The Secret World: Do I have the energy to do this all again?

One of the best perks of my job at Massively OP is that every so often I get to interview MMO developers directly and ask them any old thing that pops into my mind (I do prep beforehand, of course). For an MMO player, it’s a treat to have this direct line to a developer, even if for a short period of time.

You might have seen that last week I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the guys in charge of The Secret World and ask them some point-blank questions about the game’s transition to Secret World Legends. Ever since the announcement was first made, I found myself waving my arms and sputtering in frustration and anxiety over all of this. I didn’t find Funcom’s initial round of interviews satisfying, so it was great to have this chance to dig into this decision. When you genuinely care about a game, you are concerned about its future and want honest answers instead of fluff. That’s what I was after.

You can tell me how well it all came off. I didn’t get to every question I had and there were a few topics that the team danced around (such as how they’re going to make money with F2P, which wasn’t answered to my satisfaction in retrospect). But at least it was good to hear about the process behind this decision, the rationale for the move, and the thought that was going into some of these decisions. I may not agree with all of them — I think the reticle combat is a dumb idea that nobody was asking for — but I appreciated the responses. TSW just wasn’t making money and the studio feels that this is the only way to avoid shuttering it and to keep the stories coming. It’s a weird pill to swallow.

And the question for me is, will I swallow it? As I told them, I’m a weird mixture of anxiety and excitement over this relaunch, but the anxiety is definitely winning. I’m seriously worried about all of this, about how this decision affects their core playerbase and how the new game will handle. If it doesn’t work, then this will be the end of Secret World in any incarnation; Funcom isn’t going to pay for Season 2.

But excitement? Sure, there’s a bit. It’ll be nice to see a spotlight back on this game (although the timing is terrible, as June is already packed with big MMO expansion releases). If the game looks, performs, and plays better, then wonderful. And I was pretty geeked to hear that we will be seeing a development roadmap soon for post-launch plans, including an AEGIS rework (yay) and the next chapter of the game’s saga.

I’ll play it, I know I will, but there’s part of me that is intimately familiar with the mountain of content that I’ve gone through — twice — and quails at thinking of having to do it all over again, build up a whole new character, just to get back to where I was. It’s the price that all TSW vets are going to have to pay to see what comes next, and I’m sure for some, it’s a dealbreaker.

Then again, I’m Mr. Altoholic, so maybe I can get into a mental space to think of this as just another one of my alts. I miss my shotgun build, so I’ll definitely be going back to that and the Templars, and maybe I’ll start shopping for a cabal come June. There’s some time left, after all.

Oh, and I also want to hear some details about what subscribers/grandmasters are going to be getting, since I have a $150 package invested into this game. Hard to walk away from that, too.

7 MMO cosmetic wardrobe systems, ranked

Here’s a little thought exercise I’ve been going through lately after having a discussion about cosmetic systems on the MOP podcast. We had been asked which was the best MMO wardrobe system, which I initially thought was an easy answer… and then, long after the podcast was done, started to revise my response. Ultimately, I asked myself how I would rank the systems present in the MMOs I’ve played the most in the last, oh, five years or so, and this is what I came up with going from best to worst.

WildStar

There’s a lot of factors that go into a truly great cosmetic wardrobe system, and believe it or not, WildStar checks off most of those boxes. It’s got great armor design, plenty of cosmetic pieces, a system that remembers loot you’ve collected, multiple outfit slots, two dye channels, fun dyes, and an accessible system (which is a change from launch, which required you to talk to a specific NPC). I adored being able to create and wear different outfits based on my mood, and I was often torn on which one I liked the best because they were all pretty awesome. WildStar usually get a lot of props for its housing, but I think its wardrobe deserves praise too.

Guild Wars 2

Initially I had put Guild Wars 2 at the top, but upon further reflection, I had to acknowledge that there are two big flaws with its wardrobe system: It makes you pay to change individual slots (via transmutation charges) and it doesn’t allow for multiple saved outfits. Apart from that, it’s pretty brilliant, with several dye channels, loads of colors, expressive pieces, and all the buttflaps you can stomach. Finding and obtaining skins is an enjoyable metagame for GW2, that’s for sure.

RIFT

On paper, RIFT has almost the full package. It remembers skins, has multiple outfit slots, is ridiculously easy to use, involves weird cosmetics, and so on. Other than the dye cash shop and the smaller color range, I’d say it was almost perfect… except that I just don’t like about 90% of RIFT’s armor designs. They’re not bad, per se, just not what I want to be trouncing around in, and there are strangely few store outfits that even slightly tempt me to purchase. Probably shouldn’t complain; better armor art and I might have gone broke.

