Trophy Room – The Secret World’s scenario missions

I’m not much of an achiever when playing video games. Being the first, the best or any other superlative you might think of – I pretty much don’t care. Two different personality tests for gamers I did a while back came to the same conclusion, so I guess I can’t be too far off base in saying that.

However, it’s not like I’ve never set goals for myself during all those years playing hundreds of games. Of course I have.

Not all goals are created equal though, certainly not in regard to difficulty. When I played the Uncharted series, for example, my only objective was to play each title all the way through to the end of the story, which isn’t much of an actual challenge if you’re comfortable with that kind of game. Hardly an achiever’s wet dream.

A couple of steps up the ladder would be clearing a SWTOR raid for the first time. Much more difficult on a personal level, but even more importantly a team effort instead of an individual achievement. I feel that I’m generally more inclined to tackle harder challenges when working with others, probably because having people around who rely on me makes me push myself further when I would most likely just quit otherwise.

And then there are the very few special ones. Goals that I consider very hard to achieve – even next to impossible at first – and that I’ll have to work towards all on my own. Maybe there’s not even a tasty carrot dangling at the end of that particular stick. But for some weird reason I still want to get there, even if the only reward will be to know that I did it.

This is about one of those cases, a trophy I’d like to proudly display on my mantlepiece, if you will.

A bit over a year after The Secret World went live Funcom released the game’s eighth DLC, The Venetian Agenda. Its main gameplay-feature was the introduction of so-called scenario missions, basically a holodeck simulation of search and rescue operations in three different locations. To incentivize doing them a new form of progression was also introduced, with the required loot only dropping in scenarios.

You can tackle these missions either solo, as a duo or a full group, with rewards and difficulty scaling accordingly. The goal is always to protect a group of civilians from TSW’s usual range of monsters. If you manage to save them all you earn Platinum ranking and thus the most rewards.

Hang in there, fellas, cavalry’s here!

Unfortunately the game didn’t do a good job at easing players into the whole thing when it came out. We had to learn the hard way that tried and trusted character builds and tactics don’t work in scenarios at all, and many, myself included, became quite frustrated pretty quickly. Of course it was heaven on earth for the hardcore theory crafters, but us ordinary mortals got our asses handed to us time and again.

You see, in contrast to any other type of content in TSW your biggest enemy in scenario missions is time. The monsters spawn in waves, and the spawn timer doesn’t care whether you’ve defeated the previous batch or not, they just keep on coming. This means that your damage output has to be top notch, and you also need to have memorized all the spawn points as well as the routes from each of those to the survivor camps (of which there are at least two in each mission), so you can intercept the enemies before they even get there. Oh, you also have to stay alive of course, and some baddies hit like trucks on higher difficulties. Bottom line is, you need to tank, deal lots of damage and heal yourself, all at the same time while also being constantly on the move.

Get your filthy mitts off me, you ugly…whatever it is you are!

If this sounds stressful that’s because it is. However, TSW is a game that always managed to make me feel like anything’s doable, no matter how impossible it might seem at first, and that I just need to find a way that’s suited for the task and also works for me as a player.

So back to the drawing board I went. As usual I consulted the Builds & Decks section of the forums for some ideas first and worked from there. I tried different combinations of weapons and abilities. I learned the maps, spawn points and routes. Figured out how and where best to fight the various bosses. Got a feel for spawn timers and general flow of each map (except for The Castle…man, screw that dump!).

The pride and accomplishment (there they are again) I felt when I managed to get a Platinum rating on Normal difficulty for the first time was priceless. What’s more, once I got the hang of it and started to have success I also began to find doing these missions a whole lot of fun! So much so that I still pop in every now and then, just because I like doing them.

Did you miss me? Did you miss me? …miss me?

Anyway, next up was Elite difficulty, which wasn’t that much of a step up from Normal…and then came Nightmare. Oh boy, what a…well…nightmare.

It’s not that I couldn’t beat it at all, mind you, but a couple of survivors always managed to die – making the term “survivor” ironic, which is exactly what the scenario AI smugly tells you whenever it happens. Yeah, thanks for that, b*tch! No matter how hard I tried, I just wasn’t able to save them all, the main reason being that I was still killing things a tad too slowly.

The breakthrough came when I stumbled upon yet another guide, one that suggested using a weapon type I would never even have considered for this purpose – Elementalism. What’s special about it is that, among other things, it lets you place manifestations on the ground which then deal either single target or AoE-damage on their own for a while. I don’t think they were ever used much in other forms of content, but for scenarios they’re absolutely perfect as you can place them in the enemies’ path right where you intend to fight them just before they arrive, freeing you up to then exclusively use your main hand and effectively deal almost double the damage.

Lightning never strikes twice? You just wait!

It still took more than a few tries to get the hang of it and also a helping hand from the game’s RNG (get certain environmental hazards combined with the wrong monster types and you’re screwed no matter what), but after many almosts and if onlys I finally did it:

It’s been over five years and I’m still hella proud of this!

I didn’t “beat” the third map however, because, as I said, I decided pretty early on to ignore that one. I just really hate its whole layout, and one of the possible final bosses is already a massive pain in the ass on Elite difficulty, so much so that I’m certain getting it on Nightmare would screw up an otherwise perfect run right on the home stretch. So, no. Just no.

