Thoughts on The Secret World (Work in Progress)

Thoughts on The Secret World
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Around the birth of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) there was a game called Ultima Online, an online variation of the popular Ultima series of RPGs. Ultima Online had, to this day, a unique skill system within mainstream MMOs. Although you selected a starting class or custom made one your skills and thus role in the game were never fixed. Skills improved as you used them be they magic, swordsmanship, parrying or meditation right through to trade skills such as mining and armour smithing. For some reason, which to me remains opaque, in the mainstream every MMO that followed abandoned such a system forcing you to create multiple characters should you wish to experiment. Your skill set essentially set in stone. Imagine being born a miner knowing full well you could never write a line of code or solve a crossword?
There are, of course, less well known games that use such a system but none quite as elegantly as UO did. You could lock a skill, set it only to raise or force it to decrease. Thus with careful management I could forgo my meditation and wrestling skills by marking them down and concentrate on raising my parrying skills with a foil to better protect my mage in combat.

The Secret World although not directly emulating this path also gives you free reign. You earn skill points and can invest them in whatever branch of the skill set you see fit. Thus respeccing (is that shorthand for re-specialising?) is a matter of inputting the time to earn the skill points. As a departure from the UO method you thus don’t lose skills, you simply can’t take advantage of them without the requisite item equipped, say a shotgun or a magic ward or totem.

That’s what drew me to the game but now it is primarily Ragnar Tornquist’s excellent writing. Having cut his teeth on some of the best point and click adventure games in recent times, The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall, the writing is top notch. Suprisingly by and large so is the voice acting, even if the character animation during dialogue is somewhat off.

This coupled with quests liberally scattered around the games areas rarely leaves you feeling bored, though you will find yourself rapidly outclassed even doing the side quests. On that note it’s worth talking about the quests and their associated cut scenes.

The game uses a completely silent protagonist, a raised eyebrow is about as expressive as your avatar becomes in these scenes. After the bountiful dialogue used in Star Wars the Old Republic this is initially jarring but some self conscious nods in the game lead to acceptance of this odd fact by and large. Is my sword wielding chaos magic avatar a mute?

The quests are pretty much of the standard MMO variety. Escort, Kill, Retrieve, Follow, Assist etc. etc. However the presentation of these quests sells them well. Gone for the most part is plain text and following arrows to the next waypoint (although waypoints are very much present, they generally lead you to the area no the spot). In are snippets of newspapers and maps shown as handwritten notes and scrawled stained maps and photos. The main quest chain appears devoid of the more exotic puzzles, I assume only so as not to hinder progress for those that have neither the time or inclination to solve them.

It’s in the side quests for me that the game therefore shines, being optional the designers appear to have had a bloody field day. So, as an example: (SPOILERS, I’ll put this behind a cut later)

=======================================================

One quest wants you to track down four satellite dishes in a site and repoint them to a different satellite. You do this not by just clicking on them but entering the err azimuth/elevation data. A simple change but an important one as you need to refer to your notes if you don’t have it memorised. It is at this point things get better. The first satellite displays this:

29 21 68 6f 24 28 23 23 2c 20 63 28 23 20 5f 6f
23 20 68 24 21 29 20 24 23 3f 20 43 2b 3d 2a 28
25 20 40 2b 72 20 29 5e 78 20 24 21 79 24 20 40
28 21 20 23 24 2a 25 6e 20 21 2a 67 23 29 23 2e
20 21 63 21 28 23 73 20 74 2b 24 20 25 5e 26 40
20 6f 2a 20 24 69 2b 40 2e 20 46 5f 24 2a 21 79
2d 28 5e 75 29 20 21 65 61 23 2b 23 20 5e 26 5e
76 21 20 21 68 5f 25 20 2a 20 21 28 40 23 79 2c
20 62 40 25 20 2a 20 63 24 69 29 40 20 28 2b 20
69 40 20 5e 2a 20 23 28 65 20 5e 2a 26 21 65 20
2b 7e 20 21 65 21 5f 24 21 20 48 25 2a 40 20 6d
2a 20 5f 6f 3d 24 40 21

The second this:

83 33 61 42 108 97 35 35 44 32 33 40 110 32
95 61 35 32 64 101 33 41 32 109 35 63 32 64
104 61 42 40 100 32 102 43 37 32 41 94 40 32
100 33 42 36 32 97 40 33 32 115 101 42 37 35
32 110 105 36 35 41 35 46 32 65 41 33 40 35 61
32 64 104 36 32 37 94 38 115 32 33 42 32 36 94
114 64 46 32 64 95 117 114 33 42 45 40 94 40
114 32 98 38 42 35 43 35 32 94 38 94 64 101
32 33 64 97 37 32 42 32 99 40 64 114 94 44 32
42 117 37 32 42 32 33 36 37 110 64 32 40 111
32 36 64 32 94 110 32 35 40 36 32 104 42 38
33 42 32 43 102 32 33 42 97 95 36 33 32 40 37
42 100 32 36 42 32 119 33 61 36 64 33

The third this:

KWM9KiQociMsICFhIyBfPXUgQCQhciAkIz8gQCthKiglIEArJSBzXiggJCEqcyBAbiEg<
IyR2JSMgISokaCkjLiAhKSEocz0gQCtlICVedEAgIWYgJF4rZS4gQG8kKiEqLWZeKCkg
ISYqI3RzIF4mYUAhIHdAXyUgSSAhYUAjXiwgKkB0ICogIWwlKWcgKCsgJEAgaSogdCgk
IF5vdSEqICt+IGQqIXQkISAoJWVAICR5IF8hciRzIQ==

and the fourth:

00101001 00100001 00111101 00101010 01101100
00101000 00100011 01110011 00101100 00100000
00100001 00101000 00100011 00100000 01111001
00111101 00100011 00100000 01000000 00100100
01100001 00101001 00100000 00100100 01100101
00111111 00100000 01000000 00101011 00111101
01110011 01100101 00100101 00100000 01000000
01101111 00100101 00100000 00101001 01101001
00101000 00100000 00100100 01100001 00101010
00100100 00100000 01000000 00101000 01100100
00100000 00100011 00100100 00101010 01100101
00100011 00100000 00100001 00101010 00100100
00100011 01110100 01110011 00101110 00100000
00100001 00101001 01110010 01101111 00100011
00111101 00100000 01000000 00101011 00100100
00100000 01110000 01101001 00100110 01000000
00100000 00100001 00101010 00100000 01100110
01011110 00101011 01000000 00101110 00100000
01000000 01011111 00100100 00101010 01110100
00101010 00101101 00100001 01101111 00101000
00101001 00100000 00100001
00100110 00101010 01110011 00101011 00100011
00100000 01100011 01110010 01011110 01000000
00100001 00100000 00100001 01000000 01011111
01110100 00100000 00101010 00100000 00101100
00100000 00101010 01000000 00100101 00100000
01001001 00100000 00100001 00100100 00100101
00101001 01000000 00100000 01110100 00101011
00100000 00100100 01110100 00100000 01011110
00101010 00100000 00100011 01101000 00100100
00100000 01011110 00101010 00100110 01110011
00101010 00100000 01101111 01111110 00100000
00100001 00101010 00100001 01011111 01101000
00100001 00100000 00101000 01100101 00101010
01000000 00100000 00100100 00101010 00100000
01011111 00100001 00111101 01100100 01000000
00100001

As a programmer this quest seemed tailor made for me. They are all ASCII. The first is displayed as Hex, the second the base-10, the third is Base64 encoded and the fourth is pure binary (essentially the same as 1 and 2. 1 is Base16, 2 is Base10 and 4 is Base2).

Decoding these and putting them underneath each other gives, with a few line breaks for clarity:

)!ho$(##, c(# _o# h$!) $#? C+=*(% @+r )^x $!y$ @(! #$*%n !*g#)#. !c!(#s
S!=*la##, !(n _=# @e!) m#? @h=*(d f+% )^( d!*$ a(! se*%# ni$#)#. A)!(#=
)c=*$(r#, !a# _=u @$!r $#? @+a*(% @+% s^( $!*s @n! #$v%# !*$h)#. !)!(s=
)!=*l(#s, !(# y=# @$a) $e? @+=se% @o% )i( $a*$ @(d #$*e# !*$#ts. !)ro#=

t+$ %^&@ o* $i+@. F_$*!y-(^u) !ea#+# ^&^v! !h_% * !(@#y, b@% * c$i)@ (+
@h$ %^&s !* $^r@. @_ur!*-(^(r b&*#+# ^&^@e !@a% * c(@r^, *u% * !$%n@ (o
@+e %^t@ !f $^+e. @o$*!*-f^() !&*#ts ^&a@! w@_% I !a@#^, *@t * !l%)g (+
@+$ pi&@ !* f^+@. @_$*t*-!o() !&*s+# cr^@! !@_t *      , *@% I !$%)@ t+

i@ ^* #(e ^*&!e +~ !e!_$! H%*@ m* _o=$@!
$@ ^n #($ h*&!* +f !*a_$! (%*d $* w!=$@!
$@ i* t($ ^ou!* +~ d*!t$! (%e@ $y _!r$s!
$t ^* #h$ ^*&s* o~ !*!_h! (e*@ $* _!=d@!

Reading down each column and picking only a valid letter from each gives you this:

Scholars, can you hear me? Chased for six days and seven nights. Across
the pits of fire. Fourty-four beasts crave what I carry, but I cling to it
in the house of death! Heed my words!

Instructions, heed the words indeed. Travel across the pits of fire (a huge burning scar opened up in the egyptian desert outside a town) and follow it north to a tomb. In there against the pillar is a body clutching a box, the pin to unlock it is 6744.

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End of spoilers. It's not the only example of this in the game but it's by far the most complicated I've encountered and in fact I quit out of the game to solve it, not having ready access to base64 and other command line tools and not wanting to use the in game web browser for fear of spoilers. This sets me thinking, why has no other online game done this? Sadly within the TSW comes the solution. The chat is commonly flooded with "I can't be bothered." and "What's the password for the doctors computer?" (a simple enough clue about the four seasons, vivaldi). Oh well.

In other news, the combat is initially solid but unenspiring with no real feel of 'connection' with your attacks. A common problem in such games and certainly not unique to TSW. However as you progress the range of skills becomes broader and the limitation of only having 6 active and 6 passive skills can lead to some judicious skill set building working out what of your array of skills will let you chain attacks to the most effect or perform efficient crowd control should the need arise.

This, coupled with underlying artifice on which the game is built (that every conspiracy theory is true) is why I love The Secret World. It really does deserve more subscribers, sadly it's not the most immediately fulfilling MMO. Either way, I'll be there as I have no monthly fees in the game. What I do need to find is a guild; those dungeons are calling me and without a group I would die screaming.

P.S. Free three day trial here, clicky you know you want to.

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