July 07, 2017

The Secret World Legends

The Secret World relaunched as "The Secret World Legends" a couple weeks ago. I have not played an MMO of any kind since City of Heroes Freedom was taken offline in November 2012. At the recommendation of several people in some of the game forums I frequent, I downloaded it and tried it out. After all, this version is free to play (F2P) with all the good and evil that designation implies. I started playing on about June 26th or 27th, I don't remember exactly. My character is now level 24. Progress has been slow and frequently interrupted by limits placed on F2P players, but I expected that to be true so I was not surprised. Several things have surprised me, some very good and others very bad.

First, the good. The storytelling in The Secret World Legends is genuinely epic and intimate both at the same time. It is branded as a "Mature" game, not a "Teen" game, so there is far too much profanity, a surprising amount of sexual allusions, and very graphic blood-soaked scenery. The important part is the storytelling. Each character has a unique personality. Some are charming, some are rude, some are just ordinary folks doing their best to survive the apocalypse that surrounds them. The player's character is a member of one of three secret societies (thus, "The Secret World"): Templars, Illuminati, Dragon. I choose the Dragon, so I started in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Seoul. The map is small, but quite pleasing, with a good combination of both classic and modern architecture. I have lived in Asia for all of my adult life. This is the finest representation of an Asian city I have ever seen in an online game. It is tempting to think the person who designed it has actually spent time in Asia.

Time in Seoul was very short. I had to delete and recreate my character multiple times when progress was frozen by game bugs (more on that later), but eventually I made it out of the tutorial and into the main game. The hub city, Agartha, is a sort of living tree design. It is not as vast as it first appears. Getting around involves using a sort of jump point between plateaus. It took me a few minutes to figure out how the system worked, but once I had it down getting around was just as simple as it would have been without the long jumps. It's kind of fun, actually, to go sailing through the air between platforms with nothing beneath you but a bottomless well of white light. Agartha is extremely crowded, of course, but it still runs quite well on my ASUS Zenbook Flip, which was designed for word processors and spreadsheets, not games. The frame rate slows noticeably in Agartha, but I have not yet experienced any lost movement or rubber-banding. The game flows very smoothly despite my lack of accelerated hardware.

The first game zone is called, "Kingsmouth", a very weird name for a very weird place. It is supposed to be in the Northeastern United States. It has more of a Vermont feel than a Massachusetts feel, and even that is only marginal. Unfortunately, this area (three zones altogether) is not as authentic and appealing as Seoul (again, more on that later). On the plus side, the characters are quirky and charming in a Hollywood kind of way. They range from Norma Creed defending her home with a shotgun to the Sheriff trying to locate survivors and hold them together until help arrives. The help, in this case, is the player! There are an enormous amount of missions in Kingsmouth. I was only able to complete about two-thirds of them before the main story mission shuffled me off to the Savage Coast (the next zone). After several days there, yesterday the main story mission finally moved me into Blue Mountain, the final of the three early zones. In many ways, all three of these zones function as an extended tutorial with little helps and hints that gradually fade away as the player's character gains levels.

There are basically three kinds of missions: story missions, investigation missions, and action missions. Some investigation or action missions also have stealth elements thrown in, and some are labeled "sabotage" even though there is very little property damage taking place. Outside the tutorial only one mission so far has involved setting bombs, and those bombs clearly targeted monsters not the places they were hiding. Story missions fill in different bits of background and flesh out the main story mission. Action missions are the kind of thing one normally finds in a MMORPG: go here, kill monsters, report the result. Investigation missions are a combination of puzzle-solving and information retrieval. Not all of that information is in the game. The game includes an ingame web browser that always opens to the main site (https://secretworldlegends.com/). I genuinely wish I could set it to open to Google, but as far as I can tell, that is not possible, so I have to manually enter the Google url into the address bar every time I open the browser. Google is your friend. The answer for every question I have had while running an investigation mission has been found through a Google search. The ingame web browser is very slow, it reminds me of Netscape when it first came out. Many people claim it does not work at all. I have not had that problem yet. The only difficulty I have had is controlling my patience waiting for a much needed answer or piece of data so I could continue the mission.

The graphics are pleasing, the game runs smoothly, the story and characters are amusing, the missions are challenging. Those are all good points. Now for some bad points.

While running tutorial missions in Seoul, twice my character lost the ability to progress. In one case, a sewer mission, the mission itself was bugged. I completed the mission, used up all my explosives, killed all the monsters, and could not leave the sewer. After an hour of searching around fruitlessly, I exited the game and went searching for answer. It turned out there is no exit to the mission, only an entrance. A very bad oversight. I deleted the character, recreated her, and skipped that side mission. Then I got trapped in a school where I was supposed to be learning how to upgrade weapons. Another deleted character (this time in anger before I ran my web search, which was a mistake) and another web search. In this case, I was confused by inadequate explanatory text. My own weapon and one of the weapons I was supposed to use in the upgrade process were identical, thus, I failed to use the weapon intended to be consumed in the upgrade process. The game could not handle this exception and would not let me exit the school. The next time through I did not make the same mistake and everything went well. My suggestion: watch walk-through videos and read guides before running the tutorial as a Dragon. It will pay off in a smoother start to your life as a Dragon operative.

Now, my second major complaint. After the wonderful design of Seoul, the three early zones set in the American Northeast were a great disappointment. Two assumptions have clearly gone into the core design of this game:
(1) Americans are all gun-loving lunatics just as dangerous as the monsters in the game
(2) It is far past time for Mother Nature to take her revenge on the evil American industrialists who are turning the North Atlantic into a toxic swamp.

Over and over again, one NPC after another swings around a fancy firearm while bewailing how our lack of respect for nature has resulted in this calamity which we so rightly deserve. As an American, I very quickly got sick and tired of guilt-ridden American NPCs more in love with firearms than nature. There are a few Native American NPCs, of course, but their dialogues are so predictable it is nauseating. It is bad enough when Hollywood pulls this pseudo-spiritual garbage, to have it thrown back in my face by a Norwegian game is simply inexcusable. Ironically, my American response is that the writer needs to be taken behind the barn and shot. (insert Hollywood laugh track here)

Playing The Secret World Legends has not changed my mind in the least. Most modern MMORPGs are junk. They are not designed for players to enjoy. Instead, they are strictly designed to get powergamers of all nationalities to empty their wallets into the game company coffers. The modern gaming world is a great scam being perpetuated by con artists using a simple bait and switch tactic: promise something unique while draining the mark's bank account then abscond with the cash before the poor sap realizes they've been duped.

The loss of City of Heroes is still an open wound that might never heal.