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Welcome! I am teaching law at St. Petersburg State University and engaged in legal practice with the international law firm Dentons. Major part of my research is connected to virtual worlds and massive multiplayer online games (a broad field which includes Internet law, video game law, virtual law and game studies). My legal practice is focused on providing support to computer game companies. This interest derives from my passion for computer games which I consider as one of the most important cultural artifacts ever created. Please note that this blog conveys my private opinion which is not necessarily shared by any organisations I am associated with. For more formal and detailed introduction please visit my website arkhipov.info which serves more as a 'business card'.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Secret World: First Impressions

The Secret World, conventionally, "TSW", was a long awaited game for me due to setting. I like conspirology, H.P. Lovercraft novels and other relevant things as setting for computer games and fiction (this is just another disclaimer for THEM not to get me).

What I did not like was how Funcom customer service worked on my issue with Anarchy Online a year ago. In short, my valid credit card was automatically rejected, and after a lengthy correspondence with Funcom manager, the problem still was not solved. I also had some technical problems with Age of Conan. Europe definitely does not trust Russian bank cards.

However, I finally decided that everything will work better with TSW as it is the latest product, and I am not disappointed yet. Even if this is just because I have not yet had a necessity to contact the customer support, this very fact is a good one.

The game is new, the setting is fresh for MMORPGs, and the overall impression is highly positive. What makes TSW so special?





Setting. The third way - not fantasy and not science fiction - turned out to be a good solution for an online game. For a long period conspirology enthusiasts among gamers were deprived of good games, and, honestly, not only online ones. I have not yet advanced much in story (still in Kingsmouth), but everything seems to be in place: zombies, beasts from the deep, dark cults, black helicopters, FBI etc. 

It was a clear choice to include the Illuminati and the Templars as two of the three major in game secret societies. However, I trust that the reason to include the Dragon was that the first two effectively appeal to the U.S. and European audience, while there should be something for Asian players too. Asia forms great market for MMOs. 

But in a conspirology setting philosophy of chaos may equally be associated with Western discordianism and a direct in game reference to Robert Anton Wilson trilogy The Illuminatus! might be made. Nevertheless, I bet that there should be any references to this book, as it is a compendium of conspirology fiction.

I would say that, if you like the setting, it is guaranteed that the immersion will be way ahead of any other MMORPGs. The game uses each and every opportunity to draw you into the world and the story. You will see a lot of photos, handwritten text, emotion - almost everything is shown to a player directly, not as a textual description. This gives strong grounds for an analogy with a good single-player adventure game.

Quests. The important thing about TSW quests is that they do not leave the feeling of grinding. Furthermore, most of the quests, even those which essentially are of "kill X mobs" kind, can hardly be classified into well-known categories. The quests consist of several "tiers" or stages, and these stages may be quite different. The only "stock" quests which I met comprise of several "kill X mobs" stages and the final "kill the boss" stage. The "X" value is also quite reasonable, mostly 5. 

A special feature of the game is so called "puzzle" quests which often require the user either to think like in classic computer quests, or to make a research of the information. The very special feature is that this information may be allocated somewhere outside the game world. For example, one of the quests requires a player first to figure out that he has to visit a website mentioned on an ID card found on the body of an agent. This website is an ordinary "real-world" website. However, it is a fake website of a fictional company (is it?). 

Besides being interesting, the quests give a good lesson in modern philosophy - you get more understanding of how relative and intentionally constructed social reality may be if you imagine that you find that fake website not knowing about TSW at all.

Combat. Let me be short: the combat system is good. It provides somewhat like Age of Conan atmosphere translated into the language of guns and bullets (for many players). Funcom did not reject targeting system, but made it more dynamic, so that it may give certain feeling of freedom. Targets change quickly, and the role of movement is much more important than in classic target-system MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Everquest 2.

Character advancement. This part of the gameplay is absolutely great, but I am a bit disappointed due to my personal misunderstanding of class-less and skill-based system in early announcements and wrong expectation. What I would really like to see some day in online role-playing games is a system of character advancement similar to Ultima Online, where you really need to practice skills in order to increase them, and not just allocate the points. 

What you need in TSW is to allocate "skill points" between general skills which give some quantity bonus and determine the possibility to use certain weapons or magic, and "ability points" which you have to invest in order to get new abilities. To certain extent, the first may be associated with the general category of weapon skills, while the latter remind of various talent-tree systems which became popular after World of Warcraft.

It appears that you cannot reset your points, but you cannot actually make a wrong choice as virtually you can get all skills and abilities. Other benefit of this system is that all possible combinations of abilities (you may choose 7 active and 7 passive abilities at one time) can hardly be counted. Rhethorical question: will this bring any balance issues?

Replayability. I decided to use this term which may seem more appropriate in application to single-player games. The game is really story-driven and sadly it does not make the impression of a virtual world. Rather, it looks like a single-player game with cooperative elements (like Diablo 3) and optional PvP. This point must be stressed: inspite of certain features which may be attributed to virtual worlds, such as many avatars running around, some trade happening, groups gathering to overcome obstacles together etc., you do not need anyone to enjoy most of the game content. 

I have not yet reached end-game by any means, but such factors as (a) story, and (b) character advancement system suggest that the only reason you may try to start a new character is to choose different major faction. It is not a virtual world with "a" factor, although it could be if the "b" factor was the only one. Even World of Warcraft could leave a "single-player online game" feeling (this is less true for Everquest 2), but TSW is much ahead.

"Soft aspects". This is to what I referred briefly in my Royal Quest post. Fonts, smoothness of animation, how it all combines etc. I would say that TSW might be much better in all of these aspects. The fonts are good and they fit to the setting, but they could be, it is difficult to articulate, let us say, more delicate. Animation is okay. What, for instance, annoys is that in many cases you have to perceive a lot of oral speech and there is no alternative. If you miss this oral information, you may have to listen again to the whole series of replicas. 

The community appears to be extremely mature. Probably this is due to a subscription model and initial price of the package, although the setting may also take part in this. In any case, TSW is a good example to study as it was launched in the context of various noticeable F2P projects. However, as it may follow from the general chat, there is a lot of players who consider TSW as a haven before the storm of Guild Wars 2.

Overall, the impressions are really positive with a disclaimer that you have to have proper expectation. TSW is not really a virtual world in a conspirology setting, rather a story-driven MMORPG. If you expect this you will not have anything negative associated therewith.