Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: The Secret World

To those already playing the game, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that I'm having a hell of a time in Funcom's The Secret World (TSW) - it's like I'm a teenager again and just logged into Everquest after years of playing text-based MUDs.  That's a feeling I've been chasing after for a long time now, and I'm sure that I won't be alone in that statement.

That being said, while TSW does many, many things right, it has it's share of tears in the silver lining as well.  With that, here's our official review:

The Good

 -I thought a lot about what to put here first.  Despite the numerous contestants, I settled on the single server technology that the secret world runs on.  You can read all about it here.  But just like in Eve-Online, having everyone in one place has multiple benefits and almost no drawbacks - unless overcrowding is an issue, and in TSW, it's not.

-Questing has depth, and not just because almost every quest giver and NPC has a voice and will speak their quests to you rather then give you a paragraph to read.  Gone are the days of ! and ?'s over the heads of quest givers.  No more cut and dry go here, do that, kill 20 guys and come back.  Well, ok - that's a bit of a stretch, quests of that type still exist in TSW.  But they're spattered amongst quests that sit you down, hand you a book, and tell you to go figure it out with very little to go off of except helpful players and whatever you can find off Google.  The game even has and in-game browser (that actually works!) and encourages you to do some detective work in order to resolve mission objectives.  One even requires you to try and understand a message given to you in Morse Code.  TSW is part MMO, and part detective/investigative game at times - and I love that.

-7 Active abilities, 7 Passive abilities.  That's all you get to use of the 525 abilities available, making building a character a never-ending process.  Sure, acquiring every ability will take time (probably years for most players), but that's a major draw in TSW for me, knowing that I can almost always improve my character through new skills and abilities.  That, and I don't have 4 ability bars of garbage cluttering my screen.

-Crowd control abilities are scarce (comparatively), and not spammable.  Gone are the days of one person locking down another character for 30 seconds.  Crowd control is less frequent (though still evident), and almost always on a significant cooldown, comparatively.  What results is combat that praises you for good skill use, and penalizes you for just slamming buttons wildly. 

A Haunted New England theme park.  Compete with rides and zombies!

-The art director in this game deserves some kind of award.  The environments have depth and realism.  I actually feel like I'm adventuring in a haunted New England town - the majority of what I see is exactly what I'd expect, the remainder just flat out scares the shit out of me at times.

Agartha, the in-game transit system that runs under the Earth.  Amazingly conceived and executed.

-Healing is proactive, not reactive.  You aren't throwing a big heal because your tank is at 20% health - by then it's probably too late.  You're proactively restoring his health periodically with heal over time effects, barriers, or smaller direct heals throughout the course of the fight.  This accomplishes two things; it separates healers from the mid-game and beyond as either good or bad, with very little middle ground.  It also makes healing very difficult with a poor build/equipment setup.

-Dungeons and instances are a far cry from the garbage we're used to experiencing.  Dungeons still take about 30 minutes to complete with the average group, but instead of spending 25 minutes clearing trash and <5 minutes killing bosses, it's the opposite; you spend about five minutes dealing with the very few groups of enemies between boss fights, and the rest of the time actually fighting the bosses.  Understanding the fights, and learning the different techniques to defeat each boss is easy, but important - the game will penalize you harshly for refusing to go along with the mechanics of the fight. 

-The world is huge.  Content is abundant, there is plenty to do for even the most hard core gamer.  I'm 25+ hours in with two full skill trees build out (well over 400AP), and I'm in the SECOND part of the FIRST area.  As I understand it, there's at least four other AREAS, each with 2-3 parts each.  That's an awful lot of time to explore each one.  This will also come up with in the BAD section, though, for reasons I'll explain there.

The Bad

-Content.  There seems to be an overwhelming amount of it.  In terms of sheer progression, I'm probably 20% of the way through the game.  Yet I'm wearing full Quality-Level (QL) 6 gear - the max is QL 10.  That dictates a disproportionate level of gear to progression, a huge problem.

-Lower-end computers will struggle with performance in areas with multiple players (PVP).  I had a NVidia GTS 250, an older graphics card.  And while the game normally chugs along ~25 FPS (Using Direct X9, 11 isn't compatible with this card) during most PVP battles I'd get between 5-10 FPS, making the game a nearly unplayable slow motion slideshow.  Long story short is that you need a graphics card that's Direct X11 compatible, so you can run the more efficient version and not overheat and nearly destroy an older card.  Oops.

 -The Death Penalty.  This is an area where Funcom didn't attempt to deviate from the standard by even a half step.  Instead, they ripped out the death system from World of Warcraft, also copied by a multitude of other games over the past 8 years, and implemented it into their game.  When you die, you become a ghost, you move to where you died, you resurrect yourself and your equipment takes damage.  The amount of damage it takes, at least up to QL6 is irrelevant.  I've NEVER ONCE had a piece of equipment break before I could replace it from questing or running dungeons, so I've never had to spend a dime on repairs - but I've looked at the cost, which is equally as irrelevant unless it quadruples at QL10.  There's almost no death penalty in this game, except for the time lost running back to your body.  That makes me sad.

