Monday, May 14, 2012

A Weekend With The Secret World

This weekend I spent a fairly extensive amount of time with The Secret World, and I have come to the conclusion that there is a pretty solid game, even if I left the weekend with as many questions as I had coming in. Many of the concepts that had me interested in the title were as good as advertised, and maybe even better than I anticipated.

I jumped into game on Friday afternoon, determined to see exactly what Funcom had created, and despite some anticipation, I have to admit there was some reservation that I was going to be wasting my time. I created my character, and popped into modern day London. While spending a few minutes exploring, I felt that London was much like other MMO's, in that it simply felt as if it was the backdrop, or setting for a story, and that it wasnt an actual, living and breathing city. When I blogged about my Guild Wars 2 weekend experience that was one of the things that really impressed me. It felt a living world with life and activities, and Arenanet got it right, just a few weeks later I was in a fairly stale, but pretty London. Cars were parked, none of them moved, I could hear sirens but could never get to them. In the Haitian Market area there was some activity, but in general NPC's were static. It wasnt until later on when both my wife and I logged in to play that I started to explore London, and we looked around looking for "Lore Cubes" that I began to enjoy London.

I had hoped that that London would be a grand city, and while it obviously cant be entirely built in a game, considering the size and scope of Tarantia in Age of Conan especially since it was another Funcom title. I had hoped for something relatively equal and was let down. Tarantia felt like it was a city, but London was a a small area, several blocks that never made it feel like a city to me. Perhaps more is unlocked later on, or perhaps Funcom will expand these areas, as I would think the opportunity to adventure in New York, London and Seoul would be something players would enjoy.

Funcom said that the tutorial in beta is different than that of the launch client, but I did the tutorial area, which is told thru an adventure in a Tokyo subway station, and you are given your first glimpse into what the game has in store for you. As far a tutorials go, it wasnt bad, and you are not given much in the way of handholding or back story. I am definitely curious how and why this would differ from that of the release version.

Upon completing the tutorial, I headed to the Templar headquarters, which was in a huge and beautiful building, with only two rooms available to explore. (To be fair, the club which was across the street was fully explorable) and got a quest to move me to Solomon Island, and Kingsmouth. At this time I was sent to try out several weapons, and choose one I wanted to start with, and I was given a basic tutorial on the Skill Wheel. Fortunately, Funcom preloads your options with 11 "decks" or builds that have a certain synergy of skills, because starting out knowing there are 500+ skills to choose from, a novice wont have the first idea where they need to begin. First time out I picked an assault rifle and moved on out.

I headed to the subway station, and was ushered into Agartha. This is Funcom's solution for quick travel, and as it happens, Agartha is a legendary city beneath the surface of the earth, which in part touches on the belief that the earth itself is hollow. There is a short cutscene explaining how it works, and then I was whisked off to Solomon Island where I felt I was done with tutorial and moving into the game itself.

To be honest, nothing had really jumped out and grabbed me at this point, and I was herded towards the town of Kingsmouth on a small chain of quests that had me killing zombies, and giving me some basic mechanics and ideas of the game. It began with kill zombies, then jump on a car with an alarm, and the alarm would go off and alert more zombies. That was followed with a quest where I would ignite a gas can and run zombies thru the blaze to set them on fire. About this point the game froze, I had to manually close it, and no matter how many times I tried to get back in over the weekend, trying to log the character in crashed the game for me.

For many people that would have been the end of things. It could have been for me as well, but I waited until that evening, and started up the game, along with the wife so we could give the game a whirl ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, for the first time I enjoyed London, as we tried to find every bit of lore that we could.

When we got to Solomon Island we progressed past where I was, and reached the town of Hellsmouth, and when that happened, my outlook on the game really started to change. A town beseiged by zombies, where many inhabitants are holed up in the police station, barricaded in isnt a new concept in gaming, but it is a different one for a MMO. We started to take quests, and explore the town and before we knew it we were both caught up in it, and we'd spent around 5 hours straight playing.  The tide had turned, and instead of being disinterested, I had become engrossed in the world around me.

