It's not too often you get to be eyewitness to a top MMO in decline but thanks to World of Warcraft's users dropping with the kind of fervour usually reserved for the X Factor's viewing figures it's finally possible. Seven years ago when World of Warcraft was first in its prime we saw a rise in clones that took their cues directly from the working model Blizzard had created. But its inability to keep players interested forever has meant in the last year we've been able to see clutches of games emerge with a distinctly anti-WoW methodology. The Secret World sits somewhere near the top of this pile as an MMO that is nearing its release date with as little of Warcraft in its genetic code as possible.
If you're a Funcom aficionado you might be familiar with their adventure game series The Longest Journey, or even Anarchy Online - the studio's very first MMO from ten year's back. Imagine an amalgamation of the two and you start to get a firmer picture of The Secret World. It takes the structure of an MMO, but in terms of in-game content Secret World has cultivated a puzzle-riddled ethos closer to what you'd find in adventure games of yore.
That's because for all intents and purposes, The Secret World is a mystery game. The "Everything is True" tagline used throughout its marketing campaign is Funcom waxing philosophical about what would happen if a real person were to co-exist with all the monsters our parents told us weren't real. The studio's answer is to reproduce real-world cities - London, Seoul, New York City, Egypt, and so on - and introduce a seedy undergrowth of monsters that sit comfortably next to anything out of Lovecraft, Romero, or American Werewolf in London. And while you'll fight them along the way, a chunk of the game is dedicated to just investigating some of the overarching conspiracies they're involved in.
There are secret societies, references to chaos theory, alongside group instances against Cthulhu-alikes who transport you into the veil and back into reality again. It's a scattershot approach to the world of conspiracies in a way that should feel familiar to anyone who enjoys the "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality Assassin's Creed has about its own allusions to conspiracies. But the game stays focused enough to carry that kind of referential weight around.
Tying it all together are the secret societies who, even in the real world, have both feet firmly planted in conspiracies. You play a member of one of these three secret factions trying to gain control of the world: the New York-based Illuminati, the London-based Templars, and the Seoul-based Dragons. Each of them have hide-outs tucked away in their individual cities, next to pubs, record stores, and Top Shop-alikes that you can explore at some degree like a real-life tourist. But generally speaking they work with one another trying to get over the next incoming hurdle of monsters.