Chatting up NPCs in The Secret World

The Secret World early access started yesterday. I didn’t get in-game until late last night but I really enjoyed the couple of hours I managed to be in-world. Note I didn’t say “play” because so far I haven’t really played TSW. I’ve opted instead to poke around, exploring and talking to NPCs.

For some reason Funcom and The Secret World seems to attract more than their fair share of haters, so before I go any farther I want to emphasize that I was doing what I was doing by my own choice. I could’ve blasted through the intro stuff, headed to New England and started accumulating quests and leveling up my skills, just as I would in any other MMO. If this seems boring to you, don’t go using it in your flame wars; no one HAS to talk to these flavor NPCs. I just chose to.

Because what I love about TSW is the flavor. I’m also apparently much more patient than most gamers and I’m happy to sit back and enjoy some exposition if it’s well done. I feel like the exposition in TSW is very well done. NPC dialog isn’t really dialog…it’s just clicking on menu items to prompt the NPC to keep talking to you. And yet I’m enjoying it. When I stop enjoying it I’ll go chase quests, but I’m in no hurry here. I opted into the game for the ambiance as much as for the gameplay, after all.

So enough dissembling, here’s my example video. These two women have taken old Gladstone under their wing, trying to rehabilitate him and make him more presentable (to little effect, thus far). I suspect Gladstone (who has a lot to say about his long life of seeking knowledge and good drugs) will figure more prominently in the storyline later but the two ladies are just extras. Still, they had information to share and knowledge is power, after all. On the other hand, what they have to say contains no spoiler-y stuff, which is why I’m using them as my example.

I should also point out that you have to be careful about waiting for them to finish one chunk of dialog before you click on another option. At the end of this clip you see what happens when you click too soon. The NPC starts talking over herself. The voice actors do pause for dramatic effect at times, so be sure they’re done talking before you move on.

First glimpse into The Secret World

So as you probably know, Funcom’s new MMO, The Secret World, is having an NDA-free beta weekend. I got in via a PAX East give-away and I’ve now had a wee bit of time to play. Here’re my thoughts based on the first hour or two of play.

TSW makes a pretty horrible first impression, at least in the beta. Character creation options are very limited (there will be more on release), textures on the characters are just awful (details like laces or decorative medals are just ‘painted on’) and there’s a lot of exposition in the form of NPC monologing in the little prologue (which was apparently crafted for this beta).

Your best bet is to get comfortable and just go along with the prologue in order to get it out of the way asap. Once you leave London and head to New England the game starts to really open up.

TSW uses a classless system and at low levels at least, gameplay is going to be defined by your weapon. I chose a sledgehammer for mine. My first 3 skills were a basic attack which generated a Resource and had the potential to Weaken an enemy; a longer cooldown, more powerful attack that also generated a Resource and could trigger AOE secondary damage if used on a Weakened enemy; and a big cone-shaped AOE attack that consumed all those Resources. The more resources, the more damage. You can hold up to 5 Resources and for a Hammer-wielder they’ll fill by themselves, but doing attacks causes them to fill faster.

Honestly at low levels combat isn’t all that exciting but I think it’ll get more interesting as we get deeper into the game. You’re constantly unlocking Skill Points & Ability Points that you can spend on new skills & abilities, but you can only have 7 Active and 7 Passive Abilities in use at any time (Skills seem to be more generic buffs to particular weapon types). So after a while it’s going to be like Guild Wars where you have to pick and choose from your Abilites in order to develop an effective set (or Deck in the game’s nomenclature).

When you finally get to New England, you’re supposed to be on a small island off the coast somewhere near Maine (one of the NPCs talks about kids going to Bangor for hay rides) but everyone on the island was imported from Queens or Jersey or somewhere like that. If you’re not from New England this might not be as jarring as it was for me, but wow, did the voice acting directory ever get these accents wrong!

But once there, you’re kind of overwhelmed with quests. Quests work differently than they do in most games. Rather than run around and gathering a bunch of kill ten rats quests, you can only work on a single quest at a time, as far as I can tell. There are about half a dozen different types of quests and maybe you can work on one of each kind? Still figuring this bit out.

But I want to tell you the [SPOILERY] story of one quest just to try to illustrate why I’m liking this game so much. The Sheriff of Kingsmouth, which is under attack by zombies, wants you to help set up surveillance cameras. So step one is leaving the safety of the barricades and running around pulling down security cameras from buildings (well almost constantly fighting zombies). The first few are really straight foward… you just right click on them. Then you find one you can’t reach, and you have to find a way to climb onto the roof of the building to get to it (via jumping on boxes around back). Then there’s one really high up. To get to that one you have to climb a ladder to the roof of an adjacent building, then leap across the gap between buildings, only to get the camera and find out its broken. But there’s a note attached to it saying there’re replacements in the basement.

You head into the basement of the building, which turns out to be a solo instance. The janitor in charge of the building has turned into something inhuman, though with his last shred of decency he warns you to stay away and then barricades himself behind a series of booby traps. You need to get to him though, so your next task is figuring out how to avoid the booby traps.

