The Secret World - an MMO without compromise

You can accommodate a million players but you can't craft a million stories. It's the quandary that faces every MMO: how do you keep things personal when you're treading in another player's footsteps? World of Warcraft focused on looting and grinding, The Old Republic put you on one of eight paths. Ragnar Tornquist, The Secret World's creative director has has his own take. Don't pretend your players are anything special: “You're not the chosen one. You're a cog in a wheel. You're part of an army.”

My army is the Illuminati. Unlike crusader fanboys, The Templars, and chaotic extremists, the Dragons, my faction are gas-masks and rifles, cash and research. I don't look like a soldier and I probably don't smell like one. At the start of my story I'm wearing a waistcoat and fingerless glove in my New York apartment. Just like the Templar's intro, The Illuminati's begins with a bee entering my mouth. Three days later, I'm juggling a ball of energy as a hipster/yuppie/salesman cross enters my trashed apartment . I probably smell like musky aftershave.

“Your talent is raw but obvious” he says, before beginning the hard sell: “Protection, power, and the best parties in the biz” are all on offer. All I need to do is attend an appointment in Brooklyn the next day. “Later Gator,” he signs off. “Twat” I think to myself.

Laundrettes and the iconic bridge provide a backdrop to the Illuminati's secret underground base which, by contrast, is all neon lights and sharp angles. We all look hip in a Gok Wan kind of way. The Secret World will feature an in-depth character creator but for now, I'm Oneglove. It's lucky that my outfit's purely cosmetic. I get trained up in Elemental skills then it's off to Egypt to prove my worth.

Next, I'm listening to a mummy in a suit as he nonchalantly drags on a cigarette; Egypt is weird. All three of the Secret World's factions will end up in the same destinations, but at different times and with alternate motivations. To fill in the jigsaw that is The Secret World's story you'll need two alts and a hell of a lot of time.

Your choice of faction doesn't affect your skills though. And there are 500 of them to pick from. It's a statheads dream come true; just like Diablo's runes, they compliment each other, allowing you to personalise your build to a ludicrous degree. It's initially overwhelming.

Enter The Deck System. Players will have the option to aim towards a certain character build and specialise in magic, rifles, over sized splatty hammers and more. Complete the deck and you might get some unique loot. It's the perfect way to flatten the learning curve without restricting players too much. Switching decks is essentially a free respec. And it'll come in handy: group fights still follow the holy trinity of tank/healer/dps. Your spec might be orignal, but your role, not so much.

Decks aren't just for noobs either. Ragnar's even got his eye on one: “I'm more the explorer type,” he says. “I'm happy getting a deck that lets me fight most of the things in the game. But for the min-maxers, for the power players, there's going to be so much flexibility.” Players will be able to share optimal builds easily, bolstering the competitive spirit within the community.

I'm rolling with an Elemental Hybrid build for this session. As I cast Shock, Stunning Swirl, Thor's Hammer and Glacial Storm, things start to feel overly-familiar. It's not that my rotation isn't satisfying, and pyrotechnically impressive, but I'm back on MMO autopilot. This time however, I'm not surrounded by elves, orcs, charr, Orks, or droids; I'm going to investigate reports that The Orochi group have nicked one of The Illuminati's artifacts. In real-life Egypt. Because a mummy told me so. I glance at a lady in hotpants and hi-tops. She's projecting lightning into a cultist.

“Hopefully people can look at a screenshot and say 'That's The Secret World. I know that because you're fighting demons with a machine gun. You don't do that in any other MMO.” Ragnar is right. The Secret World is unique within the genre, if not within a wider scope: a world of homage sits alongside the fiction. And thankfully, things never get po-faced enough to evoke cringes. I ask Ragnar if current genre trends have had as much of an influence on development.

“Not really... I mean The Secret World has been in production and development for so long now - for six years - and we're pretty close to our original vision even now. The game hasn't changed that much. We have so many unique legs to stand on that we don't really need to go and change ourselves to cater for the changing market.”

I group up and share out an in investigation mission. Until now, I've been killing, following, and collecting, but some of The Secret World's quests actually contain proper secrets - the ones that require you to hit the in-game browser. For more details on the mission, check back for Josh's post tomorrow. There are definite brain-thrills to be gained from discovery, whether you get them from hitting the right section of a wiki page or from unravelling the narrative.

The Secret World's investigation missions are cryptic enough to punctuate any player's game with some read-life WIki reading. And it all fits: The Secret World is historical fact, twisted with extra conspiracy. You might skip out the middle man and Google straight to the solution, but it's still an investigation, even if you cheat. Check back tomorrow for Josh's analysis.

I loved talking quest but I was on a LAN, surrounded by friendly journalists. Ragnar doesn't think the majority of players will pine for constant companionship: “ I think 80 per cent, or even higher than that: they want to play that PVE content, they want to play that on their own. They want to play it as though it's a single player game but in a multiplayer setting because it's fun; you can get help, you can see other people, it feels very different.

The Secret World is a vision standing defiant. And your experience will be unique: you might end up listening to every cut-scene and perfecting an award-winning deck. You might lie to your friends about cheating on an investigation quest. Or you might just grind or grief: “It feels more like a game that's serious in tone.” says Ragnar. “I think people act appropriately. You can never stop anybody from being an ass but that's life. It's the fun of an MMO as well, that kind of chaos and unpredictability.” Whatever happens, If the Secret World gets under your skin, things are going to get itchy.