17 February, 2013
I decided to sign up as a soldier in the secret war. It was pretty appealing when The Secret World was only $10 after they dropped subscriptions. Cheapest entry into an exclusive club, ever!
And, to answer the burning question: Dragon. You may congratulate or boo me in the comments section. ;)
A more substantial review beyond the jump.
A history shrouded in mystery
I played The Secret World (TSW) in beta. I wanted to see how they would push MMOs forward after the building expectation. The game eschewed the standard fantasy setting, ditched the usual level and class systems, and focused on telling an interesting story woven from conspiracy theories. I enjoyed the beta, although I was disappointed that the much ballyhooed "investigation quests" were disabled. Ultimately, like a lot of other people I guess, I decided that the wasn't quite engrossing enough to buy and subscribe to the game.
But, without a subscription and a ludicrously cheap purchase price, I could resist no longer.
A secret handshake shows the way
Ah, the classic decision faced in any new MMO: what character type do I want to play?
The visual customization of your character is good. Obviously, in a game set in the modern world, you're limited to human characters. There's a good bit of choice, although the organization of the options leaves a bit to be desired. You can create a fairly unique looking character, perhaps even one that looks vaguely like you.
There are nine weapon types in TSW. Three melee weapons, three firearms, and three types of magic. Without existing tropes, the first step is to learn what the different weapons do. For example, Assault Rifles do damage but also have some healing type abilities through "leeching" abilities. Each weapon has two tiers of abilities: an inner circle of two groups representing the "basic" abilities of the weapon, and an outer circle with six more expensive groups of abilities. The outer tier abilities are not necessarily more powerful, but they tend to be useful in more specific situations. For example, the outer circle Blade ability Grass Cutter does slightly less damage the base blade ability Delicate Strike. However, if the target is "Afflicted" (has a DoT from another ability), then Grass Cutter does about 20% or so more damage.
But, you have to choose carefully. You can wield only 2 weapons at a time, and only get 7 active abilities (typical hotbar abilities as in other games) and 7 passives (buffs that affect your character or enhance skills). Part of creating a smart build is picking the abilities that mesh well together. But, what do you want to do in a game with such free-form character advancement?
Each weapon type builds a resource: firearm resources build up on a target like combo points for Rogues in WoW, magic builds up resources from 0, and melee weapons build up resources that also increase when out of combat (like mana in other games). Some abilities increase resources, many for both weapons you have equipped. Other abilities consume resources, either taking a set amount or consuming all resources to do a variable effect. So, you tend to have an ebb and flow of building resources, then consuming those resources with other abilities.
Even though the game is technically classless, it does have the trinity of roles. For example, Blade skills do damage and "increase survivability". If you take a lot of the "survivability" skills (and focus on equipment with defensive stats), you'll have a tank-type character. In fact, when people look for groups they explicitly ask for healer, tank, and DPS characters. The potentially interesting thing is that you can swap between roles fairly easily if you have the appropriate skills and equipment. You don't even have to re-spec, just adjust your equipment and skills when not in combat and you're good to go.
Growing to unknown levels of power
So, how does your character grow? Even without explicit character levels, your equipment has quality levels (QL) that range from 0 to 10. Higher QL has higher bonuses and you need to higher skill levels with that type of equipment to equip higher quality levels. So, the game has a relative power level that is used for gameplay calculations. Advancing a skill also gives you some minor bonuses associated that skill. For weapons, you have 2 sub-categories and the highest is used for your overall skill level with that weapon; for example, Blades have Damage (which gives you an ability that does bonus damage on every other hit) and Survivability (which lets you regain some lost health sometimes when you get hit).
So, how do you get all these wonderful abilities and skill levels? Buying them with points! How do you get ability points and skill points? Gaining xp! You gain xp from killing monsters, but as with most modern games you get more xp if you complete quests. (At least the first time, repeating a quest seems to give less xp.)
Quest come in four flavors: main story quests that take you through a whole setting, dungeon quests that you complete in dungeon areas, main quests (includes the investigation quests) that you get from NPCs, and side quests that you usually pick up along the way doing other quests. Except for three side quests, you can only do one of each other type of quest at a time. To be honest, this feels like a way to just stretching out the content by keeping you from doing a bunch of quests all at one time. There also doesn't seem to be quite enough side quests. All the main quests have voice over introductions, where your silent character lets the quest-giving NPC either give a monologue or interact with other NPCs nearby while giving you some hint or background on what you're about to do.
