[TSW] And so the NDA drops…

… which means we can finally talk a little bit about The Secret World without the risk of being ambushed by a warband of Dire Lawyers.

I’ve been in the closed beta for a couple of months now, and while I’m still prevented from discussing anything regarding the previous builds (Cthulhu knows why), we can kinda spill the beans about the CB’s latest iteration which, if versions are any indication, should be something very similar to what will be delivered to customers real soon now.

Thoughts and points after the break.

It’s an intelligent game Funcom’s got going. And, at times, it’s also hard. Intelligent in the sense that it does not understimate its players. Quite the contrary; it assumes a level of prior knowledge and general ability which to me felt a bit above most other games. So in that sense it was refreshing. There seems to be little hand holding compared to other games, but what little there is seems to be effective. I have a feeling this will soon change when it goes live and the hordes descend upon it. It wouldn’t surprise me to see tutorials expanded and refined.

And, as stated above, it’s also quite hard which was a nice throwback (in spirit, if nothing else) to those hazy times when MMOs used to be challenging. In fact, I daresay in some aspects it’s hard bordering on unfair. This has very little to do with combat (which, in itself, once it’s all said and done is pretty straightforward) and a lot to do with what the game expects from its players. It expects a certain level of prior knowledge and ability. It expects a certain level of proficiency in logical and/or lateral thinking. It expects its players to have the time to tackle the problems and puzzles presented, since almost as a rule they are all quite challenging. Way more challenging than the norm.

Is it engaging? Yes. Is it challenging? Oh, yes, you bet it is. Does it present new ideas or new twists in old concepts? It does. The real question is, is all this executed in a way where it all comes together in harmony and The Experience(tm) takes shape? Well, that I have my doubts. Execution ranges from well done all the way to quirky and nonsensical, so it remains to be seen how well things can gel.

On to more defined points:

– What first grabbed my attention (and never let it go) was the themes and the mood present throughout the game. It’s dark, it’s gritty, but it never feels overwhelming or depressing. There’s a nice little vein of dark humor going through it which keeps things fresh and going.

– The writing and the voice acting which brings it to life… are both outstanding through and through. I haven’t come across a single dull moment in the writing, and I loved how it goes to places and themes which are seldom seen nowadays. Really, it is that good. The world is populated by memorable characters with fantastic dialogues and as a testament to the quality of the writing and how well integrated it is to the whole game, these characters never truly appear as jarring or out of place. Whatever it is they say, wherever they are or what their situation is… it makes a lot of sense for their context, so that’s always a plus. In these times of disposable writing in games, this was such a welcomed and unexpected breath of fresh air that I cannot commend it enough.

Hell, I wish there was an option to repeat cutscenes you just saw. Some of them, and the writing/acting in them, are just that good that I wanted to watch them again right away.

– The environments are extremely well detailed (to the point of making my poor, aging system sweat a few bytes to try and keep up). It’s visually quite attractive to run around the game world, even if the locales are not truly beautiful. You quickly learn to appreciate how well made they are. My only complaint, looking at the future, would be that it doesn’t seem to be many of them. Of course this is subjective. For some people (I imagine, mostly explorers who like to visit every nook and cranny) what there is would be enough. Other people might appreciate a larger amount of locales.

Thought experiment: To think of the environments, imagine a slider with World of Warcraft on one and and something like, say, Oblivion/Skyrim on the other. One end has a lot of variety and a large number of visually very different locales. The other eschews variety in order to pack in more detail in fewer locales. TSW definitely leans towards the “Oblivion/Skyrim” side of things.

– Skills, classes and roles. I could be typing for a long time here. The nutshell: There are no “classes” as we commonly understand classes. You are not limited to learn just one, two or three thematically similar sets of skills. Your character, on a long enough timeline, is able to learn every single skill the game has to offer. However, there are limits – you can equip two active weapons at any given time and it’s these weapons that most of the skills are based on, so even if your character knows all the skills there are, depending on which weapons you have equipped you can only deploy the skills related to that weapon (equip Pistols and a Blade and you can only use Pistol and Blade skills, even if you know all skills there are).

