For most reviews, I separate out the different parts of the game in question and evaluate them on their own (See Part 1 here!); What is the combat like; how does the character advance; is the community friendly. And I started to do that with Swordsman, and rapidly found myself frustrated. So for part 2, working on evaluating the meat of the game, I’m going to take a different tactic because I’ve found Swordsman exemplifies the absolute importance of a game’s first impression. There are far too many games out there now for designers to have the luxury of ignoring the initial 30 minutes of play.
Those 30 minutes, that first hour – they are perhaps the single most important period of time for any game. Take The Secret World, for example. I love that game, I really do. It has a permanent place on my harddrive next to Morrowind, and I have never for even a moment felt regret over the purchase of the lifetime pack. But every time I tell someone new about the game, I feel compelled to introduce it by telling them that they need to start playing it when they have time – because that first hour sucks.
Why do I bring up The Secret World when I’m here to talk about Swordsman? Because that first hour in Swordsman, that golden hour of gaming, makes the first hour of The Secret World look amazing. I have since come to appreciate some of what Swordsman does and I’m still playing it, but I’ll make no bones about the fact that it has the first few hours of the most boring play that I’ve ever suffered through.
You begin the game on the beach in my screenshot above, with a young girl running for you. She tells you that the village is under attack, and you’re needed to help defend it. And this is where my boredom begins.
The first thing that I realized, is that features of the game are not only level locked, but quest blocked as well. Running, jumping, and even character combat skills – all are blocked by level limits and quests. And even beyond that, the quest system is such that game actually plays itself; all you have to do is click on the hotlink in the quest tracker and you’ll not only run to where the quest updates, but you’ll auto attack the enemies! All you have to do is click, wait for it to die, click to go to the next, wait for it to die, click again. Then once everything is dead, just click one more time to run to the NPC where you turn it in – and the game very helpfully opens up the dialogue window for you once you’re there. I have yet to encounter any enemies that can withstand the awesome might of my autoattack, so I have no qualms in stating that in this regard, the game really can and does play itself.
If that’s not bad enough, the sin that I consider to be the most grievous of them all in regards to questlines is made plain pretty quickly; it doesn’t matter that you handily dispatch the enemies you’re fighting, once you get far enough a video cutscene kicks in where you flee, fall down, and are rescued by the Super Awesome NPC of Badassery. And it gets even worse from there as the story takes you through a dazzling array of rapid and bizarre scene changes – one minute you’re fighting thugs over your village’s treasured sword, the next you’re drunk, the very next you’re fighting some weird giant spider in a cave and flying on a giant bird. At one point I found myself giving fruit to a monkey to obtain legendary wine. I make no attempt to conceal my general disdain for quest based advancement in MMOs, but however much I enjoy the novels this game is based around, I find its quests to be mind-numbingly awful.
If I’d been playing this game on my own, I would have uninstalled it before the first hour was up. But I was there to review, so I persevered because I despise the idea of writing a review when I haven’t even hit level 20 of the game in question. And I’ll admit, I’m glad I did.
At around level 20, the game opened up. I had my first martial art, and I discovered that the schools make a huge difference in terms of game enjoyability. For my first character, I had no idea what I was doing, so I picked the Five Venoms School. Butterflies, poisons and whips. How could you go wrong with that combination? Quite easily, as I came to discover. The class itself was fine, but I really didn’t enjoy the way it played. I floundered around, bored, and finally decided to try making an alt to give a different school a try. I’m an alto-holic, so not only would this let me test further, but I’d be able to get a glimpse of how the game replays.
And once again, I suffered through it until I hit the quest where you pick schools. This time, however, I was armed with knowledge and I went to the internet to read about schools in swordsman. And here is where I’ll break from the game to return to my original premise; a gamer’s first moments in a game. Designers, if you’re reading this, I promise you, if you give your players information about important character choices, it’s not going to drive anyone away. I’ll go even further to state that if a player has to level through the game before they can make a class choice – giving them the ability to try out different classes before making that final choice is even less daunting! Please don’t make me level a character, then make a gameplay choice like picking my class on nothing but in-game lore. My class choice is an absolutely vital part of what makes a game fun, and there is nothing fun about having to level a character through repetitive storylines only to discover that I picked a class with a playstyle I don’t enjoy.
But at this point you’re probably wondering – if I had that terrible a time, why did I say that I’m still playing it? Why is it still installed, and why do I still log in and play? I’m running out of space so will have to pick the details of that up at a later date, but the short answer to that is at around level 30 a slew of new options open up – and that’s when I discovered that the game that I’d been playing up until then had been designed to play itself. I just hadn’t been high enough level to utilize the core features of that design. It’s called Self Cultivation, and is essentially a program or advanced macro of a sorts, that lets you set up actions your character will take by itself. This allows you to set up general leveling and questing commands that will continue even when you’re not playing, so you can do the fun stuff like dungeons and events when you’re actually playing.
The concept is really interesting, although I would have to say that the single largest contributing factor to nearly every negative impression that I had of the game is this one feature as it is level locked to 30. Why make players have to play through 30 levels of gameplay that are seemingly designed around autoplay before giving them access to said autoplay? There are no positives that I can think of, only negatives in that it creates a very boring introduction to the game.
The good stuff is upcoming – treasure hunting, events, pvp and more.