The Secret World

Note: Secret World Legends is still under extremely heavy NDA, and I’m only allowed to display and talk about the bits and pieces that were shown to me during the virtual tour. If you’re one of the lucky ones in the beta, beware: this doesn’t mean you’re suddenly free to publicly talk about stuff.

Dark days are changing. Secret World Legends is not the The Secret World that we knew and adored and wrote lengthy love letters to. I know this, because I’ve spent an hour playing it in the online company of game director Romain Amiel and community manager Andy Benditt, and talking – at length – about what’s changed, why it’s changed, and why this is a good thing and not terrifying and weird. Or, well, why it’s still as terrifying and weird as The Secret World should be.

The Secret World did an awful lot in a very unique way. It was class-less. It was level-less. It had quests that went far beyond killing rats so you could collect 10 tails (which, inexplicably, only one in every three rats have). It tested your knowledge and required actual thinking and research. It had a story – an actual story – steeped in mystery and mythology, with routinely good writing and world-building. And, finally, it was set in the modern day, with the minor change that myths are true. There are secret societies controlling the world from the shadows. There are vampires and ghosts and demons. There most definitely are monsters under the bed. You should be afraid.

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Especially when the monsters look like this. Yeesh.

Of course, this comes with its own set of unique problems, and Amiel was keen to stress that a large part of Secret World Legends‘ changes are aimed at fixing or mitigating those problems. For instance: a class-less, level-less system is great! … As long as you’re willing to dive deep into the hundreds of abilities on offer and figure out exactly how to build your character. If not, you’re going to get lost and confused very, very quickly. Likewise, when levels aren’t a thing, problems can’t easily be solved by just grinding. The Secret World was incredibly rewarding, but it certainly demanded patience and effort to get the most out of it.

To that end, many of the changes I saw were aimed specifically at the opening few hours and the experience for new players. You do now choose a class, for instance, which assigns you your two starting weapons. You have levels. The gigantic, mildly intimidating skill wheel is gone, replaced with passive and active skill trees for each weapon.

Oh, get back here. While what I’ve just said is all accurate, Secret World Legends hasn’t changed that much. Your starting class is really just a rough guideline: it gives you two weapons that fit together pretty well (and gives you an idea of how tricky it’ll be to play), but you’re not locked into anything. You can still unlock absolutely everything and learn how everything works and become a veritable master of the universe. It is a little bit trickier to do so, but we’ll get to that.

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The new tutorial ends in a suitably apocalyptic way. This isn’t quite your usual “punch a rat” thing.

The considerable upside is that this gives Secret World Legends a chance to give you a more personalised tutorial. I go over that a little more in the video accompanying this article, but the new tutorial (in which your own powers knock you into a creepy dreamworld as you’re getting accustomed to them) is tailored to each class, explaining the different types of mission and offering up information on how your weapons work. This is important, because weapons now work very, very differently.

Again, this is something that’s in the video, but it’s a fairly prominent difference and is worth talking about. Every single one of the game’s nine weapon types now have a unique specialisation which changes the way they feel and the way they work.

Elementalism, for instance – the magic of hurling lightning and fire – is now tied to a Heat Up mechanic. Most of your abilities raise the Heat Up bar, and as that bar gets higher, your spells inflict more damage. If the bar ever fills up completely, though, you overheat, and most of your abilities are completely locked out. Thankfully, you also have abilities which lower your Heat (and I rather suspect there’ll be a few which will consume your Heat to increase their power). As such, Elementalism is a balancing act: keep your Heat high to inflict more damage, but don’t let it go too high.

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Fists, on the other hand, let you focus on healing touches or Hulking out.

That’s one weapon. The other eight all have their own mechanics in this sense, and I could probably spend an entire article talking about how they work. They’re not all as in-depth or complex as that (there’s probably a reason why classes with Elementalism as a basic weapon tend to be rated a bit higher in difficulty), but they all have separate quirks to master, and Passive abilities that impact those quirks.

Another immediately noticeable change is to the way Secret World Legends controls. Rather than the standard MMO stuff of TSW, Legends handles a bit more like a third-person action game. You have mouselook. Two of your abilities are bound to the left and right mouse buttons. You actually need to aim at things (sort of – there’s a good amount of leniency on this). You can tab back to having a mouse cursor on screen with a simple tap of Alt, but that’s mostly just for using menus or checking tooltips, and not for actually playing the game.