The first few are laser trip-wires that you can just leap over, but then you come to a grid of lasers. You have to enter a side room to turn these off. Inside the side room are security cameras, motion sensitive, which will set off deadly bombs if they detect movement. Suddenly you’re in a stealth game, avoiding the cameras by timing their movements and scurrying from cover to cover. Eventually you come to a switch that’ll turn off the grid of booby traps in the hallway, letting you get a bit further.

Before you get to the janitor you’ll have to walk through a maze of laser beams and do another security camera-avoidance room. When you finally get to him, he attacks, so then you have to kill him. And finally when he’s down, you can collect the last camera. I died 4 times in that darned basement!

But you’re still not done. Now you have to place 4 cameras around the Police Department barricade, avoiding or killing the Ravenous Hordes of zombies while doing so.

Once THAT is done, you head back into the police department and access their computer system to bring the new cameras online. When you do, you can actually access the cameras to see what’s going on out there.

Then FINALLY this minor side quest is finished. It was one of the most elaborate quests I can remember doing in an MMO.

So exploration, combat, jumping puzzles, stealth puzzles, more combat, more exploration, more combat and then some basic computer skills, all required to solve that quest.

I have to admit at first I found the basement to be annoying as heck. MMOs aren’t supposed to make you figure out things like this! But then I made a conscious decision to treat The Secret World as its own thing, not like “another MMO” and I started to really get into it.

I’m probably done for the beta weekend. TSW doesn’t lend itself to being played under time pressure, in my opinion. When you’re playing a weekend beta you tend to want to go through content as rapidly as possible so you can see as much as possible, and The Secret World seems designed to be a game you have to think about, puzzle over…maybe even walk away from now and then. Try to rush through it and it’s just going to be frustrating rather than enjoyable, like trying to rush through an adventure game.

I still have a TON of questions and honestly it doesn’t feel like a game that can get polished up between now and June so I expect a rocky launch, but I really like what Funcom is trying to do here. I’ve pre-ordered; I’m happy to support a company that’s breaking the MMO mold; I can tell you that the chat was full of people taken by surprise and really frustrated that they weren’t being given more explicit instructions, so I think TSW is going to be a niche hit that’s disliked by many MMO vets.

When I gave up on SWTOR I remember saying that I was done with MMOs because there weren’t any good ones coming out any time soon. Now I’m hooked on TERA and excited about both The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. Talk about being spoiled for choice; I guess there’s still life left in the MMO genre!

PS: Sorry no screenshots. I was hitting PrintScrn on the assumption it was taking shots (I wasn’t really paying attention) but as in AoC the screenshot button is F11 or something. Doh!

The Secret World pre-orders: it’s all my fault.

I am what’s wrong with gaming today. At least, what’s wrong with MMO gaming.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Funcom opened up pre-orders for The Secret World today. To get a feel for how stoked I’ve been for The Secret World, here’s all the coverage I’ve had on the site: tag = The Secret World. (Spoiler: It’s 1 post showing a video.) I’ve also stated publicly that MMOs aren’t a good fit for me, and that I’m tired of subscription models that make me feel compelled to play in order to get my money’s worth.

The end result of all this? Of course I pre-ordered The Secret World this morning. I can’t help it. Curiosity about MMOs drives me. And I don’t even try to fool myself that this will be The One anymore. I’m sure I’ll play TSW for 2-3 weeks and then move on.

So why Pre-Order? Because I’m a sheep in sheep’s clothing. Oooo, I get to start 4 days early! Maybe. If I pre-ordered early enough. In those 4 days I’ll probably manage 2-3 hours of gametime! And I get to reserve a name! If I could think of one I felt like reserving. And play in beta weekends…though I’ve sworn off betas.

Essentially all Funcom had to do is throw up a bullet-pointed list of Perks and they had me. I’m not proud of this, but it’s the truth. And in being so weak-willed I just encourage game companies to keep dangling silly freebies in order to entice players to pre-order.

So I apologize to the gaming community for encouraging this type of behavior.

Now let’s start the griping portion of this blog post!

Pre-ordering is supposed to get you a name reservation. I signed up, gave ’em my credit-card info, got my “Thank you for pre-ordering” email but when I click the link to reserve my name I’m told I don’t have any Name Reservation ‘slots’. Hmm. And I have a big alert that says “You have a pending payment. Click here to complete payment” but when I click the link I just loop back to the same page with no options. So maybe I just need to be patient and wait for that payment to go through. I’m not irate about this, but I am a bit confused. [Update: OK just checked again and I had my name reservation slot, so scratch this one.]

