After taking a weekend off (for some serious MMO playing), I'm back, though this will either be the last or next-to-last entry in this short series. The Secret World is an MMO by Funcom, and it is an MMO that is far from the norm - instead of a bright, open fantasy world, The Secret World (or TSW) is about horror, conspiracy, and what will happen at the end of the current age. It's very different from most MMOs I've played or seen. For one thing, the RPG takes place, essentially, on modern day Earth, though it is an Earth that isn't very familiar to most of us.
Everyone's character is human, though you will certainly run into non-human (or inhuman) things during play. There are no classes, and instead of two opposing factions, they have three, each one a secret society: The Templars, the Illuminati, and the Dragon. Each society is in a fight with the others about how to approach the secret supernatural world (the Secret World of the title) and how the Earth's next age will go when the current one ends. Unlike, say, WoW, WAR, or TOR, the factions can talk to each other in game chat, and people from various societies can even group together to do difficult missions or go into 5-person instances. Guilds (or cabals) are one faction only, however, and each faction has their own chat channel where they can speak amongst themselves without the other factions knowing. Each is based in a different real-life city (London, New York City, and Seoul), which is reasonably large, has plenty of bits to explore, and even has the occasional mission.
Characters in TSW are different, in that not only are there no classes, but also no levels. You choose a faction, and then you choose two weapon categories (out of 9, from Shotguns to Blades to Chaos magic), and you're done. As you progress through the game, you put points (Ability Points, or AP) into various abilities for your favored weapons; each character has seven slots for active abilities (ones you hit buttons to use) and seven passive slots (ones that provide benefits to you regardless of what buttons you hit). How you assemble your skills (or 'deck', the term used by the game to refer to the full suite of 14 abilities) determines how your character fights. You also put a different kind of points (Skill Points, or SP) into the degree of skill you have in your weapon group; this determines what grade of weapon you can use; the higher (up to 10), the better. You keep earning experience for AP and SP throughout the game, so, in theory, you could eventually max out every ability and every skill.
While all character are human, most don't look anything alike; character creation has a fair degree of customization, with more to be added in-game soon. In addition, the clothes your character wears are entirely separate from any gear that provides bonuses to statistics - you wear what you want (bought at in-game stores), and how you look never has any impact on how effective your character is. TSW is even more lenient in this regard than superhero games like CO and DCUO; in those games, you can find costume pieces that will affect your stats, and you often have the ability to save the look of that piece even if you replace it later, but in TSW, looks and stats are totally separate. The only things on your avatar that you will see change are your weapons; some Hammer weapons look like axes, some like sledgehammers, some like weapons from hell, but other than that, your look is entirely up to you. This is something I think other games need to do more of; item sets are nice, but I really shouldn't have to look like a clown in order to be functional (I'm looking at you, WoW and TOR).
The factions being able to speak to each other is another nice touch; it tells the player that while the factions aren't terribly friendly to each other (the Templars and Illuminati have been in a sort of cold war for centuries), they realize that the world's current troubles are bigger than their arguments, for the most part. Aside from some text when missions are turned in, and the tutorial, factions actually don't play a huge role in the game. You get a call on your character's phone whenever the faction has decided you have moved up in rank, and the Templars (the faction I play) have three missions they send you on, but otherwise they play almost no role in the game. While it is nice they aren't all over every character's business, I think I would have preferred the factions to be a bit more involved; I want my Templar to have a much different experience than, say, an Illuminati player.
Missions are another interesting thing to look at. TSW is always careful to call them missions, never quests, and they have divided them up into several categories. First, each of the three main play areas has a long, involved story quest. Then, each 5-person instance has its own quest. Then there are sidequests, things you get from items spread throughout the game world that tend to be minor tasks with relatively small rewards. And then there are the main quests. The main quests are divided up into three categories - action, infiltration, and investigation. Action missions are what you'd expect - the missions consists primarily of fighting and killing, with no subtlety involved. Infiltration missions are harder (fro some) because they involve getting around and performing your task without being noticed (or, occasionally, by killing the few who do see you). From avoiding cameras and sentry drones to running gauntlets of patrolling guards and mines on multi-level constructions, infiltration missions are about being stealthy. Finally, there are investigation missions, and these are where the game shines. With these missions, you will be required to actually investigate things, often very obscure, and often difficult to figure out; there is an in-game web browser to assist with these. For an investigation mission, you might be asked to crack a substitution cypher by converting the number of the first 26 elements on the Periodic Table into letters and then translating a message; or you might need to find the password to a computer, be given the hint that it is the owner's wife's name, and, by finding the owner's company ID on his body, go to the (fictional) company website, look through the employee roster, and determine his wife from that. They are complex, difficult, and involve a lot of thought; while most of them are sadly available in cheat form, I prefer to do them the long way.
Sadly, TSW is lacking in at least one area I love, and that is exploration. Currently, there are only three areas in the game, besides the starting cities - Solomon Island (an island off the coast of New England cut off form the rest of the world), the Valley of the Sun God in Egypt, and the wilds of Transylvania. Between the three areas, there are 8 zones - 3 on the island, 2 in Egypt, and 3 in Transylvania - and they are all quite similar in theme. Both Solomon Island and Transylvania are dark, foggy, and depressing, though there are some exceptional areas like a haunted amusement park or the churchyard where Vlad Dracula is buried. Egypt, while sunnier, reminded me of a hellish cross between Resident Evil 5 and the Biblical plagues on crack. While each area keeps to its theme well - and I can see touches of Lovecraft, Stephen King, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil as influences - it really comes down to three very similar, often oppressively dark areas. I realize it is a horror game, but even in horror movies, directors realize that audiences need a few moments away from the darkness every so often or the darkness and horror stops meaning anything. Speaking as someone with depression, I can only take a couple weeks of that at a time before I need to take a break. I'm still playing, but I don't know for how much longer; the release of Guild Wars 2 (my possible final entry in this series) and the impact this is having on my generally depressed state might necessitate some time away from the game before coming back to see how it all turns out.