Sunday, 9 September 2012

Format Played: PC

As no doubt all of you out there are aware, it's really difficult to review an MMO. I'm sure you're nodding your heads furiously. Most of you have probably tried your hand at it, since we're in the 21st century and therefore slaves to pointless technology.

Inevitably the depth and sprawling content of a high-profile MMO cannot be devoured fully without a few months of commitment, and the information that influences your opinions may well be partially or fully obviated the next time an update or expansion kicks in. I'm fairly convinced that writing an MMO review in the first six months of release is utterly pointless, since that seems to be roughly how long it takes for the bugs to be ironed out and the playerbase to settle happily into its routines of grinding, griefing and massively over-reacting on the game forums.

And even when things have settled down, gamechanging expansions can slip into place that make any review useful only as long as it takes for the developer to open up a new game zone where players can play magical alien toasters and thus open up the crafting system to baked products.

With that in mind, here is a pointless two month-in quasi-review of The Secret World. This has been inspired purely by their lovely five day free trial offer, which seems to set no limits whatsoever other than time, and also seems to be hitting the general public early – no doubt brought forward by an apparent low number of initial subscribers and the slow creeping realisation at Funcom that opening up an MMO without a free-to-play model is a shockingly foolish thing to do in the current economic and gaming climate. Especially when your not-quite-AAA game charges more than the likes of World Of Warcraft, EVE and The Lord Of The Rings Online. And especially especially when you release your game in the run-up to the largest clusterfuck of AAA MMO releases in quite some time – with Guild Wars 2,, Warcraft's Mists Of Pandaria and LOTRO's Riders Of Rohan all looming heftily on the horizon like some kind of giant subscriptionless panda on a horse.

It's irrelevant to any review of The Secret World as to what they decide to charge to play it, though. If it is your kind of entertainment then any remotely reasonable price is worth paying, whether it be a subscription or a one-off payment. I have often been baffled at the puzzlement of the more mainstream gamer over people paying monthly for an MMO, before toddling off to town and slapping down £40 for 3-4 hours of modern military shooter action. £10 per hour of entertainment vs. £10 per month of entertainment. Mathematics solves all arbitrary arguments!

I suppose I should actually start talking about the game here, then. With the caveat that I have played 5 days worth of it, reached the second map of the first zone and played around to a minimal degree with different character builds. Prior to downloading it my overriding notions from reading other media were that it had been praised for the setting, the writing of Ragnar Tørnquist and that the classless system had received lots of attention prior to release but not much after the public actually got their hands on it.

In a startling break from the norm, I am here to tell you that the setting and writing are great and the classless system is a little bit lacklustre.

But the setting and writing are really good. Really, really good actually. Good for a video game in general, let alone an MMO, which is a genre often plagued by an overabundance of boar quests and massive spiky shoulderpads. Within The Secret World you play a newly imbued practitioner of the martial magic arts, recruited by one of three covert factions who manage to break free from the conspiracy theory cliché that surround them to become genuinely interesting allegiances in a three-way cold war over who exactly gets to curbstomp evil.

Just an average London home.
There are The Illuminati, somewhat eschewing their usual sinister tendencies to become fun-time fratboy political manipulators. The Templars, who leaven their goody-goody natures with a touch of stuffy class prejudice and lovely old-fashioned fascism. And finally the Dragon, who are arcane chaos mathematicians blending magic with scientific experimentation to discover the best path to the future. All of them have impressively constructed hub cities that bleed atmosphere, especially the Templar launchpad of London which is a skillful blend of London Below, crime drama cliché and Diagon Alley. Although as with the other zones the whole 'secret society' theme is somewhat clouded by the seeming high level of knowledge that everyone outside of the societies possesses about them. It's tough to work up a sufficiently spooky feeling about getting inducted into the centuries-old Templars when they are getting name-checked in the local pub and have massive banners outside their gaff advertising their presence. On the whole though, the environmental design and writing more than makes up for this.

Oh yes. The writing. I have not had the pleasure of playing a game written by Tørnquist before, but my hopes weren't high. The kind of writing that is favoured by the average gamer (let alone MMO convert) is not my kind of writing, and usually involves protagonists called Wolf Hawkenblade or something. So I was hugely surprised when his characters started off on dry, amusing and Whedon-esque pop culture-heavy monologues that I was actually interested in hearing. They manage to pull you into the game, provoke a few giggles and build a slimy horror atmosphere all at the same time. The Secret World had the potential to be a very po-faced place, and the characters you meet and their witty opinions on the awful things happening around them help to ease you in smoothly. Though there is in fact a character called Wolf. Oh well. I'll let you off, Funcom.

