Secret World Legends, One Month In

The tree house you see above embodies the essence of the secret world as we’ve come to know it: dark, mysterious, enigmatic. Moonlit. The reintroduction of The Secret World as Secret World Legends essentially turns up the gamma a few notches and subtly defogs the intentionally shrouded. If you’ve played The Park with the darkness settings at the recommended level, you can barely see anything – just enough to stumble about and eventually find your way to where you need to go. Turning the brightness up to normal levels lets you see more than you need to, rendering a fundamentally different game experience.

This is what Secret World Legends has done. I’ve reached level 50, completed all of the missions, and soloed two-thirds of the powerful champions and story mode dungeons; SWL strikes me as the reorganization of existing elements overlaid with more generous opportunities for monetization, the kind you’d find in a casino. And while the cash options and solicitations are not at first blush overly intrusive, recurring mainstays such as the glitzy daily login rewards screen and future-tech Agarthan Cache interface don’t exactly fit in with the game’s overarching “once upon a midnight dreary” motif.

So, what’s different? This is the same game that uses the same clunky engine with the same wonky physics and possesses many of the same seemingly invincible bugs that existed when I first started playing The Secret World in June of 2015. The mouse-centric action combat is slightly more mechanically tactile, the main story’s mission flow has been streamlined, many activities have been simplified (e.g. the Beaumont fight, tuning Gaia engines), active and passive abilities have been reorganized and mixed with permanent statistical gains, the old crafting system is all but gone, story mode dungeons are easy and role-agnostic, and the time/money investment gap between the average player and the most powerful players has been made absolutely staggering in a bid to attract the fattest of whales and the firehose streams of cash spewing from their blowholes.

With that said, I’d like to offer my thoughts as a moderately invested lone wolf player on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly aspects of the first thirty days of SWL’s existence.

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Hemitneter is still my spirit animal.

The Good

The story mission can be completed alone in its entirety should one so choose, as can the associated action, investigation, sabotage, and side missions. I would estimate that play sessions of two hours perhaps two to three times per week accompanied by judicious use of talisman and weapon empowerments should allow the average player to get through the entirety of the current offerings – Solomon Island, Egypt, and Transylvania – within a couple of months. This is quite worth the price of zero dollars and is recommended for anyone who has not yet experienced the dark and fascinating story of the Secret World or who got stuck somewhere along the way in TSW and wouldn’t mind having a second go at it under more forgiving circumstances.

Indeed, Funcom can truthfully refer to this part of the game as an “Action RPG”: players focus chiefly on combat, exploration, and plot building. Managing gear upgrades is a fairly straightforward secondary activity provided one concentrates on increasing their attack power. Your average solo player’s point of contact with anything resembling a trinity role would be perhaps a pair of health or healing talismans if it suits their fancy.

And it’s very important to understand that for the purpose of experiencing the game’s story, this is as it should be. If one is not specifically playing for the MMO aspects, which absolutely do exist outside the confines of the superbly written and voice-acted narrative, one’s “role” is more thematic than anything: Dirk “BladeRunner” Gently wields heavy steel in melee combat against the living dead; Mai “PurpleHair” Hasegawa slays demons using her fists and custom-made magic bullets; and Dixie “DeepSixes” Cox is a former nightlife manager who wields chaos and the elements in her personal crusade against the army of vampires that siphoned off her clientele.

Our three friends have the option of teaming up and making their way through Story Mode dungeons, breezy easy-mode smash-throughs that allow agents to focus on the mysteries and goings-on contained within. These can be soloed provided you are five (rough going) to ten (smooth sailing) levels above the recommended level, but I would really recommend doing it with a pair of people you know. If you’d like to duo the dungeons, be sure to check the “Private Team” box in the Dungeon Finder interface before queueing up.

If one goes to the trouble of completing most of the available missions, one’s level should be advanced enough to progress without considerable difficulty using the cues and clues provided. For example, Carter Unleashed now provides a visual reminder about the immunity ward in your quick access inventory after the first time you die to Carter’s mobile, baseball field-sized swirling vortex of instant death. This is an excellent addition; I completed the mission before this reminder was added and didn’t notice the ward until after my seventh death. It’s important for players to overcome such obstacles relatively quickly when first starting out, so Funcom can be forgiven to a certain extent for holding the player’s hand a little too tightly in other cases (e.g. “reach character level 12” before proceeding with the main story mission).

