Dark foggy days are coming.
Mixed bag. Mixed signals. I’m torn.
That’s the TL:DR summary, you can go away now if you don’t want my wall-of-text detailed analysis.
Before We Begin
You’ll note I took the trouble to specify these impressions are only for this weekend, since their client has this qualifier scrawled across their notes screen:
“Please keep in mind that the version of The Secret World you will be playing this Beta Weekend is not the final version of the game. Many issues and elements are constantly being improved upon before launch.”
Riiight. Call me cynical, but I translate that as “We will promise we will be continually working to improve this game, but we have run out of time and have to launch this.” In other words, you will be playing and paying for a work in progress for quite a while yet.
On the bright side, I do believe they are fixing stuff as fast as they can. In between yesterday and today, I’ve had to download quite a few patches to be able to log in, and active dodging in combat was reactivated (to name a really obvious change) so there’s fixes coming in.
It’s not like they’ve given up and wiped their hands of the MMO and are just going to launch it to grab what money they can like some other companies I could think of. I think it fits Funcom’s pattern to keep working away at their games and keeping the doors unshuttered for the long term, though they may never have enough resources to polish their MMOs to full potential.
On the pragmatic side, this sure is a hell of a lot of -known- bugs and issues for an MMO that is due to launch like…now.
They probably suspect that this is the best window. Before Guild Wars 2 launches. Within 2012, because their story alludes to it being the year 2012.
Personally, I put up with Age of Conan’s bugginess and unfinished nature for about 3 months while marking time for Warhammer’s launch (which also lasted about 3 months, but that’s another story) and I’m having trouble convincing myself that paying for lack of polish is okay, especially when there are more polished and/or free (just less new) options available on the market.
On First Logging In
The program jittered and stuttered on the movies that played the logos but they played, and I got all the way to the log-in screen. Then I tried to pick a server, and found out I couldn’t create a character on a single one. Kept throwing me back and saying the slots were all full. WTF? I don’t have a single character made, there’s three slots sitting right there, how can they be full?
Quit, did some forums searching, turns out that behavior occurs if there’s been a patch/update in between that you missed. (Well, I was downloading a huge 20+ gb client for over 24 hours, so it’s no wonder that I must have missed a patch.)
Want a good laugh? This was the client downloader midway through. I looked at that progress bar poking out onto my desktop and said, “Lol, this calls for a screenshot.”
On the bright side, it did stop before it hit 25 gb, and it later expanded itself into a 30gb folder on my hard disk. (I shoved Aion onto a spare external hard disk to make room. Copy it back later when I feel like trying out the game again, assuming the NCsoft launcher doesn’t have issues with me doing that. But that’s another story.)
Started the game for the second time after downloading the necessary missing patch, and promptly crashed because I was trying to click away or bang on Esc to skip the corporate logo movies. Hrm. (For the record, subsequent times have allowed me to skip them just fine by pressing Esc once. I have no idea why it was being so temperamental just then. But I’m pointing out the my exact first impressions flow of events, good and bad alike.)
Third time lucky. Started the program again, logged in, selected a server and made it to the character creation screen. Yay, I can actually make a character now!
On the Character Screen and TSW’s Graphics
It’s about this point that I first started running into an issue that sits like a big plague-monkey on my back. At certain points, like in the character screen and certain cutscenes, my graphics lag and typically take 15-60 seconds to load in, coming in layers, low resolution textures at first and then smoothing to higher resolution stuff. Not all the time, but enough to be annoying.
It’s most obvious on the character load screen. This is what it looks like for me right on starting up (after having made my first Illuminati character, that is.)
That’s just not normal. Most other MMOs will show you your character, right?
Turns out, so does The Secret World. If I wait for a good minute or so, then this eventually fills in around the brown-grey spaces.
Now I’ll quantify right off that I’m not playing The Secret World at the ideal recommended uber-graphics card 64-bit Windows 7 DirectX11 settings. I am completely well aware of the fact that I’ll never get as awesomely gorgeous lighting and shadows and beautiful textures as the media screenshots on their website.
Considering the negative rumor mill and me running a 32-bit Windows XP DirectX9 machine with an ATI 4870 card (ATI cards being somewhat notorious for having issues where Nvidia doesn’t, now and then), I was already pleasantly surprised to find that the game loaded at all. The starting resolution and graphics quality was extremely low on the default setting, and I was able to crank it up to somewhere between medium-high on a 1680 x 1050 full screen – the client automatically restricts the draw distance and other advanced settings due to memory limitations on 32-bit Windows.
However, I’m always aware of and made to feel slightly like a second class citizen because of this graphics lag issue. Even the graphics setting never misses a beat to tell me this.
