Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Secret World

The problem with TSW is that it's an adventure game.
No, that's not what i'm trying to say, wait...

The problem with TSW is that it's not an MMO. No, damnit, i had this before - yes, here we go:

The problem with TSW is that it's an adventure game painfully stretched on the rack of consumerist marketing to make it look like an MMO. It is a good adventure game with challenging puzzles, well-portrayed characters, clever writing, decent sound, nice visuals and a compelling setting. Unfortunately, none of this helps it become, as i keep saying in my little MMmanifesto, a living, breathing virtual world as an MMO should be.

I suppose in this case i should start before the beginning. TSW's set out quite decisively to distance itself from the crowd of WoW-clones. It was launched through a surreptitious escalation of online hints and puzzles which gradually led interested parties to the game's site, a forum initially known by the game's marketing tagline: "dark days are coming" and which contained precious little actual information about game mechanics. It did however contain a great deal of hints and speculation about setting and storytelling. This is symptomatic of TSW's development conflict. The lead designer is the same from TLJ and that game had qualified him as an artsy auteur in the world of computer games, but as i prophesied in another previous post, he was not the best choice to design a multiplayer game, much less a persistent world. Granted, such a large project is by no means a one-man show, but the choice gave TSW its slant. Tornquist thinks in terms of characters, writing, atmosphere and storytelling, not so much in terms of player conflict and ability counters.

I'm calling TSW an adventure game and not an RPG because there are no real choices to make. You simply progress through the various missions as you would in any WoW-clone. At various points in the main storyline, you do encounter a moral choice, but it seems to be largely cosmetic, as is your choice of faction. Now, when i say cosmetic, i also mean in this case immersive. Here the writing and voice acting really come through along with the design of the factions' home cities to make the choices at least more than nominally unique. I was immediately repulsed by the instinctively power-hungry Illuminati and wavered for some time before rejecting Dragon chaos theory. I have found myself quite happily doing the bidding of my haughty Templar overlords, basking in both ivory-tower conceit and moral high ground. This pattern holds true of missions and playable zones as well. All NPCs have actual personalities, from a bratty teenager grudgingly going along with the utterly un-cool rituals of earth magic to the bored old man halfheartedly sending you on a dream quest while he sits back and watches TV, to the proud vampire lord dismissively tossing you out to fight his own kind. Voices, faces, accents, costumes, everything was given enough attention to make the characters seem genuine at least to the untrained eye and ear. The decor is always fitting and convincing, from ramshackle buildings to dust devils and half-glimpsed monstrous shapes on the horizon. These are all important qualities for any game, but they are secondary to an MMO. It's the gameplay that suffered.

In terms of fulfilling its role as a persistent world, TSW is a mixed bag, somewhere above the utter idiocy of WoW-clones but far from the as-yet unreached ideal of a sandbox MMO. It uses instancing heavily but still to a lesser extent than most. Most of the content is soloable, but players do tend to run into each other and help each other while questing out in the game world. The missions structure is usually good, cutting much of the 'kill ten rats' nonsense and running back and forth in favor of on-site objectives, sequential tiers which trigger as you go instead of requiring visits back to the NPC and lots of puzzle-solving. In fact, much of the solo instancing is justified by the adventure-game nature of that puzzle-solving, the necessity of isolating players just to give them time to think. Puzzles are very varied, ranging from trivia to numeric to visual, linguistic and even audio. Those missions tend to be the best feature of the game and unfortunately they are incompatible with a persistent world. Anything that segregates players is counterproductive.

Not that there's anything for player interaction to focus on. There is no resource harvesting and PvP is limited to arenas which have no impact on the rest of the landscape. There are open-world group missions, a leap above the WoW-clone policy of "everything soloable" but those are rare until the very end game. Crafting is largely trivial compared to the ever-nonsensical fully-usable loot drops from PvE instances. These are a relatively casual and streamlined, requiring no real preparation or organization, only practice and gear-farming. They are nonetheless entertaining, with plenty of both action and atmosphere, in keeping with the rest of the game, but their limited scope makes them a poor carrot to chase.

That's one of the more practical hits TSW takes to its appeal. To the extent that WoW-clones have anything to offer, it's cooperative small-team PvE with a delicate ballet of skills controlling the battlefield. All the grind you suffer through, all the moronic soloing to kill ten to the tenth rats leads up to those instances. TSW's soloing part is much more varied, fluid and enjoyable, but its PvE group mechanics are truncated to the simplistic old tank/healer/nuker holy trinity. In fact, almost all of the group gameplay issues in TSW can be traced to the antiquated idea of "aggro" and the resulting combat mechanics.

Backtrack a bit. One of the core promises Funcom made halfway through development was the essential "no classes, no levels" which players have been demanding for so long. Unfortunately, the perceived need for character advancement to keep players' interest led to a gear-based progression which directly emulates character levels, and the aggro mechanic pigeonholed players into dedicated tanks, healers and nukers in groups. Overall, their attempts at revolutionizing character advancement were a wash because they were not taken far enough. The developers shot themselves in the foot with many smaller combat mechanics too but they're not worth going into here. As one example, though there are immobilization and impairment skills in the game, the vast majority of the more difficult mobs which would logically require those measures are immune to them.

So why play TSW? Just don't think of it as an MMO. See all the strong points i enumerated above. It is an excellent puzzle-solving, monster-hacking adventure in a 3d setting with some other players occasionally running across your screen and as far as soloing goes it has nice enough combat. Ignore the PvP, don't get caught up in instance-farming, and it's worth a fair bit of attention. Most importantly, always, always give every puzzle at least a couple of dozen tries before looking up the answer online. Possibly the biggest issue which scared MMO fans away from TSW is that it gave them what they'd never encountered before: a challenge.

Apparently the development team has spotted its own strengths and weaknesses and they are now refocusing the game into what it should have been from the start, a single-player 3d adventure. They are releasing downloadable content.

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