What? I said that I’m not an achiever right from the start, didn’t I?

Games I’ve played for 500+ hours

The other day Wilhelm had a post up about games he has played for at least as long as the developers of Dying Light II claim it takes to play their game to 100% completion. It’s a good read, and thinking about it I realized that it might be interesting to have a look at my own gaming history from this angle too.

The difficulty here is that I’ve never actively tracked how much time I’ve spent with any particular game, so if I haven’t launched it through Steam and the game itself doesn’t have a /played function either I can basically only guess. Hence I will sort them into categories of differing certainty, like Wilhelm did.

So let’s see…

Definitely have played for 500+ hours

    • Everquest II

This one is a no-brainer. EQII is easily my most played game of all time. I was the most active between 2006 and 2008, when it was pretty much the only game I touched, and I tended to play very, very long hours more often than not. Additionally, even before and after that particular time period I’ve spent a lot of time with this game over the years, and I can prove it: EQ2U says I have clocked 1,959 hours on my Warlock alone, so…yeah.

    • EVE Online

I created my first account and main character in December 2005, and while I’ve taken numerous breaks over the years only one of those was actually long enough to say “I’m not playing that game anymore” – and even then I eventually returned to have my longest and most active streak yet. Consequently, even without having any hard evidence, I’m absolutely certain that I’ve played a lot more than 500 hours of EVE.

Most likely have played for 500+ hours

    • Diablo II

As I’ve said numerous times Diablo II is one of my all time favourite games period. I actually wasn’t quite as hooked and therefore didn’t play as extensively as I’d expected right at launch, but by the time I’d burned out on Ultima Online towards the end of 2001 the Lord of Destruction expansion had come out and improved the game in every respect. This time there was no stopping me. It then became and remained one of my most-played games up until about 2010 – in fact it’s one of the very few non-MMORPGs I’ve played at all during that time period. The recent release of Diablo II Resurrected added at least another 30-40 hours to the tally, so yeah, it’s highly likely that I’ve crossed the threshold here.

    • Ultima Online

Speaking of UO, hoo boy, was that game a revelation. My gateway drug into MMORPGs, if you will. Starting in June 2001 I was late to the party, but I more than made up for that by playing every waking moment (literally, except when I was at work) for the next six months or so. Unfortunately I was so into it that I couldn’t stop myself from trying to level up dozens of skills on multiple characters each and every day, so I burned out and bounced off of it pretty hard. I returned after a thorough break and played on and off until a little game called Star Wars Galaxies came out, and that was that. Regardless, in total I should be over 500 hours of playing time, though maybe not by much.

    • Star Wars: The Old Republic

Weirldy enough I almost forgot to include this, although I’ve assuredly played it for more than 500 hours. The thing about this game is, my itinial enthusiasm waned pretty quickly, and I most likely would have quit much sooner had it not been for the great guild we were in. Except for some really well designed and fun raids all good memories I have about the game have almost nothing to do with the game itself and everything with this group of people. Anyway, it makes the list easily.

Probably have played for 500+ hours

    • Star Wars Galaxies

Like UO this is another game I really loved but still didn’t play for as long as I initially thought I would. As much as I like sandbox MMOs, turns out activities like gathering, crafting, housing or (light) roleplaying alone can only entertain me for so long, and unfortunately SWG didn’t have much else to offer at the time (at least to me). Again, just like with UO I played very extensively during the first few months though, so I assume it just about makes the cut.

    • ArcheAge & ArcheAge Unchained

I’m lumping these together because, well, they’re basically the same game with different business models. I’ve played each iteration quite a lot for the better part of a year, so I’m actually pretty certain that it’s been well over 500 hours in total. However, in this case I have next to no “feel” for how long I’ve really played for some reason, and no way to verify it either, hence its appearance in this category.

    • The Secret World

One of the truly great and unique MMORPGs, unfortunately underappreciated by many players and mishandled by Funcom, it never had a chance to reach its full potential. I loved it exactly like it was however, and consequently played it an awful lot.

    • Genshin Impact

My most played game from fall 2020 to summer 2021 by a wide margin, so yeah, pretty sure it’s been over 500 hours.

And there you have it. Which games did you ever play for 500+ hours?

Accuracy is a bad stat in MMORPGs

The other day I was fiddling around with my characters’ artifacts in Genshin Impact, pondering which ones to keep or ditch, which to upgrade further or leave as is and so forth.

Getting really good artifacts like the one seen above is quite hard as there’s a lot of RNG involved.

Firstly, the main- and sub-stats they drop with are – with a few exceptions – completely random. You can (and regularly do) even get pieces of such a set, this one is obviously meant for Hydro characters for example, with a bonus to, say, Pyro damage as its main stat. While such an item isn’t necessarily useless it certainly isn’t what you’re hoping for when farming a particular set.

Secondly, each time you raise an artifact’s level by 4 it gets an additional (random) sub-stat unless it already had four. In the latter case one of the existing sub-stats is chosen, you guessed it, randomly to get a boost.

MOAR CRITS, MOAR DAMAGE, MUCH GOOD!!

It isn’t all bad though. With perseverance and a bit of luck it’s absolutely possible to get very strong artifacts, as you can see here.

The main reason for this, I believe, is that there aren’t actually that many different stats for the RNG to choose from. Therefore you’re gonna hit the desired combination eventually.