The other hard limit is the amount of skills you are able to have on your bar at any given time. Think Guild Wars. You can only have seven active and seven passive skills in your current “build” at any given time. So you must make hard choices about your skill loadout (even though skills can be replaced and rearranged at will out of combat).

So, this is just a roundabout way of saying that your “build” and “role” is determined by your choice of weapon, how many of that weapon’s skills you knowand your choice of seven of those skills at any point (plus seven passives which may or may not be weapon related)

Trust me, it’s much more simple and makes more sense visually than how I just tried to explain it. There must be some Youtube videos around where the Skill Wheel is shown and explained. Hit that.

Not all are roses, though. Although customization seems initially vast in the sense that there’s nothing stopping you from tossing whichever seven active and seven passives… well that doesn’t mean it’s gonna work while you’re trying to kill things. Most skills react and play on target conditions. This is simple to understand: many skills do (x) damage and at the same time (x)+n damage if the target has a particular condition on it (weakened, hindered, etc…). So the name of the game seems to be to think carefully what conditions you want to put on your target and what skills you can equip that can actually take advantage of those conditions for maximum damage. So it’s not just throwing skills together. It requires reading.

– Combat is good, but nothing extraordinary. It’s visually good and the latest iteration of the beta delivered a much more visceral and crunchy feel to it, but there’s nothing to truly write home about. The good: Pretty much all skills can be deployed while moving. The bad: I didn’t feel I was getting much feedback on some skills under some conditions. There’s room for improvement.

– One of the (admittedly very subjective) low points is TSW’s character generator. The options are there, and clothing has a fresh and modern feel to it which fits well, but the end product, visually at least, feels lacking. Characters didn’t look different enough (in fact I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the game world seems populated by barely dissimilar clones, but…. *shrug*). Funcom has promised improvements on this area since it’s been a major complaint, if not the major complaint, but this remains to be seen.

It did feel quite jarring to come from games with exceptional character creators… whether that excellence comes from a vast number of visually very different options (CoX/Champions Online) or just a plain old great visual quality (RIFT/EVE)… to TSW’s character creator and its inescapable feeling of unattractiveness and sameness through it all. But of course this is largely subjective. Some people might enjoy it just fine, but to me this was a huge area and a major letdown. If I can’t connect to my characters, the whole thing begins to lack for me.

– Performance: All those bells and whistles come at a price. It was rather taxing on my 3-year old system.

– Bugs: Many and some quite nasty. How many will be squashed by launch, I cannot say. I can say that the beta has been getting steadily much better, so there’s the hope.

– Crafting and gear: Once again, think Guild Wars. This is not a gear game, it’s a skills game. That said, crafting was interestingly done with the incorporation of a Minecraft-like grid to craft items, weapons and potions, although long term it felt rather like a gimmick to me. It’s novel, and it’s certainly original, but does it do anything that can’t be done with a simpler interface? Personally, I don’t think so. Some people might find it more attractive. I’m not big on crafting as it is.

– PvP: Didn’t try it, not interested in the slightest.

So there you have it. With the NDA dropped there should be a little explosion of info coming out, to make sure to take a look. It’s pretty, it’s intelligent and it’s equal parts rewarding and irritating. It’s not for everyone but… you know what… it doesn’t have to be. My biggest concerns at this point are the character generator issues and the true value of its replayability long term. Everything else can be fixed if there’s a will to fix it, or improved just the same.


24 thoughts on “[TSW] And so the NDA drops…”

  1. May want to toss the full name of the game somewhere in the first couple grafs, honestly took me too long to hunt down that it was tagged as such especially since I was reading through RSS.

    Good run-through though, definitely made me want to look up the game which ran me into that aforementioned problem.

  2. I’ve been blogging at some length about the Beta Weekends and I’m typing this on a short break from playing the current one. From what I’ve seen in the limited areas available in the BWEs largely confirms the above experience.

