After we finished with the Illuminati introduction we briefly got to see Agartha , which seems to serve as the game's fast travel system. Often described in various forms of fiction, Agartha appears to be an in-between realm where various points of the moral plane, and maybe even time itself, are connected. You can access Agartha through portals at specific points that are always marked with lush vegetation; in fact, Agartha itself is a winding and twisting network of roots and giant trees reaching off into the void. It's a great little convergence of mechanics being integrated into the setting.
Later we moved on to the Scorched Desert of Egypt, and were let loose to explore and adventure on our own. Egypt is being plagued by some rather familiar biblical issues, in addition to the local Cult of Aten flaring up and making increasingly more brazen attacks. There are three types of missions that you can undertake: story, item and main missions. Main missions are further delineated into action, sabotage and investigation. The game does have its share of go here and kill X number of Y, but breaks the mold with things like the investigation missions, which will require you to break out the in-game browser to search your way through the clues to a solution.
While the combat will be familiar to MMO players, something that might be initially off-putting is the restriction to only 3 missions at a time. The developers stated that they wanted to focus the player on the mission at hand and get away from the approach of grabbing 10 or more quests for an area and running around in a big circle. To that end, every mission finishes on completion of the task instead of requiring you to return to the person who gave it to you, and the goal was also to always leave you near additional missions to lend the game a more dynamic leveling experience. This is fine in principle, though my inner exploring gamer that must go everywhere and complete every quest was dying a little seeing all the mission icons I knew I couldn't take.
Lastly we ran through a pair of dungeons. One of the more enjoyable aspects was how each boss' abilities built on each other, giving it kind of an old school feeling as the final boss is a culmination of all the previous mechanics you've had to learn up until then. The fights are really mobile too, which prevents the gameplay from falling into tedium of standing in one spot and repeating the same skill rotation. The game does have loot, but The Secret World puts a lot of focus into controlling your character's visuals. Special clothing might be obtained for tackling challenges, but you're otherwise free to dictate your look. Instead of rewarding you with Sneakers of Dexterity +2, your statistical buffing items are chakras with the seven slots representing the seven chakras from Hindu. So you'll never need to choose between abandoning your magic-slinging cowboy look for better numbers.
What's interesting, and potentially concerning, is how much these chakras can affect your character though. Without any equipped you have the same stats you start the game with. Which means you could, for instance, equip entirely for massive damage and not take a single chakra with health on it, leaving you with the same 1500 health you start the game with. This might seem suicidal, but what if you have a really good tank to hold all the enemies attention? This also seems like it puts a pretty big gap between players with good gear and those without, whereas normally leveling bonuses would help to keep characters similar in power. Granted we only saw a small snapshot of the game, so it's possible the developers have the math worked out though.
In the end, if you're looking for something that isn't just another warrior, elves and fireballs fantasy MMO then The Secret World is worth keeping an eye on. The game manages to find a delicate balance between familiarity and new. The setting is intriguing, skills system is fun to experiment with and there are a number of small improvements to the typical MMO trappings.
If your interested in learning more, we also got a chance to sit down an interview the lead designer.