Anyway, all this made me think about the different kinds of stats I’ve encountered over the decades in various RPGs, MMO or otherwise, which finally brings us to the point I’m trying to make today: depending on class, playstyle et cetera there are always desirable stats and undesirable stats…

…and then there’s Accuracy.

Seriously though…why?

I’m really glad that Accuracy doesn’t exist in Genshin Impact because, as far as I’m concerned, it is the most annoying, unnecessary and, above all, unfun stat of them all.

The way I see it Accuracy, sometimes called Hit Rating or somesuch instead, is a remnant of Pen & Paper RPGs that should never have made its way into RPGs played on digital devices in real time.

“But Mail, when characters in Dungeons & Dragons have a THAC0 it makes sense that characters in computer- or console-RPGs have it too, right?”

Well, no. Let me explain why.

When you play Pen & Paper a dice roll is usually the only way to determine whether or not your character succeeds at whatever it is you want them to do (unless the GM hates you or something). If you didn’t need to win those rolls your alter ego would be pretty much infallible because in order to make them do something you but need to say it.

Go ahead, try to do that in a real time video game. I’ll wait.

Didn’t work out so well, did it? That’s the thing. ‘Telling’ your character what to do is so much more complex and, at times, difficult in Action RPGs, MMORPGs and other games of their ilk nowadays that this already is the challenge. Adding an arbitrary dice roll to decide whether you succeed or not is not only unnecessary, it’s downright mean.

So you’ve positioned your character correctly, selected the right target and pushed your myriad of buttons in the optimal order and all at the right time? Well done to you, mate, but unfortunately the dice roll says that you failed to interrupt the boss’s one-shot mechanic, and now you’re dead.

Sounds like fun? Yeah, didn’t think so.

In order to minimize those frustrations you can try to maximize your Accuracy-stat of course. I see two problems with that though.

One, more than a few games that have a Chance To Hit mechanic also have a hard cap for it, so you’ll still fail a roll every so often no matter how much of the stat you stack on your gear, which makes it even more unfun.

Two, and this is what bugs me the most, it’s a must-have stat that does basically nothing for you. In The Secret World and SWTOR I stacked as much Accuracy on my tank gear as theorycrafters had figured out was necessary to practically (in SWTOR’s case literally) have a 100% chance to hit in any situation, just to be sure I’d never miss an important impair or taunt, respectively.

So what I did was, in essence, to waste a whole lot of my available stat pool to make sure I’d never realize it’s even there.

Ok, maybe I just fell off the platform this time…

But isn’t raising our characters’ stats supposed to be one of the really fun things about playing RPGs? Hitting harder, running faster, jumping higher, all that jazz…that’s fun! Notice how “Missing less often” isn’t on that list, and it feels even worse when I’m basically forced to pour stats into this instead of those other things that are actually enjoyable.

And, again, having another way to fail in video games where the difference between victory and defeat hinges as much on my skill as a player as it does on my character’s stats anyway is just not necessary. I can easily manage to screw up on my own, thank you very much.

So, yeah, I know where the Accuracy stat is coming from and why it makes sense in its original context. But can we please get rid of it in MMO- and Action-RPGs? Like, for good?

Just let us play our characters please!

The other day I finished the Glassmaker storyline in Warframe. I’d been looking forward to the big finale quite a lot, as this was the first Nightwave episode that I really liked in terms of lore as well as gameplay.

The investigation part played out as usual, and while the last item gave me a bit of grief because it was really hard to spot I still enjoyed it overall.

Then came the inevitable boss fight.

Dude, where’s MY big-ass sword??

I’m not a big fan of boss fights in general – multiplayer games usually being the exception – though this one, while a forced 1 vs 1, wouldn’t have been too bad were it not for one huge design “twist” that all too many game devs seem to be so very fond of using – taking away our weapons and/or abilities and replacing them with something else.

So here I am facing off a 50-foot monster, having equipped my most efficient, highly powered tools of destruction, the acquisition of which has taken much effort over the course of months – and I can’t fricking use any of it.

Instead, I have to dodge lumps of glass the baddie is throwing at me (when he’s not busy swinging his one-hit-kill sword), then pick them up and throw them back at him. I’m not even kidding!

Did I still whup his ass on the third try and got my rewards? Sure. Was it fun though? Hell no.

Game devs use this weird design crutch again and again – and that’s what it really is, isn’t it? A crutch. Beating this particular boss would’ve been a cakewalk had I been able to use my regular weapons and frame abilities, so they just didn’t let me.

*sigh* Alright…let’s do this!

Ok, sometimes it might not be that. When The Secret World takes away our powers so we have to punch our way out of the baddies’ underground lair with bare fists it’s for lore reasons and also for, well, fun, I guess. That whole mission chain is one big homage to the Indiana Jones movies after all.

And it is fun…for about two minutes. Unfortunately it gets old really fast, but the cultists keep on coming. By the time we got out of there on our very first playthrough I was determined to never do that mission again.

If this is what the afterlife’s like I want no part of it!

Over in Transylvania another quest tranforms us into some sort of wraith – and again all of our familiar abilities vanish from the hotbar, to be replaced with two simple, rather underwhelming attacks and one self-heal once more. The following fight was…not pleasant.

I sure hope you will, because I fucking can’t

Of course Everquest II did it too. I guess over the span of 16 years it was bound to happen at some point. Being a rat was good for some laughs at least, I’ll give them that.

