In a genre filled with dryads and dragons, The Secret World emerges as a dark and thoughtful counterpoint to the enchanted forests of most modern online role-playing games. Even when the skies are bright, an emotional cloud hangs over your every action. Rather than rush you from waypoint to waypoint, The Secret World takes its time to tell stories and build tension. Instead of spelling out your goals, it makes you think about the reasonable next action hinted at by scribbled notes and cryptic clues. This is an unusual game, and like many unusual games, it demands patience and focus.
What makes this massively multiplayer game so unusual? To begin with, the setting is unlike any other MMOG. The Secret World doesn't whisk you away to a fantasy fairyland or a scorched sci-fi landscape, but occurs in an off-kilter version of our own planet. "Everything is real" a quest giver might tell you, and so it is: biblical plagues, haunted house horrors, and zombie invasions are threats--as well as symptoms of a greater power at play. Even the so-called "hollow earth" is real, serving as a central network of walkways that connect you to your various destinations, where police captains and academy administrators await delivery from their waking nightmares.
Some quests are doled out by objects you stumble across--a corpse sprawled across the road, or a computer terminal, perhaps. Most are provided by any number of mysterious citizens, who offer the most melodramatic of explanations for their needs. The writing and dialogue are notably self-conscious. "The city is a honeycomb of terror, each cell barely cognisant of the others" says one entry in your lorebook. And in a quest giver's monologue: "Men queuing up to cross over, animals guarding the threshold, returning gods and demons. Musical chairs of the soul." None of this writing sounds particularly natural, even though the excellent voice cast sells each and every alliteration and pregnant pause.
As belabored as the writing is, it works remarkably well in context, inviting introspection and analysis. The Secret World cultivates an oppressive tone in almost all of its aspects, including its wordy dialogue. After you choose a faction (Illuminati, Templar, or Dragon), the game introduces you to your home city, and the mysterious organization for which you work. After this lengthy blend of cutscenes and rudimentary exploration, you enter Kingsmouth, Maine, where you keenly sense the inspiration of authors Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe. The darkness is thick, and gnarly trees loom large over you. Iron fences and brick columns surround an abandoned mansion, its rising parapets ever-so-slightly askew.
The dejected atmosphere works hand in hand with the mythical tales that develop as you push forward. In New England, you learn of a league of young monster slayers, and the first girl invited into the fold. In Egypt, cultists worship ancient gods, and sand creatures roam the desert. In Transylvania, the locals tell chilling tales of the Draculesti. Each region is a bleak wilderness to be tamed, and there's a sense that frights and chills lurk just out of view. The bleakness can even get overwhelming, the nighttime becoming so black that you can't see an inch in front of you, making you long for an in-game flashlight to break the gloom. (Certain quests grant you a miner's helmet, but you may not get to use it once the missions are complete.)
For the most part, however, The Secret World's graphics engine serves the art design well, scattered visual glitches notwithstanding. Of special note are the layers of sound shrouding your adventure. You roam the halls of an abandoned asylum, where the trembles of a bass drum build anxiety, later released by the chilling howl of a tortured spirit. On the outskirts of al-Merayah, shimmering dissonant chords create an air of unease. Even the smallest of sound cues--the notification that you have earned ability points, the discovery of new lore--fit seamlessly into a remarkably cohesive sound design.
Some of The Secret World's quests can be boiled down to the kinds of kill-this, fetch-that tasks you've seen in countless other games. Even when this is the case, however, developer Funcom does its best to give your actions context and chain missions together so that even ordinary objectives are organic to that particular area, and fit within its ongoing narratives. If you enjoy online RPGs for the comfortable cycle of "take quest, arrive at waypoint, kill monsters, return for reward," The Secret World isn't for you. You can queue up only a small number of quests. The downside is that you perform fewer tasks at any given time and earn quest rewards at a slower rate. The upside is that you are fully conscious of why you are doing what you are doing at any given moment.