Well, it’s been a few months since The Secret World (TSW) launched, and of the new games arriving – Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria – this is the one I find myself returning to. A big part of the reason is the setting – there’s simply no other game quite like it.
The Secret World is set in the modern day, but with one critical difference – the stuff of dreams, nightmares and mythology have begun manifesting in the waking world. Zombies, Lovecraftian horrors, ghosts, the wendigo and sasquatch of indian legend, Slavic vampires and more have made their way into our countrysides and cities, all with the seeming intent of destroying our world. There’s a hint at some kind of power behind this invasion, and player characters begin their creation by being “selected” somehow by a mysterious force, (imparted by magical “bees”) that imbue them with extraordinary powers.
The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym. At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.
While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction. Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session. In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person. Communication was by text only. It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other. Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
So The Secret World(TSW) went ahead and implemented something that, upon consideration, seems a no-brainer—they added an in-game web browser. Hit the “B” button and you’re taken to Google, and from there, you have access to the entire internet from within the game. In makes complete sense for an MMO set in the modern day, especially given the need to research clues and solve things like Morse Code puzzles. Sure, we could do all that in an outside browser as well, but having the browser right there not only keeps the player in the game, but also makes for a more immersive experience. In several quests, it’s actually necessary to browse out to a website created by the TSW developers to solve the puzzle. Given the number of times I’ve popped out of other games to look up information in the browser, I’m wondering why more games haven’t attempted to present their lore in-house.
One of the things that had me laughing most when South Park did an episode on World of Warcraft (“Make Love, Not Warcraft” in Season 10) was just seeing their Warcraft characters onscreen. You had Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all playing these prototypical fantasy types – burly warrior, stout dwarf, and so on—but with the crew’s “real,” squeaky voices. It’s probably the thing that folks who don’t play RPG’s laugh most about – the geeky kid playing Conan the Barbarian, but in this case it was also cartoons playing cartoons.
In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest. While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.” In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve. So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage. Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased. Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life. A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.
I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and at the same time feeling a little weary of the Warcraft level and gear grind. There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following. Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder.
Well, it seems that in the last few weeks there’s been a flurry of betas released, with more coming soon. I was able to get in on three of them—Diablo III, Warcraft’s Mist of Panderia, and the one I was most interested in, Guild Wars 2. The Secret World and Neverwinter Nights are on the upcoming list, but I missed out on TERA—evidently it was close enough to the real launch that it almost wasn’t even testing but more like a pre-release. Of course, the really big news is that Bethesda has announced an Elder Scrolls MMO, which I discussed recently—the number of games coming out in the next couple years is staggering!
Here’s my take on the three after only a small bit of playing time—in no way can I give final judgment on any of these without a bit more playing, but it was nice to get in and get my toes wet.