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Secret World Legends – First Look

Secret World Legends launched this week and as I missed out on the original Secret World, I decided now was the best time to see what the game was all about.

Secret World Legends is a free to play re-imagining of the Secret World, a unique Lovecraftian MMORPG released by Funcom in 2012. Secret World Legends’ setting and world are the strongest selling point the game has going for it. The game takes place in a modern-day world that draws a lot of influence from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, minus the overt racism. It centers around a world where hyper-advanced technology, arcane arts, and horrific abominations blend seamlessly with a cast of memorable characters and extremely well written dialogue. This rebranding and re-launch is no doubt an effort on Funcom’s part to try to address the problems that Secret World had and allow more players to experience the world they’ve crafted.

Secret World Legends opens with character creation and faction selection. Players make choices from a few face, hair, and clothing options to customize their character. It isn’t the most robust character creation tool I’ve seen in a game, but it had enough options for me to get the look I wanted. Once players finish their characters, a series of videos plays describing each of the three factions available: The Illuminati are exactly what it sounds like: The Illuminati. They’re everywhere, they’re always watching, and always in control. The Templars are a religious society that draw inspiration from the Catholic church during the medieval period. They believe the world needs order and discipline and they’re the only ones who can provide that. Finally, the Dragons are an organization based solely on chaos. Not just living in it, but creating it and profiting from it. Honestly, they were the most boring sounding of the three factions. I chose the Illuminati for my character and I was immediately glad that I did.

The game takes a more single-player approach to storytelling. Cinematic cutscenes play out and serve to introduce the player to an ever-growing cast of incredible characters with their own depth and personality. My favorites in the early game are Dr. Charles Zurn, one of the Illuminati’s experimental researchers, and Jack Boone, a tough but friendly cowboy voiced by none other than Steve Blum. All of this takes place in a world that is massive. Players begin in their organization’s headquarters (once they find it) and then branch into a hub called Agartha. Agartha draws clear inspiration from hub worlds in games like Crash Bandicoot, as each section of the globe splits into a handful of portals to important locations. Each location is sprawling and densely populated with players, NPCs, and monsters to interact with. Visually, the environments are decent but feel dated. They still function as a background for the fantastic character models to pop against and fit the gritty setting well.

Lots of NPCs have additional quests to give, and this is another one of the game’s strongest points. These quests didn’t feel like the typical MMORPG quests. Even side missions had story introductions and cutscenes, and every quest I completed felt important. It was never as simple as “go here and kill this many elks”.

For example, the first quest I got from Jack Boone was to eliminate zombies to find a truck full of Ammunition and take the ammo to the Sherriff’s office in Kingsmouth. He tells you, during his cutscene, that he’s been looking for a way to stop the zombies that infest the area from constantly coming back to life and hopes that I would help him find it. This isn’t a quest objective itself, but it set up a quest I took on later to help a woman burn zombie parts as she found that this was keeping them away. This system of interweaving side-quests and main story quests is a brilliant way of encouraging players to explore the world. It keeps everything relevant and helps to connect everything and everyone in the game’s world together.

The missions players take on vary in gameplay styles too. They range from stealth segments where monsters are more powerful and head-on fighting won’t work, to a few minor platforming challenges as well that test a player’s ability to navigate the terrain and experiment with the climbing and jumping mechanics.

Combat closely resembles Guild Wars 2 or Wildstar; enemies have tells that appear when they are using their abilities, and there’s a stamina meter for dodge-rolling out of the way of these moves. The rate of fire at low levels, at least for pistols, took some adjustment at first, but it is still an RPG, not a shooter. Pacing aside, the combat is visceral and deliberate. Characters and enemies are in constant motion and it leaves the game feeling a lot more like a console action-game than the standard MMO. I chose the Gunslinger class for their ability to pump out AOE damage. Their skillset focuses on bending bullets a la Wanted to pass through multiple targets and engaging at close range with an elemental shot-gun. Their revolvers also have colored ammo in them that randomly spin when you activate abilities. Lining up two like-colored bullets in the chambers results in a damage buff that lasts for a short period.

Players unlock new abilities by earning Skill Points and Ability points as you gain experience and level up. You spend Skill Points on perk trees that offer passive benefits, and you spend Ability points on active moves you can use during combat based on multiple specializations that mix and match to fit any playstyle. The turn-off about this progression system was the button I noticed on the SP window to buy Skill Points with Aurum which is the game’s real-world currency. This creates a pay-to-go-faster type of economy that borders on pay-to-win. I never felt the need to spend money on skill points though as I was leveling up quickly and points were not necessarily hard to come by. It’s worth noting that Funcom announced recently that it was examining the way monetization works in the game in the months following launch, so it is unclear how this will change.

Another facet of character progression is upgrading equipment. This works a lot like the system found in Blade and Soul. Players dump weapons they don’t want into ones that they do; those weapons level up and their stats and bonuses improve. Weapons earn bonuses for consuming weapons of the same type. They also earn more XP from a weapon based on the consumed weapon’s rarity. These upgrades take crystals to perform, but they are easy to acquire as quest rewards and I always found myself with a ton of them.

Secret World hits its stumbling blocks around the monetization. As mentioned earlier, I had the option to buy skill points and ability points with real money which, in some ways, invalidates the player experience. By the end of the Kingsmouth, Maine, portion of the game players will have a functioning build though. I was personally all the way through one specialty skill tree by the end of that questline. The monetization serves to unlock other weapon skills faster, but it straddles an uncomfortable line that borders on Pay-To-Win. The only saving grace for this is that the game only has one PVP mode, a 10-on-10 death match mode called Shambala. By the time players are ready for Shambala and have finished the first major quest line, they’ll have plenty of skills.

Another sticking point for monetization is character slots. Players who don’t have a legacy Secret World account receive one slot. More character slots will cost $10 per slot. This is a bit steep as it limits players to a single faction and class unless they pay.

All in all, Secret World Legends is a huge game world filled with varied quests and a ton of characters to meet. Every square inch of it is dripping with personality and charm. The game functions well as a multiplayer game or single player experience. The pay-to-go-faster skill system is fine for branching into alternate character builds, but still makes me uneasy. $10 per character slot is also steep. The last-gen environmental visuals and sometimes bland particle effects, while disappointing, don’t distract from the otherwise amazing storytelling and gameplay experience. If you like strong narrative and unforgettable characters, Secret World Legends is a must-play.

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