Look, I get it. Stuff like this probably seems like a good idea on paper.

It gives players a diversion from their usual gameplay – which can get somewhat stale when you play an MMO for long enough, no argument there – and might also serve as an unexpected twist or even comic relief when done right.

I do not think that the benefits ever outweigh the drawbacks however.

You see, dear devs, by the time you throw this stuff at me I’ve most likely long made my choices. The class I play or frame I use, the abilities or skillsets I’ve picked and the weapons I wield – all of this makes up the character I want to play. You know, because it’s the combination I have the most fun playing.

Letting us pick – or, more often than not, work hard for – our favourite toys and then, out of the blue, being all like “Nah, you can’t use those now; here, have a dull teaspoon and some cotton balls instead” is, honestly, kind of a dick move.

I can’t be the only one feeling that way either. Actually, I know that I’m not. Bhagpuss talked about really disliking it when several of Guild Wars 2’s Living World issues pulled that kind of stunt more than once, for example.

I feel aversion is quite a natural reaction to this, because, again, we don’t play the characters we play by accident. We do because we like them just the way they are.

What my Bruiser’s hotbars normally look like…

Of course the fact that whatever it is that our familiar gameplay loop gets replaced with in such cases is, more often than not, objectively worse and less fun doesn’t help one bit. But that’s not really a surprise, is it? The core gameplay of every MMO, even a freshly released one, has usually been years in the making. How could some ‘gimmick mechanic’, only meant for one event, one quest or one boss fight ever match that?

So, dear game devs, please stop doing that kind of stuff.

My favourite restaurant doesn’t serve an old loaf of bread instead of the meal I ordered for the sake of ‘variety’ or ‘surprise’ – or just because it’s easier and cheaper to do – either, does it?

I like having stuff to do, but I hate dailies

Dailies1

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been very busy in Warframe – in a good way. Almost a year ago I praised the fact that the game gives me specific tasks to achieve specific things, which I much prefer over just doing whatever and hoping for the RNG gods’ blessing.

Despite having played for quite some time already there was still a whole lot of stuff I hadn’t done yet, so I set myself an array of goals and got to it.

For example, there’s a plethora of advanced modifications for frames and weapons players can and definitely should get their hands on. Especially those frame-mods enable highly specialized builds that are very powerful and couldn’t be achieved any other way.

Dailies2
Who would have known that less strenght can be a good thing?

So I ran Spy missions with the specific intent to crack all three data vaults (because the mods in question can only drop from the third), did Nightmare missions, hunted for Orokin vaults, purged the Plains of Eidolon of a ghoul plague and beat some puzzle rooms on Lua.

In order to get rid of my annoying Kuva Lich sooner rather than later I also ran mission nodes occupied by his thralls to gather intel, and Kuva Siphon missions to get my hands on more requiem relics.

Sometimes the stars align and I can even combine two or more of these tasks into one, for example when a Spy mission I want to do anyway is temporarily flagged as a Kuva Siphon mission, giving me the chance to nab a desired mod and a requiem relic in one go.

Dailies3

What I like the most about all of this, as I’ve come to realize, is the fact that with very few exceptions I can do everything entirely at my own pace.

You see, almost no mission in Warframe has a cooldown or other form of time-gated restriction to entry. Ran a mission and didn’t get what you want? Just run it again if you like. And again. And again.

Of course that can get boring, and maybe also frustrating if you still don’t get your desired price after your umpteenth run. To circumvent that I try to mix it up. My play sessions in recent weeks mostly looked like this: run two or three spy missions, then a couple derelicts, followed by a bit of stuff in the open world zones or maybe a Kuva mission or two. If I still have time and desire to play after that, rinse and repeat.

As I use different frames, and thus different playstyles, for most of these activities it doesn’t get boring at all, and it’s oh so satisfying to tick one goal after the other off the list, even more so when the rewards enable me to make my favourite frames and weapons considerably stronger.

Dailies4
Or just my hoverboard…err, K-Drive faster

What’s all of this got to do with the fact that he hates dailies? I hear you ask.

Well, that I don’t like ’em much isn’t exactly news, but having so much fun while ‘working’ towards my goals in Warframe – and the process not actually feeling like work at all – made me compare this experience with the other game that had me busy trying to progress in recent months: ArcheAge Unchained.

There’s still much that I love about AAU, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that upgrading your gear is pretty much hard-gated by daily and, to a lesser extent, weekly activities really sucks the fun out of it after a while. And that’s coming from someone who has not religiously done them each and every day, not even close.

Dailies5
I’ve done my fair share though, because there’s just no other way to achieve this

In my opinion the problem with dailies in general is twofold.

One, the amount of progress you can make on any given day is capped, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Have a day off work and want to knock yourself out? Well, sucks to be you I guess.

Two, and this is the biggie, miss a day and you’ll never get it back. It’s no wonder that FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a term I’d never heard until maybe two years ago, is used in context with online games quite often nowadays, because daily tasks or quests are the very embodiment of it.

Ask yourself this: how often have you logged into a game while not really feeling a desire to do so, but because you felt you kind of had to? If your answer is “never” you have much more self-restraint than I do, and kudos!

Now, what do I propose? After all, criticizing without having suggestions for improvement doesn’t help matters, does it?