Pre-ordering was supposed to get you 1 of 3 combat pets: A Doberman, a wolf, or a kitty cat. The wolf is super-awesome, the Doberman is pretty cool, and the cat is, well, a kitty cat. After I signed up my account page shows, under Your Products, “The Secret World – Preorder (Cat).” So what does that mean? I sure didn’t pick the cute little kitty. Is it a random selection? Is “Cat” just a placeholder and I’ll be able to pick later? Not at all clear. If I’m stuck with that cat I’ll be annoyed. I mean, I like cats and all, but I like ’em curled up in my lap quietly purring, not out doing battle with me. That just seems silly.

Last up, during the process of handing over $50 to play the game, you’re already getting DLC marketing prompts thrown at you. In addition to that $50 for the pre-order you can spend $15 (a social pet, a set of weapons, and a leather jacket), $60 (30 extra days of gametime, and additional character slot, an additional name reservation, a high-end talisman for each new character, 10 experience potions and a 10% discount on all social clothing purchases) or $200 (everything in the $60 bundle plus a lifetime subscription and an exclusive leather jacket) more in order to get various bundles of extra stuff. You can also buy additional character slots and name reservations for $9.99 each.

[In days of yore I’d always go for Lifetime Subs because they (illogically) remove that pressure to get my money’s worth out of a subscription gaming experience, but these days I just assume every MMO will go F2P within a few years of launch so Lifetime subs no longer seem viable to me. Anyone else agree?]

I have to say that I found all these offers a bit off-putting. All I could think was that if they’re pitching all this stuff now, by the time I get in the game I’m going to be smothered under all kinds of RMT offers. Asking me to spend real cash is fine (well, acceptable at least) in a F2P game, but if I’m paying a subscription I don’t want to see a bunch of ads for additional cost items.

All in all, I came out of the pre-order experience thinking “Hmmm, maybe that was all a big mistake.” but I’ve certainly wasted more than $50 on other games I never played much (~waves at SSX~), so I’ll stick it out. But come launch, Funcom better bring their A game if they want to convert me into a fan.

Video: “The Secret World” GDC Presentation

Last night I decided to spend a half hour watching Funcom’s The Secret World video from GDC. I’m not really sure why; I’ve finally come to accept that MMOs aren’t a good genre for me, but I guess old habits die hard. I’m sure I’m going to keep buying these games, playing them for a few weeks and then becoming disgruntled about them. I’m just too curious for my own good and I still long for a virtual world to call my own. Not that most of today’s MMOs are virtual worlds, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I haven’t been paying much attention to The Secret World to be honest. The setting, or at least what I thought was the setting, wasn’t all that compelling to me. That much, at least, changed last night. The game has instances that feature “time travel” to crazy situations. The one they show in the video is of Native Americans and Vikings banding together to drive off a Mayan invasion! How awesome is that? [The Mayans sure have been getting a bum rap lately; wasn’t it their neighbors, the Aztecs, who were the bloodthirsty ones? Perhaps my understanding of history is flawed, but let’s get back to the game.]

The low point of what I saw was the combat; there was just nothing very compelling about it to me. That’s not to say that it was bad…until I play it I won’t actually know. But it just seemed ‘safe’ to me, with mobs that had very short aggro ranges and (spell-based) combat animations that looked like avatars standing in place doing their cheerleading practice. Hopefully they punch those up a bit; this was early footage after all.

The high points were character development, which looks incredibly deepcomplex, no let’s be optimistic and stay with deep. There are a ton of skills..did the dude say 500!!? Maybe I’m forgetting…it was 12 hours ago after all and I have a mind like a sieve. Anyway there are a ton of skills that you can put points into, but you can only equip 7 active and 7 passive at any one time (a bit like Guild Wars). You can change the load out at any (almost?) time though (not sure about during combat), and create pre-made sets of skills for fast switching. Anyway, it looked like there’ll be a ton of ways you can go with your character and there are no predetermined classes.

The other thing that looked cool was crafting. They’ve borrowed from Minecraft to a certain extent. You can salvage a weapon to get materials, then (this is the Minecraft-y bit) you lay those materials out in a particular pattern to make a particular item. You can then tweak the item by attaching “prefix” and “suffix” enhancements to it. The hope was that people will not only make their own weapons and stuff, but would be creating thise prefix and suffix enhancements and trading those among the populace. We’ll see.

Just a few final thoughts. At this point The Secret World didn’t give off the vibe of an AAA title; the polish just wasn’t there yet. Maybe it’ll get there, but then I almost hope it doesn’t. I’ve been having more fun with games that have a few rough spots and some personality than I’ve been having with games that are so polished that they have neither high nor low points.

I also found myself thinking about The Matrix Online while watching the video. I’m not sure why…maybe because the female character they created started in Seoul and was slinking through the streets rolling her hips like they were on ball bearings? In fact, the overt sexualization of the female characters really felt kind of dated. Y’know, the low-slung jeans with the T of a thong pulled up above the waist? It did look like that was a choice the person running the demo made, though, and that there were outfits where the outerwear actually covered the underwear. Imagine that!

Anyway, if I’ve piqued your interest, get comfortable, grab a beer or a cup of coffee, and check out the video: