Tuesday, 27 June 2017

If You Can't Say Something Nice... : Secret World Legends

So, after yesterday's hostile report, here's something a tad more positive. Well, kinda...

I played Secret World Legends again this morning. I picked up where I left off, at the start of Kingsmouth. It was daylight for once and I could see what I was doing for the first time. That helped.

It may be my memory playing tricks but I think Funcom may have toned down the fog somewhat. I first noticed it after I finished throwing body parts on Norma's bonfire. I could see clear to the far side of town. I'm fairly sure that's new.

Blue all the way to Canada.


Out in the shallows of Kingsmouth's hip-deep harbor I looked back to shore. Once again, the fog appeared to have lifted. The revamp hasn't really dialed down the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere of the starting zone - just as well, seeing it's the whole point of the place - but being able to see a bit further than the end of the street does help to keep that claustrophobia where it belongs - in the narrative.

Something that very definitely has changed is the pacing. I started the morning's session at Level 4 and finished Level 9. I played for around three hours and things fairly zipped along.

The narrative flow of the main quest is largely unchanged as far as I can see, although it's a long time since I last followed it. What's very different indeed is the degree of direction it gives.

She must have ticked the "No Publicity" box.

The main quest-line has prompts that weren't there before. Explanations of what you have to do and where you have to do it. Ambiguities have been excised. Everything seems clearer, more focused, more linear.

My intention was to follow the plot and I very nearly managed it. I didn't take a single, optional side-quest. As I was sprinting along, though, the game occasionally decided to give me one anyway.

There's a new mechanic whereby you can trigger a mission just by entering an area. It's disconcerting when it happens. A computerized voice pipes up unprompted, like some sister of Siri or Cortana, informing you that you've accepted whatever mission it may be. Then it's auto-added to your to-do list without so much as a by-your-leave.

I saw complaints in chat about it. It does seem incongruous. It's never explained, this voice. Is it your Faction? Is it some rogue New England A.I.? Are you having a psychotic episode? Or is it just another example of Funcom no longer caring enough about their own I.P. even to pay lip service to lore or logic?

Another immersion-crushing innovation that makes no sense whatsoever.
Bonus points for using a completely inappropriate visual style as well.

Whatever. I just speed-read the instructions and killed whatever I was told to kill. Killing things in Kingsmouth is easy!

Yes, let's talk about combat. I gave myself a little test at the beginning: I was going to try and do everything using only the basic left mouse button attack. For a while it looked as though it might work but it proved to be over-ambitious. They've made things easier but not that much.

At first it was simple enough to mow down at-level zombies by the pack using just LMB although if I ran from group to group I would eventually run out of anima or whatever it is that powers Chaos Magic. Then I had to fire the pistols a few times to get my mojo back.

Surprisingly good dental work for a zombie.

Other than that it was easy-peasy until I ran into Suzie's Diner to grab a lore honeycomb. Suzie herself was there behind the counter. I have all names off but I could tell right away she was no ordinary zombie. She was about eight feet tall. She was also Level 8 and I was level 4.

That was my first death. I only died once more, also doing something stupid. I came back at Level 7, having upgraded some of my gear. That time it was Suzie on the floor.

As has been noted elsewhere, the quondam "rare spawns" from TSW are nowhere near as rare in SWL. I killed Suzie, Father Appleby, Mr Freezie and at least one more that I didn't recognize.

Apart from that first run-in with Suzie they were all easy, even under level as I was. In fact I killed Mr Freezie while I was playing in first person with the UI off. I didn't even know it was him until I stopped and re-opened the UI about ten minutes later and all the Achievement messages and rewards the game had held pending popped up, one after another.

Airburst!

That tells you a lot about how easy the game is now, at least at these levels. I'd been messing about with the controls while taking screenshots and I'd managed somehow to get myself wedged in first person, so I decided to switch off the UI altogether and run about taking, yes, more screenshots.

Naturally I aggroed some zombies. They were quickly dispatched with a few mouse-clicks. It occurred to me then that the one big advantage an Action RPG control system has over the regular MMO version is that you can just hammer the mouse buttons. You don't need to look at anything but the screen. You don't need a UI. All that clutter we call "the game"? Forget it!

