The Secret World (published by Funcom)
Free-to-play MMORPG after purchase of the game (currently $30 on Steam)

This is the best game you’re probably not playing/never heard of.  I only found it myself by doing a random search on Steam.

The premise of The Secret World (TSW) is that worldwide secret societies, conspiracy theories, mythological tales, are all true.  The player joins one of three secret organizations (the Templars, the Illuniati, or the Dragon) and plays through a clever and well-written main story line.  Players battle H.P. Lovecraft inspired monsters that have taken over a New England town, an ancient evil in the deserts of Egypt, and resurgent vampires and werewolves in Transylvania.  Artfully done cut scenes with impressive voice acting set up each quest, which is usually its own mini story.  Players can only focus on a single quest (and up to three side quests) at a time, which helps with the immersion.  The art direction is top notch, with vistas and builds that you spend your time admiring, not just running past on the way to the next objective.

Torchwoody_picture002Perhaps The Secret World’s most impressive feature (amid a whole host of impressive features) is it skill system.  There are no classes, no levels, and no armor.  You can wield up to two weapons at a time:  blades, hammers (including axes), hand weapons, elemental magic, blood magic, chaos magic, pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles.  Each type (melee, magic, or gun) has a whole host of unlockable abilities, and it is possible (like in an Elder Scrolls game) to use any combination of types, and even eventually unlock them all.  In addition to active attack or support abilities, there are a host of passive abilities available to unlock, and you can ‘slot’ on your hotbar up to 7 active and 7 passive abilities at a time.

The key is to find combinations that compliment each other.  For example, my favorite is elemental magic combined with pistols.  I can cast a spell that (hopefully) traps a monster in an electric cage for a few seconds, enough time for me to lay down a ring of fire around them.  A passive ability I’ve slotted gives me a brief bonus to my critical damage when the ring of fire is active.  This allows me fire off my dual pistols five times, building enough focus to then unleash a special ‘covering fire’ ability that sprays bullets.  By this time the monster has usually broken free and is charging me.  Time for an icy frost spell that will freeze him in his tracks for a few more moments, enough time for me to do a back flip to get some range again, and start the ring of fire/pistol combo again.  This strategy doesn’t work against all enemies, so I might even have to switch to a sword/elemental magic build I’ve assembled, which keeps the combat fresh and fun.

Torchwoody_picture173With no armor, players are free to outfit their character however they want.  Some dress in contemporary clothes, others adopt outfits that make them look more like a superhero, goth, ninja, pirate, or even Roman soldier.  Unlocking abilities and earning achievements also unlocks special outfits that can be combined to a unique look.  My white sport coat with electronic current symbol details (which glow in the dark) is my favorite so far.  I got it by unlocking all of the pistol/elemental magic abilities, and many achievements give outfits.  “Armor” comes from invisible talismans that the player can find or create, and then augment to compliment their playing style.  My only artistic gripe is that the choices for designing a character’s face/hair/etc. are rather limited.  I’ve run into doppelgangers several times because we all chose the same visual combo.

Torchwoody_picture067The secret world tries (mostly successfully) to step outside the static and generic MMORPG model, and does so with stunning art direction, engaging and well-written stories (which are also often very funny), impressive gameplay, and a healthy dose of open-ended character creation.

The game does have PvP functionality, but I usually ignore this aspect of MMORPGs.  There are smatterings of interesting gay characters you encounter in your adventures, although my favorite has to be the May/December romance between Oxford archaeologists investigating ancient curses in an Egyptian valley of tombs.

Torchwoody_picture120Come find me on the Grim server and join in the conspiracies of The Secret World!