We returned on Saturday and continued to explore the town, and we got absolutely caught up in the Investigation quests. In fact, these might be some of the best quests that I've ever seen in an MMO, simply because they made me think, and use outside resources to solve them. One quest began in a church, and it started outside when we were instructed to find an Illuminati symbol, which was relatively easy to do, and we followed a path of those symbols thru the town, to a plaque. Reading the plaque gave a clue, and we had to figure out what the "seat of power" was, (there was a lighthouse on the plaque, but that wasnt it.) The plaque had a name, Frans Hals and I had to look him up to find he was a Dutch Painter. We found the seat of power, and saw that the building had many, many paintings now clickable, I started clicking and "found nothing" on the first two, and on the third I found was donated by a member of the volunteer fire department, and I was instructed to go there and deterimine if that was a clue. My wife on the other hand looked at the paintings, and found one that was a Hals painting, clicked it, and got the next clue. I was stunned at the detail, I thought it would simply be random, but I had clicked too soon and had to go follow a false trail! The quest went onwards, we had to look up a bible verse, take a part of it, and use it as a code to enter a secret door, and eventually complete the quest. This quest took an hour or more, but there was a sense of satifaction upon solving it that I'm not used with MMO quests. Fortunately there were several quests of this nature, and solving each of them yielded a sense of gratification.

Our adventures continued thru the weekend, and both of us were sorry that the weekend event had concluded. In many MMO's I admit, I tend to race towards max level, soloing as much as I can in order to start the end game. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I was not just enjoying the ride, I was not wanting to solo. There was no joy in solving things on my own, or using the in-game web browser to hunt for clues, the game was fun because I was interacting with someone, and working with them to solve a puzzle. From what I saw, I'm not sure that I'd have an interest in soloing this MMO, or that I'd be racing to see the end-game. I have no idea what the end-game is, but I do know that there is some serious enjoyment to be had while just playing.

The Bad:

Sure, I had a good time this past weekend, but it doesnt mean that I did not find things that I did not care for with the title, and it's only fair to make mention of them.

For me, it starts with the character creator. I know Funcom says that they are going to add more choices before launch, but I've heard that song from them in the past, so I'm not going to hold my breath. The creator is as basic as I've seen in an MMO for years, and there are perhaps 40-50 combo's that you can actually have, this doesnt do much for feeling unique.

I'm not sure that combat should be listed under the bad, it is simply mediocre. The Ability Wheel may let you customize your character but some skills dont feel useful, and it is a "tab target" spamfest for the most part. Some elements feel slightly more strategic, but since the mid and out wheel were locked for beta, I have no way to mix and match beyond the inner circle. This is also an animation issue, but the short version is that this is tried and true MMO combat, with very little new with the actual combat.

While we are at at it, let's talk about The Secret World being leveless. Funcom's take on it isnt quite Ultima Online, where you earned skill by using an item.(8x8 levling anyone?) Here you earn experience in traditional MMO ways, by killing mobs, completing quests, and when you hit certain markers you earn skill points. Well in a sense, you have levels without a level number. You cant get to the outer tier of the ability wheel unless you earn so much XP. Instead of going for levels, your XP means new abilites. Skill points are much the same, and you have to have so many skill points invested in skills in order to equip talisman's (which function as armor) or weapons. In this manner you still have many trappings of levels, without having the actual number for a level. I hope Funcom doesnt think players cant figure this out.

As I discussed earlier, ArenaNet has done a far better job of creating cities, and has breathed life into the world, where The Secret World feels like any other MMO in years past where the world is just a static canvas. A few weeks ago this probably would not have bothered me, but having seen Guild Wars 2, I have to admit, the differences seem very stark.

Instancing. This past weekend all participants were on a single server. I have no idea how many people were in each instance, and Funcom did a nice job of never making me feel alone, and also did not make me feel cramped in a zone. This was reminicent of the zones in Age of Conan. I dont remember how, but we got one window asking if we wanted to shift to the same zone as groupmates, but the most common method upon logging in was to log back out, and then in.

Animations make the list as something that is just not up to par. This is another item that Funcom assures people that it will have more animations ready for release. I'm not saying it is impossible, but it seems a rather curious claim because you would anticipate they would want to show a very polished game for it's first public outing. Perhaps they will add more, but I certainly wont hold my breath.

I'm not sure how I feel about cutscenes. I admit I was spoiled in TOR that in a cutscene I was a participant by being able to respond, and I missed that here. These were far better than the story cutscenes of GW2, but there were just so many places where I was watching, and not participating. I enjoy the story if I'm participating in it, but if I'm always just watching I admit if I'm not emotionally invested then I'm tempted to space bar. That goes for the non-main story quests of Kingsmouth.

The quest limit of only 5 active quests was a major downer, especially since to restart a quest you need to go back to the original quest giver. In other games I'd take as many quests as I could in a hub and head out, here though, I was constantly faced with "pausing" a quest when I ran into a new, and unexpected quest in the world. I dont like having to choose which quest to have, it feels limiting.

