Game Review - 'The Secret World - The Black Signal'

4 stars for 'The Black Signal'

Long-time players of The Secret World have always known that the story would eventually take us to Tokyo. Tokyo is, after all, where it all began. It is where the initial outbreak of that mysterious substance known as the Filth took place. It is the home-base of the Orochi Corporation - that mysterious and antagonistic organization that players have been encountering all through the game. It is even where the game's tutorial level, presented as a flashback to the initial outbreak, took place. What happened in Tokyo is so important to the over-arching story of The Secret World that the Tokyo zone was originally intended to be included in the game at launch. Though, for one reason or another, those original plans were scrapped in favour of rebuilding the zone from scratch and saving it up for a suitably epic climax. Because, that is exactly what Tokyo is intended to be - an epic conclusion. Not for The Secret World itself, of course - but, certainly for the story of the Filth, which has carried players to this point.

Of course, a variety of issues for Funcom have forced a significant slow-down in the development of new content, meaning that it has taken us much longer to actually get to this point then either we, or the development team, had originally thought. But, let's not dwell on that. The game's most recent content update, The Black Signal, is out - and, the way to Tokyo is finally open.

And it seems like everyone is eager to come to the party. Before you even have the opportunity to set foot in Tokyo, you will have to deal with the small matter of corruption within the Council of Venice and the return of yet another of the myriad of the mysterious factions in operation, the Phoenicians, who have business of their own in Tokyo and a vested interest in keeping everyone else out. Thankfully, at this point there's nothing that is going to stop the game's three playable factions (the Templar, the Illuminati, and the Dragon) from sending their best agents into Tokyo - and, with the Council of Venice finally stepping aside, it's time to venture forth to the first new zone that has been added to The Secret World since its initial launch.

It seems only fitting that our first proper introduction to Tokyo would take place in a familiar location, and prominently feature a familiar face. Those very same subway tunnels which formed the game's tutorial level (and, which long-time players may only dimly remember) is where we find ourselves when we first set foot in the city. And, the first face we see is one that, until now, we have only briefly glimpsed. Up until this point, our only encounter with Sarah, the woman through whose eyes we saw those early moments of the fate of Tokyo, has been within that brief tutorial level so long ago. Who she actually was, what she was doing in Tokyo, and even whether or not she had actually survived, had been among the game's longest running mysteries.

Sure, the revelation that her own experiences in Tokyo have turned her into an odd sort of conduit, broadcasting her memories out to anyone capable of hearing them, was a little depressing. And, the realization that she, essentially, being forced to relive the moments of that long ago tutorial every time a new character logged in was certainly morbid - especially considering that the experience is slowly driving her insane. But, that is also exactly the sort of thing that I've come to expect from The Secret World. The fact that The Secret World is able to take something as innocuous as a tutorial level and turn it into something vaguely unsettling is just one of the reasons why I have always loved this game.

From here, it's finally time to set foot in the city proper - finding yourself in a district of Tokyo contained by a hastily constructed wall and, naturally, surrounded by things that are eager to try to kill you. It is a bleak and run-down district - filled with nothing about demons, ghosts, and Filth-infected citizens. And, fortunately, small pockets of relative safety represented by a handful of new factions. There's the Jingu Clan, and their calm and stoic lead, Gozen - Samurai with a long and proud history of protecting Japan against supernatural threats. There's the Korinto-kai and their crazed, chaos-worshiping leader, Daimon Kiyota - representatives of the occult branch of the Yakuza. Finally, there's Inbeda and his House-in-Exile - Oni (demons of Japanese folklore) who have been banished from Hell, and who have set themselves up as prominent figures in the occult underworld of modern Japan. You will need to make contact with each as you work to uncover what, exactly, happened in Tokyo. And, through it all, there is also Sarah's warning about the mysterious Black Signal - a strange voice which seems to represent the Filth, itself, and which, strangely, seems rather insistent that you call it 'John'.

While it might seem strange to give an individual review to what is, essentially, a content update for an MMORPG, my reasoning here (along with my reviews of previous updates) has always been that since The Secret World has taken to presenting its most recent updates as self-contained stories (which may, or may not, come with new game-play features) they should be received in the same way. The Secret World has always been an intensely story-driven game, to the extent that each of the game's major updates often feels like a new episode of a long-running series. That is just as true here as it has been with updates in the past. Though, this time, we're going in knowing that what we have been given with The Black Signal is just a small part of the planned whole. Funcom's plan, here, clearly seems to be to release a complete expansion for their MMORPG in parts. What this means for the player is that The Black Signal will end on something of a cliffhanger - with hints of the central mystery discovered, a clear idea of where to go next, but a frustrating wait for the next update before we will be able to press on. Is that a flaw with The Black Signal? Well, I don't think so - though, your own mileage may vary.

Along with the new story content, The Black Signal also introduces a new game-play mechanic to the player, in the form of the AEGIS system. The creatures of Tokyo have evolved beyond what players are used to - developing the ability to manifest powerful shields that make them effectively untouchable until they are broken. In response, the Orochi Corporation developed a series of AEGIS controllers to counter each of the three types of shielding. Attacking one of these new enemies without the proper controller equipped will basically leave you powerless - while equipping the correct controller will let you wear down their shields like it were an additional health bar. On top of that, each of the three types of shield (demonic, psychic, and cybernetic) come with additional effects. Cybernetic shields will slowly regenerate over time for as long as they are still active. Psychic shields have a chance of being restored entirely after they have been broken. Demonic shields, though, seem to lack any additional ability.

It may seem like an overly fiddly addition, at first, but it should not take long to adapt to the new requirements of combat in Tokyo. Also, Funcom seem to be going uncharacteristically easy on players here, so far - with large chunks of the city inhabited exclusively by creatures with a particular type of shield, and no need to worry about juggling mixed groups. Of course, that will change the first time you find yourself going up against powerful enemies that possess two different types of shield (though, that's limited to Boss level enemies).

While the AEGIS system does not amount to anything overly impressive, so far, it is still a useful addition to the game. A form of horizontal progression which goes some way toward establishing a level playing field among players - and, of working to ensure that the new content presents an entertaining new challenge to everyone. Players who have spent enough time on the game's selection of end-game dungeons to have earned the highest possible tier of gear may still have a significant advantage when it comes to dealing out damage - but, only when they manage to break through the new enemies shields. When it comes to the AEGIS system, we're all basically starting from scratch.

Much like with the story, though, the AEGIS system added with this update is only a portion of the whole. The Black Signal adds the offensive side of the AEGIS system, giving us the ability to break through enemy shields. The defensive aspect, which will allow us to generate our own shields, will come later.

All in all, The Black Signal represents the same devotion to quality over quantity as pretty much everything else associated with The Secret World. It's a fantastic experience which, unfortunately, just wont take you very long to work your way through - leaving you in the same situation that I currently find myself in. Taunted by a central-story mission that I cannot complete until the next update. For fans of the game, though, it is well worth the price of admission.

© 2014 Dallas Matier

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