Confession: When I started playing Funcom’s The Secret World I wanted to hate it. I really did. The chip left on my shoulder from Age of Conan was enormous, not to mention my preference for sandbox MMOs over the themepark variation. It seemed absolutely impossible for me to like The Secret World. Ultimately I was wrong. That said, you’re not about to read a love letter to Funcom. TSW is a mixed bag. It just so happens that the bag in question is actually very interesting.
“What is this the %&$*@#% remake of The Wicker Man?!” Those were the exact words that came out of my mouth as a glowing bee flew into my avatar’s. After building one of the ugliest characters in my 17 years as an avid MMO player I was promptly molested by an equally ugly cinematic (I’m talking purely about aesthetics here). At this point I wanted to decapitate a black rooster under a new moon in the hopes that the art director responsible might be haunted for all eternity.
I created an Illuminati character figuring they’d be some sort of hybrid between Grant Morrison’s psychotropic comic series The Invisibles (1994 – 2000) and Patrick McGoohan’s subversive TV series The Prisoner (1967 – 1968). That’s not exactly what I got. Unfortunately the Illuminati do not send a flesh golem disguised as Rod Serling to collect their new recruits, they send a really annoying used car salesman. Perhaps that wouldn’t have bothered me if it all didn’t look so plastic and awkward.
The Secret World’s worst enemy is its character models. A lot of the overall aesthetic is preserved by the solid voice acting and sound design. And when I questioned other MMO players about their opinions regarding TSW they all said nearly the same thing. They loved the world, the monsters and the narrative design. Animations, combat and particularly the character models were most often cited as being deficient. I’ve also learned that the avatars we have now are a serious improvement from their “simian” ancestors from previous betas. For that I’m thankful.
MMO veterans will be familiar with TSW’s basics. The Secret World is a leveling based content progression game. Traditional character levels have been replaced by gear quality levels (QL). Quests display difficulty levels derived from your character’s current QL average.
Players journey along a trail of breadcrumbs to what I imagine will be a cliffhanger of sorts. A revolution in narrative structure this is not. However, TSW does a commendable job of forcing you to stop and think. That’s incredibly different in contrast to new-school MMO games’ philosophy of constant hand holding.
Within the first 30 minutes of play I was solving indirect mysteries that not only rewarded me with game currency and loot, but also made me feel really clever. That feeling of accomplishment isn’t the result of some game designer’s brain hack. If you’re not cheating you’re legitimately solving riddles, puzzles and in some truly evil cases MATH PROBLEMS.
All of this material is masterfully blended into the setting. At no point does TSW feel like an unwelcome pop quiz. The content, especially the investigations, are geared for collaborative problem-solving. Just be aware that general chat is often filled with spoilers. I turned mine off almost immediately and sought out a static group to play with.
Of course players can cheat by looking up walkthroughs. But they’re just cheating themselves out of a challenging experience. Players actually need to use google in order to look up specially crafted web-pages that hold clues regarding investigation missions. The urge to stray off those pages and directly to a walkthrough can be tempting at times. But mark my words, you will regret doing this.
“The Kingsmouth Code” investigation was perplexing. Fortunately for me one of the members of my group had already completed it. I’m pretty sure that without her hint (and my cultural background) I would have been stuck for hours. It’s been a long time since a themepark MMO had crafted material like this.
Now, I’m fully aware of Funcom’s statement regarding combat and progression. Apparently the game-play vastly improves as you advance your character’s deck (class builds). I’d be somewhat OK with this if TSW were free-to-play. But it’s not. You’re effectively saying give us $50 and 15 hours of your time and we’ll unlock the “feel good” (that’s roughly where I started to enjoy playing my grifter). To be fair, combat might have felt better sooner if I had picked another deck. I acknowledge that.
It seems every time I found myself frustrated over a random feature I’d be greeted by a particularly interesting NPC (words I do not say, or write, very often). Sure if it was a woman her breasts were in the wrong place, while the men…well let’s just say they all sing like angels. But enough of that, TSW’s story was actually winning me over. Here I was playing a massively multiplayer game for the PVE. The content is so compelling I started to overlook the flaws I still have serious problems with. Strangely enough I was happy about that (it’s good to be playing an MMO again). There’ve been too many online RPGs that have failed this past decade. And, I learned a long time ago, that just because an MMO has been released it doesn’t mean it’s finished. That might sound a little paradoxical but it’s the truth. There will be patches and expansions. Inevitably some of these issue will be dealt with.