The impression I get is that you don’t care about me as a potential audience. That you can’t really be bothered to optimize for lower performing systems. That accessibility of your game is not a factor. Whereas games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic go for stylized graphics precisely because they want the game to work well on lower-end systems, while Guild Wars 2 tests the look of their game on antiquated graphics cards that can’t even be bought off the shelves anymore because they want the game to still look good for the average gamer.
It’s weird because I do think you -are- working on optimizing for lower end systems too, as and when you can. My load times have been speeding up over this last beta weekend. And the game -is- playable, on the whole, for me.
Monitoring FPS, I get anywhere from a playable 25-40 FPS most times, going up to 45 FPS in solo instances and dropping to 5-20 FPS for a couple seconds in the rare crowded locales before going up again. It’s better performance than I got with Age of Conan, where I could hit 1-5 FPS in the cities. (Ironically, it was AoC which made me feel like I needed to upgrade my graphics card about 4-5 years ago. I did, and it improved somewhat, but not by much.)
So then the final impression I get is that of bugginess and lack of polish and optimization. Bits work here, and parts don’t work there. For 90% of the cutscenes, they play perfectly fine and look pretty okay, if not spectacular because my system isn’t high-end…
…and then I get this view of a van that dashes in for 1-2 seconds, which is too fast for my computer to apply a good high-res texture to.
And it kinda shatters the immersion that is being built up.
(Unless, hmm, maybe I can pretend that I’m playing in a big Matrix-computer-style set up, so there are occasions where the quality of the graphics becomes digitized as the world fails to render properly!)
On Character Creation
It’s not terrible. I’ll say that much. There’s a decent range of options and colors and head, hair, clothing types. Enough to create fairly unique and distinct characters that don’t all look like clones on first entering the game.
That is, if you could actually see your character.
It’s that graphics bugaboo I mentioned earlier. I don’t get it. For practically any other MMO I play, it doesn’t take 3-5 seconds to pause and first load the background in bits and pieces, then slowly load and display the character. In The Secret World’s character creation screen, it does.
When it does finally load in, it isn’t half bad at all.
At least, if the sliders worked properly. For some reason, they’re acting clunky in character creation. I can’t click on the knob and drag. The pixel location is off, or something.
At first, I was wondering if it was a lag issue from having to load in the different styles and textures, but my computer doesn’t grind or in any way act like it’s trying to load anything.
What I have to do is somehow click away at each slider, up and around and down until it suddenly registers as active, and my mouse wheel can suddenly work to scroll up and down through the selections with nary a pause at all. If I get really lucky and pick the perfect pixel location, then I can drag the knobs left and right as you’d expect.
And then I go through the same thing per bar I select. And if I need to backtrack on an option, same problem with the knobs. It’s really weird because the color selection has no issues. Click and everything changes with nary a pause. The drop down box has no issues. The knobs make me want to tear out my hair.
My only possible conclusion? Buggy.
Here’s one thing about the Secret World that I do like. Quite a bit.
You have to fill in three names. First name, nickname, and a last name. So everyone goes around being identified as John/Jane “Moniker” Doe and it adds a bit to the immersive aspect of the setting. The naming policy encourages most people to use pretty immersive names too, pretty much the worst I’ve seen are those that run around in all lowercase. Even those that just have a few numbers tacked on the end of their nickname kind of resemble Internet monikers.
What’s less nice, that I found out on my second character made, is that the nickname has to be unique. And no spaces are allowed.
It’s a bit of a shame, considering that if you used all three names in combination, we might get more flexibility and freedom in naming, similar to City of Heroes or Guild Wars 1. Now instead what we’re going to end up with is people warring for the best sexy superhero or hacker-style nickname and lots of good options being taken up very very soon. It’s already a pain on City of Heroes to get good names, and we get the option of spaces there. Here, all we get are hyphens and a shorter character limit, which does not bode well for the future.
I also foresee that people are going to be hard pressed to tell the difference between Nightshadow and Night-shadow (both names are naturally taken by this time.) Hopefully they don’t end up playing or talking together at the same time.
On Group and Combat Mechanics
Speaking of playing together, I’m a little disappointed. Just a bit.
Bear in mind the last beta I was just playing was Guild Wars 2, so when I first started the game and got to Kingsmouth, I saw people fighting zombies in a setting that looks like it was cut out from Left 4 Dead… what’s the first thing I’m going to do? Run in and help blow zombies up, of course!
Then I noticed that:
a) I generally wasn’t getting any xp from helping kill mobs other players were already fighting (or just a smidgen, normally from untagged mobs)
b) when some other well-meaning player helped me on my zombies, the amount of experience I got was dramatically decreased
I guess we’re back to traditional MMO mechanics where you have to officially form a group first. I better stop “helping” before someone shouts at me for killstealing them. Sad panda.
