Monday, 2 July 2012

The Secret World (MMO Review)

Newly released The Secret World, or as I like to call it Hellboy the MMO, has had a troubled development. First thought up in 2002 under the name Cabal, it suffered being repeatedly side-lined due to other projects, scrapped and restarted ideas and various problems which would likely have sunk any other game. Such a development has spelled doom for other projects under EA, a certain Tiberium title comes to mind, but TSW is finished and is about to be released. Is it any good? Yeah, seems it actually is.
The story behind this MMO is fairly good, a cut above the normal and while not as well done as The Old Republic it is far less intrusive to gameplay. After gaining superpowers through eating a bee, it makes more sense in context, your character is contacted through one of three organisations fighting to preserve the world. While all have agendas which oppose one another each of them understands that something very wrong is happening. Their war to protect modern civilisation from the fantasy horrors such as vampires, deep ones and zombies has taken a turn for the worse. Something has been brought to the town of Kingsmouth and not long after your initiation you are sent to investigate the goings on there, beginning a long journey to hunt down and stop a weapon of destructive power.
Truth be told, the choice of the three factions, Templar, Illuminati and Dragon is largely cosmetic. While they differ in motivations they won’t really change your progress throughout the game and few if any NPCs will react differently to seeing you. It really just comes down to a choice of whether you’re aligned with which way of thinking; the Templar’s “Halt demonic presence at all costs” mentality, the Illuminati’s manipulative elitist tendencies or the Dragon’s ideology of causing controlled chaos to strengthen the world. Even that is not much of a choice as the Templars are easily the best written of the three, embracing the same mix of humour and horror present in the rest of the game. Atop of that their city of choice, London, easily has the most character, standing head and shoulders above the rest in terms of presentation, size and variety. The Illuminati are written to be overly ridiculous  feeling at odds with big chunks of the game. The only thing the surprisingly bland Dragons have to offer is a hilarious method of recruiting new members and an implied vision inducing lesbian encounter if you join with a female character.
That aside, it does have to be said that all the cutscenes, both faction specific and otherwise are well done. Unlike WoW, WAR and DCUO missions tend to involve you entering a brief voiced cutscene with a quest giver talking about what they want and various subjects involving their situation. These only tend to be two minutes long even for the major ones, but they’re well-made. All of them give a good amount of characterisation to each NPC involved and some genuinely funny dialog, especially from the major quest givers in Kingsmouth. This really helps with the atmosphere to each area and helps to both emphasise upon how doomed they are while elevating them from being apathy inducingly dark. Hence the nickname Hellboy: the MMO.
The areas themselves tend to be somewhat samey at first. The opening two levels are set in doomed towns being overrun by creatures of darkness which have pushed the surviving human residents back to a few hastily constructed strongholds. What differs between them is some of the enemies and the look of their surrounding areas, with Kingsmouth mostly featuring zombies being backed by aquatic pincer armed men of Cthuhlu occupying a town, forest and coastal environment. Whereas the next area featured nests of gigantic bug monsters, with stronger zombies backed by aquatic pincer armed men of Cthuhlu taking over slightly different beaches, more monstrous forests and a more burned out farmlands and towns. There are noticeable differences between them but seeing recoloured monsters just on the second area did seem like a questionable choice, even with hulk sized chainsaw wielding scarecrows occupying the inland locations. So enemy variety does have something to be desired, as do the early settings but what about the characters themselves?
Well, character creation is fairly lacklustre. Skin tones, hair and other aspects don’t stand out as much as they usually would in other MMOs and the clothing only really makes you visibly differ when you take garish colours. This is largely due to TSW trying to take a more realistic appearance to contrast with its more fantastical aspects and enemies, but there’s no denying that there’s not enough initial variety. While more interesting clothing becomes available later on such as uniforms this is a weak-point in the game.
In combat the only real weakness is the animations, many of which can appear very stiff or overly scripted and don’t seem so fluid as in other titles. At the same time the combat feel vastly more mobile and action oriented than in many other MMOS, not requiring you to stand in one place while you attack like in Lord of the Rings Online. This allows for more tactical advantages such as circle strafing and hit and run attacks. There are some weapons which require remaining static, but this is usually due to the character requiring aiming them and are the longest ranged.
One of the game’s big selling points, especially in terms of combat, was its lack of classes and levelling. This is done entirely through equipment instead, with no base builds for characters and instead having you choose a weapon of choice early on, then buying abilities surrounding that weapon. One nice touch is that you can both wield two sets of weapons of your choice and buy skills in any tree you desire, allowing you to quickly change from one weapons set to the next quickly. There are a limited number of active and passive skill slots but this allows for experimentation and set-ups to shift dramatically. After a few hours of gameplay and unlocking the right skills it becomes easy to flip between roles. Whether they be tanking or using a more attack orientated style, you can switch between the two in a few minutes on the skill screen. An easier option than starting an entirely new character.
Improving HP and stats comes purely through the form of equipable items, which you’ll take, sell and discard as time goes by, are bought in shops and dropped by enemies. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect of any game like this, only without additional levelling. You still get grinding on an off of missions, but it’s nowhere near as tedious or frustratingly slow as in many other games. This is due to several things – the aforementioned good combat, the fact you can easily do it travelling from one place to the next and the fact that as it’s not level or exp based you seem to progress much faster. What can also help is the quest variety and how it can break up the combat.
While the vast majority of quests do require you to bludgeon/hack/blast something to death; there are some which feel more like puzzles and outright research tasks. These can feature you having to dodge around laser triggered explosives or navigating a sewer network, or in the case of many using the in-game browser to find information to get passed something. While they only turn up every ten or so quests, they do a good job of giving you a breather from combat and forcing you to do more than just think about what skills to use when. Though admittedly the combat quests themselves are a cut above average, the “we need you to kill five zombies” quests feel like an actual quest, not a chore you’re having to perform before getting to the proper quests. This is admittedly in part due to the cutscenes and atmosphere, but they also tend to be better laid out and planned than many similar variants found in other games.
The game’s biggest flaw is actually its graphical requirements and the game can be very taxing on computers, requiring the DirectX11 card to run and you can often find the game badly lagging when there is a lot of activity taking place. Or loading your character without hair, clothing or just making them invisible. At the same time, in spite of this, the game is fairly stable. At no point in running it off of my laptop did it crash or had frequent connection problems I’ve had with other MMOs such as DCUO.
Even with some of my personal gripes about MMOs present such as “collect/kill X number of items/monsters” missions there’s no denying this is a very well made title. If you’re looking for more of a story orientated MMO without it being so constraining as in The Old Republic, and can forgive a few of its flaws, The Secret World is a solid title. It won’t appeal to everyone but with the right mindset it can be a truly immersive world with strengths which far outweigh its flaws. It can be found here and is officially released on the 3rd of this month. If anything in this review has made it sound interesting to you, it’s strongly recommended you take a look.

The Secret World and all related characters and media are owned by Funcom.

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