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.

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.

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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One Year Later: Remarks on The Secret World

A little over a year has gone by since I first walked out of Agartha and into The Secret World. My mind feels as though there must have been more than twelve months between now and June of last year when Liling was born. The steady march of time slowed and devolved into a weighty shambling gait as I dreamed my way through the entirety of the fantastic narrative found within this story’s seemingly endless main missions, side missions, investigation missions, and sabotage missions. My journey now takes me into the harrowing fields of instanced group content where I’ll lie nose-up on the ground with my extra-smiley face on as lore bombs rain down from the sky. I like to imagine myself as a sponge absorbing all of the water in this ocean of half-formed remembrances and allowing its filthy abstractions to seep from the pores of my nocturnal body like honey.

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Most remarkably, The Secret World chooses to straddle the line between reality and fiction by populating its world with inhabitants who reflect the diversity of people who live in our world: Madame Rogêt is as old as I am, Amparo Osorio has an afro and speaks Spanish, Zaha likes girls, Ricky Pagan is pansexual, Kaoru is transgender. You grow up amongst these people and understand them as fellow human beings. My character is smitten with the leader of the Marya who may be too busy to consider such things or uninterested in romantic relationships altogether. In a way, it mirrors Sandy “Moose” Jensen’s deep and abiding feelings for Deputy Andy – feelings which remain to this point one of the many hanging plot threads in a strange and complex tapestry of painfully interesting lives.

See also: “Funcom Nailed Representation in The Secret World” at Geek Girls Pwn

Perhaps it’s better that they remain unresolved. It’s fiction with a human touch that provides a fertile breeding ground for the imagination. I’m spending time outside the game reading forum entries written by people with more insight into the workings of things who can fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the overarching plot after having played through its fragments. I know what’s going on, generally speaking, but the juicy details have gone over my head and I leave it to others to recall and speculate on the parts that are missing from my mental catalog. The Secret World is a hive of busy bees that set my mind buzzing.

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The combat that I had dismissed as simplistic when I first started out has come full circle and now offers a moderately satisfying amount of depth. My exploration of the fully unlocked ability and auxiliary wheels has most recently evolved into trying out optimized damage rotations on various adversaries during the Guardians of Gaia event and looking over the post-encounter statistics in Advanced Combat Tracker (ACT). It’s one of the rare instances in which I’ve installed damage meters. I’m doing it as part of a comprehensive evaluation of different loadouts and playstyles so that when I go into the most difficult content, I’ll have the added advantage of maximizing my personal contributions.

I don’t normally care about such things – and, indeed, there is very much a “play what you like” culture in everything but the really hard stuff – but I’ve warmed up to this dark and moody world so much that I’m willing to dive deeper into its fighting mechanics. To this end, I’ve relaxed my purist philosophy in favor of situational pragmatism and installed a handful of quality of life modifications: a top bar that displays several useful bits of information in one place, resource bars that have been relocated to the center of the screen for easier viewing during combat, and automatic AEGIS selectors that operate based on what I’m targeting. It wasn’t until I had reached the epilogue of this novel that I even began to consider the desirability of these add-ons.

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I know we said you could wear anything, but you’re not exactly dressed for a firefight, honey.

Truth be told, I didn’t really need anything fancy while reading through the chapters. I was able to use my preferred weapons, Blade and Rifle/Hammer, and the same basic set of ten or twelve active abilities for the entirety of the journey. It was only in the toughest encounters that I found it necessary to rethink my otherwise globally applicable approach; I do not recall any place in the game’s varied environments where I was not able to brute force my way through a situation with a combination of gaming experience and mechanical execution. Many of the missions recalled my days playing the Nintendo Entertainment System: failure would result in being sent back to a checkpoint and doing it all over again. Soldier on, methodically, and you prevail.

Being in possession of such a mindset is paramount for the intermission activities – the gap between the end of the current batch of storytelling and the next – which involve acquiring massive amounts of currency and points to upgrade talismans, unlock augments, and curate one’s personal museum. Much in the manner of Final Fantasy 14, whose difficulty skyrockets dramatically at the very top end, once you’re finished with the story in The Secret World, the personal fortune you’ve amassed is but a drop in the bucket if you’re interested in taking on the Big Bads.