In fact, the excellence in execution of a seemingly incongruous blend of humour and horror in a darker-than-real-life setting initially made me feel like I was playing Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines as an MMO. That's a hell of a compliment.

It's just a shame that there is no way for you to actually interact with said characters other than listening to their opening quest or cutscene monologues and clicking on them for extra flavour speech. Your trusty avatar remains stoic and mute throughout, which while no doubt cutting down on the problems engendered by introducing actual roleplaying into an MMO (as seen in The Old Republic, where a brave attempt by Bioware results in little-to-no actual consequence on personality, quests or plot) does also leave you oddly disconnected from the supposed conversation. Even a stock male/female character voice without any dialogue choice might have helped with this. Though if any MMO was screaming out for actual roleplaying and plot choice, it would be this one.

The campest swift travel in town.
The (secret) world itself is bloated with detail and exceptional mood-setting touches. In-jokes for horror and pop culture afficionados abound. Lore pickups are strewn across the landscape and deliver information to you about areas, history and factions piece by piece until you have the whole sordid story. The first zone proper is set in what can charitably be called a Lovecraft pastiche, an island town off the coast of Maine called – ahem – Kingsmouth. A fog has rolled in off the ocean and brought with it horrible aquatic monsters that go about converting the inhabitants into rabid zombies. All three factions promptly send their operatives into the ensuing survivalist warzone, and before long you are gallivanting around town wasting the undead and their fishy chums. It has been said elsewhere that later zones are not as engaging as the first, and given how superb this first one is I am not surprised. And it's lucky that it is a pleasure to navigate, because swift travel is extremely limited. You're going to be running around. A lot.

Solomon Island, and Kingsmouth itself in particular, is swarming with a beautifully blended mish-mash of traditional and 21st century-horror that leaves no bones unturned. Lovecraft fish monsters? Check. Resurrected cultists of unclear and unsavoury nature? Check. Weird new age religionists of uncertain motive? Check. Historical mass graves indicating some appalling past the town would rather forget? Check. Witch trials, mining fires, animated scrap golems, mud monsters, supernatural serial killers, haunted woods, kids fighting the forces of evil from a secret treehouse, Native American burial grounds, Men In Black, portals to hell, sinister occult mercenaries and remote-controlled plane perverts. All this and a pair of dogs called Tango and Cash. There is so much going on that the nuance and overall plot could very easily get lost amidst several seasons of The X-Files happening at once, and it really is a huge tribute to the writing team and designers that focus remains in firm control for a gamer who pays sufficient attention.

This is strongly aided by the design decision to severely limit the number of quests that can be carried out at once to the main story mission, one main mission, one group mission and three side missions. These probably require some clarification in and of themselves. The main story mission seems to be identical across all three factions, and is tied in to resolving the dark events happening across the zone in general. Main missions are split across the regular smack-up-the-mobs fare of typical MMOs, sabotage missions that incorporate stealth and escort mechanics and investigation missions that provide a cerebral challenge. There are also infrequent main missions delivered straight to you by a faction member when you manage to rank up within said faction, providing a minor sense of narrative difference between the three. Side missions are picked up from environmental objects and often contain a short but flavourful story unto themselves, rarely straying into the straight collect-'em-up mentality of MMO quest filler.

Main missions in general are handled via a set of progressive tiers capped with reporting back in to your faction via a text hand-in that removes the need to return to the NPC who gave you it in the first place. This, in combination with the mission limit, makes sure that you focus on the progression of one story and keeps your character flowing in one direction with no need for backtracking – which fits right in with the atmospheric, story-telling strengths of the game. However, this also means that missions often end with no sense of resolution regarding the bloke or gal who handed over the mission to you in the first place. Are they pleased with what has happened? Horrified? Strangely aroused? You'll never know, which is a shame given how well they are rounded out in their mission-granting monologues. Also, if you want to pick up a follow-up mission from them (albeit they only stock one or two missions in total, though most are repeatable should you wish to indulge in grinding) you will have to head back to them anyway.

