Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Secret World review: the truth is out there, somewhere

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are going through a bit of a renaissance right now. Recent releases show developers are searching for new ways for their game to stand out, focusing on a single aspect that bucks the trend. EnMasse did it with TERA, introducing a true action-based combat system that relied on the movement of the player and their position relative to the enemy. BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic brought story back to the RPG by, literally and figuratively, giving players a voice in the game, deciding how they approach each quest, and what the consequences of those choices will be. When looking at The Secret World, it doesn’t do any one thing drastically different from games before. Instead, it does many things just different enough you can’t quite compare it to any other game out there.

cashshopThe Secret World is set in modern day, based around the idea that every myth and conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is actually true. As much as I enjoy the sci-fi genre, I appreciate a game looking beyond elves and space to explore other settings. As a mostly horror-based game (though don’t expect many scares) you’ll visit places like Egypt, Transylvania, and Hell itself to fight cultists, monsters, ancient mummies, vampires, werewolves, demons, and the like. After choosing which of the three factions to join, Illuminati, Dragon, or Templars (not the Knights Templar), you’ll create your character using a standard slider system determining what your face, hair, eyes, and mouth look like. You also have the option of choose your clothing, which you can change later on with new threads from either the in-game clothing vendors or the completely cosmetic-only cash shop. Your starting area, New York, Seoul, or London, depends on your choice of faction, but other than which color you wear, the choice is highly irrelevant. After going through the tutorial, which takes place in a subway in Tokyo and is the same for everyone, you’re sent off to Kingsmouth, a small New England town that’s recently been overrun with zombies, draugs, and other horrors.

Do you smell that? Fresh meat.

This is where The Secret World splits off into its own. Rather than gathering up all the quests in a hub area and setting off into the world to complete them like a grocery list, you can only have a certain number of active missions for any one type at a time. There are seven different mission types: Story, action, item, investigation, sabotage, dungeon, and PvP missions. You can only have one active story, action, investigation, sabotage, or dungeon mission at a time. Item and PvP missions can have up to three active a time. The philosophy behind this design urges players to bounce from mission to mission as they travel through the world, coming across new areas and new missions. The main story mission for Solomon Island, where Kingsmouth is, has 18 steps to it that takes you through all three zones of the island. You would quickly face monsters much more powerful than yourself if you focused on completing the mission all at once. Instead, you’ll come across new characters, new areas, and items that offer missions, placing your current ones on pause while you complete these new ones. If you’re coming from a game like World of WarCraft, you’ll have a bit of a learning curve to adjust to, but don’t focus too much on trying to complete every mission in every zone; there may be an achievement to do so, but the game constantly wants to push you forward and explore more of the world. If you want come back later and finish some of the missions you missed, each mission in the game is repeatable on a long cooldown (about 24 hours), so you can easily complete them later on.

One-way conversations

"I've tried preaching, I've tired my .44, but Satan is wearing kevlar."

Because of the way missions are structured, the story suffers. You’ll spend too much time in between completing steps for a story mission to feel any kind of connection between them, and too often they feel like carefully guided checkpoints to get you to a new area and meeting new characters. When you do come upon a new character in The Secret World, you’ll watch a small cutscene of them explaining their predicament and why they need your help. The game takes a page from Star Wars: The Old Republic, though it doesn’t do it nearly as elegant. Cutscenes are one-sided, with the NPC talking to you while you stand there with a scowl look on your face, as if as long as they keep talking you’re chained to the ground in that one position. Lip-synching is sometimes off so much that characters lips don’t move at all when they’re talking, and while the camera angles are sometimes interesting, the fact there is no interaction and your character doesn’t speak at all in these cutscenes makes them awkward and outdated. In fact, in one cutscene a character asks you a question, and as you stand there idly quiet, he replies, “Oh, you must be the quiet type.”

shoppinglistWhile the cutscenes fall flat most of the time, the mission design is one of more interesting aspects of the game. Sabotage and investigation missions will give you a vague clue, and the rest of up to you. It could be as simple as finding an area in a zone referenced in a picture, or using the game’s in-game browser to search serial numbers for a replacement part of an airport radio tower. Sabotage missions encourage stealth play, rewarding you with more experience if you can complete them without being caught or engaging in combat. One of the first sabotage missions has you enter the basement of a miner’s museum evading security cameras and spotlights, hiding behind crates out of the camera’s line of sight to shut down the security system. I hesitate to call it a highlight, but the epitome example of investigation missions has you literally deciphering morse code. Unless you happen to know morse code, you’ll have to find an external morse code decoder to convert the series of dots and dashes into something that makes sense. The community has done a decent job keeping some of these illusive solutions hidden, but there are sites out there making it easier for you and just giving you the answer.