So I ran around for a good while just killing things and taking yet more screenshots. You can get some great fight pics that way plus you get to see what the mobs look like. It's refreshing.

See how I blew the one on the right's head right off?

All the "Nameds" dropped a loot bag with a green-quality item. Once or twice a random zombie did, too. Apart from that there was no loot at all. Given that every mob in TSW is a virtual loot pinata this is one heck of a change. I've certainly not had any inventory or storage issues so far.

The upgrade system relies on a constant flow of items to throw into the maw of the crafting window. That absence of drops might become an issue, later. I've heard it said that the end-game will be a continual grind to get fodder to fortify your gear, a grind that Funcom hope to help you mitigate via a Subscription or the Cash Shop or both.

I doubt it'll be my problem. I'm not headed for end-game.

On the other hand, I am feeling a little more optimistic about maybe - just maybe - completing the main quest at last. It was too hard for me before but it comes with trainer wheels now, as I discovered for myself.

Come back when you're bigger, little girl.

I was merrily trucking along through the story. I'd hacked Dr Bannerman's computer. That seemed easier than I remembered,  which, when I checked, turned out to be because it is now easier than I remembered. The quest no longer expects you to know who wrote "The Four Seasons" or even to google it. There's a CD of the thing just lying there. In case you still don't twig, a nearby note explicitly explains that the Doctor loves Vivaldi.

With the data from the Doc's files I went looking for the Creeds. I found Derrick dead and, close by, the green footprints of his brother, leading to a manhole. I was going to follow them but the at that point the game put a friendly hand on my shoulder and said "I don't think you're quite ready for this - why don't you go level up a bit?"

As far as the system was concerned I was seriously under-leveled for the next stage. I was Level 9. The quest requires Level 12. As someone who perennially goes into quests both under-level and under-prepared I probably need this kind of intervention.

Any fight you can walk away from, right?

Like everything else in the revamp it seems to be designed to protect the player from any nasty surprises. That seems amusingly ironic. Whether it's feasible to make a casual-friendly, unchallenging MMO out of pre-existing content in which things happen that will likely give you nightmares for weeks, I'm really not sure but Funcom seem determined to give it a try.

All the same, I would be lying if I said I didn't have fun this morning. It was pretty mindless fun, sure, but it was only when my Bagpuss talking alarm clock started up (yes, really) that I realized I'd been playing for three hours straight.

This is the thing with Secret World legends. It's not that it isn't fun. Or that it can't be fun. It's that it's not The Secret World.

In the original version the fractured, scattered, elusive nature of the quests complemented the enigmatic, elliptical, gnomic narrative. The frequent, lengthy cut scenes, the digressions into character and family history, the monologues and soliloquies and, above all, your own, silent protagonist, all came together with the slow, thoughtful, puzzling gameplay to create a tapestry of wonder and mystery.

Oh! Baron Saturday!

In this revamp a straightforward, linear "personal story" combines with a highly simplified talent tree and much accelerated combat to produce what is probably quite a decent Action RPG, if looked at objectively. If a half-decent ARPG is what you want then this will fit the bill.

How much of the magic remains is the question. It may be that, for players who never stumbled and crept through the shadow-world of the elder game, this new world, too, will shimmer with an eldritch fascination. Or perhaps it will appear as two movies, projected on the same screen, flickering out of sync, each struggling to overwrite the other.

Almost all the time I played the general chat channel reflected this dichotomy. Discussion scrolled so fast it was hard to follow. Few were happy with everything, few thought nothing had merit. The tenor of the conversation was uncomfortable, disgruntled, edgy. Exactly, in fact, the tenor of general chat back in 2012 when I played the game at launch.

Anyone remember corpse art in EQ?

So, perhaps nothing much has changed after all. The big revamp has altered enough to annoy almost everyone who loved the game, but there were never enough of those to keep the lights on anyway. At the same time it may not have done nearly enough to satisfy all those who wanted to like The secret World but couldn't, or who never even pretended to want to like it in the first place.