The Good:

Funcom got the setting right. In some strange way this was Left for Dead mixed with Walking Dead, mixed with other strange stories you may have heard. Kingsmouth felt like Funcom wanted it to feel. A dead town, with a few pockets of life, and an undeniable fear over absolutely everything. This isnt something I'm used to in an MMO, and I liked it.

The quests. Very few quests were "one and done", most were in multiple tiers, so you had many steps to do, and it extended the quests so they felt more like part of a story. There were standard kill and escort quests, but the investigation quests were outstanding, and are simply some of the best quests that I've ever done in an MMO.

Flexability in class design. Sure, Funcom gives you templates, and they dont hold your hand, but it was day 2 for me before I added a second weapon to my hammer, and started to look at what skills for hammer and sword seemed to fit, and I honestly wish I had more time to get to know this facet of the game.

Slightly surprising me, I was able to get between 40-60 FPS in TSW while in GW2 I was gettin 25-40 FPS. Optimization is normally not a strong suit for Funcom, and while they have work to do, they arent in a bad spot right now.


The fact that I started with the bad, and listed more bad that good would usually be taken as a sign that either I did not care for the game, or that I'm not all that interested in the game. In this case, the good actually outweighs the bad, as I feel that strongly about it. If I was rating the game today, it would get a fairly strong 6 or 6.5 out of 10, but there are a few elements that I still dont have information about that will determine if I'd move that number up my chart.

With only one faction playable there was no access to either instanced PvP or the 3-faction world style PvP that Funcom has talked about. If you go back to an earlier blog I did, on what is important to me in an MMO you'll see that meaningful world PvP and instanced PvP top my list. With no experience in The Secret World, I have no way of knowing what to expect, and for a game to be a long term success for me, that's something pretty important.

There are no public quests, but as I alluded to earlier, I feel more desire to play this game with friends than alone so I dont miss the public quests quite as much as I'd expect. In addition, the zone wide chat system in TSW showed me that Funcom got chat right, especially compared to ArenaNet's inexplicable failure to include any kind of zone wide chat.

I have definite concerns about the amount of content available in TSW as well as replayability. It would appear there is a very linear path thru TSW, and I'm still not sure how much your faction will play a part of your story. If in fact your faction plays a middling part to your questing, then I dont see a reason to experience more than one faction. Perhaps it does play a bigger part, but again, not enough information to judge at this time.

TSW appears to have a total of 9 PvE zones, and Funcom doesnt have a reputation for churning out content rapidly, so I do worry that once you complete the 9 zones, all you will be left with is PvP. While I dont have a huge issue with that, I am bothered that I'll be left with something I still havent seen. Solving the investigation quests is tremendously fun, but once solved they can easily be repeated, and lose a huge sense of satisfaction. This is one reason I asked myself if this game, and this story could have been better told as a single player RPG or a co-op style game? I'm not one to judge the path that Funcom has taken, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is a very heavily content driven game. There are hundreds of thousands of myths and legends that could be explored, and that might fit the title, but can Funcom address that in a timely manner?

Inevitably the question is going to be asked, about which I like better TSW or GW2. The honest answer is that I like GW2 right now, because I've had a chance to experience the PvP. I love the setting for TSW. Each game has some distinct positives and some things that I dont care for. GW2 is likely going to be the commercial success, and TSW is going to find an audience that wants different concepts, even if those concepts are trapped in a fairly traditional MMO formula. There is just enough of Funcom's particular take for me, but I know that wont be the case for everyone.

On the whole, I like what I see, I'd consider picking the title up, right now my hunch is that it might only be worth a few months of entertainment, and I'd like to be able to get more from an MMO, but this is a truly enjoyable world, with a great concept. I have definite concerns about the end-game, what it is, and how engaging it will be. This isnt going to garner millions of subscriptions, and Blizzard doesnt have to worry about it eroding Warcrafts sub base. This is definitely a niche MMO, and one where you will have to turn your brain on, and think if you want to solve quests on your own. Sure, within weeks there will be sites will all the answers, but if you enjoy figuring out puzzles on your own, and you want to excercise your brain instead of your coordination with a jumping puzzle, TSW is probably a game to keep on your radar. I know it's going to be on mine.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Secret World Intrigues Me

Funcom is rolling out a Beta Weekend Event this coming weekend, and you can get keys from Gamespot. With my time investment in The Old Republic for years now, TSW is a title that I've kept a loose eye on from afar. From the get-go, I've enjoyed some of their concepts and ideas, and I've always felt that Ragnar Tornquist has done some great work on past games, like The Longest Journey. The problem of course is that it is Funcom, and I was there for the launches of both Anarchy Online, and Age of Conan, the latter of which I was a big fan of pre-release, again based on game concepts more than the actual game.

