As I have mentioned, I don’t have history with SWL. I do, however, have history with The Secret World. And the fun thing is that said history informs my attitude going into this title as well as the reasons behind the remake-slash-rebranding, so it’s worth examining that along the way. Just as it’s also worth noting that The Secret World has also long been a victim of Funcom’s slow-running financial implosion.
There’s a Barenaked Ladies song that includes a line that seems appropriate here: “He’s like a movie star without movies.” Funcom, meanwhile, is a hip maker of big hits without any big hits. You can see it running through every single launch the company has had.
Anarchy Online launches, and promptly breaks so badly that people still talk about the game as an example of disastrous launches. Age of Conan launches, and once again it suffers from being incomplete. The Secret World launches and crashes hard into the subscription wall of that era, forcing an immediate perception that the game was a failure.
Now, each and every one of these games kept going and recovered from launch problems. But they were never able to shed the image of those launches being so horribly, horribly broken. Much like Asheron’s Call 2, the titles were forever marked by audiences as The Game With Launch Troubles.
Which is a shame across the board. Anarchy Online was an early attempt to bring us beyond exclusively sword-and-sorcery titles with a breadth of character options and options for play. Age of Conan was a genuine attempt to introduce more “mature” elements to the genre, and while it was all filtered through the hyper-masculine lens of the Conan universe it still tried. And The Secret World tilted the whole thing to one side, taking place in the sort of urban horror environment that’s always popular in media but rarely shows up in gaming.
More to the point, it did so in a way that felt really fun. The whole “all myths are true” thing shows up a lot, but far too often that’s used as an excuse to lump all myths under a few headers. TSW, on the other hand, took the best part of the Cthulhu mythos and ran with it. To wit, it’s the fact that the mythos is not a mythos, that it’s a collection of unconnected elements that don’t necessarily fit together in a clean and comprehensible pattern.
And it did all of this while managing to find a solid balance between being full of things you could shoot and full of things you couldn’t. There’s always the threat, when dealing with horror elements in an RPG, that you’re going to find the horrifying becoming approachable and reliable as you gain power. TSW had lots of things that could at least be temporarily dealt with via heavy weaponry, but it had just as many things that couldn’t be dealt with that way, including some that couldn’t be dealt with at all.
You were never helpless, no. But walking through Argatha could always be used as a reminder that you also were not actually all that powerful. You were a small spark in an ocean of light and darkness, and while you could eventually be a brighter spark, you were still trying to avoid notice by much bigger bits of darkness along the way.
For all of this praise, though, it remains worth noting that once you stop praising the game’s setting, you wind up tumbling into less-pleasant territory. Without a doubt, the lore and storytelling were good; the trouble was that the actual game itself was less good. Combat was frequently cited as a mess, with countless people either talking about how bad it was or trying to defend it as not being that bad, really.
Poor combat is one thing, but the game wasn’t helped by not having a whole lot to it other than combat. There was no housing, barely what you could consider crafting, and only a couple of additional mission types other than combat to broaden its style. Investigation missions are the one that I often point to as being both a sign of what the game was trying to do and a major stumbling block.
The idea was solid – quests that ask players to search for clues using the built-in web browser, taking advantage of carefully added fake sites as part of a meta-ARG. The problem, of course, was that these quests ran into all of the same problems as your average adventure game, asking you to follow the designer’s train of logic to understand that it wants you to play, say, a C-major scale using the pipes on the far side of the building.
Or, more often, use that in-game browser to just browse to a wiki with the solution and then use that solution. They weren’t terrible, but neither were they very good. Innovative idea with less-than-inspired execution.
So it’s not ultimately a shock that the game didn’t make a lot of money. It was a great concept with wonderful atmosphere and some middling gameplay, which was always going to be a niche title. Unfortunately, as mentioned, Funcom needed a game that actually made money, making the title’s failure to turn a profit something of a problem.
I’m glossing over a lot of aspects of the the game’s history here for the sake of brevity, I’ll note. It’s done with love.
Ultimately, Secret World Legends was born of an attempt to take all of the good parts of TSW and marry them to a better actual game. It also was an effort at really rebooting and re-energizing the game with a relaunch, something that has worked remarkably well on a few occasions in other MMORPGs. What’s dogged the title since is basically an open question of whether it was a full-on relaunch, a major update to the business model, or something in between.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the short, sweet, and beautifully horrifying The Park, although there’s not much more to be done beyond mentioning it. I really like it, see.
So now you know my bias and history. What am I hoping for? Well, I’m hoping to see whether or not the to-do was worth it. The game forced everyone to start over from the beginning, rebooting progress and gameplay, and that’s a whole lot to lose in a title that’s been around for several years. Was it ultimately worth the effort? Let’s find out.
I know some of you have been a bit twitchy about the lack of polls recently, and for that I apologize. Thus, we have a poll here, and it’s an easily comprehensible one: Which faction should I sign up for? All three of them are pretty cool, even though I spend a lot of time mocking the Dragon. (It’s my least favorite, but not by a wide margin.)
CMA: Which faction should I join
- The conniving, brilliant Illuminati (37%, 77 Votes)
- The stalwart and courageous Templars (33%, 69 Votes)
- The Dragons, who are just, like, these dudes (30%, 62 Votes)
Total Voters: 208
Seriously, the Dragons are just straight-up dudes. And yes, I mean in the same vein as the Dude.
As always, polls remain open until Friday at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Check back in next week to see how the first week has gone; until then, leave your feedback in the comments below or send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.