The Secret World was always a game struggling to crawl out from under the weight of its own genre. Many have attempted to build a story-led MMO - and it's a noble pursuit - but no one has ever quite figured out how to do it, not least because an MMO is a terrible setting in which to tell a story. The Secret World got the closest so far. The intricately woven tale of conspiracy upon conspiracy was a huge hook when the game first released five years ago, and some could forgive the janky grindy weirdness of its online necessities to enjoy a setting and quest style not seen before in the genre. Will more people learn to see past the structural faults now, with its free-to-play reboot as Secret World Legends [official site]?
The Secret World made some colossal mistakes, none more colossal than launching with a box price, AND a subscription. At a time when subscription MMOs were flailing, it tried to see how expensive it could be. It was very, very silly.
Secret World Legends is an attempt to relaunch the game, but this time entirely for free. With a new combat system, tweaked missions and skill trees, and items snaggled in the cruel vines of bemusing in-game currencies. The changes are many, but their impact isn't enormously felt compared to how it all played before. My early impressions are of a game that's good in all the ways it was previously, improved in terms of accessibility and flow, but muddled and confused by a ludicrous array of in-game currencies bought for real-world money.
The Secret World, as was (its "The" seemingly now cast into the definite article bin of history with this new release), shone through its setting (Earth, with humans) and its story-led missions. While it still asked you to kill five of those and ten of these, it also asked you to investigate a symbol, and interpret the results, perhaps with some Googling, to decipher a code. These moments, while occasional, were outstanding in a field that is renowned for unimaginative tasks designed to channel you along its upgrade path. And that you were a human, with other human-looking-humans, in familiar-ish settings like a small Boston town, or Egyptian ruins.
It wanted to be so many things, and an enormous part of why was because the story and setting was a long-term passion project for creator/writer Ragnar Tørnquist. In fact, before even Dreamfall was announced, I remember Funcom top dog Jørgen Theraldsen taking me and then Edge editor Margaret Robertson aside in the offices of Future Publishing to show an early teaser they'd put together for the meta-concept: that every conspiracy theory was real. That was seven years before it was released in 2012. Visiting the studio to see Age Of Conan during development in the late 2000s, I remember sneaking off to see the former Longest Journey team in their new office, where the barely announced new MMO was now in development. They told me secrets, so many secrets, about an MMO that would have no levels, no classes, but instead intricately weave ARG-like elements into a shared world of puzzle solving and real-time combat.
Of course, over the years I've been told secrets, so many secrets, about so many MMOs that would have no levels, no classes, and real-time combat, and not a single one stuck with those pledges by release. TSW was no different, realising like they all eventually do, that there's no way to usefully provide progression without such elements, and no server is going to handle all those people doing all those chops on all those monsters at once. (It's worth noting that Legends gives up entirely, too, and just puts the level numbers in place.)
But despite it all, TSW definitely was different. For instance, you're unlikely to find another MMO that features the words, "It was like a motherfucking butterfly." But it was always a difference that struggled to be heard over the obligatory features of massively multiplayer gaming, and one completely strangled by the idiotic pricing.
Secret World Legends removes the cover price, and the subscription, and replaces it all with utter confusion. So it's entirely free, free to download, free to play. All future DLC will be free. You don't even need a credit card. Which of course means, it wants your money, because it'd be a pretty poor business idea otherwise.
This means new currencies have been introduced, and it goes out of its way not to introduce these to you as you start playing. The most immediately apparent is Aurum, essentially gold bars, that allow you to buy... stuff you'd really expect to come with an MMO. Like more than one character slot. Enough space in your inventory. More weapon options. You know the deal. You can buy Aurum with real world money, or there's going to be a way to get it with in-game currency from other players via the Exchange, which hadn't been working for the bulk of when I've been playing.
Then of course there is a way of paying a subscription, via the Patron Rewards Program. This is a 30 day sub that gets you "additional convenience" and "in-game bonuses". Nothing says "F2P" model like highlighting the unpaid version will be inconvenient.
And after Aurum come utterly unexplained currencies that you find yourself spending without knowing why, like "Mark Of Favour" and "Anima Shards". The latter seems to get used, very much on the sly, every time you upgrade your weapons and equipment - something you need to do incessantly in the new design. Each finished mission, of which there are billions, gives you a reward sack, which contains an item that is 90% of the time useless to you. This gathered scrap is then 'sacrificed' via the upgrade system, that lets you boost what you've already got by scrapping similar. And, without mentioning it to you, charging you Anima. I've got 19,000 Anima at level 22, but everyone got given a big pile of them as an apology for the extensive down-time last week. Upgrades start at a few hundred each time, and you'll do a great deal of them. I've no idea if it's something that'll eventually run out - I haven't so far, but I can't see why they'd be in the game if they weren't intended to run out at some point.
Then it just starts to feel silly. Fast travel is listed as "free for Patrons". Fast travel. Oh, and by the way, a monthly fee doesn't make anything in the game "free". Then as you get deeper in, you discover you start needing "keys" for dungeons, scenarios and lairs. You start with a fair few, but talking to players who are deeper in, they run out fast and the nickel-and-diming begins to get farcical. And in the vein of many 'free' MMOs, even loot is hidden behind a fee. After a certain point you'll see purple loot boxes dropping after fights, which require a 'cache key' to open. One key will cost you 150 Aurum. 500 Aurum costs £4 (with bonus extras when buying in bulk, but let's work on the exchange of 1p = 1.25A), meaning a key will cost you £1.20. And that gets you a random selection of mostly useless items with which to upgrade your current kit. It is, essentially, a short-cut.