For those of you that dont know anything about it, The Secret World is a MMO set in a modern universe. The basic premise is simply "what if stories, legends and myths are true?" What if there is another world, a hidden world from most people, what if legends of ghost ships, vampires, mummies, zombies and other creatures exists. Players are awakened to this reality, and based on their choices are introduced into one of three secret societies, the Templars, the Illuminati, or the Dragons, all of whom fight these evils and advance their own interests in many ways.

Right there, I'm drawn in, the idea of conspiricies and myths being true, and a modern setting go a long way for me, it isnt elves, dwarves and orc's. There are no lightsabers, but a game based in the modern world, that's just a setting that I've never really seen done all that well. I'm going to explore our globe, and go from Stonehenge to Egpyt. There are puzzles, they have even suggested you'll need a web browser to search for certain myths so you can either solve quests, or understand some of the background for others. Those are some concepts I remember reading about, and I dont know if they are still part of the game, but I am anxious to see.

Most MMO's have levels and are class based, but TSW isnt. There are no levels, instead you accumulate skill points, and buy skills, and there are over 500 skills to choose from. Seven skills are active, seven are passive, so you can build a character that suits your playstyle, and you can switch on the fly if you need to fill a different role in a group. TSW still doesnt break away from the trinity based combat system of past MMO's, but because of what it does offer, I've got to say I may not mind too much.

There is three faction PvP, something many of us have screamed for since Dark Age of Camelot. I dont know how it will compare to that of Guild Wars 2, and I dont know if it is single server, but if in fact it is, for many folks I think it would be a massive selling point. GW2 is getting plenty of hype for being a spiritual successor to DAoC style PvP, but if TSW does the same thing, and does it on a single sever, that's a solution that appeals to me more than GW2. That being said, TSW has a lot to show me in terms of that PvP, because the keep defend/capture mechanic of GW2 is indeed stellar, and perhaps the largest single reason I will play it.

So enough about the game itself. Granted I havent followed the game avidly, I see a lot of things about it that I'm intersted in, at least interested enough to want to check out. I know it's Funcom, I fully expect a fairly linear world, I expect a fairly rough launch, and I'm not terribly thrilled that it is subcription based plus cash shop, that seems a bit excessive. I thought Funcom had major issues at launch trying to balance classes in Age of Conan, I wonder how they will balance 500+ skills in a classless game. I think that eventually we'll see people figure out a few builds that work, and eventually people will jump into them. I expect there to be gaps in content, and I question how fast they will be able to pump out new content.

I watched the video I linked the other day when I wanted to see where the game stands today, and I'd rather see a GDC presentation than some random trailer, or "fly-by". I really, truly, am impressed by the concepts that Funcom wants to try. I have no illusions that this title is going to be a mass market monster, it isnt, but I get the feeling that it has very strong niche potential, and could very well do as well as Rift did last year. I wont say that Rift came from nowhere to turn in a fairly respectable year, but it wasnt a big "name" title. Perhaps some of the success is due to the fact that we havent had a desireable MMO release in years, and for what Rift offered it was fairly polished (even if I hated the PvP). The bottom line is that it was a below the radar success story.

Funcom has some tougher competition, as dollars are still invested in TOR for some people, Guild Wars 2 on the near horizon (even if it is not a subscription game) Tera, and the Pandalicious World of Warcraft expansion. Personally I have never subscribed to two MMO's at the same time, I did have a couple of SWG accounts, but that was the same title. In my last blog I detailed a bit about why I'm about ready to say my farewell to The Old Republic for now, but for the first time, I would actually consider buying and subscribing to The Secret World as well as playing Guild Wars 2.

I'm looking forward to this beta weekend to see how the concepts I enjoy actually play out, and what kind of a game TSW is really shaping up to be. I have to look twice at anything that Funcom does, and that does make me a bit more skeptical. While I dont know that TSW could hold my attention for years at a time, I do wonder if there is enough for 5-6 months of enjoyment. I'll post my impressions of the experience early next week.

SWTOR Where have you gone?

On the first day of early access in SWTOR, I took a screenshot when I reached Imperial Fleet, I found it amusing that I was one of 5 people there on fleet. I made a few comments in guild chat, to the effect that it would probably be the last time ever we'd see single digits on fleet, and how a screenshot would be nice. By the time I got the shot, there were up to 9, and I hurried to get the shot. The reason I laugh now, is that when I logged in yesterday I had a moment where there were single digit people on Republic Fleet. Almost back to where I was during early access, except then the population was growing quickly, and now the population has gone.

