Investigating The Secret World (Part 3)

Alright. Now that we’re at Part Three I’m done giving background,  I’m just going to talk about mostly about the game play and questing in The Secret World. If you want to catch up, just check out Part One and/or Part Two. As I said before, there may be spoilers in these posts.

By the time I got through the starter area, I had a pretty good understanding of the faction I was working for, and each of the NPCs I interacted with were fully-voice acted, and I could ask them a variety of questions such as the state of the secret world, their opinions on the other factions, and themselves. Also, after initially meeting with them you can also check to see if they have any quests. So far, any NPC presented quest would be explained in the form of a cut scene, leading to a switch in perspective for the camera. I would say this does make the quests seem more dramatic than having six other people standing in front of the character with you, and while I wouldn’t say that they blow me away each time, I find the consistency to be a positive improvement compared to what we had in Age Of Conan.

Concept Art: “The Besieged Farmlands”

That said, quests so far rarely feel like the run of the mill quests we have in other MMOs. While it’s possible I may not have gotten in far enough, the closest thing I had to a mundane quest was to lure a group of enemies into a magically protected church. This did in fact consist of me shooting them and then running off, but it was explained to me as a way of testing the magic wards the church had in place. It wasn’t especially complicated, but it was more interesting luring five of them as opposed to merely killing five of them. In another quest, I was supposed to help resupply an isolated town under siege by zombies. Instead of simply marking on my mini map each of the locations, first I had to find a phone book and check the list off addresses there. I would like to point out interacting with the phone book was very thorough, I didn’t just right click it and then have it assigned to my mini map, I actually had the opportunity to look at it; the phone book had actually addresses, phone numbers, and the names of each of the locations. Because I could visit the phone book prior to the quest, this time the important addresses were circled in red. It was only then did my character decide which areas would be best best to investigate. Some areas had supplies, and some had giant monsters waiting to eat off my face. Once I had finished checking out all the buildings I had first circled, my character noticed he did not actually have enough, and I had to find another phone book to figure out what to do next. In another quest, I found myself chasing flocks of ravens and then examining a drawing of a pentagram in order to find the right location to put the raven feathers I had collected to summon a monster.

While the puzzles and concepts I was being introduced to were reasonably simple, from what I can tell there are supposed to become much more complicated: they actually have an in-game browser that connects you to Google so you can do research. I would also like to point out that this browser worked significantly better than the original browser built into EVE Online. Really, this is the first time I’ve ever played a game that outright told me, “You’re not going to figure it all out on your own.”

“Besieged Farmlands” In-Game

Now, let’s talk about the real game play where you kill things. Before you can get to fighting zombies, monsters, and those dirty stick in the mud Templars, you need to pick a weapon (If you’re a Templar, don’t bother. You’re already dead). As you progress through your faction starting area, at some point you will be sent to a trainer that will explain the basics of how combat works. This trainer goes on to explain the fire that you seem to have control over (as mentioned in Part One) is your “anima”. For some reason you are able to project this life energy inside you to be a deadly. As such, the question you have to ask yourself is, “How do I want to control it?” This is supposed to be the defining reason why The Secret World is an RPG progression. Any weapon you choose to use is ultimately a focus object for you to project your anima. You have three categories to choose from, Melee, Ranged, and Magic. These three categories each have three weapons associated with them. Melee is composed of Hammers, Swords, and Fist Weapons. Ranged consists of Shotguns, Dual Pistols, and Assault Rifles. Last, we have Elemental, Blood, and Chaos Magic.  At any one time, you can use two weapons and fourteen abilities associated with them (Seven active abilities, and seven passive abilities). This is explained to you in a video shown via the in-game browser. Let me just say, the announcer manages to make everything sound awesome. He tells you to consider abilities as cards in a collectible card game, and the abilities you choose to use are your “deck”. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t actually sound like something to get you pumped. Maybe you think it’s kind of cool, but you wouldn’t go and call it exciting. At least, not if this was being explained by a normal person. The announcer for this manages to say all of it so seriously when he finishes saying, “deck” I think to myself, “Holy crap, this MMO lets me me pick and choose my abilities like its a deck in a collectible card game!” Chances are this guy could convince me that you should only be able to solo in MMOs and that all single player games should be multiplayer only. Really, that guy could get me to buy anything. That said, while all this freedom is well and good, and I may now have a man-crush for the narrator, it doesn’t actually determine whether or not it’s fun.