Even if you choose to forgo this “capstone” project, the long and winding path is still worth the foot aches. From the very beginning, the missions you undertake are thematically relevant and impress upon you the feeling of being an actor in unfolding events as opposed to a bounty hunter or a fur trader. You may be seeking out vistas and haunts based on a psychic medium’s interpretation of a vision she had. It could be that you’re spelling out the missing piece of a bible verse on letters of the alphabet carved into a stone floor (and being fatally poisoned if you make a mistake). The world conspires against you and sends you battling your way through train cars as you defuse a tense situation by removing all of the deranged cultists on board. A local racketeer politely demands that you tend to the grave of his gang’s founder by gathering a water bucket and incense from the shrine in a graveyard filled with illimitable kyonshi beings who need to be mortally wounded and bound by ofuda, giving you enough time to clean up the Venerable One’s final resting place and light devotional incense sticks before a gust of wind sweeps through the headstones and frees the infuriated kyonshi from bondage.

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All of these activities are part of the bigger picture, one that only comes into being after completing everything on the map and some of the things that aren’t. Even once you’ve collected all of the pieces of the puzzle and read between the lines, it may be that you don’t even understand half of what’s going on.

Which is exactly the way it’s intended to be. You’re not supposed to know everything. There’s an intoxicating attraction found within the unknown and The Secret World riffs off this to infinity and back. It boasts the best story I’ve ever enjoyed in an MMO; only the Imperial Agent class story from Star Wars: The Old Republic is even in the same league.

Would I recommend it? There are several shortcomings which may put one off: a clunky physics engine, poorly optimized graphics, and a handful of infuriating missions. Initially, I found the writing to be abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. (Once I was able to characterize the happenings in the first area as “a bunch of occult stuff,” things started making more sense.) These quibbles do not constitute deal-breakers, however. If you’re comfortable with playing MMOs and think you have the knack for dealing with challenges, then the answer is: yes. Buy the game and play it for a while. Enjoy the dark and cryptic story. If you really like it, you can then consider paying the optional subscription fee of $15 per month and gaining access to several benefits.

It took me nine months before I decided to start subscribing because that’s how long it took for me to really get into the game. I still find many of the missions to be too similar to video game levels for my liking, but now that I’m more powerful and experienced I can usually go back and soak in their connection to the narrative without feeling overly harried. Since that’s what I’m here for and there’s so much of it to go around, it stands to reason that I’ll be staying a while.

Guardians of Gaia

The passage of time has not made the secrets of The Secret World any less mysterious, nor has it softened the tenor of the grim undertones that resonate through the bowels of a global society in disarray. If you take a game like Ever, Jane, for example, which dances among the pleasantries and intrigues of civilized society, you might find yourself at a picnic on a nice summer’s day having a conversation with your companion. Your task may be to ingratiate yourself with them, perhaps in the style of Vanguard’s Diplomacy sphere. It may be that you’ve had a glass of sherry or a cup of coffee and there’s a nice background hum to the rhythm of the day. The sun smiles upon your face as you bite into a slice of succulent watermelon. Your companion laughs as they reach for a napkin and dab playfully at the juice that’s running down your chin.

In contrast, The Secret World offers a fundamentally different milieu for those who seek their chthonic pleasure in somewhat darker surroundings – not necessarily within the underbelly of society, in its back alleys, or between the hips of its inhabitants, but in its flirtation with the line between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. It’s that air of mystery that the security guard in Kaidan Hospital said he needed to maintain prior to the day’s back-office liaison with an office administrator whose questions had spilled over into the domain of the personal…the mundane. This world’s secrets are seductive and even intoxicating precisely because our fleeting glimpses into their domain are only ever through fragments, memories, dreams, and imaginings.

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It has now been four years since the magic-users of this world – the “bees” as they are called – were first invited to sample its dark delights in search of the Forbidden Orgasm. The Guardians of Gaia are erupting from the peaks and valleys of Earth’s bushy landscape as one of Gaia’s natural, cyclical defense mechanisms against the filth that seeks to corrupt her. The Gatekeeper, a golden being who guards passage into the more nefarious depths of the black ichor’s realm of influence, acts as the conduit via which the Guardians are given corporeal substance.

Less tasteful individuals who are not entirely in character might choose to call them “loot piñatas.” I beg to differ. A more accurate description would be “hit point sponges.” Keep in mind that this is an endearing description on my part; I am quite fond of the game despite the occasional finger cramps that occur from prolonged combat.

