Thursday, April 5, 2018

Undead in Joburg

Slight spoilers follow as to Secret World Legends' new playable zone, New Dawn.

Once upon a time, Penelope had a problem: her husband had gone off to war. (Some might consider that a bigger problem for the husband himself, but let's not be accused of mansplaining here.) In any case brave Odysseus, wise king of Ithaca, refused to chop his baby boy in two with a plow, so was deemed much too sane for politics and got drafted. Penelope was left home holding the baby, and had to wait a while before Ulysses sailed back. Then she had to wait another while, and a few more whiles after that. Now, when a king goes m.i.a. for two decades it inevitably prompts a few understudies to step up and claim the title, so Penelope had to keep beating suitors off with a stick (the poor dear) and stall 'til her bull came home. Her favorite trick was refusing to re-mary until she finished weaving a shroud for a relative's death. Every day she'd weave a bit more of the shroud to show the suitors her progress. Every night, she'd unravel it.
Heheh. Suckers.

Anyway, on a completely different topic:
Welcome to South Africa!

The Secret World put out its first real content update in three years yesterday. For those not in the know, this is a game which launched about seven years ago, promising to be a "different" kind of MMO (no classes, no levels, that sort of spiel) and proved to be pretty much just another WoW-clone in every practical aspect. It did earn an uncontested reputation as the best-written MMO (sort of like Neil DeGrasse Tyson being voted the sexiest astrophysicist; mu) and I would add also the best-acted and often most atmospheric. It easily outclasses most of the game industry in aesthetic flair.

Unfortunately, TSW had no replay value: invariable scripted mission grinding, a game engine woefully maladaptive for PvP, a skill system filled with redundancy and lacking satisfying customization. Like any other WoW-clone it also imposes massive amounts of replay on its customers though gear-farming timesinks. It's an old-school puzzle-solving, linear single-player adventure game with a multiplayer mode tacked on at the end to justify DRMing its customers to death and funneling them into a cash shop.
I happen to be a lifetime subscriber, so I'm in this thing to the bitter end.

Said bitter end should probably have come back in 2015 or 2016 by which time TSW had already become a ghost town fleetingly repopulated for a weekend at a time whenever the company announced some kind of event or promotion. Surprisingly, Funcom decided to reinvest in the project instead of dumping it. Last July it was relaunched as Secret World Legends, with an even more dumbed down combat system and much of its content actually removed, but at least it was in a more playable form, less of a chore. (Except for the chores.) The Legends relaunch eclosed in a hilariously, stunningly buggy form, filled with blatant cash traps and emptied of at least half its multiplayer elements while at the same time forcing players through a massive dozen-tier gear-farming slog as a timesink in lieu of content. Now, the bugs have largely been squashed and new content has finally arrived. How does it measure up?

Like a dwarf in the NBA. But, y'know, still, a sexy dwarf.
For a face-saving, job-securing band-aid on a chest-wound having long bled out, for a product several years in production, the South Africa expansion's laughably small. In fact you can see around half of it in that one screenshot. Aside from being entirely single-player, I suppose it doesn't help that half the list of new content reads "coming soon":
Jesus, who's paying these people?
Oh, right, me.
Well, I mean, you can't blame them. They only had a few years to slap twenty missions together.
I have yet to get bugged. This may sound like a not-so-great expectation, but compared to TSW's history heretofore, it's outright miraculous. It took them five years to even get their rosters to display dates properly. Legends hit in 2017 with bugs still unresolved since 2011. A bug-free TSW expansion's almost like a bug-free Troika game. History balks at the very concept.

Also, while there's relatively little there, what's there is actually solid work. Nothing brilliant, mind you. A couple of interesting boss fights, a new gameplay mechanic for sabotage (read: stealth) missions which complements existing mechanics nicely, some good voice acting, some mediocre. The bidonville's scenic enough. I'll get into the writing some other time, but overall New Dawn looks promising.

Alas, TSW is still a mindless chore of a grind, overall. Amusingly though, a few of the missions seem meta-commentary on this very fact. You alternate your time infiltrating the cultist commune of New Dawn between day and night, between undermining them and earning their trust, with different quests available during each. Under cover of darkness, you sabotage some trucks and spray graffiti all over their tin shacks. Come morning, you're tasked with... repairing the trucks and cleaning up the graffiti which mysteriously appeared overnight. Wax on; wax off. If Funcom didn't consciously mean this as self-parody, they've just been at it for too long.

Of course, when Penelope kept unraveling her weaving, she knew the last cause of her temporizing. She had an Odysseus on the horizon.
Do we?
Or are we the poor deluded suitors?

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