It's no secret that most massively multiplayer online games take place in either fantasylands, sci-fi galaxies or apocalyptic dominions, which is why it's so refreshing that "The Secret World" is ambitiously set in a twisted take on our own world where apparently everything that ever happened on "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Fringe" is real.
With "The Secret World" (Electronic Arts, for PC, $49.99, with 30 days of game time), developer Funcom has a created a mythical virtual Earth populated with haunted houses, secret societies, vampire cults and zombie invasions that feels completely distinct from other titles in the genre like the hugely popular "World of Warcraft" and "Star Wars: The Old Republic."
The adventures begin in New York, London or South Korea, depending on whether recruits choose to join the clandestine Illuminati, Templar or Dragon factions. However, that decision hardly matters because players of any ilk are quickly dispatched to a dark corner of New England where they pursue — solo or together — all the same quests.
"The Secret World" has abandoned a typical class structure in favor of abilities determined by weapons such as shotguns, swords, assault rifles and magical books. Players can equip two at a time with a total of seven active and passive abilities. The freedom is welcome, but it probably sounds more groundbreaking for the genre than it plays out.
While many quests are of the kill-an-X-amount-of- this or fetch-a-Y-amount-of- that variety, the developers have neatly masked such MMO grinding with storylines that are both spooky and funny. They've also created mind-boggling investigation and puzzle-based missions, some of which require players to do stuff like decipher Morse code or read the Bible.
However, such innovations are continually undermined by the game's cadre of glitches — incomplete quest descriptions, disappearing objects and the like — that continue to exist even though the MMO went live more than three weeks ago.
It's tough to be forgiving of such bugs, as well as build enthusiasm for investing time and money in "The Secret World" when an online shop stocked with virtual goodies requires real cash for purchase, perhaps foreshadowing that this experience is already headed toward a free-to-play venture. That or the game's makers are just way too greedy.
To be certain, "The Secret World" is an MMO for players more interested in globe-spanning expeditions than gun-toting raids. The player-versus-player zones provide minimal action, and the chances to bombard dungeons are sparse. Unfortunately, those less compelling diversions provide some of the best opportunities to gain ability points and nab the best loot.
Despite the shortcomings, "The Secret World" is most certainly an online role-playing game that shouldn't be kept secret. With its intoxicatingly cerebral blend of haunting landscapes, engaging plots and thoughtful quests that actually require a brain, "The Secret World" is proof that an MMO doesn't have to be mindless fun. Three out of four stars.
Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang/.