Choose My Adventure: Clicking around in Swordsman

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Choose My Adventure: Clicking around in Swordsman
Swordsman
Three weeks into our Choose My Adventure adventure, I'm not sure what to make of Perfect World Entertainment's Swordsman. The game boasts a deep literary pedigree and markets itself on its wuxia themes and combat-oriented design. It has a rich, beautiful world that is dripping with powerful design cues and historical influences. Like all PWE games, it is slick and easy to pick up and play.

Swordsman is a well-made MMORPG. It is mechanically sound and conceptually solid. So why am I so bored?

Exploring but not really

In last week's Choose My Adventure poll, readers asked that I investigate Swordsman from an explorer's perspective. I happily obliged, since exploration tends to be a thing I enjoy doing. Running around searching for scenic vistas is one of my favorite ways to spend game time, and I'm always up for adding to my vast screenshot library. Thanks to these reader-voted travels, I have discovered that Swordsman certainly isn't short on interesting locales and pretty set pieces.

Unfortunately, it would be a stretch to call finding these locations "exploration." You can visit any of the game's martial arts schools by opening your map and clicking the location; your character auto-runs to the nearest teleport box and beams herself to the school. This is also true of the game's main cities. Simply click the map and away you go. You'll still have to do a bit of running outside of the cities to get from one load point to the next in the open world, but the fragmented zones and the instant teleports make the game world feel small and do a great disservice to the artists who built it.

I'm starting to get the feeling that Swordsman isn't really a game so much as it is an interactive storybook. All it takes to progress through the PvE portions of the game is clicking an objective in your quest log and alt-tabbing while your character auto-runs to the target. This is true of exploration as well; even if you can't instantly teleport to a location, you can click it and have your character safely auto-run there while you make a sandwich, switch your laundry, or run to the corner store. Enemies don't seem to aggro unless you run on top of them, even with 40 levels between you.

Auto-running across vast distances is certainly convenient (I've been able to write most of this while my character pops around for screenshots), but it weakens Swordsman's sense of place and makes it harder to stay immersed.

Controlling the combat

Last week I lamented Swordsman's archaic cooldown-centric, action-bar combat. My opinion hasn't changed much since then, though I do have a better grasp on how to use my abilities and am having fun slapping enemies around with my whip. Swordsman's combat seems as if it can't quite decide what it wants to be. It features a solid dodge mechanic and a really cool way to bounce back from knockdowns, both hallmarks of an engaging dynamic combat system. Unfortunately, since you're not allowed to move and attack at the same time, it's almost always better to just stand still and trade hits. This may change with bigger baddies later in the game, but no enemy I've faced on the path from 1 to 21 has required anything more than spamming my main attack and waiting for the fight to end.

I know people hate it when I use this word, but it feels clunky compared to more modern combat systems (Guild Wars 2 and TERA come to mind). Investigating the history of Swordsman's development, I found it seems as though it was originally built as an isometric Diablo-ish right-clicker and then translated into the Angelica III engine and converted to a more open 3-D experience, which helps explain some of the lingering imperfections.

As is to be expected, the great bulk of content in Swordsman revolves around killing things. You'll kill eight assassins here and then kill eight assassins there. No matter where you go or who you speak with, the solution to the problem at hand is right-clicking red things until they turn grey. There's a story to be discovered (a strangely high number of quests are accepted and completed by talking to an NPC multiple times or talking to someone next to the NPC multiple times), but you don't have to pay it any attention since everything but combat practically plays itself.

If I'm being totally honest, I have to say that I have completely lost track of Swordsman's story for just this reason. All I do now is click the little yellow thing on my quest log and hit stuff until a different little yellow thing comes up. If the goal was assigning narrative importance to these tasks, that goal has largely been lost on me. This is a personal failing, of course, but Swordsman isn't really punishing me for not paying attention. I suppose most modern MMOs don't. There have been a couple of cute quests -- I've been asked to carry a monkey and get drunk enough to flirt with a statue -- but the vast majority have been generic kill counters.

Swordsman is for the most part polished in its presentation, but there are some little wonky things that keep coming up in my playthrough. Camera controls are inconsistent; for example, left-click allows me to free look around my character unless she's on a horse, at which point it steers her instead. Right-click steers my character on a horse or on foot but causes the camera to free look if the character is auto-running. And there is, of course, the ever-present rough translation that makes quest text sometimes more of a riddle than an explanation. For example:

What's the message here? That the NPC still has her brother, One? Or that one day she will be as strong as her brother? And what exactly am I clicking "Accept" for? Just to let the game know I approve of this NPC's general thoughts? Swordsman is full of odd little moments like this when it's just easier to click the button than to try making sense out of what's happening.

Choosing the adventure

The core point of Choose My Adventure is, as always, letting you folks point me in whatever direction most piques your curiosity. The problem with Swordsman is that there isn't a lot of depth to explore, which means we've already made all the choices the game has to offer. Outside of making a character and picking a combat school, Swordsman looks like a straight line from start to at least level 30, at which point crafting and PvP apparently unlock and broaden the experience ever so slightly. According to forum-goers, the real Swordsman experience starts at 40, which I would loosely translate as "way too late."

Still, I'm working to find wiggle room where I can. As such:
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Since we have another Swordsman stream coming up next week, let me know what it is you'd like to see:
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Get your votes in by Saturday, October 18th, at 11:59 p.m. EDT. And don't forget to come hang out with me on Massively TV Wednesday, October 15th, at 7:00 p.m. EDT to see Swordsman in action.

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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