Against my inclination, I'm oddly attracted to Funcom's "The Secret World"
And as the game has gotten closer and closer to next month's rollout, the list of reasons not to play it just kept getting longer. The hardware requirements are outrageous, to the point where my couple-year-old Alienware doesn't technically qualify. It's a subscription MMO in 2012, for crying out loud. The user interface that I was seeing in screenshots and in videos is baroque, opaque, and almost completely undocumented. The quest structure I was seeing is antique; lots of "click on a contact, walk half a mile, kill ten rats, find next contact, repeat ad infinitum." The penalty for failing is a corpse run, for crying out loud. There is no team-finder or team-recruiting UI. There is no sidekicking UI to let you play alongside any of your friends who out-leveled you or who haven't kept up. By any sane measure, to have something this obsolete and hardware intensive, written to satisfy only a tiny niche audience, is a recipe for a trainwreck that I could see coming from miles away.
Last week, Funcom sent me a couple of invites to play the last beta-test weekend for free, presumably because I'm a former Anarchy Online customer. They caught me at a good time, really bored with and disappointed with where the City of Heroes storyline has gone and where it's going; I figured I'd spare them some hours just to see the trainwreck and to cleanse the palate, to make me enjoy City of Heroes even more.
Wow, I really didn't see that coming.
Three things really ended up working for me, so much so that after this weekend, I'm jonesing for it to come back online, even though there were a couple of really annoying bugs.
Better Character Leveling than I Expected
Funcom has long hyped the fact that it's a level-less, class-less character system, but defining a system in terms of what it isn't wasn't all that useful to me. Nearly non-existent documentation didn't help. But after spending 20 or 30 hours at it, I get it now, and it's fascinating. And I cannot explain briefly how it works; if you care, I may write a lengthy reply to this journal entry to stick it into. But the net effect is that every half an hour or so of play (and they say that this accelerates, not decelerates like most MMOs, the more you play) you get another Ability Point with which to advance any of the game's 18 basic and 54 advanced skill trees; every couple of points lets you unlock the next "card" in the deck. You deal out for yourself at any given time 14 "cards," 7 clickable powers that define your attacks or support powers, and 7 passives that modify how those powers work, so that with the right combination of cards you can take any build and make it a tanker, support character, healer, pure DPS, or some combination of the above. Any time you're out of combat, you can switch to another build.
Want a different build? Because you have higher level abilities in your first build that you can use to earn XP, you can level up an alternate build three or four or six times faster than if you rerolled, which makes this the first effective cure for my alt-itis. I will, in fact, probably spec a pure-tanking built sword-and-chaos-magic first, then level up a shotgun-and-blood-magic healer for my next build, probably with a blood-and-chaos-magic third build, using powers earned from those builds, if I want to make a pure ranged DPS hand to play. No more "I'm bored with this combat role, I should roll another character" ever. In The Secret World, the only two reasons to ever have more than one character are to experience all three factions or to change your character's name and gender.
The Factions are Better Than I Expected
When I first read the description of the three player-character factions, I said, "I don't like any of these people." But it turns out that because the lead writer was trying to hard to be mysterious, they ended up doing a crappy job of explaining the three sides, which ended up being quite simple:
Lawful Good: The Templars. As one of the contacts explains to you early on, "not the Knights Templar, this isn't some bloody Dan Brown novel." The Templars' faith isn't in Christianity or monotheism, but in humanity and in the idea of virtuous authority. They operate almost-openly, lots of people are vaguely aware that there's a pan-European non-profit private security force called The Templar, who have fans and supporters in every government in Europe and much of the former European colonies. Their leadership are almost chokingly British.
Lawful Evil: The Illuminati. The only break-away faction in the history of the Templars to survive defecting; their ancestors were rogue Templars who figured out that evil keeps winning, that being good just doesn't work, that the only question was as to which evil bastards were going to rule the world, human evil bastards or non-human evil bastards? These days they're headquartered in New York, because the real power is in media, finance, and corrupt diplomacy, and corporate high-tech evil in general. The NPCs are cartoonishly evil corporate management types, and the other two factions only tolerate them because at least they are opposed to evil alien monster demonic forces, and figure to deal with them later.
