Alright, I have made no qualms about the fact that I am excited about The Secret World. It is a game that has been on my radar for quite some time, and when pre-orders opened back in April, I immediately took advantage of the lifetime subscription option. So I was very excited to actually get my hands on the game and see if it was going to meet the expectations that I had for it. Overall I would have to say that it did... and it did not. As I said yesterday, I do not want my beta impressions to come off as the ravings of a fanboi. The game does have some shortcomings, and it will certainly not be for everyone. With all that in mind then, here is my "Three UP and Three DOWN" impressions of TSW based on this past weekend's beta.
UP- Character Development, Classless but not Roleless
I will say right off the top that I am a big fan of the way TSW approaches character development. There are no classes in the game. That is to say, you are never "locked" into a certain set of skills and abilities. Every weapon and every skill in the game can be learned by a single character. Now the biggest misconception that people have at this point is that this means that TSW is "roleless" as well, akin to what Guild Wars 2 is attempting to do (but doesn't really pull off, but that's a discussion for another time.) But this is not the case. In its group content, TSW still relies on the "Trinity" archetypes of tank, healer, and damage dealer. The ways these roles are performed are more "loose" than more standardized MMO's like World of Warcraft or RIFT but the roles do exist. So do not mistake the "open" development system for a non-trinity grouping mechanic.
This open system allows you to create basically any kind of character you want, and to change your combat abilities at will in order to meet new challenges. If you want to play a fireball slinging "mage," you can focus on those skills. The sky really is the limit, but you have to remain open to new possibilities. What I mean by that is, TSW's content is not easy. Even the "solo" missions will occasionally confront you with an enemy or a situation that will require you to use different skills and tactics to overcome it. This will be a turn off to some, but the answers are always available. You just have to think about your character and your capabilities in a different way than you are used to in most MMO's.
UP- Combat System
You have heard me talk before about combat "feel" in an MMO. There is just something about the flow, the pace, and the style of combat in a game like this. It is a difficult concept to put into words and for me, either a game has it or it doesn't. Well in my opinion TSW has it. The combat feels responsive, it feels fun, and it adds just enough of something "new" to differentiate it from its "hotbar/cooldown" brethren. There are over 500 abilities to be learned in TSW but your character can only use fourteen of these at any one time, seven active abilities and seven passive abilities. I love this in and of itself for two reasons. First, it forces you to think creatively about combinations of abilities and creating synergies. And second, you avoid the situation of having your screen totally overwhelmed with buttons and icons for abilities.
And going out and using those abilities is a blast. As I said, the combat just feels good. Like with Age of Conan, Funcom has tossed in a few extras here to add just a bit of spice to what might otherwise be fairly standard MMO combat. First off, enemies with special abilities will often lay out an area of effect for those abilities and give you time to evade it. If you can move out of the targeted area, you can avoid the attack. This is helpful in solo content, and vital in group content. And to assist with this, Funcom has included a "dodge" mechanic. Simply tap a directional key twice in succession and your character will dive/jump/roll in that direction. This ability has a cooldown so you can't just somersault your way through a fight, but it does allow you to evade those targeted attacks. Put it all together and TSW's combat does just enough things different to set itself apart and still "feel" fun.
UP- Atmosphere and Story
Star Wars: The Old Republic really upped the ante in terms of the stories being told in the MMO space. TSW is not that ambitious, but it does go above and beyond the average in setting the mood, creating a story, and giving you a reason to do many of the things you are doing. As with SW:TOR much of the quest-givers dialogue is voiced. Clicking on an NPC to start a quest almost always starts a cutscene where the NPC will give you some background or explanation for what you are about to do. However unlike SW:TOR these are not interactive scenes. Your character is always a "silent protagonist" and does not participate in the conversation. There are no branching dialogue options or any form of interaction. I think this strikes a good balance between SW:TOR's "story is everything" approach, and the typical MMO where every quest devolves into "skip the text, kill ten rats, repeat."
Along with the storytelling, the game also excels at setting the mood. Now I can only speak to the two zones that were open in this beta, but in both there is a definite sense of dread and foreboding. I won't go so far as to call it a "survival horror" mood like you might hope to find in a game like Resident Evil, but you definitely get the sense that you are in a place where things have gone horribly wrong. The lighting, the music, everything lends itself to a sense of the macabre and it does a good job of making you feel like you are in this world that they are trying to create.