-Quests Bug.  Yes, they're bugging.  Just because you completed them in another instance (or dimension as they're called in game) of the zone doesn't mean they aren't bug ridden messes.  For reference, I've completed every quest I've come across - but I've also been a Quality Assurance lead for a major Software Development firm.  I know how to break things, and how to not break them.  The problem here is nothing short of poor quality assurance on Funcom's part.  I'll use an example:

The picture on my left is from a quest called Men In Black Vans.  I'll try not to spoil it too much.  In this quest you run around and eventually discover a sequence in which you need to do things - activate control panels on that black box in the picture.  As you can see, there are quite a few; 4 that you can see in that picture and I believe 2 additional ones that you can't see on the other side.

The problem isn't the order in which you have to do them, that's the easy part.  The problem is that other players can come up and disrupt your sequence while you're in the middle of activating those panels.  So while you're trying to input the sequence 1 2 3 4, someone else comes in and the box thinks you entered 1 2 1 3 (they interrupted you with their own code half way through yours, hence the extra 1) registering an incorrect input and making you start over.  The box doesn't know there's two people doing it, it only sends out a mission complete notification if 1 2 3 4 is entered in sequence, giving credit to the person who pushed the 4.  I hope that makes sense.

What is left is a crowd of people around a box all screaming in frustration that it's bugged.  It IS bugged, this is a bug.  BUG BUG BUG.  People saying quests in this game aren't bugged are insane - the game is strewn with poorly QA'd quest objectives that behave erratically and inconsistently.  Just because you were able to complete this particular quest when no one else was around doesn't mean it's not a bug when the game isn't prepared to let two people do it at the same time.  They should've have foreseen that and planned ahead.

Another bug is a few missions down the road, where the enemies that it tells you to kill don't spawn, so they in fact can't die.  Sometimes they spawn 20 minutes later and chase you down the road.  Sometimes they never spawn and you give up and do other missions.  This isn't a rampant every-quest-in-the-game problem.  But it's an annoying one that's costing Funcom money.

-The UI is a little clunky.  I can't move things around the screen, and I can't change chat colors - if I CAN do these things, and I just haven't figured out how to yet, that's an even bigger problem - I use computers 10+ hours a day, I've played more video games then are safe or reasonable.  I'm not a 'new' user, if these key features are hard to find, they've poorly implemented.

-Repetitious sound effects.  Abilities need more variation in sounds, or an option to just mute JUST ability sounds all together.  As a healer I'm throwing 30-40 casts of 2-3 skills out every fight.  They all have the same sound.  That's 90-120 times hearing the SAME THING in a minute.  I've muted the game at points and put up Netflix on the other monitor - honestly, I can't take it much longer.  Forget about it if there's people in the room and you're playing without a headset - they'll jump out a window before long.

The Balanced 

-Combat is essentially a rehash of ability/cooldown based button mashing that we've seen in almost every other MMORPG to date.  That being said, with the way characters are created and built, along with the premise of never really knowing what another player has at their disposal keeps it intrigueing.  Couple this with the comparatively-limited crowd control (compared to other games), and you've got a very interesting combat system that's a new, fresh twist on a few old formulas.  I loved how in Everquest you could only have 8 (or more with AA's) spells memorized at a time.  I'm glad to see a similar system make a return here.

-No Stealth.  I'm of the opinion that the element of surprise and avoidance is such a huge advantage in PVP and PVE that it can never truly be balanced in any video game.  Funcom solved that problem before it even began - no stealth, ever.

-Crafting is confusing, but largely worth while.  You can create some great stuff from leftover equipment that you recently upgraded.  While the system itself is largely misleading at times, with enough patience and research you can master it fairly easily and find a great way to put your old gear to work for you.


It would be hard for me to sit here and write about how much the questing bugs have bothered me without noting the unparallelled amount of fun I'm having in TSW right now.  The launch went very smoothly, no server downtime or lag to speak of - and the single server/shard setup, meaning everyone plays together, is very very appealing.  There will never be a dead server.

The lack of stealth and the constant thought of improving my character are driving points that keep PVP and PVE encounters fun and engaging.  You never know what you, your friends, or even your enemies have brought to the battle - I like that.  I'm not clicking (or looking) at someone and thinking "Level 85 Warrior."

The eerie settings and masterfully well-rounded quest lines make questing a joy, when it's not buggy.  All the major quests have full voice narration, as do the conversations with the quest givers and random NPC's.  There's a very strong sense to listen first and read second in this game - that's a refreshing change - but make no mistake, reading everything you find is still of extreme importance.

In the end, TSW is a great place for people that loved the WoW format, but want something different and refreshing in a survival horror setting.  Deep character creation possibilities along with numerous opportunities for role play and lore discovery make the game a solid choice for any avid digital adventurer.