In the spirit of The Secret World’s community which is generally helpful, forgiving, and wary of unsolicited exposure of the meatier bits of the game’s story, I decided to engage all of the “golems” at close quarters without reading up on any of the strategies. This meant eschewing ranged weapons such as the Elemental Focus which allows for continuous, maximal damage output and concurrent avoidance of close-range mechanics. This would be anathema in a game whose culture worships power and stats; here, nobody seemed to care much save for a choice few whose frustrations with the 40-person Gatekeeper encounter were given voice in public channels. On the whole, I was largely successful in melee combat. I’d like to think it’s a product of experience and having played games like WildStar and GW2. The only golem that gave me trouble was the Guardian of Pestilence in the Shadowy Forest. It was here and here alone that I experienced heavy lag and thus couldn’t react to its deadly purple poison ground-based AoE fast enough for the server’s liking. I’m just not willing to compromise on graphics quality, I guess, apart from turning “Effects” down a notch in Blue Mountain.

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The consequences of visual snobbery.

Many players were using an AddOn called ShoutOut to send a nicely formatted message to the Event channel when they had spotted a golem. An additional script adds the ability to automatically accept all “Meet Up” requests, which is an option from the menu that pops up when you right click on a player’s name in the chat log. Clicking on Meet Up sends you directly to wherever the target player is. Accordingly, players were regularly offering “taxis” to popular destinations such as London in addition to the locations of the golems.

Up close and in person, the golems have varied and interesting mechanics: small circles are generally less lethal attacks but may leave behind Bad Stuff on the ground; big circles are bad, so run away; and golems may poison or afflict you which should be cleansed or healed through as the presence of this status on players will empower the Guardians’ attacks against those players. Generally speaking, the melee dance was enjoyable if a bit longish but I suspect that’s partially a product of my relatively paltry Epic 10.1 gear with stat-appropriate signets and glyphs of varying quality.

After slaying all eight of the golems and reaping their rewards, I made the self-surprising decision to use the Meet Up feature to join a 40-person raid on the “Hatekeeper,” the enraged form of the Gatekeeper who must be summoned on a large platform that resides in the veiled chiaroscuro of Deep Agartha. To summon the Gatekeeper, eight different types of golems must be called forth by players. (If you have a blue-quality object in your inventory that features an icon that looks like a golem and is named something like “Irate Shard” or “Roiling Shard,” that’s what I’m talking about.) Once this has been done, the Gatekeeper will appear on the main platform and players can begin chipping away at his health pool.

It took our raid three attempts and over an hour to finally defeat him. I was able to melee him fairly decently but developed a bad habit of being randomly one-shotted by the copious amounts of chameleon-patterened Bad Stuff he leaves on the floor and thereafter switched to add duty away from the main fight, mostly to avoid the stat loss from 100% damaged talismans. In addition to his small circles that leave lightning-colored bad stuff behind, he also regularly telegraphs a long rectangle that sweeps in a small arc in front of him, terminating in a long line of fire-colored bad stuff on the floor. Periodically, he will pulse out a raid-wide AoE “buff” that cannot be cleansed by normal means and takes away most of your health once it wears off. Finally, there are three narrow walkways that branch off from the main platform. At the end of each path is a portal from which custodian machines spawn; if any of these custodians reaches the Gatekeeper, he is healed back up to full.

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Our winning strategy had groups of five players camp each of the three branches while the remaining 25 players stayed on the boss. The custodians power down after receiving a certain amount of damage and will then wake up after a fixed amount of time; additional custodians will spawn from the branches’ portals at set intervals which means that you may have two or three custodians per branch coming back to life at the most inopportune of times and threatening to undo all your hard work. Five bees per branch with self-designated “floaters” seemed to work well enough in dispatching all of our custodians before they made it to the outer ring of the central platform.

I was rewarded with five epic-quality flare gun toys for my trouble. I’m here for the story, so I don’t really care. There are some pretty cool rewards that you can get if you win the loot table lottery or want to make a game out of farming the engagements. I’ve taken this month’s subscriber points stipend and purchased a week-long AP doubler which stacks with the 2x AP rewards already in effect for the duration of the event (June 29th – July 13th). I’ll be alternating between repeating Transylvania missions (which I’ve found to be the best stream of SP and AP), battling the golems, and completing outstanding missions in Kaidan. I thus hope to finally complete my ability wheel and at least acquire all of the Rocket Launcher abilities on the auxiliary wheel; I obtained my shoulder cannon quite some time ago and the poor thing hasn’t even been fired once.

Overall, I’d recommend taking part for the social experience even if you’re not terribly far along in the story or aren’t interested in the combat mechanics. This is the first time since I started playing that I’m in a position where I’m ready to look at public chat channels. (What a strange thing to say!) Prior to this, I had been playing a deliciously dark single-player game with only the occasional passersby to remind me that others were operating in the same environs. With the main story complete and other gaming interests mostly muted, I think it’s time to see whether the social aspects of The Secret World contain any stories worth telling.