I figured out The Secret World's secret about six hours into my free trial last weekend.
Ironically, it happened while I was trying (and failing) to puzzle through one of the massively multiplayer game's unique "investigation” quests — riddles that call to mind the graphical adventures of the '90s, even requiring real-world research.
I pondered the clues I had been given (a fire, a murder, a jail cell) as I tromped across Kingsmouth, the misty, undead-infested New England town that serves as the game's first zone. As I walked, a revelation occurred to me…one that had nothing to do with the quest at hand.
What I realized was this: The Secret World plays like an MMO, but at its heart, it feels like a single-player RPG. And that is simultaneously the title's biggest strength and fatal flaw.
A few things set The Secret World apart from its online brethren. One is the game's class-free leveling system, a refreshingly open platform that allows you to master any number of skills with a single character, in almost any combination you see fit. Another is its more dynamic quest structure: you can tackle many quests out of order, and while some might be harder than others, none of them are impossible. And since you're not tied down by a "level," you don't feel artificially barred from accepting them.
But by far the game's biggest asset is its setting; the "world" of The Secret World is absolutely engrossing. It introduces the conceit that three clandestine societies (the tech-driven Illuminati, devout Templars, and mystical Dragon) have existed since time immemorial, warring with one another for power. And here's where you come in: they're recruiting.
From the moment I stepped into the crimson-clad Templar Hall in England, I truly got a sense of this ancient grandeur. I'm a total sucker for this sort of conspiracy stuff, and talking to my first quest-giver rewarded me with a flood of information about our organization's purposes and history (and, disdainfully, those of our unwilling allies).
But setting-wise, the best part of my early training was the Crucible training area. Have you ever used a big-ass hammer to beat the crap out of a circle of chained-up demons in a marble ballroom while a gorgeous soprano voice serenaded you? I have, and it was glorious.
…Or at least, it would have been, if the actual gameplay wasn’t so bland.
See, for all its cool ideas, clever innovations, and brilliantly original setting, The Secret World still largely plays like every MMO in the history of the genre. You've got abilities on a taskbar, you spam your most powerful attacks while standing toe-to-toe with enemies, dodging only rarely, and you wait for cooldown timers. (And if you were hoping the game would avoid the bog-standard "kill 10 of X" quest structure…well, I've got bad news for you.)
Basically, every time I was talking to an NPC or quest-giver or watching a cut-scene, The Secret World had me completely enthralled. The writing is excellent, the voice acting solid (if a little too "wicked-hahd" on the New England accent), and I devoured every scrap of information about the game's backstory and setting. Unfortunately, these moments made up a very small percentage of play; I spent the majority of my time wandering from quest to quest, killing and looting mobs, and engaging in other typical MMO activities.
The Secret World's narrative aspirations remind me most of one of my very favorite games of all time, Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines. That, too, was about a clandestine underworld hidden in plain sight of the real one (Los Angeles, in this case). The player character gets recruited ("embraced," in vampire parlance) in a somewhat similar fashion, and he soon discovers a vicious web of politics, power struggles, ancient factions, and apocalyptic portents. It's an incredibly immersive experience; perhaps no other game has so ensnared me in its fiction while playing.
The difference, of course, is that in Bloodlines, the fiction is the game. Or rather, the gameplay does not get in the narrative's way. Indeed, one augments the other; side with the bureaucratic Camarilla, and you'll find yourself stealthing past enemies and controlling minds to get what you need. More of a brute-force type? The Brujah-led Anarch faction is for you. You probably won't even notice the multitude of ways you could have accomplished your goals on your first playthrough, because every choice feels so natural. No game this side of Deus Ex adapts to playstyle choices as well.
I was dying for that kind of depth while playing The Secret World. I longed for more dialogue options, more non-linear paths through quests, more backstory and less fetching…basically anything that made me feel more like I belonged. Like I mattered.
The unfortunate truth is that the MMO genre is simply not conducive to this sort of experience, no matter how hard it tries. And that means The Secret World will never be the game I wish it could have been.