NEED TO KNOW
What is it? The F2P reboot of Funcom’s urban fantasy MMO, now more geared for casual and solo play.
Reviewed On: Windows 10, i7, 16GB RAM, NVIDIA 980GTX
Release Date: Out Now
Link: Official site
All conspiracies are true. Dark days are coming. Also, you just swallowed a magic bee. In an instant, your world is changed forever. Your life now belongs to the cheerfully evil Illuminati, proud and proper Templars, or chaotic Dragon faction. Before you’ve even had a chance to process that, you find yourself standing between the world and Lovecraftian nightmare. And not even getting overtime.
Like many people, The Secret World has always been my favourite MMO that I really wish hadn’t been an MMO. It a wonderful setting: a convincing real-world with urban fantasy twists. Everything, from starting out as an Illuminati in a real New York district to glancing at the first maps of the major hub of Solomon Island, offers a crazy idea-a-minute universe worth exploring. Take the town itself, full of stories even before Cthulhu’s groupies showed up to trash the place. There's a junkyard full of golems, a haunted amusement park, a casino under construction, and more. Some dislike the amount of monsters/chaos, but I’ve never minded that. The faction homes of New York, London and Seoul, are far more restrained and normal, and the main conceit is that you are being assigned to balls-out, end of the world situations where secrecy no longer matters.
Along with the fantastic map design, The Secret World’s writing is a joy. True, the decision to have a silent protagonist is regrettable—some conversations are really long monologues that can become eminently skippable—but that doesn’t matter when facing the likes of party-girl Illuminati handler Kirsten Geary, magic school headmaster Montag or Stephen King expy Sam Krieg. And that’s to say nothing of some of the amazing missions. While they do include plenty of standard kill quests and fetch quests, just as often you are being murdered by spirits, raising an army of the dead from the spirit world, and returning to kick seven different supernatural varieties of arse.
So… what went wrong?
Unfortunately, the game's qualities were undermined by the MMO side, which meant the distraction of other people, unnecessary padding (oh, so much padding) and combat that can be charitably described as ‘look, it tried’. A subscription fee and box purchase at the dawn of free-to-play certainly didn’t help.
With Secret World: Legends, Funcom has rebooted the whole thing. It’s the same maps and stories, at least for now—more is planned, as per the official roadmap. However, as well as being free to play, many of the systems have been overhauled in an attempt to make things smoother and easier to get into. The original game for instance was largely built on a myth about horizontal levelling. Now, you have levels, enemies have levels, and quests have levels, and even equipment has levels—multiple flavours!—with simplified skill trees for each one.
The result though is distinctly mixed. The good news is that you can play through the entire campaign completely for free and not be bothered by any purchases, as long as you don’t mind sticking to your starting weapons. If you’re an existing TSW player, they’re all unlocked for you. If starting fresh, you’ve got to unlock one weapon at a time, which costs real-world money or in-game currency. In both cases though, you have to earn each skill and passive with either points or cash.
The bad news is that while many of the complex MMO bits have changed, the changes don’t really deal with the actual problem. The specific skill descriptions have changed, yes, but remain vague and do a terrible job of pointing out what synergises with what and how best to build out a character. The worst of these changes is that instead of enemies dropping upgrades they now drop basic gear that you just smush into your existing stuff to iit by a non-noticeable amount. This gets as tedious as it sounds, especially with the need to later fuse high-level gear together and upgrade two weapons and seven talismans. Sometimes you just want to get a shiny new gun.
None of the missions or areas are gated by microtransactions though, and Funcom says that this will always be the case. That’s more important here than with most MMOs because for once the fewer people around, the better. You’re not completely alone while exploring, but you only ever encounter the occasional person on the play fields and are really expected to make teams in the central hub of Agartha. If you do form a team there are dungeons and currently just one PvP map, though the first raid, New York, isn’t set to reopen for a couple of months.
The story is mostly as was in The Secret World, though with a few changes. You now have to hit specific levels before continuing the main story. Combat is now reticule based rather than click-to-target. It’s not great, but this is a five-year-old MMO. Key phrase: MMO. Padding and pacing remain an issue. Too many quests having too many stages, and there being some weird new decisions. The end of the first Egypt zone for instance takes you right to the entrance to the second map, in what has to be one of the genre’s best visual reveals. To go in though takes another few hours play through what was formerly a DLC expansion, killing the pace.
Still, this side of things remains solid and enjoyable. What concerns and intrigues me equally is the future. Tokyo is the next playfield for the game, due to open in August. The thing is, Tokyo in the original game was a disaster—a much-hated zone, primarily for the addition of a new combat mechanic called AEGIS. On top of this, in the original version, Tokyo was where starter classes became useless and synergising between two weapons finally became crucial.
So far, Funcom has acknowledged that it was dreadful and promised changes, but it remains to be seen if Tokyo is still the hard slap in the face with a cold kipper that it was in the original game. After that, the question is whether it can stick to its plan of continuing the story with big new maps and encounters while retaining the depth and quality that sadly didn’t make the first game a hit, but did make it so beloved with its core audience. The more that you want to play it as an MMO, the more you’re likely to chafe at this reboot’s restrictions, especially in terms of loot. For more solo or narrative-focused players, however, it’s a great second chance to see what it has to offer, as well as the Secret World’s best chance in years to expand its reach and continue telling its story.