The real stumbling block may, in the end, turn out to be the underlying premise itself. Even watered down as it now is, this is still an odd, difficult world, in which concepts and systems that do not easily fit together are made to try. The smoother and more fluid the mechanics and the quest flow, the more convincing the animations, the shorter the TTK, the harder it becomes to appreciate those things that made the game stand out from the crowd.

Time will tell. If I had to bet I'd guess that once the flurry of interest fades Secret World Legends will find itself with not that many more players than The Secret World used to have. Whether Funcom will be able to monetize them more efficiently is another matter. By all accounts they could hardly do worse.

Did I hear you say something about my hat?

I will most likely carry on, for a while. Until it gets difficult. Or slow. Or tedious. I'd like to get to the end of the story arc one day. I'd like to see the dungeons. I'm not not having fun.

Then again, maybe, in a week or two, I'll already have stopped logging in, will have moved on to something else. If so, I suspect I won't be the only one.

9 comments:

  1. I am very amused about this passage:
    -----
    Naturally I aggroed some zombies. They were quickly dispatched with a few mouse-clicks. It occurred to me then that the one big advantage an Action RPG control system has over the regular MMO version is that you can just hammer the mouse buttons. You don't need to look at anything but the screen. You don't need a UI. All that clutter we call "the game"? Forget it!
    -----

    I am not surprised it felt like that for you. You run Chaos and Pistols. Both of them have random effects triggering at random effects, nothing you can influence, nothing you have to pay attention to. Their special effects are rando benefits, which makes them the best of all weapons.


    Now let's take a look at the assault rifle or shotgun instead. For the Assault Rifle, whenever you use an attack your character has a -chance- to load a grenade. This grenade, in violation of all logic of grenade launchers, is cooked off and will blow up in a few seconds. If you fire it on time, great. If you don't, it blows up and damages your character.

    So this one is a pure "Player VS User Interface" weapon. The biggest priority is not what you do, the biggest priority is to shoot grenades when you load them.

    Also the shotgun, you fire your 8 shells. Then all your shotgun abilities on the bar are randomly replaced with different choices for ammunition. You then have to select which ammo you want to use for your next 8 shots. That is, if the game actually put the ammo you want on your bar. It can very well happen that you fight a fire resistant mob and have low health, you you really pay attention to load your healing shells when the reload comes up. But the game puts exclusively incendiary ammo on all buttons.

    So not only are you permanently watching the UI, more than anything else, but even then the randomizer is more than ready and eager to screw you over.

    So yes, some weapons might be fun, but several are coded frustration, where the UI is the only part of the game you still pay attention to, as everything else is secondary.

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    1. Lots of people were discussing both shotgun and assault rifle in General yesterday so I had a vague idea there was a random element. People mostly seemed intrigued by it rather than annoyed, I thought.

      I'm sticking with Chaos and Pistols because, as you explain, you don't really have to think about them. Indeed, from your explanation, it sounds as though you really shouldn't even try. That does make a lot of sense for something called "Chaos Magic" although maybe not so much for firearms!

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  2. Sylow, absolutely right on about AR. What a mess.

    Bhagpuss, whatever you do, at least get through the first 2-3 dungeons before you quit. They're truly special MMO experiences.

    I've been tracking the SWL launch on Google Trends. So far, it's a drop in the bucket compared with WildStar's ill-fated Steam launch. Here's hoping SWL picks up momentum with its own Steam launch in a month or so.

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    1. I've never looked at Google Trends before. What a rabbit hole! thanks for introducing me to that!

      I'm only just starting to play with it so I can't really interpret the results very well, but if you separate "The Secret World" from "Secret World Legends" and compare them, over the last week TSW has double the google searches that SWL has. That's interesting to say the least.

      Going to have fun with this :)

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    2. The sad thing is that while i just complain about it here, there were great suggestions on how to get things in order with limited effort in the beta forum.

      Mind you, i can't take credit for this as i didn't come up with it, i just reproduce it from memory and am probably missing the details, but here is the idea i liked the most:

      - The grenade launcher doesn't reload any more at random.
      - Instead it reloads when you did not use any ability for five seconds.

