Archive for November, 2012

Sisyphean Silliness

Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Sisyphean Silliness

I appreciate the fact that with its modern-day setting and a decidedly non-linear character progression system (that lacks classes or levels) The Secret World tries hard to be different from traditional fantasy-based MMO’s. Instead of a skill tree, this game has a skill wheel, with enough possible combinations to require a calculator and a tolerance for enumerative combinatorics. Tired of question mark-bedazzled NPCs who misplace their weapons or have strange fetishes for animal organs? TSW has seven different mission types, most of which include a convoluted back story that resembles an episode of Twin Peaks. If you’ve ever had the desire to kill mobs with a katana in one hand, an assault rifle in the other, and a rocket launcher strapped to your back – while simultaneously wearing bunny slippers – this game’s got you covered.

Unfortunately, for all of its innovation and creative design concepts, TSW has some baffling, and at times game-breaking shortcomings.

The problem starts with the skill wheel. Each time the player completes a mission or objective, they are awarded skill points that can be used to purchase abilities on this wheel. There are nine different main weapon types to choose from, and each weapon has a total of 56 various abilities. Funcom has since implemented “decks” that give players recommended combinations of weapon abilities, but even with these decks as a guideline, selecting a skill combination that is ineffective or incompatible with your play style, is far easier than it should be.

The first time I played the game during beta, I didn’t even realize that I was expected to select two separate weapons. Being the minimalist that I am, I chose Blood Magic as my sole ability with the assumption that putting all my skill points into one method of combat would make me a Badass Blood Magician® (or BBM, for short). The game gave me no indication that this was a less than optimal choice until I had already spent several dozen skill points and come to the unfortunate realization that I was less BBM and more ZPB (Zombie Punching Bag). In a game that allows for some type of point reset, this would have been little more than a minor annoyance, but for whatever reason Funcom believes in the “No refunds, no exchanges” form of character development. The only way to improve your character’s combat performance is to keep playing, accumulate more points, and hope that you spend them more wisely going forward.

When the game went live and the skill decks were implemented, I choose a Blood Magic/Assault Rifle combination. The description for this deck suggested that it allowed for ranged combat and healing abilities that I thought would compliment my husband’s tank/fighter character. Since it requires a considerable amount of points (and therefore, play time) to acquire all of the skills to make a deck, I still spent a portion of the game floundering around with mismatched and ineffective low-level skill combinations. This problem was mitigated by the fact that I never played the game alone – I was always grouped with my husband. I can only imagine how difficult and frustrating it may be for players who attempt to go solo, particularly at the lower levels.

What does all of this have to do with the comic? Well, earlier I mentioned that TSW has seven different mission types. Specifically, they are story, action, item, investigation, sabotage, group/dungeon, and PvP. Initially I embraced this variation in quest mechanics. If I’m in a Sherlock Holmes mood, I take an investigation mission. Item missions allow me to be lazy with a simple FedEx objective that usually has the added bonus of connecting to the main story arc in some manner. If I tire of killing mobs, I can switch to a Sabotage mission that requires stealthy game play and an intentional avoidance of combat.

More options should mean more fun for a greater variety of players. Which it is…except when Funcom inexplicably decides to put these various missions inside a solo-only instance area. Then suddenly the game turns into a Do-It-Again-Stupid (DIAS) grindfest of frustrating proportions.

The problems with these solo-only missions seem to fall into two categories: Either the combat requires a type of skill that, up to this point, the player has never equipped or used. Or, in the case of the sabotage missions, the player is not given a clear understanding of the requirements and limitations of the game’s mechanics, which leads to an unreasonable amount of trial and error.

For the former, I would often find my character’s healing and ranged combat abilities to be completely inadequate against the mission’s melee-centric mob boss. This meant many repeat trips through the instance until I had mastered a entirely new set of combat abilities that, up to this point, I had had no reason to use. For sabotage missions, the DIAS factor was so high that the instance became a joke-worthy revolving door. Security cameras that seemed to see through walls. Mobs with questionable x-ray vision. I could spend an hour (or more), carefully sneaking through a warehouse or underground lair, only to be seen by a mob ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A WALL and dragged back to the entrance of the instance to start all over again.

I sincerely applaud Funcom for attempting to do something different, and I understand how incredibly difficult world and puzzle design within an MMO can be. Having played Age of Conan, Funcom’s other (notorious) big budget MMO, I wonder if the mindset of the studio’s developers is one that conflates challenge with difficulty? If so, someone needs to explain to them that frustrating a player is not the same as challenging them.

One is enjoyable. The other leads to cancelled subscriptions.