Monday, July 9, 2012

The Secret World: First Impressions from an RPGer and noob

THE FIRST RULE OF TEMPLAR CLUB...
I've been playing The Secret World for about two weeks now. Since the first video came out about this, I've been watching the game’s development. Modern Supernatural Horror tinged with Conspiracy? I’m there. Though I run it less than classic fantasy, that genre’s among my favorites for tabletop. I've run Delta Green, Vampire the Masquerade, an Unknown Armies variant, Conspiracy X, and Changeling the Lost. In video games the Persona and related Shin Megami Tensai series has delivered the games I’ve played the most- including the few that I’ve played through multiple times (Persona 3, SMT Nocturne, and Digital Devil Saga). In Secret World you choose one of three factions (Illuminati, Templars, or Dragons) and then head out to solve mysteries and fight back the powers of darkness invading our world. Along with hundreds of other people…since it is an MMO.

OTHER PEOPLE?
I’m not a big MMO person. We joined up with Everquest when it first came out in 1999 and played through for another year or so. Then I quit after some of the people in our play group wore me out with stupidity. My wife kept playing for a while after that, but eventually trailed off in favor of console and PCs games. I skipped any game with a significant PVP component after that and passed on WoW because I disliked the art style. I tried Guild Wars briefly and we played FFXI until we hit that point where we couldn’t easily solo or pair play. Probably the most significant play I’ve done is about a year+ of playing City of Heroes. I worked one character up close to 50- but the rest of the play group moved on to other MMOs so when I came back the place had emptied. I’m a curmudgeonly MMO gamer when I do play. I prefer to play solo or with someone I know well. I’ll play with a group if I know them, usually in real life. My main problem with PUGs is this: I know I’m a crappy player. Where there’s twitch reflexes required, I’m not very good. I can follow orders and handle repetitive tasks that require me to handle narrow attention- like tanking. But healing- that I’m not so good at.

So that should tell you a little about my PoV going into Secret World. Thus far I haven’t teamed up with anyone at all. I’ve chatted (one or two lines) to a couple of people when they’ve posted questions, but that’s been the extent of my interaction. I’ve run around doing as many missions as I can; I’ve healed a couple of people when I could see that I could help, but I can’t claim any expertise.

DEAD AGAIN
Some of my reluctance comes from Secret World’s difficulty. It doesn’t hold your hand at all- doesn’t give you any real insight at the start- unless you poke around and find it. It assumes you’ve played other MMOs- which seems to me to actually be a reasonable assumption. It’s like many modern indie rpgs that throw away the “What is Roleplaying?” section. So when I went to build a character, I tried to figure out what the weapons did. Secret World offers three groups: HTH (fists, hammers, swords); Guns (Pistols, Assault Rifles, Shotguns); and Magic (Chaos, Blood, Elementalism). Ideally I wanted a tanker character with a little bit of healing to sustain myself. That was the build I’d used in City of Heroes; slow to finish off fights but I could usually survive. I had a hard time telling what the weapons exactly did, but I knew the Fists offered some healing, so I went with that. Later after playing for a bit I realize I had no ranged pulling options which was stupid. But none of the guns offer “survivability,” so I chose Chaos Magic which is HTH as well. In the end my character became a series of compromises- when people call for tanks, healers, DPS, etc- I have no idea how to describe myself. What the hell kind of character am I? What would be my role in the group. I don’t know. I’m lost on that score. I could go and read the FAQs, slow down, and figure it out- maybe get a plan together. I could make up another character (since you can’t reset things) but…

…but I really like the way she looks. She looks like a real person caught up in stupid things. I admire my wife; she can play an rpg for fifty hours realize she’s missed something and start again happily. That’s something she’s done many times, especially in building and sandbox games. I can’t. 

IMPRESSIONS
After playing for two weeks, here are a few of my thoughts:

Scope and Enemies: I've only played around in the starter area and the first zone. That zone’s huge- at least by my standards. I’m sure it’s actually small by the standards of other games. But there’s so much to see in there. I keep finding new details and new side missions. The monsters remain relatively tough- get enough of the basic zombies on you and you’ll be dragged down. The badder monsters feel nasty- you have to play carefully with those. It took me several hours before I finally figured out how to judge the difficulty of a mob. It isn’t the color of the name text, but instead a smaller colored dot to the right of the mob’s name.