The Secret World also offers faction based PVP and as far as I can tell “All your base are belong to Templar.”
Each PVP map offers different rule sets hypothetically enforced by the Council of Venice. Aside from finding the faction uniforms unforgivably lame, I had a good time… I think. Most of the game-play took the shape of zerg VS zerg. But when I did make a kill It truly felt good. So after experimenting with my build a few times I ended up actually contributing in Fusang. I still have a great deal to learn but that too is exciting.
Problems aside I’m actually enjoying the game. It’s as if TSW represents the first thaw in a decade of continuous blizzard. Many would agree that the MMO industry has stalled while waiting for its fabled “WoW killer” to manifest. And while The Secret World is not that game, its designers were smart enough to realize it didn’t have to be. TSW might be a long way from perfection but it’s quirky nature and exotic content are well worth the price of admission.
In the beginning – the Styrofoam filled, diet pill popping 1970s — there was Dungeons & Dragons, a modified war game turned persistent adventure game. Small groups of friends would gather in dusty basements, around kitchen tables and occasionally in the odd garage to cooperatively explore exotic fantasy realms. Each player took on the role of an individualized character, typically composed of a race and class paring, e.g. Elven Thief, Human Fighter etc. Before any of you rust covered veterans start complaining, I’d like to remind you that you’re old and no, the kids don’t know about this. But I digress.
These characters were kept on sheets of pressed tree pulp called paper and their mathematical statistics were managed with a pencil (a material derived from graphite).
OK, I’m being a jerk.
The biggest difference between D&D and its war gaming ancestors was the persistence and progression of the paper character. This is where the concept of leveling up comes from and you already know how that works. However, more importantly and to my point, players who adventured for long periods of time together forge real bonds. It’s no different really than the dynamic that emerges through the routine participation of any group activity (Band, dojo, knitting circle etc). Admittedly some players are already friends before they engage in an activity like Table Top Gaming. But this doesn’t change my point.
So why is it that in this age of hyper-connectivity we have yet to see a meaningful RPG experience crafted to support a group dynamic? Having grown up playing table top, it’s safe to say that online guilds and multiplayer FPS games don’t offer the same intimacy.
Day Z (hardcore zombie survival simulator) has a lot of game designers talking and rightly so. Arma II & Operation Arrowhead sales have gone through the roof and its designer Rocket has been flung into overnight stardom. This experiment illustrates a number of helpful parallels regarding intimacy and gaming. I was a little skeptical of what a 60 person server could offer in the way of community. Of course, I quickly realized that was irrelevant. Online guilds exist on a communal-layer that supersedes the actual game being played.
Unfortunately for Day Z the moment a formidable group of players assembles, the game’s difficulty mountain inverts. Why? Because once the path of least resistance is discovered and Risk VS Reward properly assessed the sandbox is essentially beaten. In Day Z terms, this means you’re never more than 20 minutes away from an AK-47, Alice pack and a tent and you can reliably get to them nine times out of ten. Congratulations you’ve won.
When I first discovered Day Z none of my friends were playing and I was definitely having the experience Rocket had intended. The game-play even held up after my little brother joined in on the action. There we were, two idiots running through the dark, hiding from zombies and having a lot of fun. This lasted a few blissful weeks.
Thanks to Facebook I noticed that a number of my old work pals were playing too. So I hooked up with them expecting to have a great time. And, for a few more weeks, Day Z was all I could think about. It all started to go sideways when I realized everyone in this group was cheating; they were turning up the gamma (poor man’s night vision) to see in the dark, item duping tents inside other tents, inside other tents, not to mention ammunition – ad infinitum. I admit I cheated too (mostly ammo). But even if we weren’t a bunch of cheating @$$&*|#$ we were still running out of things to do in Day Z. We weren’t survivors we were a bunch of munchkins! But that wasn’t the only problem.