And ho boy, can you buy yourself short-cuts. (Literally, when it comes to fast travel.) While Secret World Legends definitely can defend itself against accusations of being 'pay to win', you can sure pay to advance. There's something I find so inherently demoralising when playing a game about noticing I could just bypass all my hard work of earning AP and SP (the game's two XP units for gaining active and passive abilities) through missions and combat, by just buying some more. But there is that telltale '+' button on the skills tree window, letting me buy 5 AP/SP for 150 Aurum (so £1.20 again), with most upgrades costing 10 to 25 points. A fiver to get a new skill, anyone? Urgh. It's ugly and gross.
At the start you're offered two weapon choices, and you'll want to choose carefully, because if you want to add to your roster after that, guess what! Costs money. 400 Aurum (£3.20) for your first. The madness here being, if you wanted to spend enough (and we'd be talking hundreds of pounds) you could unlock every weapon and all the skills for them before you'd taken your character's first step. (Although despite this, you'd still be doing all those skills at level 1.)
Oh gawd, I've just noticed you can buy improvements to your sprinting speed. And it doesn't tell you how much of a speed improvement it'll be when it asks for the 250 Aurum (£2) - it's 12.5%. Oh lordy.
But crucially, I am not paying those fees, I've not bought a single bit of Aurum, and I'm still enjoying playing through the entertainingly written and crafted Kingsmouth sections of the game. I'm currently back in Innsmouth Academy, ploughing through the reams of quests available from the remains of the faculty, as I de-haunt the place of its genuinely unsettling ghouls. I've been charging about polishing off missions from the Stephen-King-alike author in the lighthouse, including one that pleasingly requires finding a stalky blog on the real world internet to get the necessary clues.
The characters are unlike anything else in the MMOsphere, because, well, they're characters. Each quest giver can be talked to, at ludicrous length (optionally), fleshing out the world and often with superb performances. Tørnquist's Whedonesque banter hits and misses along the way, but there are a fair few good gags in there. (It perhaps leans a little too heavily on jokes about how little difference you're making to the world by your efforts - its being self-referential can often underline frustrations, rather than mock them.) And there's just so much to do that I'm quickly pulled back in to the busywork of it all, dashing about ticking off quests, while picking up more I spot lying on the ground on the way, and quickly killing ten of these as that pops up as an extra as I'm running from the last to the next. It manages that sense of flow very well in the first main area.
Combat tweaks feel minor, but the game still infuriating limits the number of attacks you can have to a ridiculous six, making it just utterly bemusing why you'd want to unlock more once you've got a combat regime understood - made even worse by the mystifyingly bad descriptions in the skill tree, invariably failing to explain an attack in a meaningful way, and often leaving you having wasted points on a minimally useful extra that takes up a vital slot, which then has to be immediately discarded. The madness of the original game's 500 skills has been reduced to a more sensible 200, but I don't think the limits on how many you can use at once makes sense.
But when you've got a set you're happy with, it's quite pleasant working out the best tactics for particular enemy types, or more frequently for dealing with a mob of disposables, or one big strong bad. It's definitely not a difficult game, and I think they've perhaps made things a little too easy with this new version - in the end I'm not that fussed because I'm there more for the story, not the biffs, but it'll definitely be a problem for those leaning the other way.
Much has been enormously simplified too, from a clearer opening tutorial, to simpler ways to enter dungeons - no demands for roles to be met. And with fewer skills to worry about, and clearer presentation of levels, it's much more approachable.
It's five years since I last played it, so I honestly couldn't tell you what's changed about the plot and the mission flow, but I do keep realising I don't recognise something, or that it's happening in a different order. It definitely all flows nicely, and there's unquestionably far less tiresome running about. Where this shines - trundling through its story-led quests - it shines brighter than before, and is still an enormous pleasure.
Although I'm also told that the original game's biggest problem, the disappointment of its latter Tokyo section, has been solved by - um - removing Tokyo altogether. Not entirely sure how the game will work without that, but despite plugging in many hours over the last week, I'm not close to finding out. It'll be added in again at a later date, but they're not yet saying what date.
Oh, and before I wrap up, one really sodding weird thing: rather than simply logging you out if you're idle for too long, Secret World Legends bloody shuts itself down to desktop. That's idiotic.
So yes, it's a muddle. Sometimes it's a charming muddle, sometimes it's an infuriating one. It's still packed with exactly the same lovely characters, story missions, and real-world puzzles, and now you can play all of those for free. If that's what you're after, then absolutely you should be diving head-first into this. A big, free story-led action game with some strong writing, now much more accessible. But if you're after the much more MMOey elements, I'm more hesitant. I can't say at this point how the paywalls will affect you, but I feel quite certain those who've found them will let us know below. Obviously this isn't a charity - they need to make a profit out of it somehow, and god knows I don't envy anyone in this genre trying to figure out how.
Ultimately, if you want to enjoy the tales of conspiracies, via some pretty clunky-but-fine combat, it'd be silly not to when it won't cost a penny. It's still struggling to crawl out from under its own genre, but now it's struggling in all sorts of new ways.
Disclosure: I know the original project lead, Ragnar Tørnquist, pretty well, and while he's had nothing to do with Secret World since he left Funcom five years ago, the game still contains an enormous amount of his work.
Secret World Legends is available now, and you can sign up or login here.