Last week I finally revisited The Secret World. After reviewing it at launch, calling it “a brave new world worth spending time in,” I gradually had less and less time to play it. This was despite my former colleague Jon falling head over heels for it, proclaiming his love for it repeatedly. I watched from the sidelines as its intriguing storyline evolved, new systems added to its class-free combat, and new dungeons opened, filled with brutal bosses to beat.

Last week, Funcom released Issue #12: To The Dark Tower Below. The new patch not only added in a new dungeon and open-world content, but included new social features, a revamped currency system and daily rewards program. It’s not groundbreaking for the genre, but it’s an important step for The Secret World. You see, it not only gives former players a reason to return, but provides newcomers with the more accessible way to experience the game, as well as catch up with the rest of the community.

Basically, with Issue #12 live on the servers, now is the time to experience one of the most unique MMO properties on the market, and I’m going to explain why.

The Manufactory – a challenge for old & new players

Accompanied by Communications Manager Tor Egil Andersen and Lead Designer Romain Amiel, I and a few other journalists were given a guided tour of the now-live content. We kicked off by diving into the newest dungeon, the Manufactory, which sends players back to the Orochi Tower. While Issue #11 ended the narrative weave that began at launch, Issue #12 delivers something akin to an epilogue by taking us into the underground Orochi labs. Access is available to those who buy Issue #12 (you don’t need to own or completed previous Issues) and qualify to run elite dungeons (which are possible once you’ve completed Transylvania.)

Basically, new players don’t have to play through old content to get there. That said, we’d recommend doing so anyway as the old content is awesome.

A complete departure from the dark woods or filth-covered environments we are used to, the Manufactory are incredibly clean and bright by comparison, which makes it creepy in its own special way. From a narrative perspective, newly-crowned leader of the Dragons Daimin Kiyota charges players with delving deep beneath the Orochi Tower to discover what lurks below. Things will be tricky enough facing off against the remnants of Orochi, but a familiar figure is also waiting below, and aims to make your day a living hell until they get the justice they feel they deserve.

Once inside, our group faced off against three mini-bosses at first, with each one introducing gameplay mechanics for the main bosses further in. This ranged from using an Aegis shield to dissipate an orb before it explodes, and using line-of-sight to pull aggro, to DPS checks to ensure the group was ready for the challenges ahead. While Jon has detailed the Aegis system greatly, this was my first experience with it, and I found the fluidity of the rock/paper/scissors style of it all worked incredibly well in the encounters I faced.

The deeper we ventured, the more elaborate the scenarios became. It was evident that the Orochi Labs would be challenging even on its most basic setting, requiring strong communication with your group to beat. The pressure builds up as each fight progresses to the next stage, with Funcom having fine-tuned the pacing extremely well. I would go into more detail, but the truth is that experiencing (and learning) the encounters for yourself, solving the puzzles the game throws at you, has always been the big draw for The Secret World. Besides, spoilers are sucky.

As we progressed, we saw how Funcom’s mission statement to keep trash mobs in dungeons to a minimum was still in effect. In fact, there was a section later on where we had the choice of heading straight to a boss or dealing with packs of roaming trash. Defeating them provides access to hidden secrets and a chance at rare loot drops, but it’s ultimately optional – go for the extra stuff, or push on to complete the dungeon as quickly as possible. Either way, the developers insisted that Nightmare mode promises to test even the more skilled of players, and I’m inclined to agree based on what I saw.

But if you think that’s the toughest challenge to emerge in Issue #12, you’d be wrong. That title goes to good old Flappy, who’s back with a vengeance.

New world content and returning raid bosses

The world boss who made their debut for The Whispering Tide in-game event has returned as a 10-player raid boss, but don’t be fooled. Just because the player count is down from 40 doesn’t mean defeating the Filth Guardian will be any easy task. In fact, Amiel stated that Flappy’s return will be the hardest encounter in the game. From the brief tussle I had with it, I can confirm it will not be a walk in the park. At all.

If you don’t know nine other players with a death wish but still want to fight something colossal, you’re in luck. With Issue #12 new world bosses can be spawned in Lairs, and require large amounts of players to take down. While it ends up being a much similar affair of tank-and-spank, the amount of punishment the world bosses can take mean it won’t be pushover to take down, and the rewards for doing so will be worth the effort. best of all, you don’t need to be grouped up to take it on – just turn up and start blasting it with your weapon of choice (while trying not to die.)