The Secret World

TSW’s strength in cosmetics is that it’s a rare MMO that uses modern outfits rather than fantasy/sci-fi ones (for the most part) and is thus a fashion that is more identifiable to players. People in TSW just adore dressing up their characters, sometimes the more outrageous, the better. Wonderful array of choices are offset only by a lack of dyeable outfits (although some pieces come in multiple colors) and no multiple outfit saves. It’s nice that there is a convoluted fashion to even equip cosmetic weapons, but it really should’ve been more like the regular outfits in accessibility.

Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO sits squat in the middle of this list with plenty of strengths but plenty of weaknesses as well. On the plus side, it’s another MMO with a community that does a lot of dressing up, and the game has done a lot to make this as robust as possible. Dyes, multiple outfits, varied designs, cosmetic weapons, etc. But on the minus side, the wardrobe itself is a little creaky and unfriendly, especially when compared to how many MMOs these days are saving EVERY new design whereas LOTRO has a hard limit. And you have to manage it by hand. Plus, the dyes aren’t that great, with only one color channel for (most) pieces and the dyeable area often being small.

World of Warcraft

For a major MMORPG, World of Warcraft suffers from a kind of lackluster system. Admittedly, the fact that it has one and it’s gradually improved is far better than launch, but seriously, transmog is pretty sad when you compare it to the field. No dyes, no multiple outfits (I’m not really that keen on just changing gear’s appearance rather than having a separate and toggleable cosmetic outfit), no way to do it on the fly, new gear overriding older transmog looks and requiring more money for new transmogs, and no quick check boxes to turn off helms and capes is all in dire need of addressing. To its credit, WoW has fabulous and fun armor design, which goes a long way to smoothing over the issues presented here.

Star Trek Online

Let’s throw in a couple of Cryptic efforts to be well-rounded. STO never really impressed me with its outfits. Sure, you could mix-and-match uniform elements, there were some (but not many) colors, and you had a small handful of outfit slots. But generally you aren’t collecting new looks while you play (most uniforms are simply bought through the store), and the interface is a little unwieldy. Sometimes it’s just more interesting to let your gear do the visuals for you, since they can be more detailed and futuristic.

Neverwinter

At the bottom of the barrel, Neverwinter does the absolute bare minimum to qualify as an MMO with a cosmetic system while making it as unfun as possible. Two cosmetic-only slots for specific items, no thank you. It’s a system that you learn about in the tutorial and then promptly forget going forward.

Now I know that there are plenty of other MMOs out there with great wardrobe systems, like EverQuest II, but I wanted to rank ones from games that I was most familiar.

The Secret World’s combat is not fine — and it probably won’t be, either

Readers of Bio Break know that when it comes to The Secret World’s combat system, I have often been quite disparaging about it. It’s functional without the fun, a system that I have forced myself to make a certain peace with because I love the rest of the game itself. It’s just never been enjoyable to take on mobs in a way that I have in other MMOs, and I have no qualms putting TSW toward the bottom of a list ranking MMO combat systems.

As you may have seen from reading some of the comments on my TSW posts, there is an ardent defender of TSW’s combat out there: Tyler of Superior Realities. Now I want to preface this by saying that I really do like Tyler, I read his blog all of the time, and I’ve never had a problem with him providing devil’s advocate comments about the combat system here on the blog. But after reading his post this week stating that The Secret World’s combat is “fine,” I felt a rebuttal welling up and wanted to get it out there (but in all fairness, please go read his piece first).

It’s not just Tyler. There seems to be a sect of players that don’t merely appreciate and enjoy TSW’s combat but also feel affronted at all of the criticism that has been thrown against the system to the point of rising in defense whenever it is mentioned. And as there has been a whole lot of criticism, it’s been a neverending crusade to convince people that they’re actually wrong — the combat is fine, they just don’t understand it or their criticisms are invalid. Or that they’re part of a weird conspiracy against Funcom to slander the company/game and they never liked TSW to begin with.

Frankly, I kind of find it silly to try to convince someone what what they dislike is something they actually should like, especially when it comes to games. Subjective experiences and feelings are not something that you can debate with other people. I subjectively like key lime pie and you subjectively hate it, there’s no right or wrong here unless you can take it to an objective level. There can be reasons behind your subjective judgment, particularly when it comes to a leisure activity. When hobbies are designed to entertain us, then it stands to reason that some of that entertainment is not going to fit everyone’s whims and needs and tastes.

