Since The Secret World is such a massive game, we've decided to split our review of the game up into several smaller weekly diaries rather than try to cover the whole game based on a few days of play. This week, we'll be discussing the world of The Secret World and our first few hours of play.
Since World of Warcraft emerged to dominate the MMO landscape over a half decade ago almost every major MMO release could be easily described as "It's like WoW, but..." Even this year's massive Star Wars: The Old Republic largely boiled down to "It's like WoW, but with BioWare voice acting."
The Secret World has positioned itself as the first MMO to break from WoW's formula for success, and on paper it appears to actively rebel against tradition. Instead of WoW's fantasy setting, Secret World is set in a modern day world where H.P. Lovecraft was right, every conspiracy theory is true and magic lurks around every corner. Instead of WoW's class system and leveling treadmill the Secret World awards players ability points that can be spent to make their own "deck" of skills from a common pool of abilities, allowing any character to gain any skill in the game.
Finally, instead of WoW's endless series of "fetch 10 X" and "kill 10 Y" quests, Secret World promises to change up the formula with a lot of story intensive missions that play off of your chosen faction. My choice of the gun-toting suit-wearing Illuminati and my handler's musical taste inspired the diary's headline. The game also deviates from the grind with stealth-based sabotage missions and investigative missions that require critical thinking and puzzle solving to progress to the next stage of the quest.
I'm only a few hours into the game and already the investigative missions are the most compelling part of the game. The first one I stumbled upon required me to follow secret Illuminati symbols scattered around town that led me to a plaque that had a riddle on it that I at least wasn't able to solve off the top of my head.
One of Secret World's most interesting features is an in-game web browser. When you first discover the browser you might think it's a simple trick to keep players from alt-tabbing out of the game to check their e-mail, but you soon learn it's an absolute must for solving investigative missions.
You see, some of the puzzles can't be solved just using information found in the game. In the case of my mission a quick visit to the website for the small (fictional) town of Kingsmouth I was visiting cleared up my confusion. Other missions however might require a quick visit to the Wikipedia page of some of the actual mythological beings and conspiracy theories referenced in the game to better understand what exactly you're chasing after.
It's a compelling and immersive spin on solving in-game puzzles and it's simultaneously the most entertaining and least WoW-like part of Secret World.
It's unfortunate then that these missions only make up a small portion of the game. While about 30 percent of your play time in Secret World feels like a truly original spin on the MMO genre, the remaining 70 percent still feels like the common MMO grind. The progression system and slowly-acquired deck of skills feels like leveling with more frequent and less impressive mile markers. The combat is still pressing a series of buttons in a common rotation until your enemies are dead. I've heard the combat system opens up at higher levels and really comes into its own, but thus far my Secret World character feels like a mage who happens to have an assault rifle.
While it's deviations from the common MMO script are pretty compelling they are, at least in the first few hours of gameplay, too few and far between to keep the game from distinguishing itself as more than "It's WoW, but it's also an adventure game." Still, that's a compelling premise in its own right and I plan to keep exploring the game to see if it remains true. The game's combination of well plotted story-lines and voice acting with complex puzzle mechanics are a great distraction from the fact that it doesn't quite live up to the un-MMO hype.
Next week we'll take a deeper look at The Secret World's combat and it's complex "Ability Wheel" progression system.