On the surface, you might think that the combat is more of the same. And to be fair, you can see the similarities to “standard MMO” fighting. However, because you don’t level up through a power tree or a strictly linear system, there is a more strategic mindset for when you start picking abilities you want to learn and use, and the combat itself and feel a bit more fast paced and tactical. Having said that, I think it’s  actually really hard to peg it as “fun” or “not fun”, because it all really depends on how you feel about classic MMO combat. If you think that’s fun (or fun enough), this could either interest you as a step up, or turn you off for being too different. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something different, this might be enough to pique your interest, however to some it might still be too much of the same old thing. Personally, I find the combat to be just different enough to satisfy me.

Overall, I would say that my time spent with The Secret World was pretty enjoyable. Because I have the game pre-ordered and have access to the last beta weekend, you can bet I’ll be talking about this game for a while.

Riknas, signing off!

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Investigating The Secret World (Part 2)

Naturally, this is a follow up on The Secret World from Part 1.

So, I’m going to skip over a second set of introductions because chances are if you’re reading this you already read part one. That, and if you didn’t read the first part I can’t imagine you caring much about this post either.

One thing I would like to say before discussing my experiences in-game is to say that Funcom has really gone the extra mile in this project, especially as one of the few prominent independent studios left. I never thought the newsletter that I signed up for on a whim would actually come back and entice me the way it has. Their use of the Facebook “social experience” The Secret War managed to make a simple map of our own world seem significantly more mysterious and enticing. Along with that, they kept me checking in on it regularly with offers of in-game items, treats, and guaranteed beta access for those that accumulated an exceptionally large sum of “points”.

Along with that, they continued to string along the conspiracy theorists with unique marketing, sending those who signed up for the newsletter on an elaborate internet chase, trying to unravel two mysteries at once in what people are calling an “ARG” or “Alternate Reality Game“. They have been keeping us active digging through pastebin archives, searching for hidden meaning in songs on Youtube, deciphering secret codes to unlock Live Action videos that bring us one step closer to understanding another conflict occurring in The Secret World. If you want to try and see what I’m talking about… go to www.funcom.com and wait for a few seconds for the site to load. Then hit “33” on your keyboard, and you can see what I’m talking about They are currently on the sixth seal here. See if you can figure out the questions you may have on your own. One would normally think a game rooted in mystery, deception, and espionage would not lend itself especially well to an MMORPG; while I can’t speak for everyone, Funcom has done a damn good job at making it work so far.

And with that out of the way, let me tell you about my experience inside The Secret World. Keep in mind, there may be spoilers.

The first rule of The Secret World is tell all your friends about The Secret World…Wait, what?

Just before the character creator, you are asked to choose between one of three factions, the Templars, Illuminati, and the Dragon. To help you decide, each faction has a simple trailer (click the links if you want to see them). Considering how they have much more elaborate trailers, I’m surprised that they chose to use those ones. My personal guess is that these trailers are easier for the client to run as opposed to the full CG ones, and they don’t want to tax the program more than necessary.

Anyway, while my personal choice was the Illuminati, I decided to try the starter areas for each of the factions. Regardless of your choice, the game opens up with a cutscene referred to as “One Week Ago” in what is presumably your apartment, unless you actually are a squatter or stole another person’s apartment after killing them and throwing their mutilated corpse in their own closet. “Why so specific?” you might ask. Don’t. Worry. About. It. Okay?