Player versus player combat offers two different battlefields, with a much larger persistent warzone. You’ll visit El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, and Stonehenge as you face off against other players from the different factions in a faction on faction battle in either capture-the-flag or king-of-the-hill, respectively. The Fusang Projects warzone, a large multi-capture map, offers different temples and respawn points, called anima wells, to capture, giving extra buffs and bonuses to players both in and outside of the warzone. If you’ve ever played Alterac Valley at any time, you’ll have an idea of how the warzone moves and flows. Completing missions in the warzone and winning battlefields earn tokens and rewards redeemable for weapons and talismans from vendors at your faction’s headquarters.

The one and only time you're shown in-game what pattern creates which item.

Crafting uses a system seemingly inspired by Minecraft of all games. Every weapon, talisman, consumable, gadget, or glyph in the game can be broken down to its basic components. Each stack of five of these basic components can be combined to form a higher quality component, all the way up to pure (base, imperfect, normal, sacred, pure). Once you have enough of any level of these components, along with a toolkit, you can place the components on an assembly grid in a specific shape to form the item you desire. Want to make a new sword? Lay the components out in the form of a cross. A new ring? Place them in a circle. Depending on the quality of components and the toolkit (ranging from quality level 1-10), you’ll make brand new shiny item for yourself or to trade and sell to others. The assembly system doesn’t have as much depth as other crafting systems, but it seems to be approachable enough anyone could potentially make something worthwhile relatively easy.

One of the things Funcom has touted repeatedly is there are no levels or classes in The Secret World. The game uses a skill system similar to Skyrim, rewarding you with ability and skill points to distribute however you choose on skill progression and the ability wheel. The skill progression determines what quality level items you can use (levels 1-10) for your weapons and talismans. At certain experience thresholds, you’ll gain ability points to spend on abilities you want to kit your character with. You can unlock character decks by purchasing specific abilities, unlocking a cosmetic outfit to go along with the theme of the deck, such as an Illuminati mercenary, or a Dragon assassin.

The ability wheel and its over 500 abilities.

Theoretically, you can learn every single ability in the game as there is no level cap and you don’t stop ever earning experience, but you can only have up to seven active and seven passive abilities to use at a time. You can change these abilities out with others anytime not in combat, so if you find yourself needing extra healing or survivability, you can change your abilities on the fly. This is extremely handy when completing a dungeon and a group member leaves or a certain role needs to filling. However, because you can learn every ability without consequence, there is no way to redistribute your points should feel you invested ability points in a useless ability. You’ll have to complete missions until you earn enough experience and in turn, ability points, to purchase a different ability.

Short, but sweet

Unfortunately, because of the limited number of abilities usable at once, The Secret World cuts itself short in terms of long-term goal-orientated gameplay. Within the first 10-20 hours of playing, I had all of my basic assault rifle and chaos magic abilities, as well as a few advanced abilities from each. After looking through the list of advanced abilities, they all seemed to do pretty much the same thing. Pairing Illusion with the passive ability Master of Illusion gives an extra 45% chance to evade attacks for eight seconds when used, with a 45-second cooldown. These basic chaos magic abilities require an eight-point investment of ability points. The advanced chaos magic ability Smoke and Mirrors gives an extra 40% chance to evade attacks for eight seconds when used, with a 90-second cooldown. This advanced ability requires 157 ability points to acquire. Why would I spend extra time and ability points for an ability that is worse than what I already have?

Your main form of travel, Agartha, serves as a subway between the game's different zones.

In most MMOs, the process of leveling up to the max level takes a good chunk of time. In World of WarCraft it can take anywhere from 72 to over 100 hours to hit the current level cap of 85. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, it took me about 200 hours of questing and watching all cutscenes before I hit 50 on my first character. This is vertical progression, when your character will gain power up to about 90% of their potential. The other 10% comes from horizontal progression, usually through the end game with instances, raids, or PvP, finding upgrades to gear and weapons with minor stat increases. The problem with The Secret World is it takes this paradigm and flips it on its side. The vertical progression aspect is fast and quick, leaving you feeling powerful early and slowing that power growth to a crawl before your first free month of the game concludes.

The Secret World doesn’t have raids yet (the first one is scheduled for August), and its current end game consists of completing any of the eight dungeons on a harder difficulty. This combined with the quick progression makes me believe this isn’t a game I see players subscribed to much longer than a month or two at a time here or there. Funcom already announced more content coming down the road including new character customization options, new weapon types (and assumingly, abilities to match), new missions, a new battlefield, a dungeon finder tool, and two new zones. All this considered, the game is fun, if not flawed, as an experiment to see just how far an MMO can move beyond the mundane ‘kill 10 rats’ quest and into something new, interesting, and sometimes awesome.

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