Secret World Diary 1: The Illuminati Love Old-School Hip-Hop

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Because Secret World is such a massive game, we've decided to split our review of the game into several weekly installments, rather than try to cover the whole game based on a few days of play. This week, we discuss the world of The Secret World and our first few hours of play.

Since World of Warcraft emerged to dominate the MMO landscape more than half a decade ago, almost every major MMO release could easily be described as "It's like WoW, but..." Even this year's massive Star Wars: The Old Republic largely boiled down to "It's like WoW, but with BioWare voice acting."

Secret World has positioned itself as the first MMO to break from WoW's formula for success, and on paper it appears to actively rebel against tradition. In contrast to WoW's fantasy setting, Secret World is set in an altered modern day where H.P. Lovecraft was right: Every conspiracy theory is true, and magic lurks around every corner. In place of WoW's class system and leveling treadmill, Secret World awards players ability points that they can spend to create their own "deck" of skills from a common pool of abilities, an arrangement that allows any character to gain any skill in the game.

Finally, whereas WoW presents players with an endless series of "fetch 10 X" and "kill 10 Y" quests, Secret World promises to alter the formula with a lot of story-intensive missions tied to your chosen faction. My choice of the gun-toting suit-wearing Illuminati and my handler's musical taste inspired the diary's headline. The game also deviates from the grind with stealth-based sabotage missions and investigative missions that require critical thinking and puzzle solving to progress to the next stage of the quest.

I'm only a few hours into the game, and already the investigative missions are the most compelling part of the game. The first one I stumbled on required me to follow secret Illuminati symbols scattered around town, eventually leading me to a plaque engraved with a riddle that I couldn't solve off the top of my head.

One of Secret World's most interesting features is its in-game Web browser. When you first encounter the browser, you might think that it's a simple trick to prevent players from Alt-Tabbing out of the game to check their email, but you soon learn that it's essential for solving investigative missions.

That's because you can't solve some of the puzzles merely by using information found in the game. In the case of my mission, a quick visit to the website of the small (fictional) town of Kingsmouth that I was visiting cleared up my confusion. Other missions might require a quick visit to the Wikipedia pages for various mythological beings and conspiracy theories that the game alludes to, so that you can better understand what you're chasing after.

This compelling, immersive spin on solving in-game puzzles is simultaneously the most entertaining and least WoW-like part of Secret World.

Regrettably, these missions account for only a small portion of the game. Though about 30 percent of your playing time in Secret World takes advantage of its truly original spin on the MMO genre, the remaining 70 percent still feels like the common MMO grind. The progression system and the slowly acquired deck of skills feels like leveling, albeit with more frequent and less impressive mile markers. The combat still involves pressing a series of buttons in a common rotation until your enemies are dead. I've heard that the combat system opens up at higher levels and comes into its own, but thus far my Secret World character feels like a mage who happens to carry an assault rifle.

While its deviations from the common MMO script are pretty compelling, they are--at least in the first few hours of gameplay--too few and far between to enable the game to establish itself as being more than "It's WoW, but it's also an adventure game." Still, that's a compelling premise in its own right, and I plan to keep exploring the game to see if it yields a truly satisfying experience. The game's well-plotted storylines, solid voice acting, and complex puzzle mechanics provide welcome diversion from the fact that it doesn't quite live up to the un-MMO hype.

Next week we'll take a deeper look at Secret World's combat and its complex "Ability Wheel" progression system.

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