Ok then, how about removing the timer from repeatable content? Let me do it as often as I like. And while you’re at it, make all content repeatable, not only a select few quests, and spread rewards out more.

Not only does this work well in Warframe, The Secret World has shown that even a proper MMORPG can benefit greatly from this kind of design. Ok, quests in TSW do have a cooldown, but it’s short enough to do the same quests at least twice a day, and – and this is the kicker – there are so many quests on offer that it’s just not necessary to do the same ones over and over.

Dailies6
However, some quests I just wouldn’t want to do again. Ever! Again!

Of course I do realize that this might cause balancing-problems as there will always be activities that are ‘worth’ more measured against the time they take than others, and it also greatly benefits folks with a lot of free time on their hands.

Well…so? It doesn’t happen often, but for once I agree with MOP’s Eliot when he posits that balance in MMOs is overrated.

Especially in PvE-centric games, who the hell cares if other players progress more quickly than I do? Frankly, I couldn’t care less. PvP-heavy titles are obviously a different beast, but those should be much more skill-dependent than gear-dependent anyway – which is a discussion for another day though.

Dailies7

MMOs need repeatable content, that much is obvious. Even I, as far from being a ‘hardcore gamer’ as I am, have proven time and again that I can consume content much faster than developers can provide it – much like reading this has taken you but a fracture of the time it took me to write it.

But dailies, login-campaigns, rewards on a time-logged-in basis…all this stuff that has nothing to do with us having fun playing your games and everything with MAUs and other such crappy statistics you can proudly present to your shareholders…that kind of shit can’t go extinct soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

Turning the trinity up to 11

TSW_Trinity1
Why do I always have to go first again? Oh, right, “tank”…

I don’t like to break my promises, I swear (heh), but before I actually, finally, start to talk about The Secret World’s quests and story I need to rectify one glaring omission I’ve made in my posts about its skill- and gear-systems.

Since my return to the game I’ve made a couple of friends (or let’s rather say acquaintances) with whom I’ve been running some dungeons every now and then. Not only are TSW’s dungeons really great fun, doing them again also reminded me of the fact that this game allows for even more creativity when designing your class and build than I’d initially remembered.

Now, sure, the most common way to run the majority of these dungeons is the tried and true One tank, one healer, rest DPS group setup, and that’s also what the group finder looks for when assembling a team of five. The “Holy Trinity”, as it were, if the holy spirit had two siblings. However, in The Secret World even such cookie-cutter groups can vary quite a lot in how they’re set up.

TSW_Trinity2
I wonder if that’s a good safespot behind the tree there…

For example, there are three really strong damage-enhancing buffs that every group wants to have. Usually one DPS player provides two of those (locking that character into a Pistol/Shotgun weapon loadout) and another one the third, but it’s just as viable to split them up between three players, and if needed even the tank or, in a pinch, the healer can fit one into their builds. Of course no good group strictly needs these buffs, but they’re obviously very nice to have, and I really like having the freedom to puzzle out a solution that works for each new team composition.

Also quite important for how a group operates is which kind of healer it has. Technically there are three different flavours of healing, namely Blood Magic for barriers and a little direct healing, Fists for strong direct healing and HoTs, and Assault Rifles for leeching, i.e. healing for a percentage of the damage one does.

In reality though there are just two basic types of healers: ‘full healers’ that mainly use Fists and may or may not choose Blood Magic as their secondary skillset, and ‘leechers’ who use an Assault Rifle and, again, may or may not have a Blood Magic focus in their off-hand.

TSW_Trinity3
If you keep this up no kind of healing will do you any good, mate

Full healers are very powerful and can heal pretty much anything when geared and specced right, meaning that as long as no one gets one-shot, no one dies. Additionally they don’t care much about boss abilities like shields or damage-reflect because they can build their resources without hitting anything and thus just keep on healing however long it takes. The downside is that they deal no damage whatsoever.

Leechers are quite the opposite. They need to shoot stuff to build their resources and, more importantly, they need to deal damage to actually heal anyone. This obviously puts more strain on that player as they need to always be in range of and have line of sight to a) the player(s) they want to heal and b) a mob to hit. If the target has a shield or ability that reduces incoming damage a leecher also heals less and thus has to have some kind of ace up their sleeve for situations like that. This is even more true for some bosses who get a reflect-shield under certain conditions as everyone needs to stop attacking those altogether the instant the shield goes up if they don’t want to kill themselves.

By the way, the whole leeching-mechanic is made feasible by allowing players to have two targets selected at the same time, one friend and one enemy. Whatever hurty stuff you do is unleashed on your offensive target, whereas all buffs, heals etc. go to your defensive target. It’s another of TSW’s great little ideas I wish more MMORPGs had adopted.

The huge advantage a leecher brings to a group, the bigger and possibly much desired challenge for that player aside, is additional damage output equal to, sometimes even greater than a fourth DPS player.

TSW_Trinity4
There are times when you just need to deal all the damage

This is all fine and dandy, but until now we’ve yet to leave the confines of a ‘normal’ group composition. So, what if that’s all gotten boring and you want to mix it up and would also like a bigger challenge still? Well, how about trying yourself at heal-tanking?

Yep, that’s a thing. The idea behind it is that a healer builds up a lot of hate and is notoriously prone to draw aggro anyway, especially of newly spawned adds and such, so why not use this to the group’s advantage and let the healer tank altogether?

