Friday, 10 August 2012

Massively multiplayer; also, secret!

Taking advantage of a free trial weekend, I recently spent a couple of days in The Secret World - the new urban fantasy MMO from The Longest Journey creator Ragnar Tørnquist.

I'm not really an MMO guy. I've toyed with Spiral Knights, Rusty Hearts, Fallen Earth and Dungeons & Dragons Online - adding up to a grand total of about fifteen hours - and spent enough time watching friends playing World of WarCraft, EVE Online, EverQuest II and Rift to know that I'm not interesting in trying those myself. Oh, and I was accepted for the Auto Assault beta, but couldn't get the damn thing working.

The setting and the creative director are what attracted me to The Secret World. I adore The Longest Journey and enjoyed its sequel, Dreamfall. The worlds, characters and stories of those games display wit, energy, originality and an impressive level of internal consistency. The Secret World paints with broader brushes, and isn't afraid to borrow elements of other properties, but it's still a well-realised take on the modern fantasy-horror concept. The tropes are put together in a way which is both logical and entertaining, enough that instead of spending my time going "Oh, this bit is like Mage: The Awakening," I was investing directly into The Secret World to a degree I didn't expect. One big YMMV thing to note: the cutscenes are frequent and marathon. They're well directed and mostly well acted, but my god are they long.

There wasn't much roleplaying going on, which is a shame as a purported strong roleplaying environment was one of the other things which caught my interest. But there was more roleplaying than in most MMOs, which is to say, there was any roleplaying going on at all. And at least in a modern setting people talking about other MMOs in the chat window can be taken as in-character conversation.

That modern setting is well integrated. It's not just a gimmick to make it stand out, although of course, that helps. There are the simple things - energy drinks in place of mana potions, shotguns instead of crossbows - but clever use of the real-world setting goes much deeper, from jumping on cars to set off the alarms to attract zombies, to espionage using webcams mounted on remote controlled helicopters, to an NPC suggestion to look something up on Google. In fact, it may even be too clever at times - I got stuck on one mission, briefly, because I wasn't familiar with a certain element of how church services operate.

I didn't get to do a lot of the much-vaunted investigation missions, which are geared more around codebreaking and old-fashioned adventure gaming than traditional MMO kill/fetch quests, but from what I saw they were well-designed and offer a great change of pace. Indeed, with stealth missions, puzzle-solving missions and even escort missions which don't entirely suck, The Secret World has more variety than any other MMO I've seen. I can't comment on PvP or trading because I did little of the latter and none of the former, but the bread and butter adventuring is solid.

The combat didn't blow my mind but it felt no more or less weighty than any other MMO I've encountered, save perhaps the enjoyably frantic Spiral Knights. It's a little on the 'clicking on things until the health bar hits zero' side of things, but aren't they all? The tactical options didn't seem tremendously deep in my time playing, but I understand that a lot more open up as the game goes on, and they offer a lot of scope for playing your character the way you want to play them. However there's not much visual character customisation (it's mostly punk chicks with blue hair and lots of cleavage, or tough guys in shades) and while there's a lot of skills and abilities, they're all ultimately different lighting effects for doing the same handful of things. The big thing seems to be inflicting and abusing various status ailments, which is interesting, but I'm not convinced about how much depth there is to it for a long game. That said, my main problem with combat and character progression was that to really understand it, you need to have already played the game - again, a common MMO failing.

In fact, most of the things about The Secret World which reminded me of other MMOs were the things I didn't like, the same issues which keep me from enjoying the rest of the genre. The interface is pretty illogical, and in a fashion which means remapping it doesn't help much. It certainly doesn't make any strides towards solving the "requires three hands to play" syndrome ubiquitous to MMOs. One gets used to it, of course, but it took me a while and never really felt properly intuitive. Some elements of the control scheme and menu system aren't explained very well, either.

Overall I must say I quite enjoyed The Secret World - when it worked. Unfortunately the weekend was plagued by server-side connection issues, so much so that the trial period was extended by six hours. There were also a couple of moments of bugged quests, and a driver conflict which wasn't resolved when I updated my drivers. Not a great advertisement, and I have to wonder how happy Funcom and EA are with the free trial given the technical problems which plagued it.

And while I enjoyed The Secret World, I didn't love it. Not enough to pay full price for it when I don't have many friends interested in it, and when things like Spiral Knights and D&D Online are free to play. If it comes down in price, or moves to a microtransaction model, I'd probably take it up. I also think The Secret World would make a great pen-and-paper setting, and perhaps surprisingly I think it would feel quite different to the World of Darkness lines.

Yet I must question the logic of launching a premium-price MMO without a strong, established IP, and without a standard free trial period, even before you factor in the technical kinks yet to be smoothed over. Ragnar Tørnquist has a big cult following, but I don't believe he's someone who can sell a game to a mainstream audience on his name alone. The marketing campaign has been aggressive, but it's being marketed in the same way - and in the same places - as Zynga titles and other free to play games. Will The Secret World entice people enough that they're willing to drop £40 on it, plus a monthly subscription? The game has been modestly well-received, with review scores mostly clumping in the 70% range, but those aren't the kind of numbers to set the world alight.

I'm torn on The Secret World. I want to see it succeed - it's trying new things, and it's bringing a much more interesting approach to storytelling and world building than most MMOs I've seen. But I think it's merely a good game rather than the great game it could be, and that the final leap to greatness won't happen without some necessary negative feedback. Takeup figures aren't out yet - I guess we'll have a better idea of what changes might be made once it's been out a while and the subscriptions stabilise. I have the awful feeling that if it underperforms, EA's solution will be to dial back the elements which make it so unique in a bid to bring it more in line with the field's leaders.

I hope I'm proved wrong there. Selfish as this is - it's not my job on the line - I'd rather see The Secret World as a glorious, ambitious failure than a homogenised, generic hack and slash fest, if that's the choice it comes down to.

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