Game Review - 'The Secret World - The Venetian Agenda'

3 stars for 'The Venetian Agenda'

The Venetian Agenda is something a little different, as far as DLC for Funcom's MMORPG, The Secret World, goes. While previous DLC packs focused on offering new, and mostly self-contained, story-lines for the player to enjoy, this one is focused mainly on introducing new game-play mechanics. The new Scenarios, along with the Augment system to allow players to further develop their characters, is the main draw here. Of course, this is still The Secret World - so, naturally, there is also some further development of the game's story along the way.

Story-wise, The Venetian Agenda marks a point of transition for the game. The previous issue, A Dream to Kill, ended with the mysterious substance called the Filth (that's 'Filth' spelled with a capital 'F' - that should give you some idea of how nasty it is) making its way into Agartha (the Hollow Earth - honestly, if you're unfamiliar with The Secret World, there's going to be a lot of strange stuff thrown at you in this review). The Whispering Tide event which is currently running in-game has players doing whatever they can to fight back and drive the Filth out of Agartha. Now, the Council of Venice (a sort of magical United Nations, devoted to trying to keep the peace between the various supernatural power and secret societies active in the world) have got involved. They are planning to launch a mission of their own into the heart of Tokyo - a city which seems to have fallen entirely to the Filth, and through which it is pushing its way into Agartha. And, they are inviting the best agents of the Templar, the Illuminati and the Dragon to come along.

Of course, before you can sign up with the Council of Venice, you have to prove yourself as a competent agent (sure, you may already have done a lot to even get to this point. But, the Council weren't there to see it, were they?). Fortunately, the Council just so happens to have the perfect means of testing your worth, in the form of a chamber capable of creating a virtual reality environment for you to train in (basically, they have their own holo-deck) - along with a series of tests designed to push your abilities to their limits.

So, within the fictional universe of The Secret World, that is exactly what the Scenarios are. They are the Council's training program - which you have to pass before you will be allowed to enter Tokyo. And, they are tough. For most players, their first experience with one of these new Scenarios is likely to end in humiliating and hilarious failure. That was certainly the case for me.

The Scenarios recreate three locations drawn from the main game: the Hotel Wahid, from Egypt; the Franklin Mansion, from Solomon Island; and, the castle from Transylvania. Each area should already be intimately familiar to long-time players. The objective of each Scenario (and, there is only one objective, at the moment - though, that may change in the future) is to gather together groups of survivors and to protect them from waves of enemies. It may seem simple, but then you have the fact that different groups of survivors are likely to be on opposite ends of the map. And, the fact that you can never tell which group is going to be attacked until the wave begins to spawn. And, the fact that each wave has a very strict time-limit ending in the spawning of a powerful boss creature - and, if you have not cleared out the wave of ordinary creatures yet, you will find yourself having to take care of both.

It is very easy to get overwhelmed. Even knowing that the best strategy is to try to intercept a wave of creatures before they get to a group of survivors often hasn't helped me as I began to slowly fall behind.

What makes the Scenarios so challenging, though, is the potential for randomized events within each. In one attempt, for example, I managed to clear out a wave of enemies and defeat the boss creature only to find a full-blown sand-storm whipping up around me. Suddenly, I was stumbling about outside the hotel, almost completely unable to see where I was going and throwing everything I had at creatures that I could barely make out. In another, I was informed that a mysterious stranger had arrived - and, when I left the mansion, I suddenly had a sniper taking pot-shots at me until I ran back indoors. In yet another attempt, the sniper was actually on my side. The creatures that spawn in each wave, as well as the boss creature that spawns between waves, are all also randomized - though, they are also drawn from a list of creatures that fit the location.

All of this, naturally, makes it very difficult to prepare in advance. You can put together a build specifically designed to deal with the mass of weak, though fast-moving, creatures that gave you so much trouble in a previous attempt only to find yourself forced to adapt to a smaller number of much tougher creatures - and, the same situation can just as easily happen in reverse. Or, you can try to cobble together a build that will let you deal with every possible situation - but, find yourself hindered by the lack of specialization. There is also the fact that you are required to be able to both resist damage, and heal yourself, while putting out enough damage to quickly deal with each wave.