I found myself longing for some form of progression in my experience beyond getting the next gun. It started to feel as if the game needed more content. Yes I understand that the game is in alpha and it’s a sandbox experience. When I say content I’m not suggesting Rocket fills the villages with barking NPCs who incessantly request your help in finding their lost cats, gold or wolf pelts. Instead, imagine the Chernarus Map is only one of three environments of scaling difficulty. Map two is composed of sprawling Russian suburbs (a chunk of Moscow perhaps) and a third map where the survivors experience crescendos by making it all the way to X. Players would need to complete a difficult task or series of lesser tasks in order to progress to the following map. I also propose that you could accomplish this without using one silly NPC. For example: assembling the car might be a task required to progress from Chernarus to Map two.
Ultimately I played for as long as I did because my Day Z group had bonded in much the same way my D&D group once did. Character compositions were now made up of play-styles and weapon load outs instead of race and class parings. Our individual personalities had flavored our characters and we actually felt bad when someone died. When such an event transpired we built a tent grave for the fallen where we’d stow as much of their gear as we could. While this ritual was really just a fast way to pass on gear to a character’s new incarnation, it had a somewhat sentimental value. The pledge “Don’t worry man, we’ve got your night vision goggles” carried a bit of RP weight. I can only imagine what a hand-crafted action/RPG experience would offer a small group of players.
This sort of brings me back to my original subject.
Where’s our five-player Skyrim already?
Originally appeared on ryanverniere.blogspot.com
[WARNING: This editorial explores some of the historical, conspiratorial and mythological source material behind Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IP. This article also acknowledges the existence of sexual intercourse. The following information contains spoilers. You have been warned.]
Those of you paying attention know that the Assassin’s Creed series has been playing hard and fast with recorded history. When we were first introduced to Desmond Miles — everyman bartender — he had just been captured by mega-corporation Abstergo — the word abstergo is Latin for “to wipe off, clean away”.
This company is what the lovechild of DARPA and Lockheed Martin might look like.
The captive Miles is forced to use a machine called the Animus to experience his ancestor’s memories. A task only the befuddled mixologist can accomplish.
His first ancestor is a man called Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, a rogue assassin during the time of the Crusades — the 3rd Crusade specifically. Here the Desmond Miles character takes a backseat to the assassin ancestor and we’re off exploring locations including an isolated mountain village in Masyaf, the Syrian capital Damascus, Mediterranean coastal city Acre and Jerusalem: cradle of the major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Altaïr gracefully maneuvers the cities using “le parcour” — a major feature — murdering Templar and subordinates searching for an [alien] artifact called “the Piece of Eden”.
Don’t worry, that’s where the similarities between Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Assassin’s Creed ends.
[NOTE] The original Assassin’s Creed game was a bit of a tech demo. While conspiracy nerds found the plot engaging — thanks to writer Corey May — most people didn’t care for the repetitive game-play, numerous bugs and lack of customization. Still, considering you can pick up a used copy of Assassin’s Creed for less than $20, I’d suggest the aforementioned nerds do so. PS3 owners automatically get the original Assassin’s Creed by simply picking up the Revelations Blu-ray disc.
So here we have a game that explores the subject of secret societies (specifically the Assassins & Templar organizations), ancient astronauts (Those Who Came Before), remote viewing (via the Animus) and enough mythological string theory to resurrect Joseph Campbell.
Amazingly it works. Seriously, if this article reads like I’m a bit punchy, please don’t misinterpret my intent; I adore the Assassin’s Creed games. I could go on and on about AC II, Brotherhood and Revelations.
[NOTE] For those of you on a budget you can watch all of the cut-scenes on YouTube. This is a great way to inexpensively brush up on the plot. Though — if you can — I advise actually playing through the series.
A number of individuals — from the Internet — have pondered, disapproved and scratched their heads regarding AC3’s setting. What does Assassin’s Creed have to do with the Revolutionary War? And how can Desmond Miles be related to Connor/Ratohnhaké:ton — pronounced Ra-doon-ha-gay-doo meaning “He hunts it”– a half-English, half-Mohawk man?
In a game filled with data encrypted memories — and a plot that puts “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” to shame — nothing is out of the question. Also, you might want to look up a book called “The Seven Daughters of Eve” by Bryan Sykes. As it turns out we’re all a bit related, so if I get my hands on an Animus I’ll inevitably be overwhelmed by the amount of viewing options available to me; just like my satellite TV debacle of 2003.