Chaotic Neutral: The Dragon. A gang of Asian-headquartered cyber-anarchists, who noticed centuries ago the problem with the other two. Well, the other problem. On top of their mutual obsession with ruling the world from the top down, which is an inherently bad idea, the Dragon's head mystic (a supposedly super-intelligent, super-spiritual toddler too holy to communicate with the world except through telepathic communication with his adult handlers) has also noticed that the other two factions are too busy trying to fight evil to actually study it, and too busy weaponizing magic to try to understand it, either. So the Dragons spend a lot of time foiling everybody's plots in tiny little ways and mathematically modeling the ripple effects.
I expected to hate the Templars for being religious bigots, only to have that rug pulled out from under me; having played through their tutorial and opening quests, I find them unpleasantly bellicose and military, but not as awful as I expected. I expected to hate the Illuminati for off-line reasons but to find their breed of evil entertaining; I failed to anticipate how low down in the corporate hierarchy you start, and how much crap from evil middle management rolls downhill onto you. (Shame, they have the most stylish uniforms.) Because some of the game's early press release called the Dragon terrorists, I expected to hate them, but it's a weird kind of Taoist "do without doing" terrorism, one aimed not at civilians but at gently confusing their coalition partners against evil in order to tease out their secrets and to prevent either of them from conquering the world once the current crisis is over. I ended up really, really, really enjoying the Dragon storyline, and I did not see that one coming. Speaking of which ...
The Storyline ROCKS
Ragnar Tornquist, the lead writer on this, has said that he has wanted to write this MMO his whole life, that it incorporates every obsession he ever had ... and I am freaked out by how many obsessions he and I have in common. Much of the gameplay involves figuring out riddles and puzzles (do not play this game if you hate reading, listening to NPCs talk, and taking notes!), and he said in advance that while the game comes with in-game access to Google and Wikipedia, the more you know about science fiction, horror fiction, world history, economics, conspiracy theory, psychedelic drugs, organized crime, mythology, religious history, art history, hacker politics, and terrorist theory, history, and tactics, the more of the puzzles and riddles you'll "get" without having to resort to Google or to spoiler sites. You may have already noticed, from that list, an uncomfortably precise overlap with my own interests? I wasn't expecting him to handle those subjects as well as he did, but the embedded throw-away references keep poking me in all the best places. I could regale you with examples, but this is already going too long.
The other part of the storyline that I had very little hope for has turned out to be nothing less than amazing. When you first walk up to a quest-giving NPC, there's an animated cut-scene; each mission starts with its own animated cut-scene; each NPC also has 1 to 7 optional recorded audio bits that tell you more about the character, the area, and what they know of what's going on. I haven't seen in-game animation this good, or voice acting this good, or characterizations this fun and funny, since Brütal Legend! (And I asked people who were much higher level than me; unlike Age of Conan, they really did continue this past the starting area. Supposedly, anyway.)
So I find myself really jonesing to meet all the people and find out what's going on in the places like the small town in Maine where the ancient Mayan 2012 prophesy is about to come true, to the excitement of a few and the annoyance of the many who are dealing with Lovecraftian horror and a Sam Raimy-style zombie invasion at the same time while lamenting the extent to which the Obama administration's unexpected overconfidence in corporate solutions is complicating the response, then going on to see how the rise of fascism in the former Warsaw Pact is complicating vampire/werewolf politics in Romania, then going on to see how the rise of Islamist politics and the Arab democracy movement are complicating the lives of the occultists trying to keep ancient pre-Pharaonic horrors locked up under the Valley of the Kings, if only because the people I meet when doing so, so far, have been surprisingly entertaining.
Will Funcom support it? I doubt it. Will they deliver new content in a timely fashion, or will we be stuck running through the storyline over and over again to unlock the rest of our skill trees? My guess is the former. When things go wrong, will Funcom's customer service be friendly and helpful or the surly "if we wanted you to have it, we would have already given it to you" jerks I remember? Again, my guess is the latter. But my guess is that I can get $50 worth of entertainment out of this before then. And it's arriving at a good time, for me. So I pre-ordered, despite all my inclinations to the contrary. I totally did not see that coming.