What follows is an honest review of The Secret World from a very jaded, longtime MMO gamer. I'm going to be unkind to some other development shops in this review, but please take it in stride and understand that I know development is hard work and I'm not truly denigrating other game companies whose games I've also enjoyed. Feel free to quote me or reuse this review whereever you like, but per the Creative Commons licensing for this entire site, be sure to attribute this review to me and to provide a link to this site.
Although The Secret World is an AAA MMORPG title from Funcom (Anarchy Online, Age of Conan), most MMO players are considering it as a "niche" MMO because it very much breaks the mold of what most people have come to expect from MMOs.
My due diligence here is to simply tell you that it is a fan-fucking-tastic, totally amazing *game*. It is literally the best, most engaging, most awesome MMO I have ever played, and I've played probably 95% of the AAA MMO titles (and a lot of others, including ones that never even made it to release) over the years, going all the way back to Asheron's Call 1. It's not just the best MMO I've ever played. I can honestly say at this point that it is the 2nd most engaging *game* I've ever played, with only Portal 1/2 winning by a nose.
I think I can sum it up why TSW is so awesome as follows:
A) It's the "Dark Souls" of MMOs. This one is not a namby-pamby snoozer walk through the park like so many MMOs. This is a hard game, but it's just the right amount of hard. Funcom has completely nailed it in this respect.
B) It will hurt your brain. It will engage your brain. In a variety of ways. There are "sabotage" missions that remind me of Portal in ways. They're not about fighting; they're about stealth and figuring out environmental puzzles/mazes that will kill you if you mess up. There are "investigation" missions that are ARG-style puzzles where you have to correlate vague clues with real-world research (in Wikipedia/Google) to solve the puzzle. You can spend hours, even days trying to solve some of these. Then there are your straight up "action" missions and "item" missions that involve traditional fighting, running around to find things, etc.
C) The Missions are often incredibly long and sophisticated, but broken into many smaller "tiers" so you can still get things done and make concrete progress even if you're a casual gamer who has only 20 or 30 minutes to play at a stretch.
D) The environments themselves are phenomenally complex to navigate and visually enjoy. I struggle to describe adequately just how not like any other MMO the environments are. They're all "current, real world" settings, and I'm in awe of their world designers and artists.
E) Story? You like story? You like voice acting? You like well-written cutscenes? Bioware and Bethesda are a bunch of amateurs compared to the writing team Funcom seems to have assembled for this game. Unlike every other MMO (and many games), you will never want to skip a cutscene. You will never want to skip the "text" of a mission giver. You'll actually want to find and read every lore object you come across. This is adult fiction by good writers, compared to teen fiction by hack writers (looks at other games). And a serious sense of dark, wry humor throughout.
F) Combat and build mechanics are the deepest, most complex I've ever seen. It will take a while to wrap your head around it. At first, it seems simplistic. Until you play it for a while and get into the second zone and realize: "holy shit—there are so many subtle decisions to make in every fight". I am never bored in combat, unlike in so many MMOs. It is not a tab-target, stand there and bang out the same skill rotation every time type of game. You are *constantly* having to move, maintain environmental awareness and shift between melee and range, and adaptively modify your skill combinations. DEEP. If you played the first two Open Beta weekends, you got only a very small taste of this complexity in the first zone (Kingsmouth). If in the 3rd and 4th beta weekends you make it to the second zone (Savage Coast), you will only then get to see this complexity in action.
G) No classes. No levels. You can roll up just one character and do it all. Everything. There's no "skill resets" though, so you might need to experiment a bit before you find the right weapon combos and initial 7/7 build that you feel confident playing well. The game itself will test you at every step and show you if you haven't yet found a strong enough "deck" to push further into the content. It does this through various solo instances where you must fight alone, both in some standalone action missions and in some of the main storyline missions. You might do some of these for the first time and think "OMG this is totally impossible. There is no way I can beat this."
But eventually you'll figure out why that mission seems so impossible, and you'll try something different (maybe a different build or mixture of gear, maybe just a different approach to the combat itself, maybe just realizing that more stealth and less combat is the best plan). Regardless, nothing is wasted and sooner or later you can make use of all the skills and abilities you've unlocked so far, even if the main thing you learned from beating such tough "gatekeeper" missions is that you had a terrible build beforehand.
And you cannot get stuck playing only one build and one playstyle. The game will force you to adapt to different situations and swap your builds (decks) and playstyle very often to deal with specific mob types, bosses, and general encounters. For example, you'll eventually encounter foes (even normal mobs) that might literally be impossible to beat with the one general-purpose build you've been using so far. You'll need to step out of your comfort zone and try different weapons and abilities and entire build focused to beat them.
H) The end game starts the moment you step into the first zone. Literally. The entire game is end game. There is zero "rush to max level" drive in this game. There is zero sense of "the fun starts later". If you are rushing to max level, you are missing the entire point of this game's design. There is no hurry to get anywhere, or to leave the starter zone (Kingsmouth) as soon as possible. Instead, you are far better served to find and beat every single mission you can find in a zone at least once before moving on. To explore every zone's nooks and crannies to acquire every possible lore item hidden around.
There is both a vertical progression and horizontal progression in this game (similar in respects to Guild Wars 1), and like Guild Wars 1, the vertical progression is steep at first and over quickly. Again, this means there is no "rush to get anywhere". Max strength comes quickly and organically while you are just enjoying the game.
In summary, even if you get only two months out of the game and feel like you've seen enough, it will be one of the most engaging $75 you've ever spent. Seriously, you could play this like a single player game, doing all the missions and zones one time, and walk away. Or you could get into the ongoing new content and branch out into the horizontal progression and do all the typical MMO time-filler stuff like PvP and the raid-like dungeons and elite outdoor camps, etc. Oh and in case you wondered, Funcom is not going to go on the same "raiding" treadmill as so many other MMO devs have done. This game isn't about raiding. All of the launch dungeons are 5-mans (in three difficulty levels), and they won't even be adding 10-man dungeons until after launch. All the dungeons are "raid-like" in design and difficulty, but the primary focus of TSW is its puzzle-like missions and ongoing sense of unfolding a variety of mystery story lines.