    I wasn’t expecting to play TSW but it grabbed me from the opening cinematic. The writing is indeed well above expected MMO standard although I wouldn’t peg it quite as high as Julian has. It’s on a par with a good graphic novel or an average indie movie I’d say – don’t expect Pynchon! That’s still way above pretty much any other MMO I’ve played, though.

    Graphically I’d possibly rate it higher. The detail is really intense. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time just exploring individual buildings, backstreets and woodland just marveling at the weird and wonderful backgounds. Visually it’s really layered, an explorer’s dream. I’ve taken an insane number of screenshots already.

    I think the “difficulty” may be being oversold just a tad. The missions do require that you pay attention to things we’re used to skipping. If there’s a voiceover or a cutscene, and there often is, you need to listen and watch because you won’t get the salient points highlighted in a convenient journal. Miss a key piece of information and you will struggle. On the other hand, there are plenty of visual pointers both on the map and in the UI to tell you “cold, cold, getting warmer, HOT!”.

    That said, general chat in every BWE has been full of people complaining they don’t know what to do and asking for spoilers or full solutions.

    As for the need to study weaknesses and conditions and swap weapons and builds, I’m sure that will be important on the harder content. The dungeons are supposedly quite challenging along these lines. On normal solo content, however, I’ve found blasting away with a shotgun while backpedaling works on most things, at least up to QL4ish which is where I am now.

    I spent a couple of hours doing PvP tonight – first time it’s been available in BWEs. It was pretty poor. Laggy, zergy, unclear and not all that much fun. Room for improvement there for sure, but really PvP is a very minor aspect so not too much to worry about for most players I would imagine.

    Overall, The Secret World looks good enough to jump on at launch and has huge potential for the longer term. It is definitely not going to suit everyone, though. Not by a long chalk.

    1. It gets a LOT harder post-QL4 (I assume you’re in Kingsmouth or the Savage Coast at that point). :) However kiting continues to be quite effective. I do appreciate how well mobility works in TSW. Standing still is pretty much never a good idea.

  3. I just heard of TSW recently and it does seem interesting enough to play. Just not with a monthly fee. That’s where I would have loved to hear “think Guild Wars”. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading that, I’ve been a Guild Wars fan since the first year and this is the first time I hear someone referencing GW to explain a new game, which people are hyped about. I admit, it does feel kind of good :D

    Back to TSW, the idea of a modern day mmo really holds a lot of potential and when I heard they were putting in Templar and Illuminati factions (can’t remember the 3rd) I was pretty interested to see what comes out of this. I’m kind of sad that this won’t be the bridge game I am looking for while waiting for GW2. But should it ever turn F2P or just drop the double cost (box and subscription, I’d pay 2 or 3 months of subscription, but if I pay for the game itself I want to be able to revisit it whenever I feel like it, without buying another month) I will probably play this game.

  4. Yeah, this post mirrors my own experiences pretty closely.

    I started up the beta with hesitant, low expectations, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Very much looking forward to launch.

    Thanks for the review, pretty spot on. :)

  5. Enjoying it more than expected, it still has fairly traditional quest design, but the setting, story and characters really set it apart. Enjoy the more puzzling quests, but the amounts of times I’ve seen the code to the doctor’s computer and the code for the recording device in front of the church in general chat is ridiculous, going to have to figure out how to shut it off next time logging in. There’s also a lot ‘is this quest bugged?’, ‘no, you have to figure out what to do yourself’.

    Like the combat and skill system, found it a bit overwhelming in the begining, but again like the questing I’m looking forward to making my own way, with minimal outside input about what I should be picking, even if that means a mostly solo experience.

    I liked the character creator, could make a character I was pleased with, and just looking about the start point there seemed to be quite a good variation, but still they could add more options.

  6. I’m not the bhagpuss, but I’ll chime in on the character creator: it’s terrible, but it’s got significantly better.

    I’ve played all the BWEs so far, to variying degrees, and the characer creator has a: improved; b: been the single biggest cause of complaint I’ve seen (although ‘how do I reset my AP’ ranks high as well) in chat.