As I was saying, you are sleeping in your (alleged) apartment while a radio broadcast mentions investigations into the Japanese government after an unclear accident took place against a certain “Orochi” group. Meanwhile, while this broadcast takes place, one glowing insect and another regular one fly onto your windowsill and slowly make their way across their room. The first insect flies into your mouth, and the glowing one follows right after it. Almost immediately after, your character brings a hand to their throat and sits up coughing. Reaching out for your jacket across from your bed, a blue fire comes from your hand, and you jerk back in surprise. Testing your hand once more, the flame appears once more and you stare in shock. The screen goes black, and we then see ourselves “Four Days Ago”. Your apartment is now a wreck, CDs, books and various objects are strewn across the floor, along with an entire bookshelf toppled over. And then there is you, tucked away in the corner curled up holding your knees to your chest, face distraught. There’s a rumbling in the background, and you find yourself yanked upward as you let forth an explosion around you and are held up in the air while beams of energy shoot out from your mouth and eyes like you were running a laser-light-show for your organs. By the next time skip you’ve decided to use your fire as part of your own break dancing routine as you throw it back and forth between your hands, until you decide to absorb it from one hand, and let the blue energy travel through your shoulders, up your arm, and materializing it once more in your opposite hand. After that, your paths finally diverge based on your faction choice, and a representative of that group shows up at your door. They capture the moods of their respective organizations very well, with the Illuminati man clarifying the playboy/party life you can lead, the Templar woman explains the importance of nobility and your responsibility to the world, and the Dragon sends a monk with lips stitched together, knocks you out with a bolt of lightning to the forehead, has you dragged off, so you can wake up being thrown out of a van in South Korea. For a bit of context, it is heavily implied that your apartment is in New York City. The Dragon are agents of chaos indeed.

At this point I think I should stop and clarify, not only were all these introductions very cool, for an MMO the animations were extremely fluid and compelling, and from what I have seen, Funcom has clearly gone out of their way to let us know they can do a lot with their character models. This is made especially clear in the Illuminati section as characters stand up and walk around, sometimes raising their fists and shaking their head, while other times providing slight nods and general gestures. In general, the facial animations are a bit lacking, but overall Funcom has conveyed the feeling of living human bodies very well. Of course, I should point out that I did notice a fair number of flaws in the animations for the Dragon starter area, but it appears to be something everyone is aware and should be worked out by the next release date.

Since this article has turned out (again) to be longer than I expected, I will be detailing the combat and gameplay in Part 3.

Riknas, signing off!

Investigating The Secret World (Part 1)

Good afternoon internet. For close to three days, Funcom had its third Beta event “Hell Raised” for The Secret World. This went from which ended last night. The game will no longer be available until June 29th for early access players, or July 3rd for the main release. I happened to be one of the lucky people invited to this beta weekend event, and now I will relay the many things I have seen to you, dear readers. Keep a note, this will not be spoiler free.

Getting Started

First, I may as well point out that installing the game went relatively smoothly. While I did have some difficulties with the installer stopping abruptly, this was caused by external sources rather than the program itself. However, while the patcher works adequately, its still slow compared to the other MMOs I have worked with. Each time I tried to boot up the game after having downloaded the necessary patches, it still insisted on analyzing my computer for 10-20 seconds and then going through a 10 megabyte download (each time) before telling me I was ready. I assume it’s just overwriting the same memory file repeatedly, but in the off-chance that is not the case, I will consider myself both distressed and disappointed.

Even then, once I try to start up the game it takes a while, going from 40 seconds to a little over a minute. Hopefully the patcher will be optimized in the last beta weekend or the launch date That said, the wait wasn’t terrible, but it was long enough for me to wonder, “Is this thing working?”