So, all you need to do to succeed is come up with the perfect DPS/Tank/Healer hybrid build - or, you can simply be so over-geared for the content that you can steamroll over it. Whatever works.

Of course, all of this is only really an issue for the solo Scenarios. There is also the option of doing them in pairs, or in groups. The solo option is a particular point of contention for me, though, because that is simply what I most often feel like playing. In duo and group Scenarios you have the option of taking on more specialized roles, knowing that the other players can complement you. When running a Scenario solo, though, you have to do everything yourself - and, that has been extremely frustrating for me, so far. Of course, in the multi-player Scenarios, you are likely to have multiple streams of creatures going for different groups of survivors at once, forcing you to split up - so, it presents its own challenges.

The Scenarios also come with three possible difficulty settings - normal, elite, and nightmare. Even normal mode Scenarios will require you to have, at least, made your way through the end of Transylvania (with the content from previous DLC Issues done along the way) before you can expect to have any chance of success. Nightmare difficulty is intended to challenge those players who have spent the past few months grinding for the highest tier of gear in the end-game dungeons. And, Elite is somewhere in the middle.

One location, the hotel, is offered for free to all players, while the mansion and the castle are available for purchase. One thing that is worth mentioning, though, is that purchasing the other two locations isn't actually necessary. You can do everything you need to do with the single, free, Scenario - though, with the cool-down timer in place, it will take a fair bit longer. So, why would anyone actually want to buy the additional Scenarios if they are not essential? Well, obviously Funcom set it up this way deliberately. The new Scenarios are as much an experiment in new game design as anything, and they are obviously not going to be to everyone's taste. Some players are likely to only want to do as much with the Scenarios as they need to in order to ensure that they can access Tokyo when the next piece of DLC is released. Funcom has acknowledged this, and put in place the option for those players to get what they need out of the Scenarios without actually having to part with any money. The additional Scenarios are there for people who genuinely enjoy the challenge that they offer - and, who want to milk the new system for all it's worth.

The new Augment system is complex - possibly even to the point of being convoluted. Or, at least, it seems that way at first glance. Augments, essentially, represent improvements to the vast selection of active abilities already available in game. Once unlocked, they can be attached to any active ability that you currently have selected in order to give it a little boost. You can, for example, add Augments that increase the damage of your attack abilities, or increase the healing power of your healing abilities - among many other possible options. It's a good addition to the game - though, one that is likely to be expensive in both time and resources, if you want to get the most out of it.

Another possible source of frustration, though, is the fact that the Augment system is currently intimately tied to the Scenarios. The only way to get Augments for yourself, currently, is by running Scenarios - where they are a possible loot drop from the bosses that end each wave. This may, or may not, change in the future - though, for now, it's either run Scenarios or go without. Though, you may also be able to buy what you need from other players. I'm sure there is bound to be a market for Augments building up, if it hasn't happened already.

In the end, though, it doesn't feel entirely fair to be too hard on this update. So, in the end, I wont be. The Secret World has always been a particularly challenging game - and, this latest update is just living up to that. Admittedly, that does mean that this game probably isn't for everyone. But, that is also what makes it so appealing for players who do enjoy the challenge. Like with all the other times I have found myself struggling with the difficulty of The Secret World, there is also always the unspoken thought that it is my own fault - and, that all I really need to do is adapt and change my tactics. And, there is also always the option of shifting more of my focus onto group-play, rather than stubbornly trying to crack to secrets of solo play. But, solo Scenarios have been specifically included as an option - and, the fact that they seem to be so uncompromisingly difficult, and so hard for me to figure out, has been incredibly frustrating. But, it's also a challenge that I am determined to overcome.

For me, the extra Scenarios were definitely worth the money. And, I fully intend to keep throwing myself in there until I figure it out - even if I do end up feeling like it might be time to uninstall the game and set fire to the disc. The new Augment system, too, is an addition that I am sure will be very much appreciated - especially by those players who have already acquired all of the existing abilities. It is a great update for a great game - it is really just a shame that it is so light on story content.

© 2013 Dallas Matier

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