As you complete these missions and dungeons, you’ll find yourself ticking off boxes on the Daily Challenge checklist. Dungeons and scenarios (which at the Elite 1 level have been simplified in a way that is quite pleasant) count toward main mission completion; both defeating the final boss of a dungeon and completing local bounties (random “kill X” missions that pop up in certain areas) count toward side mission completion. Empower a handful of items and kill 50 to 100 monsters, and you’ll have your daily allotment of 10,000 Marks of Favor (12,000 for patrons) which can be used at vendors, on the Auction House, and elsewhere. This is a refreshing change from the very specific requirements of TSW’s challenge completion system. On the whole, it’s much better to reward players for doing things they like rather than carrot-sticking the most tolerable things they don’t like. Thankfully, Funcom has emphatically demonstrated that they are listening to what players like and don’t like and have implemented changes accordingly.

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I’m the ghost in the back of your head.

 

The Bad

If you decide that you like the game well enough to spend at least $12.99 per month on it, patronage’s most notable benefits include increased experience gains, a daily Agarthan Cache key, and double AP/SP gains. This accelerated influx of Ability Points and Skill Points as you level up will help you unlock weapon abilities, passive effects, and permanent stat boosts fast enough to keep you interested in learning about the dynamics of your chosen primary weapon, with a moderate decrease in acquisition speed once you hit maximum level. This moderate decrease becomes substantial if you are not a patron.

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Where SWL differs from many other free-to-play games is that contributing monthly does not confer a stipend of cash shop currency (in this case, Aurum). In a game where Aurum can be used to buy so many different things from increased sprinting speed to additional AP/SP to items that increase the quality (but not rarity) of weapons and talismans, it makes sense to reward those who commit to scheduled payments with a little bit of the good stuff. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make sense not to do so given that even buy-to-play TSW rewarded subscribers with monthly Funcom points that could be used to buy the aforementioned perks, including roughly thirty inventory slots a month if one were so inclined, up to a maximum of five hundred.

And it becomes apparent that once a player begins to amass items and reward bags to any significant degree that inventory space is much less fluid than it was in TSW, a stinginess that is endemic to SWL in general. Players begin with 35 inventory slots (up from 25 originally) when starting out. After a while, things begin to pile up despite one’s best janitorial efforts – More Space is required to accommodate More Things. The first two five-slot upgrades can be purchased for nominal amounts of Marks of Favor; the second two five-slot upgrades must be purchased for 400 ($4) and 500 ($5) Aurum respectively. At current median exchange rates (140 MoF = 1 Aurum), this amounts to five and six days’ worth of challenge completions for those who do not want to inject cash into the process.

If one chooses to transcend the confines of the Secret World ARPG novel’s dust jacket and venture off into the game’s MMO offerings, sooner or later one brushes up against SW:ToR-esque restrictions designed to entice players into making their inconveniences go away with a charitable donation. Herein lies one of the poorly implemented features of SWL’s time-is-money model: a lot of these things are fabulously expensive. Sprint V is $10 (125% speed increase). Sprint VI is $15 (150% speed increase). 45 to 55 inventory slots is $9. Bypassing the need to level a second talisman to purple 30 for mythic orange fusion is $15. Increasing a talisman’s pips from two (medium strength) to three (maximum strength) is $25 (Anima Imbuer). And so forth. The impression that I get is that the MMO side of the game is unfortunately quite stingy in general, even for patrons.

There’s a reasonable fix for this, though: tiered pricing and generosity to a point. A green (superior) Anima Imbuer is $0.50, a blue (epic) Anima Imbuer is $1. A red (legendary) Anima Imbuer is $25. Players are going to be doing a lot of empowerment and fusion; when they give you cash, give them a generous helping of basic inventory space. $1 a slot? $1 gets me 72 slots in Guild Wars 2 before I have to buy another bag slot unlock. You need to be less stingy, initially.

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Indeed. I’m learning about inventory Tetris more than anything.

Personally, I think these sorts of things can be dismissed as growing pains provided Funcom continues in the vein of listening to players, looking at works and what doesn’t, and making sensible changes. What really rubs me the wrong way in the Bad category is the philosophical direction in which this transition has taken us. The above-mentioned empowerment system, which involves feeding lesser weapons to a very hungry Greater Weapon (or talisman or glyph or signet) to make it stronger, costs anima shards, a new currency which turns a notionally supernatural essence into a preternatural, discretely quantified entity.

The introduction of anima shards as concrete units of currency is as about as philosophically appealing as the insertion of midi-chlorians into the Star Wars universe: it is entirely unnecessary and erodes the mystique of the experience. This is the signature theme that has been introduced by Secret World Legends, a game whose new name unfailingly makes me think of a Candy Crush-style mobile app every single time I read it. Here and there the story’s unseen undertones have been laid bare presumably for the purpose of attracting new players with a less opaque, more vibrantly presented backstory – the image of a Dreamer’s bird holding a man’s limp body (an Orochi employee, undoubtedly) in its filthy talons has been replaced by an attractive, red-toned image of Rose White’s face framed by a vertical white line and high-rise buildings while a young woman holding a pistol in one hand and an atomic fireball in the other poses before her in miniature. (“You’re pretty good with a fireball,” an NPC once said to me while I blasted zombies with a shotgun.)