Why the Revolutionary War? Ok, let’s rewind to 2001. An Italian paleographer named Barbara Frale discovers a document called the Chinon chart in the Vatican Secret Archives. The parchment “explicitly confirms that in 1308 Pope Clement V absolved Jacques de Molay and other leaders of the [Templar] Order…”  If you’re wondering what this means I’ll try to summarize.
Molay was imprisoned for almost seven years before his execution — they burned him at the stake on March 18 1314 in front of Notre Dame. He and his pals where accused of heresy. Some argue — including the condemned — that the charges were fictitious and that no one had confessed.
To boil it down in modern parlance, the Templars had way too much power in medieval Europe. They basically invented the modern banking system, the personal check and were a complex multinational force. The Vatican and enemies like Philip IV of France called BS and whacked ‘em all.
Ok, they didn’t get all of the Templar and both Philip and Clement were dead within a year of Molay’s execution — “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Vatican allies/agents had killed or arrested — and then killed — hundreds of Templar, but the Order had thousands of members.
Now this is where we diverge from accepted history and delve into Dan Brown territory.
There are numerous legends regarding the 23rdand last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. What I’m talking about specifically involves the stories of Templar in the New World — the western Hemisphere. The Order claimed to possess a large fleet of ships maintained at La Rochelle in western France.
Records are fuzzy regarding the validity of this, but there’s a legend that at least three ships avoided the Vatican’s strike by fleeing to the New World by following old Viking routes — Northern Scotland, to Iceland, to Greenland, to Canada. And it only gets better because these ships were supposedly laden with the Order’s most valuable treasures.
Some believe the Templar possessed sacred artifacts including the Shroud of Turin and the severed head of John the Baptist; apparently they kept it in a little urn. Are you starting to see the potential connections to Assassin’s Creed?
I’m proposing that in the Assassins Creed III lore these ships made it to the New World. And, if you’re balking at the idea of lost Templar treasure in North America I’d like to direct your attention here: Oak Island.
Also, The Da Vinci Disappearance DLC ends inside a temple whose GPS coordinates happen to coincide with a lake in New York State — yet another potential thread to tie into the Mohawk Valley setting.
What happened to the exiled Knights Templar is unknown. Some say they planted the seeds of Freemasonry while they were in Scotland– an interesting plot point considering George Washington was a Freemason; fertile soil for AC3’s writer and I can’t wait to see what is done with it.
Others say the ships and their crews turned pirate or simply died. Regardless, I’m betting we’ll discover a treasure buried on a coastal island within the game’s new installment. But that’s not much of a prophecy considering there is always buried treasure in an Assassins Creed game.
It’s reasonable to point out that the events of Assassin’s Creed II – and subsequently Brotherhood and Revelations – take place in the 15th century. The – arguably – historical points I’ve brought up obviously happen much earlier. Regardless, I’m going with my gut. There’s a familial connection between the Knights Templar and Masonic Freemasonry, pre-Colombian voyages to the New World and Connor’s relation to Desmond. Ezio Auditore da Firenze was a baby making machine after all. Yeah, you helped that lady with the flower basket too. I’m willing to say that not only does Connor have English blood he has royal blood at that. I wonder if he’s a Hemophiliac.
Ok, there’s no way he’s a Hemophiliac. I don’t see Connor bleeding out after his first meeting with a bayonet.
If you have any theories you’d like to share regarding Assassins Creed III or the conspiracies indirectly related to the property share them in the comments below.
[Source 1] Frale, Barbara (2004) “The Chinon chart – Papal absolution to the last Templar, Master Jacues de Molay” via the Journal of Medieval History 30 (2): 109 – 134.
[Source 2] Khan Noonien Singh, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, who refers to this as “… an old Klingon proverb”.
~ by Ryan Verniere
A great disturbance shook through the cognizance of the Force-sensitive on May 19 1999.
Much like the destruction of Alderaan in 1977, Star Wars fans were stunned — if not a bit horrified — by the lackluster prequels; I’m looking at you Phantom Menace. The wound cauterized to the bone and turned some fans into ravenous haters.
Hardcore fans endured mostly through denial. They were the types who laughed at others’ disapproval because “Star Wars was clearly for kids”; I found that those arguments were best ignored. Admiral Ackbar had taught us to avoid such strategic dead ends. Any serious Star Wars devotee with an ounce of critical thought could admit the franchise had lost some of its cool.
