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.
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.
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.