Still, this raised one question that matters to me specifically considering how I played TSW: how does this impact healing? The Secret World let you assign a “defensive” target, who would be the target of any healing or shielding spells, but suddenly switching to a fast-moving friendly target is an awful lot harder with a reticle.

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Passive trees offer both equippable abilities that change your skills in interesting ways, and (genuinely) passive permanent stat boosts.

According to Amiel, healing was the biggest hurdle to overcome with this new combat system. The solutions, though, are pretty thorough. Firstly, rapid swapping of heal targets shouldn’t be quite as important as it is in The Secret World. Secondly, most heal builds will (or – considering the open nature of character building – should) incorporate at least one ability that will automatically target the party member with the lowest health. Third, there’s a bit more group healing rather than single-target healing. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a system that lets you swap targets rapidly.

I haven’t seen this in action, but Amiel says that with a flick of the mouse you can instantly target the person at the top of the party or the bottom of the party; the player themselves will always be at the top of the party, while the tank will always be at the bottom. Others can be selected through scrolling, but it sounds like a big part of healing the harder dungeons will be knowing when big attacks are coming, who they’re going to hit, and essentially being ready to heal at the right moment. It’s a bit of a shift, but one I’m quite keen to see in action.

Speaking of dungeons, they’ve undergone quite a change too. They’re still the dungeons you remember – The Polaris, The Ankh, the goddamn Facility which still gives me nightmares – but you’ll be experiencing them in a slightly different way.

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Yes, it’s still The Polaris, and I’m pretty sure it’s still fundamentally the same dungeon as you remember. It’s just that you can now do it in rather different ways.

There are two big changes, and the first is aimed – again – at getting more casual players into the dungeons. A lot of people avoid dungeons in MMOs because they don’t have four friends/don’t want to queue with the big mean randoms/are worried they’re going to screw up and do terribly, which are all fairly legitimate concerns. However, with something as story-driven as The Secret World, that means you’re missing out on some really interesting content and delicious bits of detail.

As such, your first attempt at dungeons will likely be through “story dungeons,” which you’ll venture through as you level up and progress through the story. These are aimed at three people, with absolutely no notion of the holy trinity of Tank/DPS/Healer; you can go in with pretty much any combination of the three and you’ll probably be fine, as they’re specifically tweaked to be quite easy.

It’s hard to know how easy these will be (our three-DPS run of the Polaris only went up to the first boss, which still had the “electrocuting the water” mechanic, but as that’s the first dungeon it’s also the one I’d expect to be easiest) so I’d assume you’ll still need to learn some mechanics, but you shouldn’t need to bring your A-game. This gives casual groups and solo players a chance to go through them without stressing out, doesn’t require nearly so many players so it’s easier to do with friends, and gives you a pretty friendly environment to learn the unique twists and mechanics of each encounter.

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Don’t worry, it’s still the Kingsmouth you know and remember.

For what it’s worth, there’s also a private group system which lets you bypass basically all of the dungeon requirements as long as you meet the minimum level for a dungeon. If you want to go into the Polaris with two people or five people or with a level 50 friend, you can do so as long as all players are at the minimum level.

Don’t worry, though: the hardcore players haven’t been neglected. The end-game is when you’ll be able to start going back into these dungeons with a party of five, and this is where things should get really tricky. Amiel told me that there’s a much wider scale of difficulties for these: they’ll start at a difficulty level slightly easier than TSW‘s “Elite” difficulty, but the scaling system will let them progress far beyond the original’s Nightmare difficulty. If you’re a top-notch fully-geared end-game ninja wizard, it sounds like you’ll still be able to find a challenge in these.

This actually brings us neatly onto talking about the elephant in the room: the free-to-play stuff.

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Not the most interesting of screenshots, but hey, I wanted something from a different environment than Solomon Island and Agartha. So: more from tutorial land!

Okay, first, all of the content is free. All of it. The game, the story, the dungeons, the Issues that expand on the story: all freely available. Likewise, you’re not going to get locked out of dungeons if you’re a free player. If your friends are doing a dungeon and you’ve already done it that day, you can still go along and help them out. There are zero paygates to playing and replaying any of the content, present or future.

What is a little different is how you get loot in dungeons. After beating a boss, a loot chest drops, and you can decide whether or not to open it based on a table of what’s likely to be in it. Occasionally, these chests will be “rare”, offering up better rewards. You’ll get a daily allotment of keys to open these chests (my press account character had 12, but being that Legends is still undergoing plenty of changes and this was a press account, that’s not necessarily indicative of anything) and can decide whether or not you want to use one on a chest. Helping a lowbie friend with The Polaris? Maybe not. Doing a 5-man run of The Slaughterhouse? Probably a better choice.

If you run out of keys, you can always buy more… but not for real money. Instead, it’s an in-game currency earned by completing daily challenges. You might be getting achievements, beating missions, or killing monsters; there are all sorts of daily tasks, and this currency can be spent however you desire. If you want to use it to buy more dungeon keys, you can do so. If, on the other hand, you fancy some new cosmetic items, you can use it on them instead. It’s up to you, based on your playstyle.

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The other advantage of this, I suppose, is that there’s no fighting over who gets the drops. Everyone gets their own.

This is where things get a little bit confusing. There are three primary types of currency in Secret World Legends: Anima Shards, Marks of Favour, and Aurum. Anima Shards are essentially what Pax was in The Secret World, and are primarily used for things like upgrading gear and teleporting around. These are what you earn for general mission completion.

Marks of Favour, as noted, are earned from all sorts of things while playing the game, and these are a more premium form of “free” currency, used for things like chest keys and cosmetics and… well, unlocking the additional weapons. Yeah, this is the bit that slows down your acquisition of all of the weapons. And, finally, there’s Aurum: the real-money currency.

What’s interesting about this is that Aurum can be traded to other players. Funcom’s take on things is that if someone’s paid money, it doesn’t necessarily have to be them who spends the Aurum. To that end, the game’s auction house has a currency exchange system set up where you can trade Aurum to other players for Marks of Favour, and vice versa.

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Agartha is still a wondrous maze of tree roots, but now with more bounce pads and less walking through dozens of portals to get to the place you want to go.

From what I can gather, Marks of Favour are the most important of the currencies, which is probably why almost everything currently in the Auction House seems to be on sale for those (although I’m not currently sure if that’s the official Auction House currency, or just what players are after). I’m also not entirely certain about the limitations of what Aurum is used for, although I suspect it’s mostly for cosmetics and vanity stuff.

Either way, this community-driven approach to currency is quite unusual for an MMO that isn’t called EVE Online. How it’ll work out, I don’t know: part of me hopes that Aurum can be used for more than vanity items – as much as I love playing dress-up in The Secret World – but I do appreciate that the “important” currency seems to be one that’s earned rather than bought, and I like the idea that making yourself useful to other players (by selling items or by buying Aurum) can get you more of it faster. While this is a rather fair free-to-play system, the most important part is likely going to be the speed with which you earn those all-important Marks. Too slow, and progress will feel stifled. Too fast, and the currency exchange and Auction House are going to feel unimportant.

(There’s also a “patronage” subscription that mostly offers boosts to things that you earn, if you don’t fancy directly buying Aurum. There are ways to support the game other than outright purchasing currency.)

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Also, Agartha now has a sort of trading hub and a dance floor.

The tour covered more – we briefly discussed the levelling system, the new Agartha (which is now more of a hub, has role-playing areas, and is easier to navigate, none of which I’m going to complain about), changes to Scenarios, City of the Sun God being less of a psychopathic maze, visual upgrades and optimisations, weapon upgrades, and all sorts of other little bits and pieces – but I think we’ve covered the more salient points.

It’s obviously far too early for any sort of judgment, and an hour-long tour isn’t enough to see or discuss everything. There are plenty of ways this can go horribly wrong, and I suspect the biggest danger is going to be the way monetisation works, but I feel like keeping content free and making things simpler early on (while still allowing for terrifying build depth later) is a good focus to have in terms of trying to attract more people to the very unique world of The Secret World. While monetisation may be the ultimate key to whether this succeeds or fails, Secret World Legends – as a game – seems to be the same but different, and the tour’s done enough to at least give me an inkling that the changes being made might well be for the best.

Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.

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