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The Secret World or The Bee’s Knees

August 9, 2012

You get your powers and your special snowflake status by swallowing a bee in your sleep. More or less sets the tone for the rest of the game.

No, I have not cravenly jumped ship. SW:TOR is still my MMO of choice, but after the heartbreak of F2P, The Secret World’s free weekend provided a little welcome distraction… and occasionally, a reminder of why I still like TOR.

Faction selection in TSW offers uptight eurotrash, the inscrutable Asian stereotype (based in Korea; Funcom knows how to butter the toast) and the American party animal. The more reputable dictionaries include a portrait of the present writer to augment their definitions of uptight eurotrash, so Templars it is.

Character customisation is limited to the character’s head and complexion and involves the standard MMO potato head. The complete lack of body customisation is made up for by an emphasis on clothing choices. Not my thing, really. I’ve never been a Sims man, and I’ve always been more interested in the physical features of RPG characters than what they’re wearing, but the chargen is serviceable overall.

My first thought as I entered the mock-up of London, with my hearing assaulted by the so-very-cockney flavour of cockney: this is an upmarket version of those Flash “MMOs,” like Rusty Hearts or something, with an emphasis on fluff and fashion on a lightweight frame of gameplay. This initial impression was catalysed partly by TSW’s slightly odd visual style wherein very good textures and models are combined with uninspiring, perfunctory animations. It was also quite wrong, because TSW’s combat system is pretty fun and well thought-out, as discussed below.

Anyway, the premise is that one is a member of one of the three secret societies, investigating, containing or exploiting paranormal, occult and otherwise extraordinary phenomena, in competition among themselves. After swallowing the bee (sorry, will never get tired of that), the player character somehow manages to attract the attention of a recruiter who presents the usual offer-you-can’t-refuse, and away we go. I suppose it would be unkind to wonder how the Templars, Dragons or Illuminati manage to get wind of the bee-gulper. The latter doesn’t really leave the flat, trashing it instead with bee-induced powers like they’re Leahblo on Day Two.

After an orientation in London, New York or Seoul and a brief introduction to combat via induced borrowed flashback (induced by street theatre, an injection from an old, wacky Jewish scientist or sexual encounter respectively and depending on faction) one selects one’s primary weapon and with it, one’s fighting style. Your trainers lie about the exclusivity of this choice, by the way – go back into the training hall immediately and pick up your second weapon. Actually, pick them all up.

The weapons – assault rifle, shotgun, pistols, blade, fist weapons, hammer, and three “focuses,” one type for each of three schools of magic – are the organising units of the game’s skill system. Each weapon is associated with two ability categories in the first tier. When all skills in both categories are mastered, one can access a second tier of six categories containing more specialist skills for that weapon. There are also three tiny non-weapon categories comprising generic utilities for tanks and healers and so on.

Skills are divided into active skills and passive skills. Seven of each are allowed to be equipped at a time, which forces interesting, difficult choices and encourages designing and saving different gear+loadout combinations (“decks”) for different situations. Passive skills sit there and enhance things, obviously. Either global things or by modifying how active skills work. Active skills, generally speaking, are divided into resource builders and resource consumers. Resources work like familiar combo points from other games. You hit something five times with a builder, get five resources, spend them with a consumer. It is desireable to work on mastering two weapons simultaneously, as you can hold two at once and attacks with one weapon’s builder skills build resources for both equipped weapons. So even if you’re using, say, pistols exclusively and dualling hammer school just for the crit passives, it is wise to have one hammer resource spender on your active bar because your pistol shots build hammer resources, too.

The skills are purchased with Action Points, which are what one gets for questing and killing. There is a secondary kind of point that is awarded at a similar rate and governs the quality of gear that one is allowed to put on.