Video games have a feel to each of them as part of the design, and if that feel is off, players know it. They may not be able to put an exact finger on it like some seasoned critics do, but they can tell when a character doesn’t control right, when camera angles are off, when there is no solid visual and audible feedback on skills, when there is lag, when rotations don’t flow, and so on. It’s why polish and testing is so essential to getting this feel right. And MMOs have not had the best of track records on polish, particularly the further back you go in time. We played the games despite the janky controls and obtuse systems because there were other elements we really liked about them.

World of Warcraft’s accomplishment was making a game that played and felt good right down to the individual elements of movement, combat, and UI. Even today, it’s a tight, responsive game with enjoyable skills and fun combat. WildStar had terrific movement animation and controls. Guild Wars 2 paid extra careful attention to stances and fluid combat animations. It’s gotten better, generally, even in older MMOs that have been brought up to modern standards.

But let’s be honest here: a lot of people very much did not enjoy The Secret World’s combat from the beginning through today. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s an oft-cited reason why otherwise interested players rejected the game. In the Massively OP office, we have MJ who is netural-to-approving about the combat, me who is mildly disapproving of the combat, and at least three other staffers who gave up on the game citing the combat specifically. When Secret World Legends was announced, we saw a lot of resurgence of interest for the game, particularly at the mention of a combat revamp. Just lightly perusing our leaderboard poll and announcement post, I see comments like:

  • I could not stand the combat. It was too boring.
  • If they fixed the boring combat I may consider coming back. I just do not enjoy the combat in that game at all!
  • I’m also worried about the combat system. Sure I’d like it to feel more fluid and dynamic, but that’s a function of a clunky engine than the ability wheel design.
  • If the combat and graphics gets an overhaul, then I’ll give it a go.
  • There was nothing wrong with the game what so ever other than the clunky combat.
  • I own The Secret World and may well contemplate returning to the game, as long as they overhaul the combat. As it stands at the moment it is the most tedious and unenjoyable I have encountered in a MMO.
  • All depends if they scrap that godawful combat system and totally replace the whole thing with something better, or if they just band-aid it.
  • I think I’ve said this every time I’ve posted about TSW… tried playing this many times, love the story/lore/puzzles, lacklustre combat drives me away every time.
  • Movement, combat and animation is disjointed and clunky now. I’m not certain they can bring it up to minimal standards.
  • Updated combat system with hopefully a little bit more twitch, and better animations will bring me right back to TSW.
  • Story could go on, and all the goodness that is TSW, but it would never be a great game because of the clunky animations and combat.

So many of these posts don’t have a tone of “screw TSW, I hate that game!” but rather “It’s a shame, I wanted to like it, but this particular system turned me off of it.” And that’s what I’ve been hearing and even saying over the past five years. Objectively, there are players who do not like this system and have elevated it as one of the biggest problems the game has. Whether you like TSW’s combat or not, it’s hard to bend over backwards to ignore that this is an issue and has been for a while.

Tyler’s post goes on to speculate that the problem comes not from the mechanics but more the ability wheel and build system. I disagree; I love the ability wheel, and while it might be a little complex at first, I’ve almost never seen someone cite it as one of the problems of the combat system. Rather, a slew of slightly-to-severely off elements are fingered: animations, “floatiness,” time-to-kill, lack of solid-feeling/sounding abilities, lackluster mob reaction, and the incredibly tedious builder/finisher spamming. The sum of which is a combat system that isn’t polished and doesn’t feel right at all to many players.

Here’s where Tyler and I come back in agreement. We both obviously love the game, want to keep playing it, and want the best possible future for it. We would love to have more people come into the game and enjoy it. We like having the freedom to build your own character and adjust to combat challenges with different builds. And we are a little nervous about what Funcom is doing to the combat in Secret World Legends.

From what little I saw on the dev livestream, SWL is skewing more to a Neverwinter-style of reticle action combat. Now, Neverwinter’s combat is quite decent, but it’s much further along the spectrum toward action combat than tab-targeting. TSW tried to straddle that spectrum to mixed results, and I’ve always felt its combat would have been so much better as tab-targeting, especially considering that the game skewed more to the “thinking/strategic” gamer than the twitch-heavy action junkie. From what little I saw, the combat isn’t that much improved or different, save for that they got rid of the double-tap to dodge (er, why?) and they’re adding overheating mechanics. Oh, and apparently shotguns are super-complex for reasons unbeknownst to me.

As I’ve proved by playing TSW for five years, bad combat isn’t a deal-breaker, but I was sincerely hoping that it would be getting better with a relaunch. I’ve got to get my hands on it to see how it feels and to see how the UI changes help to explain the mix-and-match build system, but I haven’t seen or heard anything right now that gives me great hope in this regard. If not done right, as with much of this relaunch, it could both drive away the faithful and fail to attract a whole new crowd. Let’s just say that if it makes both Tyler and I grumpy, then it won’t be a good sign at all. We shall see.

