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.

We Bathed in Moonlight, Drowned in Sorrow’s Embrace

They told me I had been dead for ten months when they pulled my lifeless blue body from the bottom of Lake Delavan. Why I was now staring at the dull brown ceiling of the hospital in the Salma Quarter of Divinity’s Reach instead of slumbering peacefully in the cool embrace of the Mists was not something the priests and priestesses were able explain to my satisfaction. When, after several hours, I regained the color in my face and the feeling in my fingers, I felt an anger that should have remained dormant forever.

I returned their dispassionate gazes, face up in my bed, as my cheeks flooded with uncomfortable heat. This is what the White Mantle looks like when they imbibe bloodstone, they told me. They’re dangerous. White. Mantle. For as long as adjectives and nouns continued to exist, humans would agglutinate them in endless permutations and use them as rallying cries in their idiotic wars against each other. The fact that my parents had once shared a bed in Kryta did not obligate their offspring to care about the kingdom’s politics.

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I don’t give a damn, I replied. Tell me how you brought me back, since you won’t tell me why. They offered conflicting answers: Engineers had concocted a potion that had the power to reanimate the departed; Rangers had called upon the spirits of the forest to imbue my skeletal frame with verdant life force; Mesmers had conjured up an illusion which was temporarily housing my essence; Lyssa had personally bartered with Grenth for the return of my soul until the Elder Dragons had been vanquished and the safety of the Six Gods’ human subjects had been secured.

I want to go back, I growled through clenched teeth. Tell me what I have to do.

Meet your old friend Logan Thackeray in the Upper City. He and the Queen will help you understand what needs to be done.

So I did. It was as if I had never been gone. The Pact still called me Commander, even though it was clear to me that I wasn’t commanding anything or anyone. Braham wouldn’t listen to me. Marjory wouldn’t be told what to do. Kasmeer was conspicuously absent. Anise had developed a thirst for blood, while Canach had developed an endearing brand of wit. Taimi and Rytlock were the only ones I felt I could trust – Taimi’s burgeoning genius needed an adult catalyst to ensure her transition from progeny to practitioner; and where there was a battle to be fought, as there typically was when I was around, Rytlock would be there to guard my back and tell everyone exactly what he thought of them.

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Logan was the one person who hadn’t changed. As much as we had been through, he wasn’t good for anything but commanding human forces. When he told me that General Soulkeeper had offered him the position of Marshal within the Pact, I stopped caring about the organization altogether. Call me what you will, friends. I’ll go where I need to go and do what must be done. The flow of time wraps itself around my sword and shield while Queen Jennah kills with a flick of the wrist and erects a reflective dome over the entirety of Divinity’s Reach by simply willing it to exist.

Tell me again: why do you need me?

Once we’ve slain the remaining Elder Dragons I am going to fill my lungs with as much of Lake Doric’s water as they will hold and return to Eir in the Mists. We’ll spend our eternal twilight leaving heavy footprints in the frosty snow beneath us as we make our way toward the sound of howling wolves on distant ridges.

Nightmares with a Spirit Guide

This corner of the internet has been quiet. Nothing has changed. I’ve been playing The Secret World exclusively in my free time and not much else – either in terms of games played or activities engaged in – can really compete with my desire to do or be whatever it is I’ve got my mind set to. I haven’t exactly figured out what that is and I fully intend to do so before my interest wanes. It’s been an engaging several months to say the least.

Even with Samhain in full swing in the world outside Agartha, there are still willing participants to be found for the training sessions that constitute my introduction to advanced tanking. My learning experiences have thus far looked something like this: go into a pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeon with my guide and a handful of friends. A few random people join us via the Group Finder. We wipe a fabulous number of times while I learn the mechanics of the encounter. Our guests come and go as they please until we find ourselves in the company of individuals who don’t mind enduring the process. Some of them are able to offer helpful advice and pointers. Eventually we finish the dungeon. Subsequent runs take less time and require fewer wipes.

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This entire process is messy and organic. Few among our ranks are teachers; among these, none of them are psychic. One of the least interesting mini-games I play within these dungeons, then, is figuring out what I don’t know and then hitting upon the specific thing that I don’t know which unlocks the door to understanding. Sometimes it’s given in the answer to a question I ask directly. Sometimes it’s found in a comment made by one of our group members after the twentieth wipe. And sometimes it’s uncovered during the second or third run of the same dungeon on a different day in which we learn from a random player that their tank does this specific thing during their successful attempts. Somewhere in the distance the sound of a door unlocking is heard. Extra mental processing power becomes available for the execution of combat mechanics.