This is all part of a Modern Promethean cosmetic update that sees our new face gazing out toward the end of the update roadmap where we’ll finally stop Laying Low in the Limelight some time in Late 2017 / Early 2018. That the roadmap explicitly mentions where we got our powers is a harbinger of Kinda Dark But Not Too Dark Days to Come. Changing the title from “The Secret World” to “Secret World Legends”, turning Agartha into a social club complete with the banners of the three main factions hanging up, and straight up affirming cynical Sam Krieg’s description of our raison d’être as a “fight against evil” are broad brushstrokes that paint a picture much too bright for a game that has always been at its most seductive when it is dark as fuck. I mean, the entire world goes blank for a split second at midnight to herald the appearance of the bogeyman in Atlantic Island Park and here we are atop the roller coaster playing Connect Four with different types of shoddy pistols.

I’m being facetious, of course. The real Bad in this category is the UI. I have to click a small, thin blue bar to the left of my abilities to even know that my seven deaths to Carter’s impromptu volcano have resulted in “Anima Degradation” and I need to pay 100 anima shards per death to fix it. How about just fixing Anima Degradation instead? By removing it. And the little blue bar.

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Once upon a midday cheery…

 

The Ugly

Seeing other players in the world is not always a good thing. They’ll depopulate your mission NPCs in limited spawn areas (looking at you, Ghoul Tools) and one of you won’t get credit for a kill if the other tags it and isn’t in your group. If your lair run has more than ten people, sorry eleven and twelve. The ten of us are going to have enough problems as it is getting into the same lair instance and staying there. Sharding playfields into ten-person affairs is great for maintaining that feel of isolation but not so great when people band together organically to engage in group content.

Weekend warriors are left out in the cold – there’s no system for banking anything other than Agarthan Cache keys, so it’s not possible to burn through a bevy of free, banked dungeon keys in a marathon session or spend Marks of Favor obtained by completing weekday challenges.

Static NPCs that can be destroyed have a very annoying habit of keeping you in combat for long, long periods of time, even when you are not attacking anything and nothing is attacking you, e.g. blood stocks in Transylvania. Being in combat prevents you from regenerating your weapon power quickly and also keeps you from sprinting, leaving you hamstrung while you wait for the random number generator to finally decide that you are out of combat. One of the important parts of keeping your players excited about playing is making them feel fast: your combat experience should be a romp through the zones in which players zip around at their own pace rather than being beholden to the whims of a fickle combat flag or unending waves of trash mobs. In any case, there is something going on with the combat in Trash Mob Legends that makes me feel slow as molasses – maybe it’s all those Filth microparticulates in the desert air.

Crowd control effects are still way too long. This has knock-on effects in PvP, which isn’t terribly relevant at this point given that we’ve only got Shambala to work with (which people are suicide-farming for anima shards), but there is little that is more frustrating to a player than losing control of one’s actions, especially for lengthy periods of time. It strips the player of their sense of agency when used too liberally; anything longer than a couple of seconds should be tossed out the window unless it’s being used as part of the story, e.g. Cassie King’s “Wicked Witch of the South” stun.

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I married the afterlife in a shotgun wedding. I’m holding the shotgun.

Concluding Thoughts

Just as Ptahmose “lovingly” murdered his children and sealed them inside statues in the City of the Sun God where they sing a song that keeps the Black Pharaoh imprisoned, so too have our old selves been rendered impotent and sent into stasis. We have been recast into bodies with faces that sometimes scarcely resemble our old features; the many hours we spent in our previous life have been wiped away and supplanted by a new siren’s song designed to prevent darkness from overtaking the balance sheets.

As a parent of young children, I cannot forgive Ptahmose for what he did, even though I understand that what he did was presumably for the greater good. As he labors over his children’s bodies, he chants praises to Amun, the god who is not-Akhenaten, and I mutter a curse under my breath. I will not bless this reskin of a game I’ve spent hundreds of hours in even as I prepare to spend many an evening retracing my steps. Secret World Legends has turned the erstwhile secret world into the only legend of note – it is the one I think about while this plastic body of mine traverses familiar streets and fields in a slightly off version of a place that was once a shade darker, one whose gambling parlor decor and transparent mysteries must now be endured if we wish to see it persist.

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Secret World Legends: Tear down the Heavens to Rebuild the Underworld

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, the second incarnation of The Secret World may aspire to reimagine its predecessor the way Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen seeks to recapitulate classic EverQuest. But there are no rainbows and unicorns in this dark and mysterious – oh, wait. There are. I was going somewhere with that.