From then on, I stopped caring about other players and treated them as essentially a big faceless crowd of moving distractions that are all following the same story path.
It’s especially sad because the tutorial mission has you helping out three NPCs with a shotgun, fighting multiple mobs, fer goodness sake’s. In action combat. Where running and dodging and firing as you ran was important. It felt so modern and enlightened. Yet we still have a reminder of old MMO roots simply because the reward scheme still feels oldfashioned.
Combat on the whole reminds me of a good mix between Guild Wars 2, Guild Wars 1 and City of Heroes. That’s a good thing. A really really good thing.
It has active moving combat pretty similar to GW2, especially when active dodge is operational. I am especially pleased by the clarity of the enemy’s attacks and AoE effects (I’ve complained before about some other games) but TSW is as good as Rift in that respect.
You see the clarity of that circle? That’s cool. It’s clear and it is fair and it gives you time to move the hell away.
You’re a split second too late to see the spinning backflip I did to get out of the way of his AoE attack. But trust me, it was cool.
Double tapping W, A, S, D works well to dodge about. An active dodge bar appears as a countdown timer to indicate that you can’t do another dodge until it expires.
Here’s another nice one. This cone gradually shrinks in size, acting as a timer to indicate that he’s going to do a cone attack in the vicinity. Get outta the way now. Very nice.
It’s similar to Guild Wars 1 in the sense that you have to pick skills from a potentially large pool, and the choices of that selection indicate your combat options and role in battle. TSW gives you 7 active skills and 7 passive skills at any time, and the trick is to find stuff that synergizes well together and add on other utility skills as desired.
And it’s similar to GW and City of Heroes in that you’re generally a profession/profession. TSW has three melee weapons, fists, blade and hammer. Three ranged weapons, assault rifle, pistols and shotgun. And three magic weapons, chaos, blood and elemental. When you’re just starting out with limited AP and SP to buy skills and abilities, it’s generally a good idea to focus on a two weapon combat synergy style at first, before branching out later.
These two weapon synergy styles have suggested ‘decks,’ sort of a characteristic class of certain factions, which provide some nice structured guidance for people coming in cold and new to the entire system. No doubt some people will find that certain combinations are more uber than others as time goes on, but a nice balancing point is that everyone should be able to eventually pick up everything they want in a leveless, classless system. I just don’t know how much grind that would involve, though.
The holy trinity also still seems to be in operation in this game. Perhaps a little looser as there is quite a lot of option for hybrids and there’s flexibility to switch roles, but time will tell.
I actually think grouping might be quite fun in this game, if there is leeway for synergies to naturally develop, but I fear that if the dungeon difficulties are too high and too challenging, then we’ll see people being forced into very cookie cutter ‘expected’ heal/tank/dps roles for simplicity’s sake. I suspect the latter will happen, though I much prefer the former.
They’re there. On my computer, they take anywhere from 1-3 minutes to load, sooner for small cutscenes. People who dislike loading screens for immersion disruption reasons will not be happy.
Me, I don’t mind them. And I put up with worse loadscreens in Age of Conan, that literally took 5 minutes or more to struggle to load a very small zone. In TSW, the zone of Kingsmouth looks fairly big and open by comparison, so if I have to put up with short loadscreens to get the zone to a playable unlaggy state, that’s fine by me. It’s nice art and a helpful tip on those screens anyway.
On Missions and Quest Flow
On the whole, I approve. Investigation missions were turned off in this beta, which make me very curious about them because I think I will like them.
Regardless, the missions I played had a smooth flow, some involved a bit of thinking and looking around (much to some people’s exasperation as that provides a constant flow of repeated dumb questions and spoilers flying about on General chat – me, I stopped reading it in order not to spoil myself), and had a good mix of combat and story.
I like the designed difference in mission flow. TSW Search explains it here in a comprehensive guide, I’ll just paste the relevant explanation in a picture here for completeness:
Turns out it is actually designed in such a way that as one of your quests ends, you should be able to find another mission to pick up within 50m or so. Some interesting item should be obvious.
I like it. It’s a nice blend of exploration and achievement. While on the mission, you have clarity of direction and intent. But you can follow the thread to its end, then pick up another and another and be wandering all over the place without feeling obliged to report back in to quest hub central.
They’ve also taken the idea of cell phones from City of Heroes and taken it one step further. Mission reports can be sent in from your location once you finish the quest, and you get the rewards beamed to you instantly and painlessly. (Being part of an ancient occult technomagical faction has its perks, I guess.)
The voice acting is very good. The quality of writing in the stories is top notch. Granted, you have to like the setting and the rambling high-falutin’ prose that comes with that sort of urban fantastic occulto-technomagic ‘everything is a secret conspiracy’ genre. There are a lot of interesting characters and stories that I want to know more about.