So far I haven’t broken any keyboards. My foray into Nightmare dungeons has thus far been a generally palatable one. My spirit guide is a well-intentioned, experienced individual on whom I have become somewhat dependent to get our groups kick-started. They really enjoy running dungeons and are quite good at it. In turn, I try to help them with whatever I’m capable of doing. When they’re not online, I tend to do other things, mostly because 1) I lack the philosophical motivation to take the initiative in forming my own groups and 2) I have developed a strong desire to run difficult content exclusively with people who are on my Friends List or are on my friends’ Friends List. Word of mouth and networking – even passively – carry an enormous amount of weight in TSW.

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Even so, there are some reputations that pop up now and again whose presence must be endured for the sake of civility. There are only a handful of players whom I have come to know by name who are impatient, bossy, rude, or flighty. On a more positive note, I am slowly developing a thicker skin, a measure of tolerance for criticism from hostile third parties, and the ability to persevere despite repeated failures. Generally speaking, however, most players have been willing to help in the learning process. It’s the product of an outstanding community which I seek to preserve as best I can. I go to great lengths to restrain my temper. It’s somewhat telling that there are exactly zero people on my ignore list and I strive to keep it that way.

There are rumblings in the background, now. I feel myself approaching a point where I must make a decision: continue with Tokyo content, which involves AEGIS, or simply cap my skill level in pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeons and end things there. Engaging in Tokyo would involve leaving my guide behind for the moment as they are not very interested in the missions necessary to build up AEGIS controllers and shields to the baseline levels required for Tokyo Elites. I have long since done so and can confirm every blog post ever written on the topic of AEGIS and the extent to which it is straight up not fun.

I suppose I’ll just head whichever way the wind blows me.

Factions as Fiction: WildStar

The latest WildStar update from Chad Moore a.k.a. Pappylicious blows away many of the walls that prevent Exile and Dominion players from adventuring together. In their most recent update, “Redmoon Mutiny: New Features Coming to PTR“, the Carbine Studios staff reveal that cross-faction functionality will be available in the following areas:

  • Groups
  • Raid groups
  • PvP arena teams
  • Guilds
  • Circles
  • Neighbors
  • Friends

Rift did the same thing over four years ago with its 1.10 update, Factions as Fiction, in which the Ascended decided that perhaps they didn’t hate each other as much as they thought they did and thus proceeded to gallivant off into the wild beyond in search of strife and terrible monsters. With a snap of the fingers and a wave of the wand, players woke up to a world that had changed dramatically: seeing the “other” faction in person and in chat channels is now a Good Thing. If you still think it’s a Bad Thing, well, that sounds like a personal problem.

The lore for this is equally easy on Nexus: the Exiles and the Dominion have decided to form a pragmatic alliance and take on mutual threats. Not only does this allow the two factions to romp around the world together – and have an easier time forming groups – it also formally legitimizes a greater range of role-playing self-expression in terms of one’s attitude toward and relationship with the opposing side: e.g. uneasy collaborator, indifferent profiteering smuggler, optimistic diplomat. It leads to greater dynamism all around and makes informal, on-the-spot teamwork more likely, the way it should be in any healthy game not predicated on non-consensual player combat that values a unified player base.

The upshot is that those red player names in Nexus chat will be eligible for group invitations. You can lounge in your Mechari neighbors’ metal-plated backyard and invite those obnoxiously cute Aurin over for tea. You can go a-plunderin’ with a gaggle of naughty Chua as long as you’re not in an adventure or world story instance. The addition of PvP leaderboards and cross-faction arena teams just might encourage a revival of the all-but-dead arena scene. And after they’re done slaughtering each other in the mosh pit, Cassians and Humans can hold hands with everyone on their friends list as they walk back to Algoroc and Ellevar, much to the chagrin of their somewhat more zealous overlords and/or clergy.

When we play MMOs, we’re able to mentally juggle and accept the selective reality of mutually conflicting and temporally misaligned events in various stages of completion without much difficulty. Blurring the lines between factions is no different – indeed, it’s a stage of progressive game development which embraces growth and incentivizes both ad-hoc and structured collaboration. Everybody wins.

Mindless Devotion

According to my Steam profile I’ve played The Secret World for 330 hours. The game engine is wonky, the graphics are a bit dated, and the most interesting aspects of player versus player are found on the ability wheel. Love doesn’t read game reviews.

I spend my time doing daily and weekly challenges whereby I accumulate currency that allows me to buy clothing, upgrade talismans, attune augments, and build a museum. This morning I spent 90% of my three or four million pax buying out the haberdashers in London. I won’t wear most of it and I don’t much care. On the same day, that day being today, I completed the 70 challenges necessary to acquire the Doomboard, a flaming, ichor-black hoverboard lined with spikes that I will likely never use past the initial “ooh, shiny ugly” once-over.

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I’m immune to fire, apparently. In that case, I’ll take a jet pack as well.

