The MMO market isn't lacking options, but one of the more interesting options out there that many of you may not be entirely aware of is The Secret World.
Okay, so Funcom didn't exactly win over a lot of folks with Age of Conan at launch, and The Secret World had the ill fortune of being released right before ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2. But The Secret World is, as far as MMOs go, a truly unique take on the genre that I wish more players would experience and appreciate.
Low Fantasy Over High Fantasy
Most massively multiplayer online games favor the high fantasy route. This is that pseudo-medieval setting with elves and dwarves and such. Secret World takes a different path, instead going with low fantasy in a contemporary setting. The game takes place in our world but explores an entirely different side of it, one which we only know through urban legends, conspiracy theories, and other such fictional tales. There's the New England town plagued by hauntings, Egyptian ruins marked by ancient magicks -- these are all concepts we understand, and that's what's so appealing about them.
Funcom borrows stories that we know and enjoy and twists them into something else for The Secret World. This is how they prevent the content from feeling stale, despite taking inspiration from commonly known mythos. The most obvious example of this is your faction. The existence of secret societies like the Templar Order and Illuminati are widely debated, but whether you believe in them or not doesn't matter, because the whole point is that you know of them. Funcom might tweak each society's dogma and intent a bit, but they're still mostly familiar to us.
Agartha, for instance, is supposedly a legendary city found at the earth's core. Funcom uses this idea to create their own idea of what Agartha is: an ancient forest whose branches and roots form a sprawling network between portals. This is how players get around the different zones of The Secret World, and keeping things in order is an old train conductor and a small army of steampunk golems.
And who doesn't know Cthulhu? Heck, the creature is so ingrained in pop culture that it's become more of a running gag than a scary story these days. Still, The Secret World uses the imagery liberally, and during one of the more interesting cutscenes, we actually see a giant winged squid monster assaulting a helicopter. Commence ridiculous boss fight.
A Mature and Self-Aware MMO
Something that MMOs tend to suffer from ("suffer" being my opinion) is teen-friendly stories. You'll be hard pressed to find an MMO with a truly mature story, complete with the appropriate language, themes, and other content.
During an early cutscene in the game, a sorcerer is mulling over his notes, frustrated with his apparent failure. At the same time, his lady friend is trying to coax him into having sex, reaching below his beltline. Annoyed, he comments that she's only good for helping him tempt his targets by spreading her legs. Yeah, definitely not a scenario you'd get out of your average MMO. Swearing is, of course, part of the dialogue as well, at least when appropriate.
The Secret World is also strangely self-aware and unafraid at making jokes. When you encounter him for the first time, that very same sorcerer comments on his own villainy and archetype, noting that attempting to defeat you now would undoubtedly prove futile -- so he traps you underground instead.
At another part of the game, two quest-givers comment on the sudden appearance of magic-wielders such as yourself and other players, and they refer to you as superheroes, or "spider-men," to be exact. The game obviously isn't trying to fool you into thinking you're unique in its world, so they drop the illusion by having the NPCs comment on the actual player population. That said, the story still feels very much like your own.
The voice acting is pretty damn good, too.
No Levels, No Problem
Perhaps The Secret World's greatest selling point is the lack of numerical levels. Sure, the game still measures your progress, but it's based entirely on the skills you've learned and gear you pick up over time, not on some set levels and corresponding stats.
New players often ask in-chat, "Can I respec in this game?" The answer to that is "no," but only because you can learn every single skill. Sure, it'll take a lot of time and dedication, but every combat technique can be mastered if you have the will. This means everything from swords to assault rifles, Chaos to Blood magic. Considering the game has over 500 abilities/skills, however, I'm not sure too many people will be attempting this milestone.
Regardless, the choice is nice to have, and not enough MMOs realize just how great this freedom of choice is. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, you were boxed into your specialized class at level 10. Misclick, and you'll need to reroll. True, you could reset your skill trees, but customization was kept within the confines of your class and subclass. In The Secret World, you can literally change roles and specializations on a whim, assuming you have the proper gear.
Granted, certain problems do persist. Despite giving players absolute freedom over their character builds, combat isn't particularly engaging. Character animations also look pretty awkward, especially when casting spells. A lack of polish is apparent, and that's something Funcom seems to constantly struggle with.
Even so, The Secret World is an adventure I highly recommend to players, whether you play MMOs on a regular basis or consider yourself a newbie. Yes, the game is subscription based, but if you have some time and a bit of money to spare, Secret World is entirely worth experiencing.