… 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.