Many players, enjoying a transport hub & chatting in random abbreviations.
The tier system means that even combat-heavy missions have a sense of story to them, and this is exacerbated for the investigation missions where your lateral thinking and puzzling abilities will genuinely be put to the test. If you're after a bit of mindless clicking producing that sweet endorphin high, these are not for you. They variously include object puzzles, scavenger hunts, scrutinising in-game images for details, hunting for real-life information and trawling fake faction sites set up by Funcom for the purposes of secreting data in amongst flavour information. It's all very fourth-wall destroying, and an utterly fantastic notion that seems so simple as to be obvious in our world of viral marketing nonsense. Some of these are tricky stuff, and I don't mind telling you that I was stumped to the point of Googling for spoilers on more than one occasion. Each time I regretted not just giving it more thought.

A contrast to the superb investigation missions are the frankly half-implemented sabotage missions, which commit the cardinal sin of introducing stealth mechanics into a game that has not been designed with them in mind. Negotiating laser grids, security cameras and such often proves to be raw luck combined with trial and error rather than skill and execution. This is made more frustrating by the one strike and dead mentality that pervades them, with rooms blowing up once you make a single mistake. That doesn't seem like effective planning for a monstrous secret society to me. Contracting and rebuilding costs alone would put them perpetually in the red.

As a whole the game seems to put a great focus on solo play – in the opening area of the Solomon Island zone there was a grand total of one group dungeon (the only type of group mission, as far as I can see), and open enemy tapping ensures that if you help out someone being smacked around by a huge crab monster you are liable to receive thanks rather than be screamed at for losing them valuable XP. There's an ongoing wrangle over this solo-friendly trend within MMOs, and one that I can see both sides of. But for something as immersive as The Secret World, it feels more appropriate than in many other games. Indeed, a strong argument could be made that this would actually have made a much better solo or co-op game than an MMO. If a similar non-MMO followup was made, I would certainly snap it up without question.

So what do we have so far? Great world and story-telling plus an intriguing mission system that just about edges past the line of its own flaws to feel refreshing and engaging. That pretty much leaves character building and combat. Which is where we start to falter and wheeze, carrying the weight of more than a decade of MMO convention.

Much was made of the classless and level-less system of character progression before release, but both of these prove pretty much to be non-starters. A character progresses via building of Skill and Ability points through an experience bar, picking up chunks of the tasty XP stuff via killing nasties, completing missions and gathering achievements and lore. This is traditional levelling up without a number attached to it, which only serves to confuse. Tagging missions with 'normal', 'hard' and 'very hard' based on your current ability and skill levels is all well and good, but it lacks nuance. If my invisible levels matter, I would much rather know exactly where I stand and what is expected for someone entering into a mission before I pick it up. Due to the nature of the ability system, levelling certainly matters less than in other MMOs – but it is still a big deal, and when something is a big deal in a game I want it to be as clear and transparent as possible.

The Ability Wheel, in all its wheel-like glory. 
Skills in The Secret World are possibly the most futile and uninteresting character progression system I have ever encountered, based primarily around very small incremental increases to your damage and survivability while also allowing you to equip better gear. Both are something that are just done for you upon achieving another level in most MMOs, and here assigning them just feels like dull busywork. Abilities are slightly better and come loaded into an ability wheel that is divided down via a choice of nine weapons (a mix of ranged and melee weapons and magic styles) that your character can diversify into. At any one point you can carry two weapons and thus utilise abilities from their wheel spokes, but if you are prepared to do some switching around then your actual ability choices are completely unlimited. Character decks are provided for guidelines on how to build effective character builds, but as pseudo-classes they remain open.

At any one time you can have 7 active abilities (i.e. combat attacks and buffs/heals) and 7 passive abilities (augmenting combat attacks and buffs) out, though these can again be switched at any time out of combat. All of this has the potential to lead to a fantastic and versatile combat/grouping system, but for several problems. The first is that the holy trinity of tank, healer and DPS is still there in full force. You can branch out into some element of crowd control or debuffer but the limited number of abilities you can utilise at one time makes you a one- or two-trick pony. Your role in a group (or your solo play technique) will largely be defined by the abilities you choose to stack, and while it is good that a player feels like they are defining their build themselves it would be very easy to construct a broken character or an ineffectual ability deck. This is easily remedied through free restacking, but it still jars that value judgements have to be made between abilities that on first glance appear broadly similar.