After that the game booted up in Fullscreen, and ran through the usual promotional trailers and branding. One odd thing I noted though is that after that, every other time I tried to start the game it would begin in windowed mode until I went into the video settings to change it back. Again, this was an oddity that wasn’t especially bad, just a minor inconvenience.  If only I could say the same about the character creation…

Character Creation

It’s a neat little thing, giving you what I would call a “moderate” amount of customization. There is no height changes to make but with the full assortment of skin colors along with sliders for various facial features like “eyebrow”, “jaw” etc. There are a decent number of features to make sure you have a character that manages to look different from the next guy. This would be okay, if the character creator didn’t seem to hate me. Although we were allotted three character slots, I made four characters after deleting one, and each time I managed to fight with the character creator. While clicking on skin colors and articles of clothing worked fine, the sliders worked more like rusted levers as I tried to drag it from one choice to another, and god forbid I try to click over to a different part of the slider. No, it was quite determined that I struggle to go through each choice on the way to the one I wanted to see. Perhaps it was trying to encourage me to be more open minded about the other choices, but I certainly wasn’t convinced. This was the first time I just stopped adjusting my characters appearance because it simply wasn’t worth the effort. That definitely needs to be fixed before release.

But, where the character creator really shines is in having a massive wardrobe to go through, giving you dozens of outfits to put together. The ability to dress like a pimp, a business man, a member of the trenchcoat mafia, a homeless man, a golfer, or a homeless man that looked like he found some dress shoes are all at your finger tips. Really, it’s an excellent number of choices, and there are plenty more outfits for your character to buy when you get out in the real world.

Because I have less time than I would like to write this, I will be detailing the in-game experience in part 2.

Riknas, signing off!

Credit where it’s Due, (Part 2)

Last Time, On Riknas Rants…

Joshua “Riknas”, observes the state of the MMO genre, noting the mortality rate of the online games in custody of the larger studios, now he-

Hey, stop that!

Today…

Riknas will fight with the personification of italics and bold text in an epic s

The hell I will!

Aww, come on…

ANYWAY, MOVING ONTO THE MAIN TOPIC.

The caps lock key makes its move on-

I said stop!

…Please?

No, and no back talking either! Back to online games…

As I said earlier– Erm, as I said earlier, despite the difficulties that well known companies have grappled with in the online gaming market, there have been some that have weathered the storm, while others have actually weathered the storm, while others actually have actually prospered.

Many of these developers are independent groups that managed to carve out a safe niche, slowly growing, or simply trudge along happily on their own with their isolated community. Smaller teams, or single MMO developer groups are what most come to mind. Most likely because their entire company’s livelihood, they hold onto their project tighter than a boa-constrictor wrapped around an idiot’s neck. Jagex, for example,  of of the (in)famous Runescape, has not been affected by the server merges of Warhammer, the shutting down of The Matrix Online, nor do they care about the expansions released in World of Warcraft. The same can be said of eGenesis of the rarely virtually unheard of, “A Tale In the Desert”, that exists in such obscurity one could almost consider it a small MMO cult that lives in its own special commune, fenced off from the rest of the internet. Other companies that manage to typically go unnoticed are the F2P MMO groups such as gPotato, Aeria Games Entertainment, and Suba Games.

Naturally, that’s not all there is, as we can not forget CCP which has worked on it constantly for nine years, putting in an obscene amount of effort to expand the size and accessibility of their massive single-server game, while keeping it new an entertaining for the people that have been around from the start. Along with that, we can not ignore the years Aventurine spent just to make Darkfall, which set the MMO community aflame with its release, and they have already went through great pains to create radical changes and additions to the game. Also, standing proudly alongside them we have Funcom and Turbine.

Dark days…for who?

