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The beautiful vistas of The Secret World

Let’s have a break from the meaty posts about Free-to-Play games and the state of the MMO industry and spend some time admiring the subtle beauty of The Secret World instead. Here, have some downloadable shinies!

A tower in Shambala
Download “Shambala Tower” wallpaper [1920×1080]

The sweeping views of Shambala
Download “Shambala Vista” wallpaper [1920×1080]

Abandoned ferris wheel
Download “Ferris Wheel” wallpaper [1920×1080]

A quiet street in sleepy Kingsmouth
Download “Kingsmouth” wallpaper [1920×1080]

All images are taken from The Secret World, which is a registered trademark of Funcom Gmbh.

Investigation missions: The Secret World innovates

Working out an investigation mission in TSW

It’s been a long time since a game has made me take notes. Theorycrafting napkin maths, sure; spreadsheets of profit-and-loss and crafting recipes, well, they’re a given with me and MMOs. But actually taking notes? The last game I remember doing that with was Loom or Myst.

TSW’s investigation missions are a puzzler’s heaven, and break the mold of standard questing in a big way. They don’t follow preset formulae the way normal MMO quests do; you’re just given some information to find out, and the game leaves the rest up to you.

One investigation mission has you learning Morse code to translate an intercepted transmission so that you can reach the drop point. Another gives you mysterious conspiracy-theory style clues about Bible verses and times on a clock to lead you to hidden treasure. Some have ciphers, or clues based on nursery rhymes. Many require you to make friends with Google: not for spoilers, but for in-universe websites with hidden clues — there’s a web browser accessible within the game (your character is given a smartphone as part of their factional induction), because they know you’re going to need it. Unlike most MMO quests, completing an investigation mission isn’t just a case of “pick up all the clue macguffins; presto, quest complete”. Investigation missions in TSW say “here are (some of) the clues; now work out what answer they’re hinting at” — and leave the rest up to you.

In many ways, TSW’s investigation missions are reminiscent of ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, where subtle clues lead you on a treasure hunt across multiple websites and other media. Funcom employed several ARGs as part of TSW’s prelaunch marketing and community building, and it seems they don’t intend to drop that thread now.

It’s a really fascinating addition to an MMO, and it perfectly fits the flavour and atmosphere of The Secret World. I really look forward to the investigation missions, because they tax my ingenuity and imagination. Solving one doesn’t give you any idea of how to deal with the next, except by showing you how far afield you might have to search for your answers.

…The downside, of course, is that unlike most quests, an investigation mission isn’t repeatable — once you’ve done the legwork once, the second run-through isn’t a challenge.

Thankfully, Funcom is planning a monthly update schedule with regular injections of new mission content. The first update, Unleashed, went live this week with seven new missions — five of which were investigations. That’s a promising start, and I hope it becomes a trend.

TSW Issue 1 - Unleashed

How TSW and GW2 break the mold

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 1 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.

A typical vista in TSW

A typical vista in GW2

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”.)

A typical character in TSW

A typical character in GW2

(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.

A quest clue in TSW

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.

The character sheet overlay in TSW

The Hero screen in GW2

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.

Ice on the 'camera' in a GW2 fight.

Whether you prefer one or the other is, ultimately, a matter of taste. 2 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.

  1. Which downplays the fact that WoW itself had a lot in common with the previous genre juggernaut, Everquest; the MMO genre is very much iterative.
  2. Regardless of the behaviour of the GW2 fanboys who have been, for over a year now, derailing pretty much every discussion of other MMOs to tell you why GW2 will be the Best Video Game Ever. The GW2 fans made me extremely hostile to GW2 many months ago simply through their behaviour, and it was only the fun I had in an early beta weekend (with thanks to Dee of 6D for the beta key) that convinced me to order it.)

The Secret World’s hidden lore

In lieu of thinky content – and I do have a few thoughts I’ve been slowly baking into a post coming soon – I thought I’d post a few videos I uploaded to Youtube ten days ago.

I’ve been immersing myself in The Secret World, Funcom’s latest MMO, of late. It’s really pushing my buttons, and has quite an intricate background story hinted at both through the quests and through little snippets of story – lore objects – scattered throughout the world. These lore objects unlock explanatory information in your character’s Lore journal, slowly filling in the various stories of the people and places you’re encountering.

Most of the lore objects are in out-of-the-way locations but they’re fairly easy to find provided you’re methodical about exploring. A few in each zone, on the other hand, seem to have been placed purely to encourage people to tear their hair out in frustration.

Thus, I’ve made a few videos showing how to find these mysterious lore objects, and how to get to them once you’ve found them. These videos cover the hard-to-find and hard-to-get-to lore objects in New York, Seoul and London, the three factional hubs — all the other lore objects for these zones are (relatively) straightforward, but these were stumpers.

Read on for the video guides!