Obvious confession: I was a fanboy turned hater from 2005 to 2011; however, times they are a-changing. BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic has brought balance to the force. Anger has given way to love — or vice versa – I am playing Sith after all. Once again I find myself dreaming of light sabers and purple lightning.
The overall tonality of SWTOR is pitch-perfect.
Take the opening Sith cinematic for example: here we see the iconic Gunslinger class that’s composed of 1/3 Indiana Jones 2/3 Clint Eastwood via “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Seconds after pleading for the return of his starship he finds the time to eyeball some Twi’lek booty. His charmingly roguish nature immediately reminds us of Han, but what’s this? Oh, it’s a Sith fleet come to lay waste to everything in its path. I curdle over in joy. I’m only a few minutes into my SWTOR experience and I’ve already forgotten about the prequels.
I’m following the Sith Inquisitor storyline and at the time of writing this editorial I’ve just reached level 18. At no point has the dark-side narrative disappointed. The designers — yes writers are also designers *gasp* — have done a masterful job of balancing the right mix of venomous ambition and political subterfuge. They’ve successfully incarnated the majesty of the Star Wars Universe.
And they’ve done so with the deck slightly stacked against them.
Even with the limited success of The Force Unleashed games; I think it’s safe to say relevant popular culture had written Star Wars off. I suppose this means it’s OK to pull out my novelty Star Wars t-shirts again?
Sure it is.
Most of the systems featured in SWTOR will feel familiar to those of you who play MMOs. There are some variations but as far as I can tell they will be easy to master. What has kept me spellbound are the voiced quests and experiencing them in a group. I’m currently partnered with a calculating Imperial Agent; talk about a fantastic story arc.
I didn’t follow the Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon, but if that storyline is half as good as this I might check it out. I reference the cartoon because the class story sequences share a similar esthetic. The direction to avoid a realistic style and marry SWTOR’s look to an established brand — while targeting an achievable visual milestone — was a stroke of genius.
For the first time in 12 years I find myself staving off the endgame in an MMO. Unlearn what every WoW expansion has ingrained into your skulls. The “world firsts” have already happened. We weren’t there and that’s OK.
As far as I can tell there are more than enough level 50s lurking by PvP terminals. Why rush off to the same fate? If standing around like a bastardization of the Terracotta Warriors is your thing I can’t stop you. But don’t ask me to understand it.
Take some time to smell the ozone wafting off your Force crystals and rejoice in the fact that Star Wars is cool again.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary partially defines anticipation as “b: the act of looking forward; especially: pleasurable expectation”.
It’s coldly accurate and doesn’t do the feeling I’ve personally encountered numerous times a shred of justice. No one understands anticipation better than a gamer waiting for the next installment of a beloved franchise — no one. Perhaps the scientists of The Manhattan Project and expecting parents get it too. But I digress.
We wait in the dark — in ritualistic lines under a cresting moon, penitently waiting for the witching hour — as our loved ones ponder our sanity from the warmth of their midsized SUVs. We erect tent villages and cook food on toxic blue fire, though not for some political cause.
We do it to be one of the first, one of the lucky few, to tenderly undress our copy of Guild Wars 2, Mass Effect 3, or Diablo III. In my case there’s more savagery and shredding; like something out of a Whitechapel alleyway circa 1888 — you get the idea.
Even unboxing has become a broadcast value event. The first time I looked up and took notice was for a You Tube video featuring an original iPhone. I watched in awe as the exterior cellophane fell away. I held my breath as each layer of cardboard was separated, with the dexterity and grace of a surgeon repairing a severed spinal cord. The anticipation of owning one took hold, dismounting some previous object of desire — which in hindsight might have been a girlfriend. It’s no secret: I’d make a terrible Buddhist.
This special breed of anticipation rarely occurs naturally in the wild. The root of the feeling is organic enough. However, it doesn’t reach those crescendos of emotion that drive us to stampede unsuspecting GameStop managers or gnash our teeth for fear of missing out. No, that’s something more.
That’s genetically modified, USDA certified, mutant strain levels of anticipation.
What we’re dealing with is a modern alchemical practice whose conjuring is known by one name…and thy name is marketing!
So, how much of what we’re experiencing is honest youthful anticipation and how much of it is the result of an Illusionist’s level 4 messaging spell?