Several months have passed and I still haven’t completed my 10.5 glyphs for my block tank set, let alone upgrade my talismans past 10.4 to 10.9. I also need a defence set of talismans specifically for Ankh (Nightmare) in which you cannot block attacks for whatever reason. I’m still working on upgrading my melee scenario build and a ranged damage build. They’re somewhere far down the list of a never-ending set of tasks.

Diminishing returns kick in once I burn through the weeklies and the dailies have been picked clean. More frequent exposure to well-endowed veteran players means learning to get along with unique personalities. Sometimes I fail. Hard. When being social gets to be too much for me, I fill the gaps with old flames and eyeball random, interesting titles on Steam such as Date Warp, a reasonably well-written murder mystery-themed husbando simulator. Don’t judge.

After playing through the pre-Legion invasions and deciding I’m not interested in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of sugary retail offerings, my brain black hole-collapsed into itself and I rolled up a human warrior on a classic World of Warcraft server which represents the best (read: least terrible) intersection of quality and population. She’s currently sitting in Stormwind at level 20 waiting for a full bar of rested experience prior to tanking the Deadmines. The server is PvP which means I likely won’t go past the starting zones; this is all well and good as I’m waiting on an in-development PvE server which may or may not be the successor to the now-defunct Nostalrius.

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I reinstalled Smite in response to a post by MJ Guthrie on Massively OP looking for teammates to participate in a new PvE game mode for the AbleGamers charity. I played for half an hour against the computer last night – I haven’t lost any of my mechanical knack or knowledge of abilities, just my PvP Conquest acumen. Even if I’m not needed it might be fun to dabble in cooperative settings every now and then. The gods and goddesses they’ve added since I last played in May are enjoyable enough.

I’ll wait for the next Double XPlosion before logging back into WildStar. Tyria hums at a different frequency. Halloween approaches. Colorful leaves and chill winds descend.

Aurin Engineer: Looks Made Me Do It

You probably don’t remember my last bout of doom-saying in which I parted ways with this or that game professing never to return – which is quite all right, since I’m pretending it never happened. I’ve turned over a new leaf within spitting distance of a new decade of existence and in doing so have gained a greater appreciation for mindless fun. Mindless, mind you, not thoughtless. (I think.) I enjoy thinking play in a handful of specific games; otherwise, we’re chasing a red ball around for no reason until we fall over exhausted.

My MMO wanderlust has taken me back to WildStar, where I regained half of my former self over the course of four double-XP days. I haven’t subscribed, but I’ve done something that is a close runner-up in the financial contributions department: I bought a class/race unlock from the store using Protobucks for 2/3 the price of a month’s patronage.

Wait, what? Are we playing EQ2?

No, no, nothing like that. I can’t be bothered to claim my free level 95 character because I’d simply never play it. That’s a proven fact. (I’ve tried.) I could, however play a WildStar class that came in dead last in terms of my interest in playing it based on a superficial analysis of its playstyle and abilities: Engineer.

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Because I could be a space cat.

You may recall that I play(ed) a Mesmer in Guild Wars 2 because my favorite color is purple. Reasons are for chumps.

In a departure from my normal super-serious-let’s-write-pretty-things-with-oblique-references-and-build-character-empires-in-games style of doing things, I’ve already “yolo”-tanked a couple of dungeons, learned a decent damage rotation (I hate being DPS), and have been focusing solely on the world and regional story quests to advance my character. I am as uninterested in completing mundane, non-story tasks (fetch quests, etc.) as others are in doing dailies. (I also care naught about any of the numbers attached to whatever it is I’m doing.)

Personally, I find dailies to be relaxing. I did them in World of Warcraft on my rogue in TBC, on my holy priest in Wrath (which was notoriously slow at killing things), and in Cataclysm on my rogue and my warrior. I’ve done them in Guild Wars 2 and I’m doing them on a regular basis in The Secret World. If blaster cat survives to level 50, I may do contracts on Nexus as well.

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If you say so, Drusera.

 

Invasion Tourism

Moonlit skies served as the backdrop for my brief return to Azeroth during the last week and a half of August. Having satisfied my once-per-month Blaugust posting schedule on the very first day of the event, I was left with thirty days of not-blogging in which to faff about to my heart’s content. I spent much of that time looking for something to fill the gaps left by The Secret World and my diminished interest therein after several months of deep diving into its post-story activities. I’ve come full circle and now face the irritating but predictable realization that it, like every other persistent multiplayer game, houses its share of very vocal veteran players with sometimes scary values who on one quiet evening reacted with indignation to the schoolmistress – yours truly – who dared suggest that fora for helping new players were perhaps not the best place to use as their high-rollers’ social club. I have learned my lesson.

It was a moderate measure of desperation that thus sent me with wallet in hand back to Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. The fact that the blogroll sidebars of my WordPress feed’s dramatis personae were filled with glorious tales of cross-faction, group-agnostic mayhem also helped. What would be just another Thursday evening in Guild Wars 2 constitutes a once-an-expansion special event in World of Warcraft and was titillating enough to attract my temporary patronage.

