It all begins with a bee.
You are not an elf or a troll or some sort of mystical creature. You are a human man or woman, an ordinary soul living in a stylish, IKEA-inspired, thoroughly modern apartment. One night, while you sleep, there comes a bee. And not an ordinary bee. It comes to you, and when you awake, you are... different. Changed. Suddenly aware, in a way that you had not been before.
A few days later, there comes a knock on the door. A mysterious man or woman, in red, blue, or green has taken notice of your powers. You have attracted attention—some positive, some not. And now, your life is permanently changed.
Welcome to your secret society. Welcome to The Secret World.
My young, silent character found herself whisked away to London to join the ranks of an ancient organization. Proud and bold, the Templars wasted no time demonstrating the opulence and disciplined hierarchy that form the backbone of their society. I was given a chance to play around with the weapons in their training room and choose the starter set that suited me best. And then I was off, to a wild adventure.
One thing that truly sets The Secret World apart from any other MMO I've played its its mundane modernity. Players report the results of their missions to their society contacts by using a smartphone. When something is unknown, NPCs tell players to Google it. And visible gear consists of such exotic items as jeans, hoodies, business suits, and track pants. In the year 2012, acknowledging in a game world that it is, in fact, the 21st century should not feel revelatory. And yet, it does.
Setting the game in the "real world" places it firmly into the area of "low" or "urban" fantasy. This isn't a Tolkien-derived world. This is the real of human myths and human monsters, even when it veers into the fantastic. Which is not to say that The Secret World doesn't pull influences from literature. For example: I've wished for a decade now to see an MMORPG based on Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere. While wandering through an underground corner of London that time forgot, I wistfully thought that this game was the closest I was ever likely to get.
A moment later, I blundered into an NPC who complained about the neighborhood, "These days, London Below is practically indistinguishable from London Above." The Gaiman influence was clearly intentional. And as I left my humble training and origins in London behind, I stepped from a Neil Gaiman story into the modern update of an H.P. Lovecraft one.
All players funnel from their origin cities to the fictional town of Kingsmouth, in New England. (It's pretty seriously a Maine town, although it wouldn't be entirely out of place in Rhode Island. But really, Maine.) Kingsmouth has a problem: the fog came, and now the dead don't stay dead. Also there are creepy, horrible monsters in the water. And, in fact, everywhere else. There are a few barricaded bastions where survivors cling together.
What the hell happened to Kingmouth? And how does it related to the world having gone so weird, and you and everyone else getting all powerful? That's what you're here to find out.
You learn the basics of combat in your origin city, but Kingsmouth is where you learn how to fight and, more importantly, how to level. As you start to branch out and explore the world, you begin to gain both skill and ability points in rapid-fire succession.
Skill points are about as close as The Secret World gets to standard, vertical leveling. Skill points, when allocated, provide passive buffs and skills that increase the player's power in certain areas. The ones at the bottom, talismans, are stat-altering gear. The more points placed into each area, the better the gear a player can equip. Other lines can enhance a player's combat abilities. Adding points to Fists/Healing, for example, has made my little DPS machine very hard to take down. I like it.
The ability wheel provides what we'd think of as skill progression. Players can mix and match however they like and swap out ability sets at any time. The freedom allows for some excellent experimentation, but can also be overwhelming early on. The game does provide pre-built "decks," suggestions of complimentary sets that will play off each other and make the character balanced and powerful. I took my inspiration from one of the decks, though I'm not building to it exactly, and have fist melee weapons paired with chaos magic. The effects are rather phenomenal.
I am one half of a two-gamer household, and we were both playing The Secret World this weekend (at least, as much as our significant internet outage would allow). As a duo, we zipped through quest content—and zombies—in a delightfully quick and brutal way. The game split us up when one or both of us went into solo instances, but didn't de-group us, and so we were able to continue questing together afterwards very easily.
Combat, though, isn't the most interesting part of what The Secret World has to offer. Its best quests, so far, are called Investigation quests. They're puzzle-solving missions that require thinking not only outside of the box, but outside of the game. And while many are designed to be solved solo, like any kind of problem-solving, working together makes the process easier and more pleasant. Our moment of teamwork triumph came when suddenly, we each solved a different half of a riddle that required players to look up a Biblical verse. He realized that the answer came from the Bible; I figured out which book, chapter, and verse. Working together on solutions, whether in group chat, over voice chat, or in the same room, makes the "multiplayer" part of "MMO" satisfying and fulfilling.
We didn't always play together. At one point, we were comparing notes on what each of us had done during our solo time. "I went and talked with the fortune-teller," I said. "I didn't feel like taking her quests yet, but I really liked her so I went through all her conversations."
"When's the last time you liked an NPC in an MMO enough just to stand around talking with them?" he asked me.
In an MMO? I realized the implications: never. Madame Rôget was a first. I didn't want quests or items or rewards from her. I just wanted to chat. That's happened plenty to me in single-player RPGs (*coughGarruscough*) but never, that I could think of, in an MMO.
And that, right there, is what makes me eager to dive back into The Secret World: the work of Ragnar Tørnquist and the rest of the writing team at Funcom. Tørnquist was previously best known for The Longest Journey, widely considered one of the best adventure games ever made, and its sequel Dreamfall. Both feature compelling, diverse characters in meticulously crafted worlds, and The Secret World, so far, appears to be doing a fine job continuing that streak.
Kotaku's MMO reviews are a multi-part process. Rather than deliver day one reviews based on beta gameplay, we play the game for four weeks before issuing our final verdict. Once a week we deliver a log detailing when and how we played the game. We believe this gives readers a frame of reference for the final review. Since MMO titles support many different types of play, readers can compare our experiences to theirs to determine what the review means to them.