This is made possible, once again, by the game’s extremely flexible skill-system. You see, a tank in TSW keeps aggro mainly by slotting a passive ability named Agitator.

TSW_Trinity5

This beautifully simple – and obviously very strong – effect makes it a must-have for any tank. But, as is true for every passive in the game, anyone can use it. All you need is to have it unlocked and one free passive slot.

There’s a bit more to heal-tanking than using Agitator of course, like having more hit points than a normal healer, some defensive stats and a couple more bells and whistles, but basically it’s what it says on the tin: tanking by healing, and healing while tanking. And just like that your group has a free spot for another DPS or whomever else you want to take along.

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Sometimes a severe beating is all that’s called for

Still not enough? Enter the leech-tank.

By now you can easily deduce what this is: a heal-tank who heals by shooting stuff. Or, in other words, it’s a tank, a healer and a full-fledged DPS player all in one neat package.

I saw a video once where a group of three players led by a leech-tank beat the New York raid. That raid is actually meant for ten (!) people, has aggro-swap mechanics (meaning that you need at least two players with some tank abilities) and all kinds of other nasty stuff. Mind you, this was before rising gear-levels made that raid much easier. And what do you know, the video’s actually still up on YouTube:

Unfortunately this isn’t from the leech-tank’s point of view, but it’s still impressive if you know that fight. It looks kind of easy, but I assure you it’s not.

Personally I have never done such extreme things, and it still boggles my mind how stuff like that is even possible. But it is, and this is one more reason why I love games so much that offer loads of freedom in how to play them and tackle the challenges they present us with. Amongst all MMORPGs I’ve played The Secret World clearly takes the crown in that category.

Clothes make the man – but not the stats

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The Secret World did a lot of things differently than its contemporaries. Of course different doesn’t necessarily mean better, but one of the design choices that truly seemed like a stroke of genius to me at the time – and still does – was to entirely separate player characters’ looks from their stats.

Sure, pretty much every MMORPG provides some sort of wardrobe system nowadays, but most I’ve fiddled around with require exactly that – a lot of fiddling around. There always seem to be some caveats too, like certain consumables being necessary to convert stat items into appearance items, limited wardrobe space (until you buy more, of course) or other inconveniences.

TSW went a completely different route from the start. It’s quite simple and elegant, really. There are stat items and there are clothing items. With the exception of weapons you never get to see the former on your character, and the latter will never have an impact on your (combat-) performance whatsoever.

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Wait…where was I when the 3rd anniversary t-shirt van came by?

Clothing items don’t take up space in your inventory either, they go directly to the corresponding tab of your Dressing Room. As far as I’m aware there’s no limit to the amount of clothing you can store. I have lots and lots of stuff to choose from and can swap around at will knowing that my stats won’t be affected in any way.

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Which comes in handy during full moon, let me tell you

The bulk of your stats, on the other hand, comes from talismans. They’re called rings, bracelets, belts etc., but you won’t ever see them on your avatar.

Just like the skill system gearing your character is a rather complex and unfortunately not very intuitive matter, but once you’ve dug into it you can tweak your stats just so to make your build work the way it’s supposed to.

At least the weapons are very simple at a basic level. They only have one intrinsic stat, Weapon Power; the higher that score, the more damage all attacks done with that weapon deal.

Additionally you can wear a total of seven talismans, with each of them boosting one of your three main stats: Attack Power, Healing Power or Health. Here you ‘just’ need to find the right ratio for your build. For instance, if you’re going to be a tank you’ll want to have enough HP to give your healer a chance to keep you alive, but not more than absolutely necessary as you’ll also need to deal some damage to hold aggro. An effective solo-build might even utilize a mix of all three stats to kill stuff and stay alive while doing so.

Of course these aren’t the only stats you need to think about. Each talisman and weapon also has a slot for a Glyph and another for a Signet, which is where things get complicated.

Glyphs add well known RPG-stats like chance to hit, crit chance, crit power, evasion, block and stuff like that to the talisman or weapon you slot it in. Unfortunately the game does a very poor job at teaching you how to actually weigh these. Oh, sure, in order to do damage I obviously need my attacks to hit their target. But how much chance to hit do I really need? How exactly do block, evasion and defence work, and how much of each should a tank have?

Signets add even more complexity, as most of them don’t give a flat bonus but some kind of proc. For example, the Signet of Breaching I use in my sword adds “When you penetrate a target you make that target take 16% more damage from further penetrating hits for 7 seconds”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how much penetration rating do I need to a) actually proc this reliably and b) make the most of the damage bonus it gives?

To be honest, while gearing up as a tank for Nightmare-dungeons I relied very heavily on some great theorycrafters’ expertise who’d posted their findings on the forums, primarily this very thorough guide (still worth a read if you play or have ever played the game).

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Known for our inconspicuous appearance we were not

So, just like with the skill system, the game should definitely have done a much better job at explaining things, and the failure to do so is most likely one of the reasons why it wasn’t a big success.

But, also just like the skill system, once I’d weathered the initial storm of bewilderment and wrapped my head around it all I had so much fun gearing up my various builds, getting the different talismans and chasing the right Signets – I really think it was more than worth it to persevere.

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Who do I want to be today?