    In BWE2, my daughters (teenage/20-somethings) were playing it with me and decided to make the ugliest female they could, after some time spent trying and failing to make an attractive female character. However, beta patch notes for *every* BWE have read ‘Beta only: Character creation options currently limited, will be extended for release’.I don’t know how much I believe that – I rather imagine there’s some poor animator locked in a room animating a new character creation system somewhere – but still, it’s a known and acknowledged failing.

    This current BWE has greatly expanded wardrobe choices, which helps with character creation and differentiation over previous BWEs; there is at least cause to imagine that the rest of the character creation system will be improved before release (next week or so..)

  7. I wouldn’t say the character creator is objectively bad, a lot of MMO’s are at the same level.

    Buuuut . . . I was expecting it to be a lot better, especially in a game that is expecting to make money off of clothing – clothing that has no in-game benefits.

    And having seen the character creators in SWG, COX, CO, DCUO, Eve Online, well those are my standard and anything less is dissapointing.

    I’ve enjoyed TSW so far and it sets a decently high bar for CCP to jump over with their WoD MMO (whenever that comes out).

  8. The writing is really that good? Nowadays, that’s essentially all I look for in a game. Since Guild Wars 2 was such a disappoint in the writing department, I’ve been craving a game that can really deliver. You’ve nearly sold me. Now I just need a new computer D:

    1. The writing is actually that good, yes. The characters all have unique and interesting voices, and speak like real people would. There’s also a good overreaching plot for each zone (Solomon Island/Egypt/Transylvania), which you learn as you traverse the subzones. I quite enjoy going to an area and slowly piecing together clues from a dozen sources to find out what the “big picture” is… everything ties together surprisingly well. Nothing is accidental. ;)

  9. I don’t see the writing as good myself. In my view, your character is mute and appears to be completely stoned, staring into space as characters you’ve just seen for the first time after 15 minutes on the job greet you, attempt and fail to shake your hand (you’re stoned and staring into space, you don’t respond), mention how you’re the awesome hero, then go into a spiel vaguely hinting towards a problem they have.

    I don’t think I’ve seen a single conversation in the game yet? Possibly in the Illuminati intro, one of the characters is briefly interrupted from his monologue by another character saying their name over an intercom..

    The voice acting is great, but it seems to me that the writers aren’t confident enough to write anything other than monologues.

    Edit: Oh wait! In a couple of the quests two other characters have an interesting conversation while you’re tripping out behind a box. So yeah, there’s that.

    1. Hmm, after coming to TSW soon after my short time in SWTOR, I found the writing level itself to be a bit.. higher, more advanced?

      I found it drew me in and was overal just a little more interesting world-building wise. SWTOR story was a bit too “safe” and “general audience” for me. It’s not that you “need” more adult themes or language or anything, but I just found TSW more nuanced and capable than the comparably simplistic SWTOR world and story lines. For me, it was a good and welcome change up.

      Also, I do get the marked difference between coming from SWTOR where my characters had a voice, to TSW where they’re silent. IT was jarring at first, but I eventually got used to it. Now, I dont mind it as much, but yeah, it would be an extra boost if they talked some. The writers do seem to have to write around that limitation, but I think they do a pretty good job with it (At least from what I’ve seen so far).

      Some games I’ve had no interest in exploring the world off the beaten track… this one kinda makes me want to. For my “play style”, that’s usually a good sign for me.

      1. Hmm, I guess I may be misunderstanding the muteness as a writing issue instead of what was probably a design issue. Looking at it that way then yeah, they do a good job of telling interesting stories through the medium of monologues and viewing the world through the eyes of a stoned mute.

        1. If you consider you are the player, and you are the character, how can your character say with a different voice than yours and reply in a different way than you would? Your character is not a stoned mute, your character is doing the same as you are doing: gathering information, absorbing it. Silence is golden.

