The Secret World Beta Weekend 4 – PvP and nerfs – why oh why?

The final beta weekend for The Secret World has now come and gone and it brought with it some great new features and some disheartening changes.

Firstly, this was pegged as the PvP beta weekend and it was indeed that.  PvP was opened for the first time for testing.  How did it stack up?  PvP seemed okay but was made less interesting by the huge number of  Templars dominating the battlegrounds – because characters were carried over from the first beta weekend Templars had a much larger presence in Fusang.  As a result gameplay boiled down to running around in a large group and zerging objectives and ganking stragglers from other teams.  I did see some promise in the combat systems when you found yourself one-on-one against a rival faction.  Dashes, interrupts, and ranged abilities seemed very important to gameplay.  Sadly ranged seemed to have a large advantage over melee at this point, but I’m sure that will be somewhat ironed out when people have had more time to create more diverse pvp builds.

On the whole PvP showed promise but wasn’t very well represented in this weekend.  I’m probably not one to pass final judgment on it, anyway, as I’m not a competitive PvP player.  From all I’ve read players who want to focus on PvP as the primary reason to play an MMO will probably be disappointed with TSW and should probably check out Guild Wars 2 which is focused around end game PvP.

Secondly, Funcom did a round of nerfs on the Hell Raised dungeon by making several of the bosses much easier.  This weekend was the first time I had run Hell Raised so I didn’t get to experience the harder form of the dungeon, but after hearing how brutal it was I felt very let down.  The nerfs to dungeons already, based upon people having difficulty with low quality gear and incomplete builds, doesn’t sit well with me.  I’m sure many are happy that Funcom has been receptive to player’s criticisms during the beta weekends and implemented many changes from that feedback – active dodging, combat animations and combat text, and dungeon difficulty all saw massive changes.  But I’m not.

I hate it when companies cave to forum pressure.  Because a loud vocal minority wants to complain and badmouth a game all originality of the product is subject to homogenization to whatever standard MMO fair that minority wants to embrace.  It’s easy to find faults in games, but that doesn’t make me feel that they need to be changed to fit my exact personal tastes.  Take Diablo III for instance – I went into that game finding a lot that displeased me but I was also open minded about it and found a lot to enjoy.  I’m going into The Secret World with the same mindset – not that I demand perfection but that I want to appreciate what someone else created.

If we all expect developers to cater to the majority, to only look at the bottom line and make games designed to have the broadest of general appeal, who then shall the developers please?  There will be only one game, iterated endlessly, if developers follow that path.  I was very happy with the difficulty and the eccentricities that The Secret World’s developers had given us.  I hope that uniqueness isn’t  scoured away by a group of consumers who can never be pleased.

Which brings me to a final thought:  the game is good.  Very good.  And while I don’t know if it will be a game that I will have a multi-year love affair with, a brief one is in order.  I’ve gone ahead and pre-ordered so I’ll be seeing whoever is online when early access opens on June 29th!

Dungeons – Fast and Fun in The Secret World

The 3rd Beta Weekend is finishing up now and I really enjoyed myself.  I wasn’t able to commit as much time as I’d have liked to all of the quests on The Savage Coast but I’m actually glad that more of the content will be fresh when the game launches in July (June 29 early access!). Because I wasn’t able to really deck out my toon in QL 5+ gear I didn’t step into the second dungeon.  I did run through the first dungeon two times and wanted to comment a bit on how I felt about it.   Firstly, Polaris was obviously an entry level dungeon.  It was challenging, but a lot of the challenge came from the players not having a strong understanding of what they were doing, not knowing what boss abilities to avoid, or not understanding how their class role would fit into the group.  Although I always looked for groups as dps I would invariably wind up tanking even though I had very low HP.  This made the dungeon artificially difficult, but still a lot of fun.  The design of this dungeon couldn’t be more different from that used by WoW.  There is virtually no trash, it feels very focused.  I talked to various people who said you could run it in under fifteen minutes with a geared out group who knew the encounters.  With a group learning the encounters the first time you’re probably going to need an hour or more, particularly if you have a handicap like not having a dedicated tank.  I enjoyed the brevity of the first instance – it clearly fit the design goals that Funcom has been espousing about dungeons.  Basically they’ve said they want instances to be very fast so you can log on for 30 minutes to an hour and get a lot done with friends without feeling the need to marathon dungeons/raids for 3+ hours.  I think the design of the first dungeon meets those guidelines well and I can imagine running the ‘heroic’ version when you’re decked in QL10 gear in just the same way.   Secondly, it guides players to learn mechanics as they move through the instance.  This is another design goal that Funcom has talked about in detail and they’ve done just what they said they would.  In Polaris the learning progression goes something like this:

  • First Boss: Electrified Water
  • Second Boss: Adds, Summoned AoE Cloud
  • Third Boss: Electrified Water, Electrified Crates, Adds, Boss Centered AoE explosions , Conic Smash
  • Fourth Boss: Adds, Column Blast attacks, Boss Centered AoE
  • Fifth Boss: Player Centered AoE explosions, Adds, Conic Smash, AoE Cloud
  • Sixth Boss: Conic Smash, Boss Centered AoE explosions, Player Centered AoE explosions, Channeled AoE breath attacks, Adds, Roots Players, Destructable Line of Sight Environment

Whew!  You don’t see many ‘tank and spank’ bosses in there!  The Fifth and Sixth bosses in particular have so much going on and so many mechanics to deal with you won’t be sleeping at your keyboard mashing the ‘1’ key.  Even though there is nothing hugely difficult about the first dungeon the encounters – particularly with the final boss – feel very creative.  The final boss required my first group to basically sit down and create a strategy for beating him with smart kiting and making use of cooldowns, and even then we barely eked by because of the soft enrage built into the encounter once all of the hiding spots are destroyed.

After playing the first dungeon I feel optimistic about the quality of the PvE content Funcom is bringing to the table.  Compared to other MMO’s I’ve played I can say this instance hits all the right notes: it’s challenging, rewarding, it has an aggressive pace, and it encourages just what MMO’s need: communication.  Keep up the good work, Funcom!

There should be at least one more beta weekend before the game releases in July but I’m torn between wanting to play further and wanting to save content for launch.  For anyone who is on the fence about the game be sure to take advantage of the final Beta on June 22nd-24th to give these dungeons a whirl!

The Secret World 

Making questing interesting again

The Secret World is doing a lot of things right for me and one of the biggest is how it’s dealing with quests which are called missions in TSW.  It doesn’t completely eschew the norms of the genre – we still have a journal and we still have waypoint markers for the majority of missions.  But the presentation is novel, as is the expectation for how players should be completing missions.

First, almost every mission has a voiced cinematic when you accept it.  You can skip these scenes if you want or if you’re repeating the mission.  These sequences are often vague but entertaining and serve to tell you more about the people you’re talking to and the location you’re exploring than the actual mission you’ll be undertaking.  A lot of people on the forums are actually complaining about this because they say it’s cryptic or doesn’t flow well.  But it’s actually a clever way to set up missions within the framework of a game world ruled by Secret Societies.  Because when you accept a mission in The Secret World you’re not working for the person who starts it – you’re working for your Society.

So take the Kingsmouth Church missions for instance.  You talk to Hawthorne and he tells you about his concerns about the walking dead and the protection of the church – but he doesn’t ASK you to do anything for him.  Instead the task that opens before you is one of investigation, and when it’s over you don’t tell Henry.  You text your Society.

Second, you’re very limited in the number of missions you can run concurrently.  This isn’t like World of Warcraft where you pick up 15 daily quests for a zone and then run in circles farming until they’re all done so you can drop them all off at once.  In TSW you’re limited to just seven active missions, of which three may be defined as ‘side’ missions.  These are usually started when you find objects in the environment between mission hubs.  The larger missions should lead you through the game world such that whenever you complete a task you’ll be in an area with more missions.

In the Savage Coast for instance you first zone in and you’re presented with two missions – a side mission to deliver a package to John Boone and a mission to wipe out some Draugh.  If you choose to go monster slaying first it leads you to the Overlook Hotel where you get quite a few missions and find the entrance to a dungeon.  Once you’ve thoroughly explored the Overlook you’ll be sent searching for more hell portals which leads you into town where you meet John Boone.  When you talk to John Boone he leads you to the Amusement Park, Innsmouth Academy, the northern woods.  These areas will lead you further yet to the lighthouse and other areas.

You’re always moving forward by this quest design.  Because you’re limited in how much you’re doing at once you can focus on each mission more closely.  This helps to bring the player an appreciation of the world the designers have created and the lore that is behind it – an appreciation they’ll need when clues to subsequent missions may depend on a bit of graffiti on a wall or a plaque on a bridge.

Third, the missions are just cool.  Sure there are quests where you have to kill 10 of x from time to time, but many of the missions are much less conventional than that.  For instance:  The League of Monster Slayers.

First we learn about some strangeness in the forest to the north, so we’d best go investigate.

And what do we find but a tree house in a very dangerous location!

So we’d best see if there are any children’s corpses up here or anything.

Instead we find an interesting initiation ‘ritual’ that points out some geography we might want to check out.  Several of these locations will have additional quests, and it’s just fun to see how accurate the children’s map is.

And it’s nice to have an excuse to check out the game’s beautiful environment graphics!

The “God Cave” turns out to be the entrance to the Agartha in the Savage Coast – quite a convenient discovery!  And it looks like I’m now a member of the League!  Sweet!  I still don’t know what the significance of 6-5-4-3-1-2 is.  I guess only time will tell.