Being able to swap your whole build – skills, augments, gear, everything – at the touch of a button is the icing on the cake of course. I’ve never much liked being locked into a specific role at character creation, but even MMORPGs that didn’t do that, Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies come to mind, at least made me level up my new skills or professions the hard way every time I’ve swapped. TSW lets me keep everything I’ve unlocked once forever, and I can now run one dungeon as a tank, the next as a healer and then do a scenario as a Jack of all trades no problem.

Doesn’t this take away some of a character’s identity though? Maybe a little bit, yeah. But I feel my character expresses most of his identity by way of his looks, and he also uses his trusty blade as the main hand weapon for most of his builds anyway, so a common theme is still there.

In any case, of all character- and gear-progression systems I’ve experienced this was and remains one of my favourites.

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Just another day at the office…what, you don’t have a killer-bunny colleague too?

Next time around I’ll finally talk about the game’s outstanding quest design, as promised.

All roads lead to Rome (except when they don’t)

When one intends to talk about The Secret World’s strong points it’s hard not to start singing hymns of praise about its phenomenal quest design right off the bat. And I’ll get to that, promise, but as the quests weren’t changed significantly for SWL (as far as I’m aware) you don’t need to play a “dead” game to enjoy those. Since I’m talking about the original game specifically I’d like to start off with something exclusive to that version: the skill system.

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The skill wheel, aka every theorycrafter’s wet dream

The basic premise isn’t actually all that complicated. You get to wield any two out of nine available weapons at a time. These are (categorizations mine):

    • Blades (tanking / melee damage)
    • Chaos (tanking / melee damage)
    • Hammer (tanking / melee damage)
    • Assault Rifle (healing / ranged damage)
    • Blood Magic (healing / ranged damage)
    • Fists (healing / melee damage)
    • Elementalism (buffs / ranged damage)
    • Pistols (buffs / ranged damage)
    • Shotgun (buffs / ranged damage)

Once settled on a combo you choose a total of seven active abilities from the two corresponding skill trees, and additionally seven of all existing passives. Those fourteen abilities make up your build or ‘deck’.

However you need to unlock those actives and passives by spending XP first, and this is where things can get a bit hairy for beginners as there are something like 60 actives and 270 passives to choose from for every weapon-pairing. In a perfect world any combination of abilities that sounds fun would also be totally viable to use, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Since you can unlock the whole wheel eventually it’s not really possible to ‘ruin’ your character, but whatever you unlock first is what you have to make do with for a while.

We know that many people have given up on the game pretty soon after release, and one reason that I’ve heard quite often was that they’d run into a brick wall of difficulty in Blue Mountain, the game’s third zone, and that they either weren’t willing to repeat the first two area’s quests over and over to earn enough XP and fix their builds, or that they had no idea how to even fix them in the first place.

Me? I didn’t even get that far until I had the same problem. In Savage Coast, the second zone, I had my first encounter with a monster type whose appearance still gives me the chills even today: the Ak’ab.

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They are as annoying as they are ugly

Not only do these fuckers have a (very briefly telegraphed) dash attack that knocks you on your butt if you don’t dodge in time, they’re also extremely social. Attack one, and all of its friends come running posthaste from what feels like miles away. I just could not finish the quests in that wretched forest shown above, and it wasn’t fun.

I was in love with the game and not willing to give up though. The Builds & Decks-section of the official forums was, unsurprisingly, very lively at the time, and there I found a guide that was a game-changer for me. I actually only clicked on it because I liked the name, “Regen like Wolverine”, but its underlying idea seemed sound and once I’d unlocked the necessary abilities I became basically immortal indeed. I cleared all of Savage Coast with ease, and when I quested through Blue Mountain afterwards I couldn’t even imagine which area or monster type might have given so many folks a hard time.

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It’s such an…inviting place, after all

I guess the gist of this is that the skill wheel offers everything you need to succeed, but there’s not enough guidance about how to start and build an efficient deck. The game does have deck suggestions – they even have cool names and matching, quite fancy outfits you earn by unlocking every suggested ability – but unfortunately none of those decks is really that good in practice. In my opinion Funcom should have updated those early on by implementing tried and trusted community-made builds to help new players better understand what works and what doesn’t.

Wait a minute, I hear you wondering, didn’t he say at the beginning that the skill system is one of the game’s strong points?

Yes, I do think that it is. Because you know what? I had so much fun while taking the first few steps with it, and even more fun once I’d overcome that hump in Savage Coast. Using that build suggestion really opened my eyes for the vast possibilities this system provides. From then on there was no stopping me. I always poured over the skill wheel wondering what I should unlock next, which powerful combo I might have not yet discovered.

And the kicker is: once the whole thing had ‘clicked’ for me I was able to make almost anything work. It’s just like with everything, cluelessly flailing around rarely gets you anywhere, but once you got the fundamentals down pat you can expand, experiment and improvise around those and become more successful than ever.

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PARTY’S OVER! Oh, wait, that was a lawnmower, wasn’t it?

Later on even more complexity was added. You can now equip one of five auxiliary weapons (fun stuff like a flamethrower or that chainsaw above) in addition to your two main weapons and choose one active and one passive ability for it, expanding your deck to eight each. Also, various augments can be attached to the seven main active abilities for additional effects and bonuses.