DOWN- Missing Key Features
Ok as I said, I don't want to overlook the game's problems and it does have some. The first is that several key features of the game were still missing as of this test. Now I know, it is still in beta, but we are less than two weeks now from early access and exactly two weeks from launch. That is very late in the process to still have some very important features not implemented. Among these are guilds (or as TSW calls them, cabals), banks, and the auction house. These are not just "quality of life" features. They are necessities. No MMO should launch with these features not in place and if TSW were to do so, I would be the first to call them out for it, no matter how big a fan of the game I might be.
The fact that these features are not yet in the game for testing is a troubling sign. One might think that they would be fairly simple to implement, but my experience with other games would hint that is not the case. When RIFT put guild banks in there were some major issues with items being lost, entire banks being wiped out, etc. And anyone who has played SW:TOR can tell you what a mess using the AH in that game is. So what may appear simple on the surface is rarely that simple to implement. Can Funcom get these things into the game and functioning properly in less than two weeks? I don't know, but they had better.
DOWN- Performance Issues
Reports have been all across the board in terms of how TSW performs on various machines. People with amazing rigs report great performance, but others with similarly powerful machines claim major problems. And it is the same for minimal machines as well. Some say they can play just fine, others claim it is unplayable. All I can report here is my own experience and what I got was rather uneven. My CPU/GPU are no longer top of the line, but they are well above average, and certainly well above the recommended hardware for this game. Yet the client's performance was very inconsistent. I could not even identify specific situations or effects that would cause a slowdown. In some games I know heavy particle effects or shadows can give me trouble.
Which brings me to my other complaint on this issue... the video settings do not allow you to configure specific effects options like particle effects, shadows, etc. It just has a series of sliders with some vague descriptions of some graphical effects. Further, it says that if you alter the settings (ie. put one slider at say 4 and another at 2) that technical support will not assist you as you are not using a recommended "setting." Now in all fairness, that may just be a holdover of beta, I don't know. But the lack of flexibility and customization in the graphics options is another real problem in my opinion, especially for those at either the top or the bottom of the performance spectrum.
DOWN- Content Concerns
I would call this final issue a "provisional concern" because obviously not all the content was available in the beta, but what I did see left me concerned enough to make it an issue. TSW will launch with eight zones, two of which were open in this beta. I played heavily on Friday, quite a bit more on Saturday, and hardly at all on Sunday. In that time I easily finished all the content in the first zone (Kingsmouth) and made decent progress into the second zone (The Savage Coast.) I did not attempt either of the dungeons that were open in this beta. But altogether I still completed a significant amount of the available content in a fairly limited amount of playing time. Even broken into shorter sessions, completing the first zone in its entirety could easily be completed in a couple days.
Now there is no way to know if the unplayable zones in Egypt and Transylvania will be as easy to complete. There is no way to judge that at this point. That is why I called it a "provisional concern." In addition, Funcom has already said that while large group content (ie. raids) will not be available at launch, they will be coming soon after, and each current dungeon will have an "elite" setting as well. So there will be other options for content. I just have a feeling... the game will feel a little shallow at first. And I am afraid the "content locusts" are going to devour what is available inside of a couple weeks and take to the forums to declare they have nothing to do. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the later zones are much deeper, but right now I am concerned.
This game is not going to please everybody. Even the solo content will require a level of effort that is more than the casual MMO player will probably want to give, having been "spoiled" by the mindless leveling content of games like WoW and RIFT. The game is difficult. Random enemies you encounter in the course of average missions WILL kill you, sometimes with regularity. The first time it happened to me, my jaw literally dropped. I hadn't been "challenged" like that by MMO solo content since the original WoW. The lack of class and role structure will also turn some off. As I said, roles are present but the implementation is much looser, meaning you have to be willing to adapt. If your attitude is, "I am DEEPS and that is all," your usefulness to a group will be almost zero. You have to be willing to swap in a heal, or a snare, or a buff, or something to help overcome a particular boss or encounter.
But to me, that is all a good thing. Frankly I want this game to have a "niche" or cult following. I want it to have a small, loyal following. I'm tired of chasing the "next big thing." I don't want to be WoW or SW:TOR. I would rather be a part of a small, dedicated, and caring community than a part of a faceless mass just consuming content. So as long as it has enough players to be profitable, that's good enough for me.