Daily Challenges and Currency Changes

Outside of new dungeons and world bosses, players now have a reason to revisit old content thanks to the new Challenges system. Effectively adding daily, weekly, and month-long objectives to do, each one has its own rewards of varying degree and cover all gameplay modes in The Secret World. Daily challenges will change every 24 hours, and might ask players to complete an action mission in Kingsmouth, or a win a PVP match in Stonehenge. Meanwhile, weekly and monthly challenges will remain constant and measure how much the player has done over those durations.

The reason for doing these Challenges is simple – to get currency to spend on powerful gear. While some rewards will simply be Pax, some will offer Black Bullion – which allows players to get the basic gear to do Elite dungeons – and Marks of the Pantheon, which has become the top-tier currency in the game. While there is a cap of 400 to earn each week, it means that new players can save up their tokens and gain high-level gear to be ready to take on the hardest content from the word go. Meanwhile, those that already have the gear are still encouraged to complete the monthly challenges, as doing so can reward the player with rate items. I find it a fair approach to ensure that veterans and newcomers will always have something to do.

Getting Social

The final big addition to this half of Issue #12 (yes, you read that right – there’s more to come) is also perhaps my favourite. The upgraded Social panel takes the typical ‘group finder’ functionality from before and added in the ability to advertise for any type of activity. Want to find a group to do The Manufactory as a DPS character, but want to let people know it’s your first time? You can do that thanks to the added description box. Perhaps you just want a buddy to come with you as you do missions in Kingsmouth? That can be arranged. Maybe you’re more of the roleplaying sort and want to organise a dance party in London, but only for people who wear top hats? Yes, you can do that too.

The developers went on to say that the new Social panel should help grow the community within The Secret World, with one example given how many players don’t know about the player-run radio stations for the game that run events all the time. With the new social tool, getting the word out and alert players to them is a much easier process, as no everyone visits the official forums. Again, it’s not a necessarily new feature for MMOs, but its implementation here in The Secret World should improve the overall experience greatly for players.

Looking to the future

As the session came to a close, the most obvious question was brought up – are the developers at Funcom feeling save despite reports of the company looking for acquisition? “It doesn’t really affect us,” Andersen clarified, “The daily work that Romain and [the others] do, that doesn’t change at all. “We are loyal to our players too,” began Amiel, “and we’ll always keep the games running, no matter what. We will always keep a team dedicated to working on it, so we have no plans to change this.” Andersen then added that Funcom still has Anarchy Online and Age of Conan on top of TSW, and that all three games were still making a profit.

I then moved the topic onto the story for The Secret World. With the main narrative that began at launch had (mostly) been resolved or explained in Issue #11, I asked if the team had begun work on the next chapter for the game, and if former lead writers Ragnar Tornquist & Dag Scheve – both of whom are now working on Dreamfall Chapters – would play a role in helping forge it. “The continuation of the main story in The Secret World had been planned by Ragnar and Dag,” Andersen replied, “but it has also been significantly developed by [previous Game Director] Joel Bylos, [Lead Writer] Joshua Doetsch, and Romain. As Romain said, the plan is to focus on PvP in Issue #13, but the team definitely has plenty of plans on how to continue the main story.” He also added that “quite a few hints are given in Tokyo as to where the story might take you next,” which will no doubt have the theorists in the community combing back through for tidbits.

Having spent some time with the patch now, I really do think that the new additions and changes in Issue #12 make The Secret World the most accessible it has ever been. Its fantastically woven narrative is some of the best in the industry, let alone the genre, and the improvements to the combat mechanics, such as the Aegis system, demonstrate that there’s more combat than hitting your rotations until the health bar depletes. Along with the quality of life improvements, this could be the long-overdue rekindling of my love for The Secret World, and today’s announcement of single-player spin-off game The Park shows there’s plenty of life in the franchise yet.

The Secret World is currently available to buy direct from Funcom for £24.99. Issue #12: To The Dark Tower Below is available in-game on the Item Store for 1200 Funcom Points (£8.82)