          Tho I don’t want to dismiss some great dialogues in SWTOR I was sometimes thoroughly pissed off at the way my character was moving her head in ways I certainly would never move mine. The choices to make were also usually of low impact. Almost all of them were filler which didn’t matter. Also, it just doesn’t work well in a context of MMO where people are zerging dungeons because it is so easy and they’ve done it before.

          If you see TSW for what it is: a mystery adventure with MMO elements it becomes so much better. At least, that was my experience. I’ve been overwhelmed by the interface in start. I had same with GW2, but in GW2 I just started to play and enjoy whereas in TSW I felt stuck.

          Good review btw. I cherish the theme, it is great to have a non-fantasy theme (and non-space).

          1. Yeah, that WOULD work if they showed the cutscenes from either your character’s perspective, or at least without your character in the frame but staring away from whoever is talking with an expressionless face, unblinking, and mouth hanging slightly open.

            THEN you could say the cutscenes allow you to project whatever responses you like onto your character – At the moment the stoned mute is just as forced onto you as if the character spoke lines you don’t want them to say in a voice nothing like you imagine it.

      2. I think having characters be “mute” from the players’ perspectives is a reasonable enough choice, to allow players to project whatever they want onto their characters. While I did like the fully-voiced characters from SWTOR, I view that as a missing feature in TSW; not a commentary on the writing.

  10. Mmm, I just wrote up my first impressions on TSW’s beta weekend on my blog too. (http://whyigame.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/tsw-first-impressions-of-final-beta-weekend-4/)

    We’re generally in agreement on most points. I’m glad it’s not just me that was pleasantly surprised by the quality of voice acting and writing (on the NPC’s part.)

    I find it interesting that we differ on the character creator. I felt it to be sufficient. I only have the experience of it on this weekend though. And I suspect the store will have the -attractive- clothing options as time passes, people love paying money for vanity. More put off by the bugs that made it hard to use.

    1. That’s a nice writeup.

      Maybe my issues with the character creator come from my own prior expectations of having something much better after spending so much time in Champions Online.

      I’d be more than willing to chalk it up to just me, being an obtuse elitist when it comes to character creation (and there’s a grain of truth in there for sure) but it’s been a huge sticking point for a lot of people in the CB forums.

      But like I said, the CC was gonna be sufficient and just functional for a lot of people and that’s just fine. It’s just not cutting it for me.

    1. Yeah, I’ll give it a fair shake for a while and see if my issues are solved or at least improved.

  11. My husband and I were in the beta this last weekend for the first time. I didn’t have any elevated expectations and had previously decided I wasn’t going to preorder or buy the game for awhile. But from the moment my Templar character stepped into London my attention was caught. When I hit Kingsmouth and realized I was in the middle of an old-fashioned zombie apocalypse, I was in HEAVEN. With me and my trusty shotgun + unlimited ammo I was finally at home in a game. I love the voice acting and found it actually way superior to SWTOR. I liked having my character not talk in the cut scenes. She was absorbing information just like I was.

    It took a little getting used to a game actually making me THINK and pay attention to quests instead of just clicking through them. I know the investigation quests were turned off this last weekend, but the quests that were on were excellent fun. I liked the variety of snooping through the houses, reading an NPC’s computer notes and finding a solid storyline. The town became REAL to me. I was interested in each character’s perspective and backstory.

    It took me a bit to finally grok the skills/ability wheel and by the time this weekend was over I was finally starting to get a glimmer of understanding. I didn’t get too far in crafting, probably because Moose’s crafting questline got locked out after Friday night.

    Needless to say, after thinking it over Monday morning I preordered the game from Amazon. My husband with a little reluctance did shortly thereafter. He has limited playtime every month, but the storyline and game was very fun to him too. Can’t wait to see what my faithful pre-order combat pet (loyal hound) will do in the final release. It was announced today that all pre-orders will get the full 4 day head start starting this Friday June 29th. Those with Collector’s editions or Grandmaster packs will get an even earlier start that day. For the rest of us it starts at 9 AM PST.

    Hope to see you in-game! My reserved nickname is Orii.

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