Sweet Release of Death: Related to the above, there’s no death penalty. You die and pop up at an anima font and have to walk through the ghostscape to get to your body where you can resurrect. You can’t be attacked in that world and some quests use that as an element of the puzzle (i.e. you have to kill yourself to see something which seems weird). When you do resurrect yourself, you pop up and can immediately draw aggro. If I’m dying to try to run so my body’s in a place I can get away from later. When I’m about to rez, I point myself in the direction I plan to head before I hit yes.

Twitch?: The combat has some active-time elements to it- meaning that you can maneuver to avoid blows, explosions and such. I’ve tried to build my character to negate the need for that as much as possible because, as I said, I suck. I expect I will eventually get better at this. You can double-tap a movement button to hop in a direction and get out of the way, so that helps. So far I haven’t felt too stuck with my combat proficiency, but that may change in the later game.

Should You Choose to Accept: The missions are generally pretty awesome. There are a couple of “Kill X” and “Gather Y” ops, but these are few and far between. The game has some genuinely tough puzzles to figure out (the crow puzzle; the Kingsmouth code; the sped-up Morse code translation). Many of these require you to do actual research or testing to get right. I’ve really dug many of them, and I look forward to seeing what new stuff they’ve got.

Not Responding: At the same time, this is the first week and several of the missions are bugged. I had a petitioned GM tell me they’d been told they couldn’t help with at least one bugged mission. I’m hoping they’ll patch that, but who knows? That’s more than a little irritating. But I was on EQ in the first several months so I have a high tolerance for game bugs. If I haven’t fallen through the world, then I’m doing pretty good in my book. HOWEVER, for the first week of play I had no real problems, but in the last several days I’ve had the program freeze. There’s no indicator, except that the framerate gets choppy and then locks. I have to use Task Manager to close it up and restart. I can go back in and have no problem for a long time. I don’t think it is my end since it had been doing quite well and just began this new behavior, but who knows. I replaced my video card to be able to play this, and I’m running it on Medium graphics, with every optional bit turned off.

The Innsmouth Look: The visuals are pretty good- there’s some uncanny valley in the cut-scenes, but the actual play feels solid and atmospheric. Mind you, I’ve only been in a couple of zones- but Kingsmouth feels genuinely creepy. Between the fog and the sounds, I’m usually pretty tense. It has a little bit of Silent Hill feel to it- especially when you’re in an area with no other players around. Then you can easily forget the MMO nature of things. When you do hit a crowded part, then you lose some of that atmosphere and it feels like a more conventional game. Thirteen people firing off blasts down the main drag reduces the tension.

Secrets and Lies: The writing is dense and solid- I keep finding all kinds of references. It some places it feels like Ken Hite wrote the material…or rather someone read Ken Hite and his bibliographies and put everything together from that. Hite has a more deft touch. In some places the references and story feel a little too much- like smashing everything weird together in a blender. At the same time, no other MMO is doing anything like this.

Dress for Success: I like that your clothing isn’t the key to your equipment. Instead, clothing is decoration, so you can buy and dress yourself up as you want (with money or Funcom points). Your stats come primarily from talismans and weapons. You don’t have classes at all- instead you buy up abilities within weapons and skill levels within areas. Abilities buys with weapons determine what you can put in your seven active and passive slots. Skill levels affect equipment you can use. It also adds some new bonuses (like additional health). That freedom does mean that you may have a hard time figuring out your role. I’d suggest reading up a little bit on that before making a character. I’d also suggest reading about how the weapons, glyphs, and runes operate. That will give you a better sense of early game choices.

FIRST AND FINAL THOUGHTS?
I’m still in early days with this game, so my opinion may change- especially as I advance and figure things out. If you try it out, be ready to do a test character to see what weapons lay out works for you. 

Good: I like the setting, love the missions, enjoy the combat play, and have been pleased with the community. Difficulty is challenging. 

Bad: Early days, so still buggy. The monthly fee plus an in-game store to buy extra stuff may put people off. Is seriously rated M for Mature for a reason, which may be a turn-off for some. Difficulty extends to figuring out how some basic stuff works (like buying your Sprinting up…). Genre's not as interesting to my wife.

The RPG Gamer: I’m, of course, looking for what I might steal for a tabletop campaign. I’ve seen a couple of things so far. I’d say right now the set ups probably closest to Conspiracy X with some Witchcraft thrown in.

My first character’s Audara “Auz” Auzumel on the Huldra server, a Rank 3 Templar in case anyone decides to give it a try.