The Secret World: Follow that bird! (Besieged Farmlands #12)

(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

Mortal Sins (main story mission)

Now that all of Besieged Farmlands’ missions are behind us — including, thank God, Cost of Magic — all that remains is to scoot through the main story mission. For the life of me, I have no idea what’s going on. I would assume that the devs figured that most players would weave the main story with all of the other missions, using that overarching storyline as a kind of breadcrumb prompt. Maybe some would do it first up and some wait like me to do it at the end, but there’s no one set way. I think it’s a lot easier to do these main story missions at the end of the zone because you already are intimately familiar with the terrain and people.

It all begins with a directive to find an owl — which I already know is Cucuvea — and follow her from the village to her treehouse. She yammers on again about how “Lilith’s children are gathering,” which I try to tell her happens every year at Burning Man, but she ain’t listening. I deeply appreciate how she picks a path that boldly plows through all manner of bad guys.

In fact, I had something humorous happen, which was that the moment I got to the tree, it triggered a cutscene… but my character was still under attack. So as the cutscene is progressing, I’m seeing my character flinch from phantom blows, blood spurting everywhere, and Cucuvea just going on with her monologue. Of course, I died (in a freaking cutscene), which is the fifth cheesiest way to die in an MMORPG.

Anyway, since I died, I missed the rest of the cutscene and there was no way to replay it. So I simply followed the next direction, which was to go look for the girl with the spyglass and the WORST QUEST EVER.

NOBODY LIKES YOU.

Anyway, after she talks a little bit about Transylvania, she breadcrumbs me right to the Shadowy Forest, which means that after this extremely brief bit of the main story, we’re done with the zone. Huh. Thought there was more to it then that. Let’s go meet Dracula, shall we?

Secret Adventures: The owls are not what they seem (Besieged Farmlands #11)

(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

Sacred Protection (side mission)

There’s a figurative light at the end of the tunnel for this zone! I’m only a few handful of missions away from finishing up Besieged Farmlands, which has taken me about two months longer than I had originally hoped.

Anyway, there’s this vampire camp that is also populated by werewolves, although it seems like the wolves are the vamps’ slaves. It’s there that I stumble upon some sort of Christian relic, and in the name of scientific inquiry, I go sticking it in the faces of the different species of bad guys to see what happens. Actually, I don’t see much of anything that really happens, but I guess it must’ve been sufficiently holy because the final step is to jog over to the church and put it on the altar for additional protection. At least I’m leaving this area having made a couple of places safer than they were originally.

The Gathering (action mission)

Before I finally wrap up the zone with the main storyline, I only have some missions around Cucuvea. She’s an incredibly ancient woman who, among other things, has lived at least back in to the third age, can turn into an owl, and is pitting herself against the forces of Lilith and the Vampire Queen. She’s also an awesomely doddering old lady who keeps trying to figure out technology, like computers and cameras.

Make no mistake — this is one of the big generals for the forces of good in the Secret World, and so it’s nice to take orders from someone not 100% selfish. She notes that due to the circumstances, Lilith’s children (the vamps and werewolfs) have all gathered together in a fairly concentrated spot, making them a prime target for a preemptive strike. And strike I shall!

What follows is one of the more difficult action missions, slowly weaving up into a sprawling enemy camp on the ridge that has high mob density, sharpshooters, and a few leaders. The leader fights are really wicked, as several adds spawn in when you attack. I kept managing to kill the leader but then would die soon after to the spawns, then have to figure out how to run back in anima form (which is a headache because you can’t really see where you’re going).

It was only on the very last fight that I thought to open my inventory and check out what I had there. Lo and behold, I had a few apples and crystals from Cucuvea. The apples would heal me up and the crystals did powerful AoE damage, both of which would have been of immense use before. But at least they helped me now, because there was no way I was going to finish that final boss fight on my own.

In a mission post-script, Geary notes that she has some respect and awe for Cucuvea due to how little we know of her. That’s a recommendation right there for you.

Deathless (action mission)

There’s a new threat that needs to be contained, a group of spirit-cultists called the Deathless. I don’t recall doing this mission originally or ever seeing these mobs in the game before or since, so I’m wondering if they’re a weird one-shot foe. In any case, Cucuvea says that the whole explosion in Tokyo sent problems (and Filth) all over the world, and the Deathless are somehow connected. Enough of a reason to wipe them out, I guess.

