or, “Where Were You in 2010 When I Needed You, TSW and GW2?”
I think it’s fair to say that most of the major MMOs released since 2004 have a lot more in common than not. These days, they’re popularly called WoW Clones but whether or not you appreciate the name, it’s hard to argue with the opinion that most of the last eight years’ worth of western big-budget MMOs have been more similar than different. WoW (and Everquest II); LotRO; Age of Conan; Warhammer Online; RIFT; Star Wars: the Old Republic — all of them feature similar world and quest design, character progression principles, and fundamental gameplay concepts. They all have unique features, of course — Warhammer’s PVP, RIFT’s soul system and world events; SWTOR’s companions and fully animated quest dialogue — but ultimately, if you’re familiar with one, you can pick another up and feel right at home very very quickly.
Obviously, this poses a problem for people who are looking for something different, and most of the MMOs above have been strongly criticised for not venturing far outside WoW’s well-worn territory. A few games have diverged from this path, but until now they’ve struggled to compete. SOE’s DC Universe Online was plagued with problems (and severely hampered by its nature as a console port) before the PSN hack took all SOE MMOs down for a month; Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons was widely criticised for the gameplay style that resulted from staying true to the pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.
And now, after years of all-but-identical choices in different wrappers, 2012 is bringing us not one but two very different high-profile MMORPGs — The Secret World is out now, and Guild Wars 2 is due in August. I’ve played in the beta weekends for both games, and am actively playing The Secret World at the moment, and I’ve been really struck by how they’re both substantially more different from the Generic WoW-Clone game than most previous big-budget MMOs, and how they’ve gone in completely different directions to achieve this.
Both are themepark, rather than sandbox, MMOs – in the sense that the gameplay is primarily objective-based rather than open-ended, the worlds are fixed and players can’t add their own buildings or alter their territory, and there’s no player-generated content. Both embrace the new model of limited character toolbars – instead of the 30-50 button toolbars common to WoW-esque MMORPGs, TSW limits you to seven choices, and GW2 to ten. But that’s where the similarities end.
TSW is a gritty, “realistic” urban fantasy/horror game. GW2 is a hyper-stylised, medievalish high-fantasy game.
TSW’s characters look approximately like real-world people. GW2’s characters … don’t. (If one wants to be charitable, one could describe them as “hyper-stylised” or “artificially beautiful”.)
(For that matter, TSW limits you to playing humans, which makes sense given the setting; GW2 offers you the choice of five races – humans, big humans, nature-oriented non-humans, science-and-technology small non-humans, and animalistic non-humans.)
TSW follows the “kill ten rats” model of questing fairly closely, but structures the quests to flow like a story instead of giving you a quest hub to steamroll at a time (and adds very nifty investigation missions, but more on those another time). GW2 has little overt “kill ten rats” style questing, instead placing their objectives within a framework of dynamic events and “hearts” (that is, a model where local questgivers just want you to help with any combination of tasks, although the tasks themselves are fairly typical MMO fare).
TSW uses a classless, skill-based character progression system, where GW2 sticks to eight fairly typical classes that define what your character can do.
TSW sticks to the tank/healer/DPS “holy trinity” of role balance, although its skill-based system allows a lot of flexibility; GW2 has done away with the classic trinity and differentiates character roles as DPS, support or control.
TSW gives you information immersively – one quest clue might look like scribbles on a napkin, where another will be a page from a phonebook.
By comparison, GW2’s interface is very homogenous. TSW tries to be transparent and immersive — it gives you all the information you need in an in-game context, and you even report quest success (and receive new missions) via your character’s mobile phone. GW2, on the other hand, shows you its mechanics up-front; the interface is themed appropriately for the setting, but it’s much more intrusive and chromey, and ultimately GW2 never lets you forget that you’re playing a game.
Even in-game action in GW2 breaks the fourth wall, with crackles of ice or splashes of water on the ‘camera’ – reminding you that there’s a barrier between you and the action.
Whether you prefer one or the other is, ultimately, a matter of taste. I can point to a lot of things I love about TSW to explain why I’m having so much fun in it. I’m a little less certain about what it is about GW2 that appeals to me so much, but I know I’m definitely looking forward to August. I’m just constantly surprised at how they’ve both – successfully – solved the problem of differentiating themselves from WoW in such different ways.