actually play the game.
So far I really like what I see. I like the look and feel of the world. Unfortunately the game has a long way to go before it will be ready for the bulk of the MMO market. By the large number of negative reviews I have already seen this weekend, the game is just accessible enough for most people. Personally I am looking for games more like EQ2, and less like WoW/Rift/SWTOR. So all the extra fluff this game has, really appeals to me, and I can look past some of the akward combat and cutscenes for the time being.
What has me most concerned is the fact that this game is supposedly shipping in roughly a months time. Based on the multiple alphas and betas I have participated in over the years, I see multiple months worth of solid work here. If this title launches as it is, I am afraid it will fail to find a stable market. I know now that I will likely play it when it launches, but I will also be playing EQ2, GW2, and probably others. The game has to be a bit more polished than it is now if it hopes to win even my full attention.
I am looking forward to spending more time working through Kingsmouth. I hope by the next beta, we see a good amount of polish applied. I am really hoping that they can poke and prod and tweak everything to make the overall experience better. They’ve nailed the atmosphere, and they have some really good writing, the delivery just gets lost in all the lousy animation. Hopefully they will work on all of this, because I see a game that will be really fun if they do.
Ultimately the final challenge will be in pumping out the content. SWTOR was a fun theme park ride, but after riding the roller coaster to completion three times, I just don’t care to ride it any more. The storytelling, voice, and cinematics were an amazing tour de force. When the story is over however, there just was nothing left I cared to do. The Secret World will have to find a way to avoid the same trap WoW, Rift and SWTOR didn’t. The end game has to be something other than raiding, pvp and dailies. Here is to hoping they find a way to make the game stay relevant once you reach the ultimate cap.