My planned return to EQ2 will not happen properly until I’m back from a work trip in October so for the weeks left in between my partner and I have decided to give Secret World a spin. We’ve played one session so far but by happy coincidence our SWTOR friend was available as well so we ran around as a trio for part of the time.
The TL:DR; summary is that the game offers a lot of tantalizing hints of deep story, complex mechanics (without levels!) and what appears to be lots of flexibility to the grouping experience.
Having created a character each in the character creator we were ready to jump into our chosen faction’s (Templar) tutorial zone. The only issue with the creator that we encountered was the problems finding a nickname that isn’t already taken. This is the shorthand name for your character and has to be unique on the server – even some of my very obscure celtic names were already gone. It also posed a slight creativity challenge as we’re so used to making fantasy characters that finding something more appropriate to near-future London was quite challenging!
The tutorial zone is shared but some of the instanced mini-missions are solo only. Not a big problem and to be expected I suppose but the confusing ‘play as other character’ sequence was reminiscent of the baffling tutorial for Tera – throwing players in at the deep end with a set of unfamiliar abilities and tough fights may not be the best first impression to give…
We completed the tutorial missions quickly enough and moved on to the first proper zone of Kingsmouth. By the time our leveling-trio friend had come online we’d also done all the initial missions from the guy by the Agartha gate (loving this lore-appropriate excuse for rapid travel!). So we joined up as a trio at the police station and carried on exploring from there. It soon became clear that this MMORPG has a somewhat unique and very positive take on group play. The lack of levels means you can play together without artificial restriction – the only mechanical issue I noticed was that as a newly minted tank I had trouble keeping aggro from our friend’s similar tank/dps hybrid because his character has more APs spent to upgrade abilities. I doubt this will be an issue longer-term.
The cut-scenes so far do an excellent job of introducing the plot and specific missions and NPCs. The solo-together nature of them does lead to some confusion if you’re not very coordinated via party chat or voice comms though (e.g. lots of “have you taken this mission yet”?) – we have been spoiled by SWTOR’s strict synchronisation of such cut scenes as it’s makes for a more seamless group experience. That said I really like that the game has cut-scenes at all and certainly the quality is way above Neverwinter’s ‘talking zombie’ dialogues.
Missions come in different types and you can only have one ‘main mission’ active at a time, if you take a second one the other becomes inactive. That’s an interesting structure – it appears at first glance to encourage you to slow down and spend more time in a given zone. I’ll definitely come back to this topic with more thoughts after playing some more. There are other reasons to explore the zones properly as you find side-missions out in the field (max of three active at a time) and you can find lore objects to add to a growing story-narrative. At least some of the missions can be repeated and that’s actually a genius decision by the devs. It means our friend’s character can rerun missions with us despite having completed them and still earn money and XP rewards. This meant a seamless grouping experience and also means we don’t have to keep separate characters for trio leveling – we can just play these characters as a duo or trio ad hoc with the only important consideration being the progress through the zone storyline which we’ll probably want to keep roughly in-sync.
I was a bit concerned about the combat going into this as I’ve read some criticisms of the responsiveness of abilities and the feel of combat in general. So far, playing only with sword and pistol abilities, I’m liking the feel of combat and the pacing of fights. We’ve fought a goodly amount of zombie-trash that as a trio we can annihilate very quickly. There are also some tougher fights that benefit from some coordination and proper ‘trinity’ gameplay. Combat seems to be responsive enough and the ability animations are nice and distinctive.
Perhaps the game’s greatest strength and biggest potential issue for newcomers is the ability wheel system – character customisation is extensive and complicated from this new player’s perspective. I’m undecided how Funcom could handle this better, I don’t think players should have to go to websites for ‘build’ guides right at the start of a new game. There is that concern we’ll waste AP or skill points if we want to drastically change our characters in the future but then apparently it’s possible to eventually get all skills on a character so that shouldn’t matter much. I think the ‘choose your weapon’ tutorial mission needs a lot of work as it does a pretty poor job of introducing this complex system to a newbie…