Sometimes in order to turn your artistic vision into reality, you have to tear everything down and start over, rebuilding the foundation from existing pieces. This is what makes great art, and that’s the way I see The Secret World, primarily: as a work of art that functions as a support system for life. Exploring the dark underworld that exists within our dreams makes the tedium of the waking world more bearable. I am probably an idealist in this regard; I leave an analysis of the game studio’s marketing, public relations, and financials to more capable and invested entities, not least of which the game studio itself. Ahem.

I’m more interested in the extent to which this rework emphasizes the narrative, a shining gem in a sea of numbers ground into sawdust. Many players are already understandably upset about having their Numbers and Stuff trivialized; I sympathize with them as I wear my cheekiest innocence-is-bliss grin and sip my coffee in anticipation of journaling my dormant character’s dreary, fog-shrouded meanderings. I measure my experience bar in screenshots and short stories. My nearly maximum-capacity inventory’s lattice grid of signets serve as trinkets more than anything, reminders of the paid-monthly journey I have at times cursed and worshipped. The talismans that will only cease to protect me when the Eleventh Hour arrives remain hidden under my clothing.

The information we have so far shows us a work in progress, one which highlights improvements (more interesting combat), integration (a popular topbar mod is now part of the UI), and growing pains (a key-activated mouse cursor mode à la SMITE). The default reticle emulates a soft-targeting system which highlights whatever’s underneath it. Fantastic, minus the concentric circles in the center of the screen. (I was getting tired of spamming tab.) The Overwatch-style mouse button usage will eliminate my need for AutoHotkey: I’ll be able to smash my primary ability without having to worry about left-hand cramps. I’m hoping this will make it easier to enjoy the freneticism of five-button combat in counterpoint to my ethereal countryside strolls – executing optimal damage rotations is the sort of ledger-balancing Liling would be doing if she had chosen to take up a nice, non-lethal desk job with regular tea breaks.

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Levels are no longer hidden variables. The philosophical value in deliberately hiding this information is overshadowed by the usefulness of being able to gauge your presumed effectiveness at a glance. Each level up now bestows a chunk of base hit points, another form of shorthand which vitalizes the otherwise static dead/not-dead binary. The upshot is that when you walk into a new area such as Blue Mountain, you’ll be armed with a more accommodating skill floor as well as the information needed to reasonably size up threats. No longer should you spend warm, wine-infused hours painstakingly crafting a new build for your favorite weapons, only to be flattened by the first giant insect beast that rushes you.

Much has been written on the virtues of selecting your own difficulty – if you want your audience to stay until the end of a movie that challenges them, you need to be able to take them outside of their comfort zone without frustrating them. Later, if they decide they’re up for it, they can choose to engage more difficult subject matter on their own terms. Forcing those terms on them by default via complex systems that require extensive research and experimentation may result in alienating those who just wanted to turn the page to the next chapter of your story without having to take a quiz on the mechanics of your fantasy world.

While character levels reflect one’s progress through the story, the notion of being able to “level up” your weapons is one that engenders lasting attachment and emphasizes one’s identity, the face that one shows to others. Once you’ve acquired an appearance you like, you are then free to focus on becoming more proficient with it rather than mentally reserving room for its successor. Space also exists for those who wish to min-max: each weapon type has an associated “always-on” character-level passive which requires a certain degree of mastery to enable; this passive remains even when you switch to other weapons. This appears to be a more meaningful system of progression based on a specialization-diversification dynamic as opposed to the straight-up grind demanded by augments and AEGIS.

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Indeed, the most powerful intrapersonal and interpersonal bonds are formed in cooperative environments that support the expression of one’s identity in communion with others. My play sessions are fairly anti-social apart from my interactions with friends – I generally do not want to see other people out in the world while I am playing. When I do interact with others, however, I want us to be able to accomplish our goals without having to get up in each other’s business: I shouldn’t be able to “kill steal” or disable an interactive object. The proposed culture of softening the emphasis on competition between the factions and replacing it with a sense of belonging to one’s own faction must be accompanied by game play systems which support this. To take a phrase from elsewhere: seeing another player should always be a good thing.

Even in Secret World Legends, where playing fields are going to be capped at ten players. Even in places like Kingsmouth, which is sharded – not mega-served – to preserve the sense of isolation. Big Brother informs me that shared participation with no grouping requirements and personalized loot rewards is The Way Things Have Always Been. For once, he’s absolutely right.

I just hope that he sees fit to provide an option to turn off the swirling anima “ding” effect when you level. I don’t want to be a legend – I just want to continue the story with a minimum of fuss.