Choose My Adventure: Cracking whips in Swordsman

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Choose My Adventure: Cracking whips in Swordsman
In last week's Choose My Adventure poll, I asked two simple questions of the Massively community: Which gender should our character be in Perfect World Entertainment's Swordsman, and what path should that character take among the game's 10 available schools of combat? The result was a resounding win for the female-character-exclusive Five Venoms school (probably because whips) and for the creation of a female character.

Since the polls closed on Saturday, I've created our character and spent a little time with Swordsman's intro sequence, tutorial missions, and the earliest chapters of its main storyline. I've whipped a bunch of dudes, summoned giant frogs, and set a few horses on fire. And while it's early yet to declare Swordsman a success, failure, or mediocre in-betweener, thus far I would describe the experience as decidedly mixed.

The lone survivor

Last week we talked a bit about Swordsman's literary roots. The game is based on a story by Louis Cha (Jin Yong) that follows a carefree martial arts expert caught up in the chaos of a bunch of warring clans and individuals. One of these individuals is primarily focused on earning revenge for his village; he was left the lone survivor after the village was raided in an effort to steal its martial arts instruction manual (or something like that). Swordsman the game seems to consider this guy a more interesting hero than the novel's original protagonist and starts the player off with a village raid, murderous villain, and hasty escape.

The story introduction is two-parts tutorial and one-part exposition. You'll follow instructions on the screen that show you how to talk to NPCs, how to start basic combat actions, and how to interact with objects. By the time this first intro ends, you will have killed a few dudes and seen your village leader murdered by sword. You will have also figured out that you can simply click objectives on the quest log to initiate auto-run, thus freeing you up to play a second MMO while you're playing Swordsman. It's all very smooth and easy.

The next series of events will take you through choosing a martial arts school, hunting down a secret map, and finally killing the dude who murdered your family and friends. It's an interesting approach; by the time you're level 12, you've already out-paced your nemesis and left him dead on a ship. Throughout the early experience it is clear that Perfect World's team has made an incredible effort to establish the story of Swordsman as its most noticeable feature. Voice acting is everywhere. Quest text is dense. Swordsman is about its characters and wants you to focus on their conflicts and their schemes.

It's a nice change of pace from MMOs that start the legendary hero off by asking him to collect rat tails. Unfortunately, major design missteps along the way dull this advantage.

Kill five wolves...err assassins

At its core, Swordsman is an MMORPG. Despite its story focus, the core actions you complete in the game are very, very traditional. You'll run from NPC to NPC completing tasks from "bring me that wine" to "kill five assassins" to "kill five elites" to "kill five invaders." It makes sense that the game would rely heavily on kill quests since it's a martial arts action-MMO, but the early levels haven't yielded much variety in terms of enemy type or combat scenarios. Mostly they're just dudes with swords (although I did rescue a condor from some snakes), and you take turns hitting each other until someone dies.

The strange thing is that the combat, which is supposed to be the main attraction, feels very sloppy and weak. Your character stops moving when she throws an attack and stays stuck in place for about half a second after. There's not much sense of what your abilities are actually doing or why they matter. And the cooldowns feel oppressively long. If this is a combat MMO, why is Perfect World forcing you to spend the majority of your time spamming right-click for your most basic attack? It's not fluid at all.

It's especially frustrating because The Five Venoms school has fun and interesting abilities. The whip has excellent range, for example, and the skill that pulls you to your opponent with a kick in the face is pretty fun to execute. But it doesn't feel all that necessary or powerful. Targeting is awkward and you sometimes target enemies behind you or off-screen while you're trying to line up the next enemy. I've found tab-targeting to be the best method thus far. Action combat seems like a thing that should be interactive and engaging, but Swordsman certainly plays a lot more like a traditional MMO than its advertising indicates.

It's possible things will pick up as my level increases. My trainer did just give me some new abilities that I think are tied to dodging, but I haven't had a chance to try them out.

Flaws in the execution

Swordsman is beautiful and its world is interesting. I love the story focus and I find the narrative worth following, which is a rarity in MMOs. But there are some minor problems with the execution. One, the translation is... not great. I spent the better part of one quest chain trying to figure out whether Swordsman Cave was a person or a place. The quest audio is entirely in Mandarin, which I think adds to the sense of place the game is trying to pull off. Unfortunately, mistakes are made with the presentation of English that make the game harder to follow. In one very important cutscene, the right-to-left reveal of the text as one giant paragraph that stayed on the screen for half a second meant I couldn't actually read more than two sentences. Oops! Oh well!

Swordsman also makes an egregious error in frequently taking control away from the player. Here's an example: During the first set of missions, you're awarded an ability that lets you double-jump. "Cool," you think to yourself as you imagine all of the places you'll be leaping in the future. Then, minutes later, you find yourself chasing a bad guy across the city. When he decides to leap to the rooftops, it seems as though you're about to put that double-jump ability to use in a hectic race for vengeance. Instead, the game says "PUSH R HERE" and shows you a cutscene of your character making the jumps.

Why? Why, Perfect World? Do you think I'm not competent enough to jump on a roof in a video game? Why would any game designer think that showing a character doing something cool is better than having the player do it? This isn't an isolated incident; there's already been a second sequence where my character used some awesome water-walking acrobatics to board a ship -- awesome water-walking acrobatics that were executed with one button press. It doesn't make any sense that Swordsman would give you the tools to perform these actions but not allow you to use them. More importantly, it establishes that your character is capable of navigating the environment in this manner, but not when you're controlling her.

Still, I'm hopeful for our next few weeks. I want to uncover more of the treachery of the clans (there's already been one assassination plot!) and to learn about the Five Venoms cult. I want to see my personal story unfold. And I want to get a firsthand look at how Swordsman's combat system evolves with player level and additional skill refinement.

But Choose My Adventure isn't up to me -- it's up to you. So I'll defer to your judgment as to what should happen next:
That's it for this week. Catch our next Swordsman stream tonight at 7:00 p.m. EST and get your votes in by Saturday, October 11th, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.
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