If only it were true that innovation was always richly rewarded in its time. The Secret World, an MMO with an engaging paranormal setting, took countless liberties with its genre to create an online roleplaying game that wasn't quite like any other: it had no levels or classes as such, it was very story-rich, it included extensive puzzle mechanics that seem more at home in an adventure game than an MMO.
If it seems appropriate to speak of it in the past tense, it's only because The Secret World, like so many of its weird and wickedly wonderful creatures, has resurrected itself in a new form: Secret World Legends (SWL). The basic idea was to reboot the game with a new funding model and a completely overhauled combat system--the latter long regarded as the game's most glaring weakness.
"Dynamic" is the new system's watchword; it's meant to be more involving than the standard MMO button-mash-until-dead mechanic that's usually prevailed. It's tighter, with fewer buttons and clearer combos, as well as weapons that have much more distinctive mechanics and resources. On top of it all, and perhaps most disorienting for MMO vets, is the fact that you're now playing a third person shooter and your mouse is, by default, mapped to a reticle.
The story, however, remains much the same. The idea was to upgrade the combat and streamline the gameplay so that it stopped getting in the way of the story. "Our main goal in this process was to make TSW more accessible," I was told by Scott Junior, the executive producer on TSW/SWL. "It has a very deep story that requires more effort from the players to follow. We knew we wanted to keep the story and quests from TSW when we went F2P so we decided to change everything else that we could in order to make it more accessible."
Junior refers here to the funding model tweaks that marked the transition from TSW to SWL, from buy-to-play to free-to-play. Now the game's content is more or less free. You can still subscribe, however, if you want certain crucial conveniences, like being able to fast-travel without paying, or extra XP.
"The Secret World was never a runaway hit," admitted Junior, but, he said, his team wants to "give it another chance to succeed." In my view, the game deserves it; there really isn't anything else quite like it in terms of its setting or its willingness to tell so capacious a story in a multiplayer environment. Or, as Junior put it, "this game has a lot more to give."
The very notion of this game being an MMO is being walked back, somewhat. The big marketing splashes, which use remixed assets from the original game, call it a "SHARED-WORLD ACTION RPG." Not exactly catchy. SWARPG, perhaps, pronounced swar-pee-gee? But it is accurate in its own way. Funcom is clearly reassessing the scale of the game's multiplayer; the "massive" part is less important than the "sharing" part, with more content catering to solo and small group play.
" The big marketing splashes, which use remixed assets from the original game, call it a 'SHARED-WORLD ACTION RPG.' Not exactly catchy. SWARPG, perhaps, pronounced swar-pee-gee?"
"We have introduced a ‘story' version for each of the dungeons in the game. This will allow players to go through the dungeons and experience the story and epic fights in a much less stressful environment," Junior told me, adding, "The dungeons have been rebalanced so that a healer and tank is not required so any team of 3 can enjoy the content." In essence, you and your friends can work together to overcome dungeons, but you can play what you like.
As with other such games, there's still content being designed for those who want a group-based challenge, however. "This week," Junior told me, "we released the first set of our new ‘Elite' dungeons which are intended for a group of 5 with a tank and healer. These dungeons scale from 1 to 10 and offer increased challenges and rewards at each tier." I was also told that the game's iconic Times Square raid, which sees you and your friends fight a Lovecraftian horror at the crossroads of the world, will return "later this year" with updates to its design and scaling difficulty.
Indeed, "re-release" seems to be the order of the day. Content that's existed in the game for years is being tweaked to work with the new combat system and being re-integrated into the game on a schedule. A chunk of the "Issues," i.e. the large patches that added swathes of new content, are active and free.
"At launch Secret World Legends included all of the original TSW playfields, dungeons, and all of the DLC content from Issues 1 – 6, 14, and 15," Junior said. "Soon we will be releasing the content from Issue 7 for free which will allow the players to pick up the story mission and continue their adventure in Transylvania." Issues 8 through 13 are being re-released in August, which means Tokyo is coming back as well. I was told that "substantial changes" are in the works for the AEGIS shield system, which was a critical mechanic in the Tokyo zone, but no further details were offered.
After playing the game for a few hours with my girlfriend I was surprised at how much had changed and how much I liked it. By default now, your left and right mouse buttons are hotkeys for attacks on your main bar. Q, 2, 3, and E activate the others. In an amazing quality-of-life change that I never knew I needed, the game now automatically maps your equipped trinket and your best healing potion to other keys on either end of your hotbar.
"Every time I mentioned the game, whether at a game convention or on Twitter, I heard some version of 'I loved the story, but the combat…' Doubtlessly Funcom did too."
The game now has traditional, D&D style levels, which I felt was an unfortunate climb-down from a more original model. You advanced, not along a straight line, but through an infinite circle of ability ranks. But then, you can never really get rid of levels. In the original TSW you couldn't simply waltz into Transylvania and expect to do anything other than die horribly, after all; content was still gated behind the number of abilities you acquired and your steadily rising stats from the gear you picked up. There was always a kind of soft, invisible leveling system in TSW. Formalizing it with the numbers we all know and love just makes it easier for people to understand, I suppose.
And that was the point of this whole exercise, making the game more intelligible so it wouldn't scare people off.
"Unfortunately it was no longer financially viable for us to continue producing new content in The Secret World," Junior told me. "With the F2P model of Secret World Legends we plan to continue producing new story content for years to come," he added brightly. Though at first blush it's hard to see how this system could be more lucrative, Junior said he and his team were "incredibly happy" with how the first two weeks have gone. It's possible that the hope here is to woo back the game's old partisans like myself and get us to subscribe again; the point at which there's profit to be made in selling units may have long since passed.
The biggest downside to a relaunch that so thoroughly overhauls the game's key systems is that all pre-existing characters have basically been deleted. Even if you link your old account, this merely allows you to keep all of your earned weapons and cosmetic items. You have to start from the beginning. In my own case, I'm still trying to figure out if I have the appetite to redo all that content, given that much of the story hasn't really changed, only how easily it's accessed. "We changed the story mission in each playfield to guide the players to all the important story/mission NPCs," said Junior, describing the much-touted ‘streamlining' of the game's content. "This changes how you play each zone," he added. I'll need to find out for myself.
What's clear is that the game's back, and it's been given an unprecedented new lease on life. Every time I mentioned the game, whether at a game convention or on Twitter, I heard some version of "I loved the story, but the combat…" Doubtlessly Funcom did too. Now the game's weakest link has become, arguably, its tentpole. In a conservative industry, it's nice to see a bold gambit now and again; hopefully it pays off. If nothing else, I was assured by Junior that SWL is here to stay, no matter what.
"As a company we take great pride in the fact that Anarchy Online has been operational for 16 years. Age of Conan is still open after 8 years and will be for a long time. If people are interested in playing our games and enjoying the content we have created the servers will remain open and available for anyone to play."
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.