And the best part of doing quests in TSW?  You’re not doing it to level up!  Sure you get AP and SP and loot to make your character stronger, but there’s a real sense that you’re doing the missions to see what there is to see.  After all, you could just as easily be grinding mobs or running dungeons (more on that later!).  Simply put, it’s an MMO with real content.  And that’s wonderful.

The Secret World Beta Weekend 3 – Dungeons to run!

Funcom will be hosting another beta weekend for The Secret World starting this friday with plenty of new content to explore:  the Savage Coast with its haunted amusement park and most importantly two dungeons!  I was pretty let down that we didn’t get to test the Polaris on the last weekend so I’m looking forward to this one – I’ve always been primarily a PvE 5 man player.  How these instances play will give some insight into how the coordinated PvE content of the game will shape up, but at the same time we must remember these are the two first dungeons so they probably won’t be too difficult.

Several MMO sites were given hands on with the second dungeon, Hell Raised and gave positive feedback – check it out at MMORPG.com and massively.joystiq.com!

Word on the street from all those NDA breakers is that there was a pretty big content patch on the closed beta and we should see slightly updated combat animations, character models, and significantly more wardrobe options – it is good to see Funcom responding to player’s desires.   Then again, I really liked the old floaty combat.  We’ll see how the newer sits with me!

Diablo III – progressive racism at its finest

Blizzard must have been messing with us, that’s all I can think to say. They made the iconic hero of Diablo black and the iconic villain ‘feminine’. They had to know what was coming – every internet racist/sexist on earth came out to complain that Blizzard had ruined the characters, the lore, and the game. Meanwhile white knights took to the forums to disparage these backward thinking individuals and point out how progressive Blizzard was in its choices and how the game would appeal to the black community. I agree with this sentiment, I was very pleased with all of the character models in the game – well, aside from Azmodan’s nipple rings. I’m a prude.

But then you look at the actual game. Blizzard goes out of its way to create a new race to be discriminated against – Goatmen. NPC’s refer to them as ‘beasts’ not worthy of human consideration, despite the fact they obviously possess a rudimentary civilization and are an indigenous people. The Templar espouses capital punishment, brainwashing, and unflinching moral absolutism. The scoundrel is a womanizer at best. And the main character is a loveless killing machine.

Bravo, Blizzard. Some of us got it.

vNES – a Nintendo Emulator for Windows Phone 7

Recently I tried out vNES light for Windows Phone 7 and was pleasantly surprised to find it supported most of the games I’d want to play on my phone with intuitive save states and syncing with Skydrive.  For me, I wanted an emulator so I could play old RPG’s on the go – Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy titles.

The good:

  • Easy setup and import of games – direct web download of .zip files
  • Saves states, up to 10 per title.
  • Play while holding the phone vertically or horizontally.
  • Automatic save state backup to Skydrive, as well as syncing a games folder from Skydrive
  • Performance options – optional frameskip and sound emulation

The bad:

  • Slowish performance on 1st gen (1.0Ghz) WP7 devices.  Sound emulation must be disabled to get reasonable framerates.
  • Picky controls – it’s an onscreen d-pad so this is somewhat expected.  I wouldn’t try to play Mario on it.
  • Some games don’t render properly or crash – Dragon Warrior 4 amongst them.  The author says he is working on mappers to support more games.
  • Ads!  The Pro version costs a whole 99 cents?!?

I’ve been having a blast with it – I just bought my full plate armor in Dragon Warrior and now I need to remember where to go.  Who needs new games when we have such great games from childhood?

Diablo III – Inferno Insanity

For the past two weeks I’ve been playing the MMO Single Player RPG that everyone loves to hate – Diablo III.  After logging about 50 hours on my Demon Hunter and getting to Act II in Inferno difficulty I’ve come to understand the game a bit more.

I had criticized the game’s story and presentation recently, but only after playing the game do I see that it was an irrelevant criticism.  The game isn’t about story, it’s about grind.  It’s about feeding your OCD to get the best of the best loot so you can get the best of the best loot.  Why didn’t I get it before now?  Well, back when Diablo II was running I was on a fabulous 14.4K modem with ancient phone lines, so Diablo II was a single player affair to me.  The multiplayer loot grind never really came into it – and why would it?  I could just use a hex editor to get whatever loot I wanted back then.  But Diablo III….well I can say it’s opened my eyes to what the franchise is and was.

I can’t say I’m entirely upset by what I found either.  Granted it’s a mind numbing grinding experience, but at the same time it’s quick and accessible.  There is no subscription fee.  I can log on for 20 minutes and breeze through hell difficulty or spend a longer amount of time (and many deaths!) for inferno loot, and I can play the auction house game to wind down.   It’s not perfect.  It’s extremely frustrating at times.  But it’s also a game that’s both fun casually and rewarding if you make the investment.  And it gives me an excuse to play with my old guildmates from WoW.

We’ll see if I feel so positive once I hit Act III/IV in inferno!