The fight is tough; it takes me a good half-minute to put him down. The quest counter inches forward, mocking me with the fact that I'm still just on the first part of a six-tier mission. And I've been doing it for 45 minutes now.
I focus. I triumph. The next stage has me figuring out a code and then attempting to open a door while mummies burst from sarcophagi all around me. I blow every cooldown I have and invent a few more tricks to survive. The door opens. I step through. There before me is a giant monster from the pit of hell watching me with blood-red eyes. I'm nervous because if I fail here, I have to do the last stage all over again. I mutter a curse at Funcom's developers and then run in screaming.
And I'm loving every minute of it.
This is The Secret World, the title that bowled me over to become one of my all-time favorite MMOs. Despite plenty of noticeable flaws, its daring approach to a stuck-in-the-mud industry more than compensates for that. This is why I play it.
When you talk about "MMOs" with people, chances are everyone assumes you're talking about a fantasy RPG along the lines of World of Warcraft and EverQuest. Perhaps there are those who see past the overwhelming fantasy tropes to a sci-fi setting with starships and lightsabers. But I severely doubt that anyone's going to conjure up images of modern-day Earth. It's just not done. It's not done, that is, except in rare titles like The Secret World.
It's hard to peg TSW into a neat and tidy category. It's contemporary except when it's historical (yeah, there's some time traveling involved). It loves mythologies of all types as well as pretty much every conspiracy theory and cryptozoologic creature that's been dreamed up by man. It's certainly in love with the horror genre, especially with Lovecraftian horror, zombie films, and Japanese ghost stories. And it utilizes plenty of out-of-game sources so that you could even nudge this title into the "alternate reality game" genre.
This mashup of often-unseen MMO settings makes for a world quite unlike the rest of the pack. There are scary moments that have unsettled many of my friends and me as well. There are quests that cause me to do my own research on a particular topic, just because it's fascinating and unknown to me. And at no point do I think, "Man, I've seen this a million times before" because I really haven't. OK, except for that one dungeon with a giant spider. I've seen giant spiders in MMOs a million times over. But that's the exception, not the rule.
It's a world that's falling apart rapidly, with complex characters doing everything they can to keep it together while ensuring that their side comes out on top.
Probably one of the most polarizing aspects of The Secret World's gameplay is its greatest strength: that it requires you to go far beyond mere button-mashing to use your wits, logic, and investigation skills to solve quests. The game isn't pandering to the lowest common denomonator of players, which is why it might scare some folks away. When you can't brute-force your way through every mission and instead have to use your mind to solve a fiendish puzzle, it might come across as too foreign to a largely complacent gaming population.
Those who do stick around usually end up raving about these quests. Sure, there are guides out there for every one of them, but I find that a lot of folks take pride in not looking up the solution. It's so much more satisfying, they find, to solve it on their own. A game is treating them like grown-ups, and players respond to those higher standards by treating it with respect in turn.
I'm about halfway through the game, and already I've seen so many quests that use elements I've never seen before in MMOs. Figuring out a message that's being transmitted via blinking car lights in Morse code? Check. Reading up on ancient Egyptian deities on Wikipedia to open up a tomb? Check. Playing a tune from sheet music on a pipe organ? Check. Is this The Goonies or what?
One of the big misconceptions of the game is that only the investigation quests require your head. That's just not true. Stealth missions are like elaborate environmental puzzles that need a fair bit of lateral thinking, and even action missions often toss in an intelligent curveball or two.
It handles mature content with surprising maturity
The Secret World is mature in many senses of the world. On a base level, it definitely has a lot of swearing, blood, gore, sexual themes, and nightmare fuel. But it also presents us with realistic NPCs who act and talk like real (if strange) people, made up of as many flaws as virtues. You figure out who they really are by reading into the subtext of their conversations, catching the off-quip, or even looking at their body language.
The quests and world at large isn't a watered-down heroic fantasy in which the bad guys wear the black hats and the good guys always include you. That's right: TSW often makes you wonder whether or not you're on the side of good in all of this. I've wondered whether I'm a mindless pawn, a person who justifies the means by the end result, or a powerful figure in the middle of a 10-way tug-o'-war.
What impresses me the most is that it's not, for the most part, gratuitous. Nudity, when present, isn't there to titillate or shock; it's usually part of the character or story. Violent scenes are supposed to be unsettling because of how wrong they are. Religion isn't mentioned just to be laughed at. Sex is used for humor, character development, and manipulation. High concepts and difficult subjects are brought up regularly.
Do you ever moan about the fact that all fantasy MMOs share so many of the same tired tropes? That's because we understand those tropes; if developers created a completely new fantasy world with all sorts of different concepts, they would have to spend most of the game trying to explain everything to us. It's easier to start from the familiar.
That's why TSW has a clear advantage. We understand this world because we live in it already. OK, maybe our world doesn't have C'thulu monstrosities ripping up the street every day, but most of what we see in the game is completely familiar. We can relate, and that makes for an easy entry into the game world.
Relatability quite important for this last point because...
It tells the best stories of any MMOs, period
Why do I bang my head against tough quests and spend a lot of time trying to figure out a build that doesn't leave me at a massive disadvantage? Because The Secret World is like a can't-put-it-down novel: I always want to find out what happens next.
Simply put, TSW puts so many games to shame with its presentation and execution of storytelling. The voice acting is top-notch, and the characters are quite memorable, but more than anything else, these are tales to get lost in. Some stories are handed to you via quests. Some you gradually piece together from lore objects, the environment, and snippets of dialogue.
It's why we players rejoice when every new issue (update) comes out: We know that there will be additional missions, and thus, new stories. We're hoping that we'll be treated to more stories involving our favorite NPCs. We want to dig into the game world more and figure out the mysteries behind everything. There are so many great questions that TSW raises and only a handful of solid answers to date. It's like watching a great TV show that keeps throwing cliffhangers and plot twists at you so that you can't wait to come back for more.
The Secret World may not be the easiest game to slip into; I've often said that you need to devote yourself to playing it for a while before it clicks. When it does click, as it has with me, it clicks hard.
There's so much more I could say. This is a game that lets me attack with a shotgun and a chainsaw. This is a game that has a really cool interactive theater for roleplayers. This is a game that makes me laugh a lot.
Let me simply say this: The Secret World so worth your time, and I truly wish everyone were playing it.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.