Sunday, July 7, 2019

SWL and TSW: Fantastic horror RPGs that happen to be online

After a nearly a year in DDO I found myself wanting to get away from fantasy MMOs altogether for a while, and so I decided to take Secret World Legends for a spin.  I really enjoyed The Secret World back in 2012, and I've been meaning to try out the relaunch.  Secret World Legends did not make a good initial impression, at first I nearly hated it.  The controls seemed off (e.g., the camera is locked to your mouse), I didn't like the changes to combat (it seemed like an utterly mindless button masher compared to the original), and I didn't like how the intro experience is remixed.  In fact I disliked SWL so much that I went back and played TSW (the original version) for a few evenings to see if my tastes had perhaps radically changed in the 6+ years since I last played it.

TSW and it's relaunch, SWL, are both  packed with sights, sounds and experiences like nothing else I've ever played.  For the past few months I have been thoroughly  immersed in a fascinating experiment in interactive storytelling,

To test this, I rolled a new Illuminati character and played through the Kingsmouth Town area.  The first few hours of TSW remain absolutely brilliant to my tastes.  If you have an account, you can login and play TSW 100% for free.  However, seemingly almost no-one else still plays it.  In a week of evenings I only saw one other player, and chat was just as dead.  TSW also remains a singularly challenging MMO.  At least when I play, I tend to hit brick walls of difficulty every so often that force me to spend some time tweaking my deck and trying out new skill rotations to make progress.  Even with a decent skill load out, the gear upgrade system is still quite clunky.  It takes up an absurd amount of inventory space and is incredibly grindy.*  The alternative is to ignore the upgrade system altogether and hope for good random drops, which can work out just fine or horribly depending on how lucky you are.  Around  the launch of TSW I had a very good time but stalled out in Egypt, when I hit my second or third difficulty spike and had to rethink my deck yet again.  On my return I was having fun relearning the game, but could also see that I wasn't going to make it any further on this run then I did at launch.
*Combine stacks of ingredients, to make more ingredients.  When you have enough of those, you can combine them to make....more ingredients! 

The last two weeks have also been the anniversary event in SWL.  Because of it I have been doing a fair amount of completely random group activities.  When you head to town for a bank run and see forty players banging away on a giant pinata with baseball bats, what are you going to do but join in?
In a last desperate attempt to actually see more of the setting this time around, I picked up SWL again.   Say what you will of it, at least the difficulty and gear management of SWL have been considerably "smoothed out" compared to TSW.  My second try I was determined to at least make it to Blue Mountain, the third main zone.  SWL took longer to click with me than the original, but once I stopped fighting the new mechanics I started having a blast.  I hit the ground running in Egypt and have never looked back.  I've now made it roughly half way through Tokyo, which the last major area in the game (excepting whatever small amount of new content South Africa contains).

SWL has a reputation for being creepy that is well deserved. Many classic horror and pulp fiction tropes are explored at one point or another.  Numerous influences from Lovecraft and Romero, to Akira and Indiana Jones are all apparent  [An aside: whatever they are paying these Orochi guys, it's not nearly enough!] 
In SWL I have found an absolutely fantastic single player horror / adventure RPG, that happens to require you to be online.  Despite playing largely solo, I know I wouldn't enjoy it as much if it were offline.  The other players I randomly run into make it feel more real to me than an offline game would.  The presence of a functional player economy also helps a lot.  For example, digging around the auction house for just the right starter gear is a big help and a lot of fun when you are new.

While often quite amusing, at times the game can also be surprisingly somber. I've found myself truly moved more often than I'm used to in a MMO.
Regardless, I'm playing SWL mainly to see the story lines.  Whenever I get done with the stories I will probably be done with the game.  By then all of my gear will be level 30 epics, which is about as far as I would ever want to progress.  Getting into equipment that's much better than this looks to be a major slog that would involve a lot of dungeon runs and raiding.  I have never really been into raiding in other MMOs.  Getting better gear so that I can be strong enough to get even better gear just isn't enough motivation for me to run the same raid encounter dozens of times. I doubt SWL is going to be the one random game that changes my mind.

The remains of another Orochi employee, deep in a secret facility where experiments on children with psychic powers were being conducted.   Experimenting on powerful psychic children always ends well . . .
Despite this, I think SWL is a fantastic game.  I highly recommend it if you like horror themed games at all.  The best parts of it are the story lines, and you can see those 100% for free.  In fact I played it for nearly two straight months before I even bothered with a sub. The stories aren't as interactive as something like SWTOR, you don't make any real choices save whether or not to do a mission in the first place (very few are mandatory).  But the quality of the writing, direction and voice acting more than make up for it.  If I had dropped $60 on a box to play through all the story lines and captivating virtual spaces that I've seen these last few months, I would have thought it money well spent.  For absolutely free, it's hard to knock it.

Hanging out with a forest god in a bar in Transylvania.
I also don't expect to still be playing in a year.  The endgame is reportedly quite grindy, and Funcom seems to be in no danger of adding any substantial new content. The story lines in game now are pretty much all that are ever going to be released for it.  New content being developed for the setting is now apparently going to be released in offline RPGs.  SWL itself appears to be pretty much in maintenance mode.  If you have any interest in it at all, right now while it still has an active player population is probably as good a time as there will ever be to try it.

SWL is a game filled with fascinating stories. One story line might be a gothic  vampire tale with all the cliches you could hope for, the next might be a "science gone wrong" narrative that contains genuinely disturbing body horror, and the next after that might be absolutely surreal journey between dimensions. Despite the variety of tones, somehow the narratives manage to hang together and produce a rich and immersive setting.