I suppose that smacks of laziness, but the abilities my primary character gained upon a few days of progression really didn't seem all that different. I was just hitting nasties with my hammer in a slightly different animation, with no sense of change or power increase. A couple of abilities I had to wade through on secondary spokes seemed actively worse than my starting ones, and many others differed only in about 8 points worth of damage per hit against foes running up to 4/3k in health points. It was all a choice between hit 'em, hit 'em slightly harder and hit' em less hard but get a protective buff for 8 seconds. That is even less interesting to play than it is to read.

Smacking fish monsters with glowing magic mining picks - surprisingly dull.
All this is exaggerated by the fact that while it is obvious Funcom were going for a more action-based combat than your average MMO (limited ability decks, dodgeable telegraphed enemy attacks, chunky brightly-coloured ability icons), in execution it provides a hell of a grind. It is a genre blend that others have attempted recently - DC Universe Online springs to mind - and it is most definitely yet to be perfected. The majority of mobs take a good 30 seconds to a minute to bash through solo by rotating between two or three attacks, and you inevitably find yourself weaving around the ones you don't have to engage within an hour of starting play. Given the effort that has gone into engaging the player in the rest of the game, this is highly disappointing. On the occasions when you fight a whole bunch of weaker opponents the combat becomes much more acceptable – enemies go down faster, the usually more visually impressive AOE damage abilities become appropriate and the combat as a whole often resolves itself quicker. And considering that the strengths of the game lie in exploration and atmosphere, there are a hell of a lot of areas that are so swamped with mobs that you stand no chance of strolling through them solo without a lot of careful fighting or frustrating dying.

Speaking of dying, are we really still using the whole navigate-back-to-your-body-as-a-ghost thing in 2012? Really, are we? Astonishing.

There are various other bits and pieces to round out the typical MMO roster of features, but from limited play they don't seem to offer anything new. Item augmentation and crafting, guilds (termed cabals here), achievements for killing 100 of a thing, limited PvP and suchlike. I'm fine with these things, but from what I saw they don't rock my boat enough to go into any detail here. Gear is limited to talismans and weapons, and seems less numerous than in many similar games, with only 7 talisman slots at my character's paltry current level. Appearance is based on outfit rather than gear itself, which makes for a pleasant change and is appropriate to the setting. Information on gear, stats, how to pick up lovely new outfits and the wardrobe itself are both poorly explained by a help system that is by turns very useful and massively useless. 

In addition, the build is still buggy from launch. I encountered two in partiular more than once – the tendency for a doorway or object spawn to simply no-show, thus stalling you on a mission tier with no easily apparent option to quit the whole mission and start again. Even when transplanting with a new main mission and thus 'pausing' the bugged one, when unpausing I was still stuck on the bugged tier. I am sure a workaround exists, but given my limited time I simply moved on. In a way more frustrating is the tendency for mini-bosses to dash off a short distance and reset to full health, sometimes dependent on your moving outside a poorly demarcated area and sometimes just seemingly at random. It is somewhat churlish to complain about non-gamebreaking bugs in a game as unbelievably complex as an MMO, but two months after launch these are major items that should not be cropping up so frequently.

So that's my five days with The Secret World, more or less. It is an odd and uneven gaming experience, but also one with unique strengths for the genre. I suspect it'll be a game that builds an extremely loyal and setting-obsessed fanbase (of which I may well end up one, being a sucker for story and atmosphere), especially if the less appealing quirks are smoothed out via tweaks, expansions and a well-executed free-to-play system. That might be optimistic, given the recent flurry of unhappy news regarding its ongoing development from Funcom. Still, in these days of photocopying Warcraft into different IPs, The Secret World is to be applauded for providing something genuinely different. If you're after a solo-friendly MMO that will spin a great yarn for you in a brilliantly detailed environment, this may be for you. Although ironically, given the focus on solo play, you might get the best out of the game by duo-ing up with a friend. That way you can chew through the endless mobs with due haste while arguing over which ancient occult tome you have just Googled holds the clue to finding the forbidden labyrinth of the fish-people. And I actually can't imagine a better way to spend a Saturday night than that.  

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