I've been a huge fan of SWTOR since it was announced, I spent countless hours on guild, game, and fan site forums discussing the game. I took a vacation to Boston in 2011 and brought the family to spend a couple of days at PAX East and see the SWTOR booth, and no I did not drag 'em kicking and screaming, they went willingly, my daughter being a massive Star Wars fan. I'm sharing all of this to give you an idea of how big a fan I have been of TOR. Despite being a fan, I can be honest with myself, and admit that TOR did do quite a few things wrong, or poorly, but it also did a few things right. Both of those topic's will be forthcoming blogs, but for now let's just go with the idea that I can admit when something is both good, and bad.

So where am I going with all this? Well, I've finally hit a wall, where to an extent I feel that I've about checked out of the game. It isnt the game itself, because SWTOR was, I feel, pretty much exactly what I anticipated it being. It was a story driven MMO, and having seven characters above level 20, and five at level 50 I've thoroughly enjoyed the stories that were provided. Above and beyond, I was let down at the Illum World PvP, but on the whole, good points and bad, I've had a very positive experience, until now.

I realize that offering character transfers or merging servers is considered a sign of declining subs, and that usually hurts a title, so that we rarely see them this soon after release. However, the fact that it is now nearly impossible to find groups, and there are so few servers with an active population I think Bioware needs to act, deal with the bad publicity, and save some subcribers. Post launch, I belonged to a guild that had around 90 members on the Sith side, and around as many on the Republic side, with 25-40 players in each faction online during prime times. In addition, on the Sith side we had an allied guild populated with more of my close friends that most nights had 10-15 players online.

Within a few weeks after release, we had many activities, from PvP nights, to raids, as well as instance runs, but as would be expected, over time, and like the game itself, we had members leaving and moving on, and while I still have a few friends who casually play, I'm almost in awe of how far active players have fallen. My wife, who has enjoyed the game, hit level 50 on her first character about 3 weeks ago, and since then, we have not been able to put together a single hard mode instance run so she could experience what that would be like. Here's where it gets bad, on several occasions, we had 3 people, meaning we needed one single other player to go with, and were unable to find someone. Myself, with the variety of 50's I have, I could have tanked, DPS'd, and the other person was a healer, so it wasnt like we were looking for a specific class or role, we simply needed one other human being to go with. Granted we were not trying every single night, but the fact that we failed to find a 4th person on no less than 6 nights over three weeks was a very frustrating experience.

When I came to The Old Republic, I came with a large group of friends, and made many more. I made a couple of friends that now I'd hate to play an MMO and not have them there to share the experience with. Today, I cant find people to do things with. What I find amusing is the criticism that TOR is simply a single player RPG with MMO trappings. Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth, if that was accurate then I'd still be playing. The game would essentially end when you hit level 50, but without other players, I find myself trapped and unable to experience the end-game, and am limited to doing nothing but leveling characters. When I hear that particular criticism I think people want to find a reason to dislike the game, and forget how solo friendly many, if not most other MMO's are today.

I had someone suggest that if I like the game so much, why not re-roll on another server? The answer for me at least, is simply investment. I have millions of credits, I have 5 level 50's, so I dont want to re-do stories again and again. My wife took months to hit level 50, and I'd like to play with her, is it fair to ask to spend another 4 months leveling a toon? Asking my few friends left who play to move and start again sounds absurd as well.

Once upon a time, I'd hoped that I'd be playing The Old Republic for year long stretches, but today I dont see that as realistic, and it is a shame. I have until mid-June on my subscription, and my logging in between now and then is made harder because I feel less invested knowing that I'm done then. How many times I choose to login between now and then is based more on hoping to see some friends, or take "last runs" thru certain areas. If there were people on my server, The Old Republic could be more than a niche game for me. It's niche because all I have left is to experience a few class stories, and I'm not sure that's enough.

Bioware, you need to make some hard choices, you have fans who want to spend money. It's obvious now that TOR will never be a runaway hit, but if it drives away subscribers by keeping us spread out among far too many servers it will hurt even worse. I've had a passing interest in The Secret World for quite some time, but I never signed up for beta, and never got too involved thinking that I would be too tied up in TOR. This weekend, I'm going to try the weekend beta event they are running, as I tried the GW2 beta a few weekends ago. If TOR isnt going to allow me to play the way I want to play, then I'll take my dollars onto another niche game, until I find something that can be more than niche for me.