And… that’s it for character advancement. The player is permitted to combine weapons as he pleases, and generally do stupid or oddball-but-working things with the category choices. The freedom to make stupid choices is the best kind of freedom and one of my most cherished rights as a gamer. Props go to any developer who is not afraid to grant me that freedom even at the risk that I will merrily bollix up my “gameplay experience” and blame them for it. Did I mention that there are no respecs in the game? There are no respecs in the game.

There are right choices to make, too, and for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time reading through all the skills and figuring out synergies Funcom offers suggestions of prearranged decks that are supposed to work well together. It is usually clever to combine abilities that are empowered by each other’s effects. For a simple example, one can equip a passive that adds a bleed effect (Afflicted is the TSW parlance for any DoT) to a blade AoE move, and combine it with an AoE move from another school that self-heals a little for every Afflicted target struck. Having a couple of skills that set a Weakened state and a couple that exploit Hindered, on the other hand, might be an objectively poor choice, unless they’re tied together by converting passives somehow.

Through this levelless free-wheeling system and the possibility of situational adjustment of skill decks, the game originally attempted to dilute the trinity. It failed. Tank, dps and healer builds are as alive as ever, though it is easier to fashion oneself into any role on the fly if one has the appropriate set of gear stashed away.

Returning to theme and questing, the mission classification system is needlessly restrictive and complicated. There are seven types of the things: main story quests, investigation, item-related, action, sabotage, PvP, group/dungeon. Only item quests can be taken in batches of three at a time. This is meant, presumably, to force the player to delectate the content slowly and attentively instead of running around optimising questing routes, and I suppose it works, but the annoyance factor is not worth it, imho. Yokai begs to differ and explains the system well here.

The missions themselves tend to be a bit over the top and wringing a little too much mileage out of whatever it is they concern. If you are anything like me then ‘yes, I get the point already’ will be a frequent visitor on your mental stage as the NPC gets on with another iteration of the haunted stare and the harrowing tale. It does not help that your character is mute throughout the interaction (trying to retain the bee in his mouth, no doubt) and no response options are given. I know I have been spoiled by SW:TOR’s excellence in this area, but there is something akin to Uncanny Valley at play here: the NPCs are close to acting realistically but they’re trying just a little too hard. The Templar agent handler avers that “this is not a Dan Brown paperback”; unfortunately, pre-empting an accusation in a hip, pop-referential way is not the same as putting oneself in the clear. A Dan Brown paperback is more or less exactly what it is.

On the bright side, there is an amusing novelty to many of the mission givers: they describe a questable paranormal situation and leave it there. “There is this haunted house/amusement park/sewer. Just saying.” Given what you are, it is obvious what you are going to do. Also, honourable mention must be given to the crown jewel of TSW questing: the puzzles. The best of these do actually give one the sense of being an occult investigator. A few actually require googling, which feels weird and like cheating until you come across things like a burst Morse code audio transmission that would be impossible to decipher by ear for a non-professional. However, it does feel very good when one’s general learning or out-of-the-box thinking actually cracks a tough one without aid.

I have not had enough experience with the game’s dungeons to say much of worth, though I did tank the first dungeon without much of a hitch. Quick, very little trash, mostly bosses presenting variants on the dance – move out of this, drag boss into that, pick up adds. Not particularly innovative, but decent enough. Hostile area effects are marked very accurately by white lines on the ground, so the only explanation for staying in the bad is personal derp, of which I fortunately possess a generous supply.

Similarly, I have stayed away from PvP. Everything I read about it suggested a gib-fest, and I think I might be getting too old and comfortable to relive the WoW Season 8 Wizardcleave Experience.

The game is still subcription-based, and the box is a little expensive for what it offers, but it has a functional points-based cash shop, mostly with pets and clothes. The infrastructure is in place for a seamless transition to an F2P model, which is probably what will happen, not least because Funcom has acquired plenty of experience with it through their stewardship of Age of Conan. I’m slowly letting go of subscription elitism and coming around to the view that this model can work all right.

Categories: Other MMOs