Of course, the voiceovers are incredibly limiting to adding content; as we saw with SW:tOR, it's hard to keep adding the content that players of this type of MMO consume at such a rapid pace when there's the expectation that it needs to have voice acting along with it.
A character's hidden talents
I did a bit of research on recommended builds. I saw a lot of references to Blades and Assault Rifle builds, so I went with those weapons. I didn't follow any particular builds, just used those two weapons and figured out how they worked. I spent my ability points unlocking the inner tier of abilities for all weapon types; I figured I would want to try out the different abilities after a bit.
Currently I'm in the third zone in the game, the Blue Mountains area. I've done all the quests in the first two zones at least once, at least the ones I could find. :) I've run the first two dungeons twice as well. My current build works very well for me. Perhaps too well, in that when I tried a few other weapons I just couldn't get into them, even before I started buying the outer tier skills. Other weapons lacked the punch or survivability I've come to enjoy with the Blade/AR build. Although, I think I'd still like to try to create a tanking build for future dungeon runs.
I have the same problem I encountered in Guild Wars 2: I've kind of optimized my selection based on my playstyle, and the limited number of skills feels limiting to me. I like having abilities that I don't use every fight, that I save for those special "oh shit" situations.
A big potential downside of the character advancement system is that it seems to make alts largely unnecessary. Why build a new character and have to grind through the same old quests when you could do the same thing on your original character and get those abilities eventually, anyway? The limited number of quests means that you aren't getting much in the way of new experiences. The only difference between the factions seem to be flavor text after finishing a quest, a few quests you participate in as you level up, and some cosmetic options. Whereas I have an army of alts in DDO and GW2, I only see myself really playing one character in TSW.
The obscured path to the future
Some other thoughts about the game.
A lot of people weren't fond of the combat in TSW. It does seem a bit awkward, still relying on some of the hotbar combat tropes in other games, while seemingly encouraging a more mobile mindset that GW2 seemed to streamline a bit later. I think TSW's combat is fine so far, but I've read warnings that the next two major areas, Egypt and Transylvania, are MUCH harder in turn. We'll see if I can persist.
A gameplay element that I particularly like are the bits of lore. These are orange squares located around the world; some are hidden while others are out in the open. These open up bits of text that tell you about the world. Although, as much as I'm not fond of GW2 putting every location to find on the map, I do wish there were hints about where the locations of the lore are. If there's some item of lore I'm missing, I either have to spend time wandering around trying to find it, or read a site that tells me exactly where the lore is found (because, hey, achievers like to read lore too.) I wish there were a more happy medium.
Overall, I like the story; it's actually pretty good, and I don't just mean "good for a game". The heavy reliance on voice acting means that there's going to be a finite amount of content I'll be able to consume before it degenerates to grinding to fill out the skills on my character sheet, though.
In the transition from subscription to free-to-play, I worry that TSW seems to be giving away a bit too much. Keeping in mind that I tend to be a cheap bastard, I haven't seen much I'm particularly interested in spending money on past my $10 investment to buy the game. They do give you a few perks for subscribing but a big one, a reusable xp boost, doesn't quite work the way the game is set up. You can use the xp boost to double monster xp for 1 hour, reusable every 16 hours. But, that includes time spent in voiceovers, or just listening to dialog options with NPCs. After I pop the boost then sit in an otherwise entertaining quest introduction, I feel like I'm wasting a resource. I've had to change my perspective to see it as a bonus rather than a feature, which means that subscribing might not be worthwhile. And, given that I'm not all that fussed with cosmetic options, that won't be a source of income from me. The only thing that might be interesting is some of the "DLC" stories they've introduced after launch. As I've written before, I think DDO does free-to-play right.
There's also a system of auxiliary weapons I haven't figured out yet. Rocket launchers, chainsaws, and quantum bracers sound interesting, and I assume there some high level feature I haven't stumbled across yet.
Overall, I'm enjoying TSW. I made my home (you can group with anyone on any server, but you have a home) on a role-playing server, so I might dive into that a bit more later after I've explored the world a bit more. :)
With a lot of new mechanics to explore, I'm still figuring out things on a design level. I'll probably do another post in the future with some design analysis. But, I'm interested to hear what you think. Is TSW intriguing to you? Or did you let it pass you by? If you play it, what builds have you found to your liking?