The possibilities are pretty much endless, and I love it. Sure, it’s not easy to wrap your head around at first, but once you’ve ‘got it’ the freedom to play just the way you want is unmatched, which is something that has always been very important to me.

Of course, to make optimal use of your dream build(s) you also need the right gear to match. I’ll talk about that next time.

The condemned live longer indeed

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When Lakisa told me not long ago that she would very much like to play a scenario-mission or two in The Secret World sometime I had to remind her of the sad fact that this outstanding game doesn’t exist anymore as we knew it – at least officially, that is.

Granted, I’d never heard anything about the servers having actually been shut down, but since Funcom launched – excuse me, frankensteined Secret World Legends into existence in 2017 the game’s launcher unsolicitedly patches itself to that version, and the old servers can’t be feeling too well after three years of (presumed) neglect either, can they?

I wasn’t sure whether there’s actually still a way to play the original game, is what I’m saying.

However a bit of googling revealed, much to our delight, that the servers are still up and running indeed. I used my old DVDs to install the game files, prevented the launcher from patching itself to SWL following these easy instructions and soon the old, familiar log-in screen welcomed me.

Anxiously I logged in and found my character just where I’d left him, standing on Agartha’s main platform, which triggered all kinds of nostalgia right away.

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What’s remarkable – or at least surprising – about this picture? Exactly, that I’m not the only one on it.

Now, before anyone gets their hopes up, there’s obviously not a huge amount of players around. Compared to, say, seven years ago Agartha’s pretty much a ghost town. But whenever I log in I see anywhere between two and six other players there, and that’s about two to six more than I’d expected.

I’ve even been whispered to from players who were looking to fill up their respective group or raid twice already. Had I not been in the middle of a scenario-mission both times (what can I say, I really like doing those) I would have gladly obliged, and we added each other to our friends-lists for another time.

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There’s also a Discord channel for those who still play the game to group up more easily or just chat. As of yet Lakisa and I haven’t actually done any group content with others, but we will for sure.

As for the game itself, it looks and feels just the way I remembered it, as if no time had passed at all. It absolutely is in maintenance mode though. The last patch dates back to December 13th 2016, and there won’t be holiday, anniversary or any other events happening. Which means no world bosses to fight either. That’s a shame, however there probably wouldn’t be enough players to bring those down anyway.

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Not quite as many folks around anymore, no Sir

Other than that all the content is still there waiting to be played, and in my opinion that’s a hell of a lot, despite any claims to the contrary. More importantly, the quality of said content is off the charts in many respects, and although I’ve done it all before I’m enjoying myself immensely.

I can’t even decide what I love the most: the setting and atmosphere, the quest design, the great storytelling and voice acting, the music, or the extremely flexible and borderline addictive skill- and gear-systems.

I guess I’ll just have to rave about all of them, which is exactly what I intend to do.

Time flies when you’re having fun

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As per tradition: moar cake!

Hard to believe, but today marks this here blog’s third birthday.

Had you asked me back then whether I thought I’d still be writing blog posts three years down the road…I really don’t know what my answer would have been.

One thing I do know for sure though. Had you told me at the time that I would publish 187 posts with a total of 156 thousand words, and still no end in sight, I’d called you crazy. But here we are.

The main reason, of course, is that it is a lot of fun. Much more so than I would have imagined. It’s also an ongoing learning experience. When I compare my first couple dozen posts with more recent ones it’s almost as if someone else had written the former. It’s remarkable how quickly human beings can learn stuff that’s rather alien to them and become at least somewhat proficient just by doing it over and over.

Along the way I’ve even learned a bit of HTML-code – I didn’t want to, but WordPress made me – which may come in handy…or not.

What didn’t happen was blogging becoming my true love and/or main driving force. Towards the end of Blapril Bhagpuss said that he’d rather write about games than actually play them, at least at the moment. To me actually playing the games is still much more important, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. After all the desire to chronicle my gaming adventures was and remains far and away the main purpose of this blog.

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Speaking of which, this third year has indeed been quite an adventurous one, not least due to the release of ArcheAge Unchained in October. Sucker for sandboxes that I am I’ve been deep-sea fishing, building a family empire with friends, trading, making music and generally goofing around quite a lot since then.

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Warframe was last year’s new addition to my gaming library, and a really great one. While it’s obviously neither an MMORPG nor a sandbox it has a surprising number of gameplay elements on offer that aren’t just about killing stuff. I’ve built a custom gun, went mining and fishing, composed deadly tunes, played Guitar Hero In Space and tried myself at parcours.

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The third game I’ve spent a lot of time with was EVE Online. I went back to nullsec, experienced my first Keepstar-kill, saw a faction Fortizar blow up and went to fight inside wormhole space. In April we would have finally made a trip to Iceland and attended the EVE fanfest too, but of course that didn’t happen. Maybe next year.

Finally, about a week ago Lakisa asked me, quite unexpectedly, about an MMORPG we hadn’t been playing for a couple of years. Honestly, I’d had heavy-heartedly made my peace with the fact that I’d never play it again some time ago, what with the reboot it got in 2017 that, in my opinion, was totally uncalled-for and ‘improved’ an outstanding game very much for the worse. Turns out, though, that the original version can still be played and even has a couple handful of players.

So yeah, we’re back.

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Looking stylish as ever…

Don’t be surprised to read some stories about a supposedly dead game around here in the near future. Year number four, here I come.