I paid for a month’s subscription on my secondary Warlords of Draenor account, my main account of nine years presumably entombed somewhere in the deep freeze storage of Blizzard’s server farms, and started messing about with new characters on the Argent Dawn server. I started with a gnome hunter whose randomized moniker, Pepperixie, required a mechanical rabbit named Saltinatrix. She was followed by a draenei warrior whose name I cannot recall. A human priest was born into the world and vanished into the depths of the Fargodeep Mine, never to return.

It was then that Big Brother correctly pointed out that all of my characters are Blood Elves. My characters have always been Blood Elves.

Another hunter, this time with a pet dragonhawk named Butterfly in tow, reached level 20 before stepping outside the realm of time and space. Her abilities and auto-attacks had the effective force of releasing party snakes from a tin and popping the tops off cans of Pringles in the general direction of my enemies. Hardly impressive. A warlock reached level seven before I remembered that managing pets has never really been my thing.

My old Wrath main, a discipline priest, reached level 28 before I succumbed to the need to be entirely self-sufficient as well as a decade-long affliction with anti-alt-itis. Which class wears plate, can do all the things, and has glowy hands? Paladin.

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The best way for lower level melee characters to advance was by participating minimally.

It took an hour to get her to level 10, the minimum level required to participate in the invasion events, and another hour of flailing about in a mish-mash of starter gear to hit level 20. Ten levels and several reward chests later saw me in a full set of level-appropriate plate armor wielding a fearsome one-handed axe and a garbage can lid. Shields were not on the menu, nor were necklaces, rings, cloaks, or trinkets. It didn’t matter terribly much once I discovered that the ideal strategy for a melee character who was not level 100 and did not have hundred of thousands of hit points was to not die.

It turns out that not dying accelerated the leveling process dramatically. Somewhere in the 30s I switched from my preferred aggro-magnet Protection specialization to Retribution’s four-button damage rotation so that I could throw Judgment hammers without being immediately murdered. Later, in my 80s, I switched to Holy so that I could use Holy Shock, which has a 40 yard range, as opposed to Judgment’s 30 yard range. Despite the fact that enemies in the group encounters dynamically scale to each player’s level individually, many of them – most notably the bosses in Stage 3 of the event – have one-shot mechanics that send almost everyone, regardless of player and item level, to the graveyard.

The events had four stages: defend (easy), bosses (easy), boss train (medium to hard), end boss (graveyard zerg hard). Once you were able to purchase your flying mount at level 60, which was easily done by simply selling excess rewards from the invasion chests, it was paramount that you kept up with the boss train in Stage 3 to maximize experience gains. What I learned to do, then, was to tag bosses with one or two abilities and then run away as far as I could while keeping the boss in view. While doing so, I learned the bosses’ abilities and was able to gradually move in and melee where possible. More often than not, however, I chose to stay far, far away in order to avoid the copious one-shot mechanics. Death in Stage 3 meant no experience when the boss dies unless you were able to get back to the boss and tag it again (and not immediately die again) before it went down.

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Let’s play a game called “Find the One-Shot Mechanic.”

Among these mechanics were death auras with an eighty-yard diameter (hence the preference for dipping in and out of maximum range with Holy Shock (40 yards)) and a spell called Delirium which made all affected players hostile to one another despite the fact that PvP was disabled during the event (even in hostile territory). Delirium requires the affected player to take 50,000 damage in order to clear the debuff. Guess who doesn’t have anywhere near that many hit points and gets one-shotted by a level 100’s multi-hit ability when they run up to tag the boss?

Yeeeeeaahhhhh. Kinda kills the cooperative feel of the event.

And that was really the main thing that kept me doing it night after night for 99 levels over 32 hours and 44 minutes /played: players of all kinds came together to achieve a cooperative goal. No grouping was required. Everything needed to advance your character was found within the invasion event. You may protest this fact and tell me that this cheapens the leveling experience; I would not disagree. However, I do not care to expand on this particular philosophical topic because this experience for me was mostly about shutting off my mind (in the futile hope that it would perhaps wander off and forget to come back).

In other words, I did it for funsies. Cooperative game play has become my source of joy to the point where I take little interest in fighting other players. “Why are we fighting?” I ask myself. I have no problem with the other faction(s). “Why don’t we just hang out and have horseback archery competitions or something?” Sounds like fun to me.

After I had my fun, I opened enough chests to get a full set of level 680 armor and vendored the remainder before heading off to the auction house, where I bought the cheapest, highest-level items I could find to fill the remaining slots. I transmogrified the helm and cloak slots to the “hidden” appearance, logged out to the character select screen, took a screenshot, and sent Chrysanth off into a deep slumber from which I expect she will wake one day when the mood takes me.

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