      Already with this one change the weapon turned from a "Player vs UI" nuisance into a predictable and useable tool. Indeed it would mean that the player generally would start the fight with one grenade loaded. After firing it, it would be a tactical thing, it generally would be preferable to keep shooting than to stop for five seconds to reload.

      Now there's also the passives to consider, e.g. those which in the current implementation reduce the damage you take when blowing yourself up and those which increase the chance that you randomly reload. They could be changed to:

      - Reload time is reduced from 5 seconds to 2.5 seconds.
      - The grenade launcher can now hold two or even three shots.

      The first one would give the grenades more application in normal gameplay. With the 5 seconds cooldown you generally would keep shooting, with 2.5 seconds reload the number and positioning of your enemies suddenly matter. Depending on that it might be preferable to keep shooting or to wait for the reload to then hit them all with a grenade.

      The second passive would mostly be a dungeon tool. There are bosses and sequences where you can't attack for several seconds. Being able to load several grenades, the longer you don't attack, would provide you with some burst potential when the non-attack phase ends.

      This would really be just a few small changes, but they would go such a long way. This suggestion (in more refined form, as said i just reproduce from memory) was proposed in the beta forums and supported by many players. Of course, it also got ignored and disregarded by the developers...

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    3. I couldn't remember a solution of similar elegance for the shotgun, but there also were a number of suggestions on how to make it more convenient to use. Some of them i found terrible, but one i mostly liked (again, not my idea, again from memory and without the details) was along the line:
      - You still use up ammo.
      - The buttons for ammo types are not randomly assigned any more.
      - You have four ammo types, you have for ability types: Basic attack, mouse buttons, normal abilities (1&2) and the elite ability.
      - Make each kind of ability load a specific kind of ammo.

      This means that the player can determine with his build, which ammo types will be available to him at reload. It also means that when ammo runs out, he knows which button to press so get the ammo he wants to use next. There was much more to this in the beta forums, which i don't remember.

      My feelings on this are a bit mixed. The player would still be more busy counting ammmo than anything else, to get his rotation and reloads right. But after all that's what we also did with Elemental Force for years and being skillful in working that counter into your rotation made the difference between a good and an awesome damage dealer or leech healer.

      At any rate, it would be a huge improvement over the current "now we roll and see which ammo you get" mechanics.

      The sad thing is that the suggestions were there, in the beta forums, and they were loudly advocated. Of course there also was a quota of fanboys who went to every improvement suggestions and just proclaimed that they could handle it so there is no problem and everybody seeing a problem is obviously stupid and wrong, but that's a different matter. I mean, that's already what got TSWs combat in "best shape ever", that a certain quota of people (and i partially also declare myself guilty, apparently there were problems i did not notice and considered nonexistent) just always praised the current implementation. But the developers should not only listen to the voices praising them, but should take good note of those who deliver criticism, especially when it even comes with elaborate suggestions for improvement.

      One can only philosophize why all suggestions for improvement were disregarded. The "best" of them is to assume that they had their milestones to deliver the launch, so they simply delivered the best they could do in limited time, not caring if the end result would be enjoyable or not.

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    4. I don't play TSW nor SWL myself (horror is not my thing), but I'm lurking in the shadows to follow the discussion. I want to second Bhagpuss and say thanks for mentioning Google Trends. That's pure blog inspiration coming up there!

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  3. I'm glad to see daylight in the game and in the real world made a bit of difference. I haven't gotten any of those clues, prompts or messages yet, but I'm only as far as Norma's bonfire. They seem awfully intrusive. If they're meant to be guides it seems heavy handed, even if someone was a new player. Maybe they stop after a certain point, or you can turn them off. I'm remembering every quest and what person dead or alive gives it and am grabbing it, so maybe they won't pop up for me. Tomorrow's my Secret World rotation day, so onward I go.

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    1. One of the auto-quests popped up as I was doing the "collect body parts" mission for Norma. It was the one that has you killing eight of the gravedigging zombies. That one had the computerized voiceover. The prompt from Andy that I included above came in the form of a mail quite a bit later.

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