It’s easy to have a love/hate relationship with MMORPGs. Large in scale, the genre can be hard to get into, requiring a hefty time investment to understand all their various mechanics and skill systems. Enter The Secret World, the latest title from MMO veteran Funcom. Not only is it a fun game that’s offers up an incredibly flexible character build system, it stands apart from the pack by giving you a puzzle of conspiracy theories, eldritch abominations and ancient evils, leaving it up to you to figure out the pieces.

The Secret World is set in modern times with a dark fantasy spin, drawing from popular mythology and culture for its characters and creatures. Instead of Orcs and skeleton warriors, there’s wendigos and Norse zombies, and swords and sorcery are swapped out for assault rifles and blood magic. Your character is a normal person that awakens one night to find they’ve suddenly developed super powers, and are recruited into one of three secret societies: The Illuminati, the Templar, and the Dragon.

The Secret World feels like you are playing inside a crazy conspiracy movie inspired by Fringe, Supernatural and the X-Files. When you accept a major mission, you’re not just given a text blurb explaining what needs to be done or how many zombies you need to kill, you’re shown a fully-voiced cutscene where characters actually talk to you about the situation, while giving more insight into the game’s back story. Quests range from simply killing a certain number of tentacle-faced monsters to assembling home-made flamethrowers and sealing off dimensional portals to Hell. I really liked how The Secret World is defined by its cast of strange and colorful characters. Listening to a teenager claim he learned everything about killing zombies from playing Left 4 Dead or watching corporate agents debate security protocols using Star Trek references really made me feel immersed in The Secret World.

While there are some predictable quests, solving the “Investigation” missions provide a larger challenge than just killing some enemies. It’s cool that you’re never told outright where to go or what to do and are only given brief hints, so you have to pore over the in-game map or think back to areas you may have been to before to discover the next clue in the investigation. I followed a psychic’s premonitions and traveled throughout the game world to find the locations hinted at in her visions, trying to find out where exactly I could find “an angel guarding hallowed ground”. Later, a shotgun-toting senior citizen asked me to investigate a bunch of mysterious murders by tracking down police records and deciphering the murder suspect’s final words to find the truth behind the killings. These missions are a welcome break from monster slaying, and I found it incredibly satisfying to solve one of the trickier riddles without resorting to looking up the solution. If you do get stuck, The Secret World includes a nifty in-game web browser (the game is set in the modern world after all), letting you conduct research without alt-tabbing, just in case you don’t know any Bible excerpts or classical composers off the top of your head.

Character building is a much more open-ended process in The Secret World than in other MMOs, so if you get bored of using one play style, you can easily switch to another with little penalty. There are tons of abilities to pick from, but instead of having a three-tiered hot bar packed with dozens of skills you rarely use, in The Secret World you’re restricted to seven active skills. This encourages you to mix and match to find a good combo that works for what role you’re trying to play. There’s no level cap or limit to how many skills you can purchase so, in theory, if you play long enough, you can max out every available ability tree and become a one-person demon-killing army through the sheer number of options and combos you can create.

You don’t have to pick a specific class, as your character’s role and level are based on what gear you have equipped. Playing as a high-damage DPS or a beefy tank is just a matter of collecting or crafting gear that boosts your attack or defense rating. Switching between the two is easy, and The Secret World lets you save your various “costumes” so you’re given a lot of free range to experiment and play around with various builds. It’s a nice and highly flexible system, and I enjoyed that I wasn’t locked to performing a specific job with no room to maneuver.

One important thing to note about The Secret World is that, for an MMO, I encountered very few bugs. All of the core mechanics worked as intended and felt balanced, and while the game occasionally crashed for me when I was using the in-game web browser, technical issues appeared to be few and far between. A mission or two may require you to change instances in order to get them to work right, but for the most part, The Secret World is a solidly put together game.

As polished as the The Secret World is, though, there is an issue of replayability. Given how easy it is to switch around classes and abilities with just one character, you may find that there’s not much incentive to start up any alternates from a different faction. There are also very few faction-specific missions or plot points in the first dozen or so hours of play, and you don’t have to switch allegiances to be able to learn more about the game’s core story or lore. You can replay most quests to gain more experience and rewards, but once you’ve played through an exorcism quest as a member of one secret society, you may not feel like playing through it again as a member of another. Thankfully, there’s more than enough content that you won’t feel the need to fire up the character creator again.

Currently, PvP is lacking in depth. There’s only three arenas and two modes to choose from, and you give up your custom made character to play a faceless soldier to fight against other faceless soldiers from rival factions. Stats are automatically balanced so everyone’s on the same footing, meaning you don’t have to worry about a few all-powerful players wrecking everyone’s day. The fights feel more like generic deathmatches than epic battles for your faction’s supremacy. Factions do get a global stat bonus depending on how successful their members are at taking and holding key objectives, but the differing arenas can change hands so quickly that, regardless of whether you participate, chances are you’ll have a faction bonus up all the time anyway. If you’re really into PvP, you’ll get a kick out of the constant tug-of-war, but for everyone else, there’s not much of a draw.

The Secret World delivers an excellent MMO experience with a flexible character design system and challenging puzzle quests, and is only hampered by weak PvP and a lack of replay value. Whether you’re new to MMOs or have been playing them for years, there are not many reasons not to give its Lovecraftian mysteries and global conspiracies a chance.

Bottom Line: With a unique setting, immersive story and open-ended character system, The Secret World offers up a great MMO experience that’s only held back by problems with replay and weak PvP.

Recommendation: If you’re new to MMOs or have been playing them for years, The Secret World delivers a gameplay experience that’s accessible, engaging and most importantly, fun.

[rating=4.0]

Game: The Secret World
Genre: MMORPG
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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