The Secret World is a massively multiplayer online role-playing video game set in a modern-day real world under attack from occult forces. Ragnar Tørnquist led development of the initial game for Funcom. The Secret World uses a subscription-optional, buy-to-play business model, requiring players only to buy the game with no additional subscription fees, with additional benefits to those members still paying a subscription.
In 2017, The Secret World was relaunched as Secret World Legends.
In the game, the player’s character joins one of three world-controlling secret societies attempting to repel, mitigate or exploit the attack of Lovecraftian entities and other immortal beings in coastal Maine, rural Egypt, Transylvania, a quarantined section of Tokyo, a utopian community outside South Africa’s Capetown, and (planned) a section of the river Congo; and to advance their society’s agenda over that of the others.
The game uses a contemporary setting, borrowing heavily from the horror fiction genre and folklore, with a fog-ringed, zombie-infested New England fishing village for the novice player, mummies and cultists in Egypt for the mid-level player, followed by vampires and werewolves in Transylvania and ghosts, robots, Oni and an interdimensional occult cancer in Tokyo. Mission content bleeds into player faction headquarters in London, Seoul and the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn, and into the game’s transport network, along the subterranean branches of Yggdrasil in Agartha.
Unlike many other MMORPGs, there is no need to stop to use most of a character’s attacks and abilities; as a result, combat is faster and movement-based. The character is free (and at higher levels, occasionally obliged) to redevelop their abilities on the go, to better prepare themselves for specific threats or better integrate into a group. Unlike traditional MMORPGs, advancement is primarily through equipment, using experience points to buy additional abilities and more powerful weapons. https://www.secretworldlegends.com/
I should probably come out and say that this is one of, if not the most difficult review I’ve ever undertaken. You see, I loved The Secret World, and I love Secret World Legends. But I didn’t enjoy TSW—and I don’t enjoy SWL. This makes for a challenging review because, while I love what both games are, I don’t actually have fun playing them—and I suspect this may have been (and may continue to be) the case for many other players in what is, without a doubt, the best story-based MMO on the market.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that SWL is “just another” MMORPG, certainly. At a glance, it’s difficult to see what sets it apart. But even a cursory delve into its world and it becomes immediately evident that the game does (and always has) work very hard to create rich, unfolding narratives based on storied paranormal lore. I recently had to describe the game to someone who had never heard of it, and I eventually settled on “Supernatural the MMO, where you play as a member of one of three secret societies working in the shadows to protect the world from paranormal happenings while attempting to consolidate world power.” Looking back, I stand proudly by that description.
What’s not so easy to explain to people is how the game(s) all but pioneered the concept of the ARG (Alternate Reality Game), whereby the game’s Investigation missions have no quest markers, or indeed any explanation in the traditional sense. Instead, players are given some introductory curiosity or event that they must find relevance within. Perhaps an NPC has a vague vision that they describe and you’ve seen something similar in your travels, or maybe there’s a book or a painting out of place in the world—time to Google what’s special about that piece. Did someone involved in its creation ever to or create something that may relate to the current game events? If so, how might that be relevant to finding the next clue within the game world? There’s a lot of real-deal sleuthing required for the Investigation missions, and they are without a doubt the strongest point of Secret World Legends. Can’t read sheet music? Don’t know Morse Code? Not an art historian? Better find someone who is!
I remember when The Secret World first launched back in 2012, in the long-long ago, before the wiki pages had all the answers, and the sense of exploration and achievement as the whole community had to work together to solve puzzles was unlike anything I had experienced in a game before (and for the most part, since). Sadly, much of that is lost now that players can just find solutions online, but credit to the community, the wiki pages have multiple nested Spoilers ranging from vague hints, to pointed, to direction, to answer, all to keep those who just need a nudge in the right direction from having the whole solution handed to them. Even the in-game chat is full of people ensuring that others don’t outright ruin the experience for others—it’s sort of a reverse Barrens chat from World of Warcraft if you will.
There’s no denying that Secret World Legends is a unique experience, much as it always has been in its previous life, as well. And with the combat and skill overhaul, it also feels less disjointed than it did in years past. The addition of the new, unique mechanics to each weapon type makes for some really interesting new opportunities for engagement. Similarly, the choice of a starter class helps to ease new players past the old, uninviting skill web, with the opportunity to open up other weapons and skill trees down the line. There’s no doubt that it’s a much more polished and streamlined experience in its current form, but the biggest gripe I had with The Secret World persists with Secret World Legends: the loot.
What ultimately pushed me away from The Secret World (and what’s doing it again), is that enemies don’t drop loot. Sure, the first time you kill a unique spawn, you’ll be rewarded with a random loot bag, but barring that, quests are the only way to “find” gear. It can still be bought on the game’s market, and traded directly for subscribers, but there’s no ability to “grind” for lack of a better word. If I feel a piece of gear is seriously lacking, I have no choice but to go questing to fix it; either because the quests are the only reliable way to snag loot bags (which are themselves a random gamble), or because quests are the only way to acquire the currency for trading on the market. Sure, dungeon runs are an option, but there’s an extremely finite number of boss loot chests one can open in a day, and good luck getting gear over the upgrade fodder they so want to give you instead.
Now, I know it sounds silly, complaining about a lack of grinding, but hear me out. I’m not asking to be forced to grind for my gear, I just want the option to do so if I feel like being a badass and farming an interesting enemy type for a while. Seriously, some of the monster design in SWL is awesome, and it’s a crying shame that A: most of them have kill quotas for achievements, and B: there’s nothing to be gained beyond those bragging rights. By no means is SWL the only game to do this, but I can’t help but tilt my head when an MMO works so actively to reduce the number of ways to engage players. It’s sort of the opposite problem that Diablo 3 has had. Where that’s slowly made anything but grinding obsolete (rifts to P1000), TSW and SWL have always felt like All Quests Erry’day. And while quests reset so that you’re never “stuck” without options for new gear, they’re on 3-day timers, so there’s no real rhythm. In the past, this was a nuisance for those who felt that improving gear was a sign of progression in an MMO, but at least the game was tuned around it. Now, it still feels like I’m not making headway, and the new, more engaging combat system really highlights that sense of stagnation.
I can’t necessarily fault the game for these things, of course. Its focus is on story-based gameplay, and it’s in a league of its own in that regard, but I feel it achieves this by compromising many of the elements that draw players in. So while Secret World Legends will continue to stand as a testament to the power of storycraft and world-building in MMOs, I fear it will also continue to remain a niche game. For those who enjoy the concept of Daily Quests, this won’t be much of a hurdle, but if you’re like me and feel Dailies trivialize the content around them and cause players to log in just to complete them ad nauseum, you may have trouble finding love for Secret World Legends, even in spite of all of its selling points.