The animation quality is only so-so. A bit disappointing and uncanny valley at times, but generally acceptable.
What’s extremely fucking weird is that your character doesn’t ever speak at all, and has the strangest robot face in most of the cutscenes.
Okay, I know the pro-argument for this. It’s extremely immersion-breaking if your character acts in ways that contradict your character concept. It’s sometimes better if the character just shuts up and lets your imagination write in the gaps.
But let me assure you it is also JUST as immersion-breaking if your character stands there silently for the entire cutscene, watching the NPC monologue, nicely voice acted out though it is. Especially if the NPC reacts like you said something, and you evidently didn’t.
Guild Wars 1 and 2 has dialogue. Your character says some generic hero stuff, but they say something. City of Heroes sometimes puts words in your character’s mouth when replying back to the mission text, and yes, they get it horribly wrong at times, but they do say something and imply some sort of motive or personality. I believe SWTOR also has your characters say something and react to the NPCs, though it may be generic Jedi or Bounty Hunter or Insert Class Here sort of reaction.
TSW is very very weird because in some cutscenes, they do assume some sort of reaction from your character (example, the NPC monloguing changes topic or subject because you presumably said or asked something) and then in this Dragon intro, you’re practically having a sexual encounter from the get go (I wasn’t expecting lesbian sex when I chose the female character option and that faction, but hey, bonus):
There’s -some- reaction animated on your character’s face – probably because it’s impossible not to. But your character remains MUTE throughout it all. It’s really a bit freaky.
It’s as if the best immersive option is to assume that your character is a mute telepath that can project their questions directly into the NPC’s minds. Perhaps the bug you ate that gave you magical superpowers also took away your powers of speech, along with bestowing fantastic combat ability and the link to a faction.
Viewed in that conspiracy theorist light, it all makes perfect sense.
On My See-Saw Conclusion
Despite the bugs and weird freakiness and general instability (on the plus side, I didn’t crash up to the training dojang even while print-screening and alt-tabbing out to paste screenshots – because the ingame screenshot key acts a little weird now and then – on the minus side, I was constantly crashing right after that when alt-tabbed), I am quite intrigued by the game.
I’m extremely fond of the setting TSW is set in. I’ve always wanted to experience the kind of Mage: The Ascension (or the newer, Awakening) or Unknown Armies occult underground conspiracy theory sort of world.
I approve of the combat system, the idea of a leveless and classless skill-based system, and the missions look quite playable and tell a good story. If you look at the gameplay features on The Secret World’s website, they deliver all of that. (Along with bugs.)
I would essentially be playing TSW as a singleplayer game in an MMO world to let the writers tell me their stories, and… this is where the doubt comes in, I’m not sure if I want to pay a box price, plus a sub fee, plus whatever else they decide to throw in their cash shop, for that.
The graphics are a key deciding factor for me. To be frank, if I was on a Windows 7 high powered graphics card kind of system that displays The Secret World well and in all its glory, I would be happy to put down for it right now and just play 3 months or so until I exhausted the content.
At the moment, my real world budget and priorities prohibit that. (My present computer is so put together AND old that I’ve decided instead of upgrading piecemeal, I will get a complete new system – new OS, new card, new hard disk, new power supply, new monitors, new everything, and bonus, I’ll have two machines to dual box with eventually. But budgetary and economic concerns indicate that’s not likely to come until Christmas or next year.)
So I’m stuck with pretty, but not awesomely spectacular graphics if I decide to play The Secret World within these six months. (And the bugs, and the second class citizenship thing.)
On one hand, if I wait until next year, it should look and feel really great. Funcom will no doubt have fixed more bugs by then, maybe even have an expansion in the works. The price will no doubt be cheaper.
Or there may not even be a Secret World next year, especially in the wake of Guild Wars 2, which I plan on playing fanatically. And all the spoilers would be out on all the storylines. And it would be quite impossible to find PUGs for dungeons then – whereas if I play with the starting crowd of any MMO, there’s always more group-ish excitement.
Then again, do I want group-ish excitement in this MMO, because it still has some ugly oldschool roots? I pay a lot more attention to players and supporting them in Guild Wars 2 because the mechanics support me doing so. In TSW, that’s not going to happen until they install some kind of public grouping button because I refuse to make and lead old style groups anymore, they’re just not my thing and other MMOs have demonstrated much easier ways for players to casually interact.
I dunno. It ultimately comes down to how much I feel the positive aspects are worth the box price (which is expensive at 50 euros with the exchange rate the way it is), while also taking the negative aspects into account.
And I’m still on a see-saw about that.
For what it’s worth, I’m a lot more interested in considering The Secret World -after- my beta weekend #4 experience than before.
So hey, that’s something.