I am really puzzled why they didn’t reuse these assets, because the Deathless are an intriguing group. They’re pretty wicked in the looks department, with cut and bloodied robes and messed-up hands underneath. My only qualm with them is that most of these mobs enjoy locking you out of your skills at least once a fight, which is exactly as fun as it sounds.

As this very long, very hard mission progresses, eventually you get transformed (for some reason) into a Deathless yourself. It’s not really an advantage at all, since this cuts you down to only three skills and fails to, say, make you much stronger as a trade-off. Lots of carefully orchestrated fights as I pushed further into the ruins of a monastery to eventually take down the leader.

No-Hope Chest (side mission)

In the ruins is a chest containing… nothing. But nearby is a camera showing a Filth-covered artifact and a Deathless hovering above it, suggesting a connection between the two. A wallet a little bit away tells me that this all belongs to the brother of the one French girl, which means that this is where he stole the artifact to try to sell it off before his untimely end. Was it worth it, mon frere?

The Secret World: Super-sized windmill (Besieged Farmlands #10)

were

(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

Lycantrophy (side mission)

I think I’ve mentioned already how unimpressed I am at The Secret World’s stock werewolf models as I am impressed at the vampire ones. It just seems like the team could’ve been a little more creative with the doggies, but as they are, they could fit in well with many other MMO versions of the lycanthropes. I guess I’m being picky.

This mission, which comes from a hunting poster on a tunnel wall, is merely a breadcrumb mission to funnel players into the Shadowy Forest. I’m not quite there yet, but I’ll duck in to turn in a few werewolf ears. I collect a LOT of body parts in this game. I think I’m the stuff of nightmares that children fear.

wind

Revenge Served Hot (action mission)

I’ve always found the windmill in this zone to be one of TSW’s more striking visual landmarks. It’s this giant, oversized, ramshackle windmill that sticks up from the landscape like some demented haunted farm feature. And yet it’s the refuge of two visitors under siege — two friends who are mourning the loss of both a brother and a boyfriend (same person) while fending off werewolf attacks.

But the question is, why were the three of them here in Transylvania in the first place? The girlfriend says that they were here to take in the local sights and be all touristy, but I’m not buying it. There’s more going on here than she knows.

den

Yeah, this place screams, “Come inside! We’re friendly and have cake to share!”

Following the backtrail of the dead man, a new and fuller story emerges. He had come into the possession of an artifact and was coming to Romania to sell it… only the werewolves attacked, dragged him into a Filth-infested den, and bad things happened after that. The buyer sent in a team to get it (Purples?), but they all got infected, and we learn an important lesson in Letting Things Go.

The bulk of this mission takes place inside of a werewolf den that’s crawling (walking?) with very, very tough mobs. They con straight-up black to me, and while I could manage one or two at a time, it was a close thing every encounter. In the end, I take out a dozen or so wolves — and the artifact, with Geary said was a good move.

blaj

Herbal Essence (side mission)

Deep inside that horrible werewolf den is a very dead Blajini, who was out looking for some mushrooms. I mean, if you’re going to die for something, mushrooms are as noble as it gets, right? No regrets in your life, little dude?

I finish up his shopping list, getting the ‘shrooms and some lily pads to boot, and then bring back these herbs to Cucuvea, which we’ve yet to meet in this series. But we shall, and hopefully then this shopping list — which already claimed the life of one innocent — will show its purpose.

The Girls Who Cried Wolf (action mission)

This mission has perhaps one of my all-time favorite opening cutscenes of any Secret World mission. As I’m talking to the first girl about how magical the windmill is and how vicious pretty girls in distress can be, the other French girl is wailing away in the background against an onslaught of werewolves.

I mean, it’s downright comical how calm and tranquil the foreground conversation is while she’s serving up a gore-splattered horror fest back there. Chainsaws, decapitations, fountains of blood, etc. At least she’s working out her anger issues about the death of her brother.

At first I thought that this mission was merely another “go here and kill a crapton of werewolves” bit, albeit somewhat easier than the previous one. However, it soon took an unexpected turn, as I encounter a lot of (naturally dead) Orochi in the area. Why didn’t I start a counter back at the beginning of this whole series to count how many dead Orochi are in this game? That would’ve been awesome. Anyway, lots of dead Orochi who apparently removed some ward stones from the windmill — which is, as you might think, much more than a bizarre giant monument.

Turns out that this structure has been built on top of an anima well, made to be some sort of sanctuary by a “Dutchman” for the good fae and nice people of the forest. Since the removal of the wards, the werewolves have started to encroach and an evil spirit lurks in the windmill’s cave, but restoring the wards and shooting evil in the face a few hundred times put a quick stop to that.

Hopefully, this means the French girls are safe for now. Never get much resolution with most NPCs in this game, alas.