I won’t deny that Funcom has me starry-eyed with their upcoming title, “The Secret World”, however one can not deny the Norwegian developers’ dedication to their products. One would think that with the critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game “The Longest Journey” , they would simply continue with that. After the catastrophic release for Anarchy Online, people would not have been surprised if it shut down only a few years later. And yet, it has been over a decade since the game’s release, and instead of slowly withering away they have elected to revamp the graphics engine and system mechanics for a new generation of players. Facing similar issues with the release of Age Of Conan, Funcom was once again slammed for allowing servers to be overpopulated and unfinished system mechanics. Conan was also criticized for “deceiving” the players with a fully voiced starting area, that disappeared once you finished it, causing players to wonder, “Did I walk into a different game?” or questioning whether your sound settings were working right. Even so, Funcom continued to improve upon the game, smoothing over system problems, filling content in where there was a gap, and even adding in more voice acting. Not long after, we discover they are working on a third online game, which many of us now eagerly await. While one might argue they are their own worst enemy with the release date problems, they continue on making new games while supporting their older titles, and consistently using graphics that have been cutting edge for their time. And for that, I applaud them. However, what happens after The Secret World remains to be seen…

He won’t let you shut down their other games.

At this point some of you might say, “Riknas, you brilliant man! What a profound line up you created!”

 Flattery won’t convince me italics, and you can’t hide in the left alignment.

Darn it…

As I was saying, some of you might say, “But, Turbine? Don’t you remember Asheron’s Call 2? They shut that down!”

While this is true, I would argue that was a much tougher call, having had no other games to back themselves up beside the original Asheron’s Call. Also, while two years ago they lost their independence after being purchased by Warner Brothers Interactive, they have continued to protect all their other titles admirably. Well done fellows, well done. Hopefully other developers will be able to expand on their own stable of games like these folks have.

That’s all for now, see you next time.

Riknas signing off.

DAMN IT GUYS.

Credit Where It’s Due (Part 1)

Good afternoon, readers. Or good evening if you’re reading this rather late. Of course, “Good morning” might be more appropriate for some of you. And for those of you reading this at 2:30 AM, I recommend you simply stop reading this, and turn off your computer to get some rest. Staying up that late can be detrimental to your internal body clock, you know. Unless of course, you work a night shift, then I suppose it can’t be helped. In which case, hi.

Moving swiftly on…I wanted to elaborate on something I very briefly touched upon in my previous post, “Funcom’s Still At It“. Now, don’t be mislead by the title, the topic today is not specifically about them. Rather, I wanted to point out the extreme ruthlessness that we have seen in the MMO market, and the few groups that have fought against that.

If you note Syp’s  comprehensive MMO Timline, you’ll see that a Massively Multiplayer Online Game has been shut down every year since 2007, and in much greater numbers than before. In the year 2009, a total of four MMOs were shut down, namely Hellgate: London, The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, and Shadowbane. Three of which were intended to be the “Triple-A” MMOs when released. NCsoft is especially guilty for cracking down on their western development teams, shutting down Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, Dungeon Runners, Exteel, and the North American “Lineage” servers in rapid succession. Sony has also seen hard times, finding themselves unable to support The Matrix Online or Star Wars Galaxies. Along with that, the surprisingly long lived Everquest Online Adventures game for the PS2 shut down this year, and the long awaited spy MMO “The Agency” has been canceled, and likely will never see the light of day.

Explode…into what, exactly?

Now consider the fact that because of these game closures, literally thousands of gamers have actually lost the game that they dedicated themselves to for months, or even years. Gamers without their MMO-homes to go to. We are talking about MMO-homeless people. A tragedy if I’ve ever heard of one. Even now, Planetside, which originally held six servers, now hobbles about with only one (of course, there is still a ray of sunshine knowing that they are working on a Planetside 2), how long can that last?

Despite that, a small number of developers stand out as MMO protectors, staying strong against hard economic times, low server populations, budget cuts, and the competition of other online games trying to crush them; online companies that remained in a positive light or were not discouraged for being unable to conquer the MMO market like so many claim to be their goal. Because I have spent more time on this post than I earlier expected, I will be detailing the second half of this topic in Part Two.

Riknas, signing off!

Part Two