I’ve been hearing good things about Funcom’s The Secret World. The time has come during the one month post-launch celebration of the game, where new (and old?) players can play TSW for free over a weekend. I suppose I was impressed: enough to dish out 50 bucks to satisfy my hunger after the free lunch was over.
Now the initial rush is washed away, time to regurgitate. By that I mean writing an impression piece, nothing unsanitary or ranting. Well, maybe a tiny bit of the last, but not too much. I promise!
A Modern Story
Variation is good. I tip my hat for an RPG that isn’t medieval high fantasy. I tip it again for TSW’s attempt of making its storytelling an integral part of the gameplay experience. I believe TSW is successful at this attempt. The investigation missions are cool and refreshing, albeit their replay value is little after it’s been solved the first time. And some of these quests made me ponder the realism in design logic: why do people leave riddles and puzzles in creative places, instead guarding them with modern technologies, just so a potential enemy agent can decipher and harbor the secrets? It’s not that I don’t like the puzzles. Some puzzles should have a better reason to exist… better than existing just so someone can solve them.
The game has done a better job at introducing new players to the ongoing paranormal conflict. For example, the player enters the first combat area facing a familiar zombie outbreak caused by a mysterious fog. The plot then unfolds, gradually adding incubating sea-ghouls, a tourist outpost of Hell, a magical private school, a haunted theme park, and more into the picture.
There is a problem lies within the storytelling aspect. The overarching progression of plot exists, but is somewhat disconnected with rest of the side missions, which by far outnumber the story and main missions. Finally enters a great, ancient evil that the players are entitled stop, but the causality between that evil to other little things could have been better explained.
It is actually not an insanity to expect an MMORPG to have a plot which depth is comparable to single-player games. The Secret World’s plot is, in fact, almost feels like it’s a single-player RPG in terms of quality. Unfortunately, it exhibits a rather undesired property of single-player RPG: it’s designed for one person to consume.
It is debatable whether The Secret World is a “mainstream” game. Once the confusing nature of the game’s Ability Wheel is unveiled, the “carrot” doesn’t look too different from just any other MMORPG. In pursuit of such carrot in PvE, players are out doing their own business, such as completing (repeatable) missions, which to me is more interesting as a storytelling medium, or running dungeons across different difficulty levels.
The missions put players in a role of an immortal supersekrethero, who can solve all mysteries and kill everything hostile, alone, (unless scripted otherwise). I spent majority of my gameplay time doing these missions, because they are numerous, and mostly always reveal something that I previously don’t know. Unfortunately, as stated before, it plays too much like a single-player game when doing these missions. It’s perfectly fine for solo investigation/infiltration missions, but even as I run around in open field, it’s rare to find another players killing the same mobs for over two minutes. There is no incentive to PUG in missions, when everything is doable solo (save the times you can ask in chat if you got stuck somewhere).
Instanced dungeons is a different beast. I heard World of Warcraft has a similar mechanism, though I’ve never played WoW so I can’t really testify for this claim. I find them to be boring after learning the scripted events and how to handle them, since all it’s left is mechanically executing the “correct” moves at each encounter. The “carrot” of running dungeons is basically the tiered equipments… Well, I personally can never see the fun in doing the same thing over and over again, with the near perfect predictability, only hoping the God of RNG hear my prayers composed of keystroke and mouse clicks, and decide to drop a piece of equipment that I need.
These dungeons are only for a party of five players; no more, no less. I have nothing against small group content, but I have a lot to complain when five players being the maximum for grouped PvE content. To be fair though, it isn’t an isolated problem in TSW… games that are supposed to feature massively multiplayer gameplay are increasingly reducing maximum party size, in turn making group content less scalable. I miss the old days when contents are scaled for 6~8 players…
The Beautiful Bleakness
The Secret World is a graphically advanced game. It makes use of the newest eye candy hardware by featuring a native DX11 and all the implied goodness. A nice looking game is always appreciable, (as long as my mid-range graphics card and CPU can handle,) and this game excels beyond my expectation. Though it also exceeded my expectation on how post-apocalypse the environment looks beyond the main cities. I’m sure such setting is appealing to some players, but I find it hard to enjoy the depressing mood radiating from the pebbles and ruins of civilization.
Aesthetically, the vast clothing options in TSW compensates the lack of variety in character sculpting during creation. The library of fashionable, modern designer apparels ranging from casual to formal to even more stylish attires that are suitable for evil busting actions. Last but not least, the costumes are cheap and easy to get; they don’t consume inventory spaces, and are detached from actual defensive stats. I’m sure the last will bring much joy the need-to-dress type.
The Secret World entertained me for about two weeks. After completing the first chapter of the story around Solomon Island, I don’t feel extremely excited for the next Egyptian desert chapter. On the other hand, I’m quite content with my “modified” version of the Paladin deck, which is more effective for my playstyle after much time was spent on theorycrafting the ability wheel. Now, the PvP in this game is… not something I feel motivated to do, given what I heard about it being zergy and all. Though most importantly, I don’t feel like farming for better equip and grinding for more (pvp focused) skills.
In conclusion of the Conclusion… I won’t be subscribed to TSW after this month. The majority opinion (mine included) is that the game is built with free-2-play conversion in mind, and it will do just that sooner or later. Hopefully when that happens, this game will have a richer and more refined set of mechanics and gameplay elements. Enough to divert my attention from Guild Wars 2, or whatever I fancy at that moment.