I've always been pretty leary of MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games, for those of you who have been spending the last decade or so sleeping under a rock, and have only just now emerged for a spot of decannual [mental note: find out what the actual word for "of ten years" is] sunlight).
I mean, first, it seems like they're typically a bit of content wrapped around a crazy reward model.
Second, they have a nasty inverted cost structure. You pay a subscription fee (and depending on the game, may not be guaranteed to keep your characters if you -stop- paying the fee) to play the game -- you gain power in the game by playing it, and you're not limited in terms of how much you play it. To me, particularly with a serially addictive personality, this means that it will consume large portions of your life, and due to the subscription fee, you get a better "bargain" if you let yourself get obsessed -- which is all kinds of messed up.
Still, as a gamer (and someone who likes not only games as a practice but the -idea- of games), the concept of an MMO -- a game where players from around the globe play together (or against one another, or both) is really fascinating, and I haven't been entirely able to avoid dipping my toes into the water. I played Kingdom of Loathing for a few years -- which was fun, but so grind based that people will use a bot to grind for them (in all fairness, the writing and humor in that game is very nice, the events are entertaining, and the in-game economy is very solid). I spent a few weeks playing Mabinogi (which until recently was the most "real" MMO I'd played, and eventually turned me off both because of how the gold farmers -completely- run the game and because again, after a point the game was entirely grind/cycle based, with further exploration or play limited by your willingness to grind--and because frankly, the play just wasn't that interesting). And I'd played various quasi MMOs with limited interaction -- the D&D Facebook game, a few other things.
But a few things changed this spring into summer that made me reconsider my decision not to play MMOs:
1. I playtested The Secret World. And lo, it was good (or at least compelling), plus I knew some other people planning on playing the game.
2. The pre-press for Guild Wars 2 was really fascinating, talking about the ways they dealt with a lot of the annoyances that have plagued other games (grind, kill-stealing and griefing PVP, high-level content trivializing other content, player actions having no effect on the game world, the Holy Trinity of the MMO (heal, damage, defend) making it difficult to play in any other way than extreme specialization, extreme choice resulting in over-optimization and thus a lack of real choice) and trying to make them non-problems.
3. In both cases, there were options to buy the game in a fashion that gave you full access to the game that didn't involve a subscription. Guild Wars 2 doesn't -have- a subscription -- you spend $60 on the box (even if you download it and don't get a box)...and you're done. Full game, which is -huge-. The Secret World isn't nearly as good a deal, but the brief taste I had left me wanting more, so I plunked down for the Grandmaster deal just to not have the inverted incentives I referred to above -- the box for $50 (which does come with a month subscription) plus a lifetime subscription for $200 (which is probably too much, but this way I just don't have to worry about it).
So, I got ready to start playing them -- which in my case, involved both playtesting them (the GW2 playtest did involve buying the game; the SW did not. A correct decision on both company's parts, as I'd not have bought SW2 without the free playtest, whereas GW2 had done enough pre-press discussion of what they were doing to make me willing to plunk down my cash in advance) and playing a few weeks of yet another MMO -- City of Heroes.
I've been hearing about City of Heroes for years, of course, but I was never inclined to play it -- I didn't play MMOs, and anyway didn't have a computer that would handle it. But since I got a low-end gaming laptop to play GW2 and SW, I now had one that would handle City of X as well. Result: It was fun, but fundamentally nearly all the adventures were the same, the terrain and model was really disappointing (attacks only checked validity on start of animation -- so you'd dodge behind a wall and have an attack hit you through the wall as long as it started before you dodged--or you'd knock down a baddie after he started a "pick up a rock and hit you with it" move and the rock would float up and fly out to hit you anyway), flight was inherently fun, and eventually you'd hit content that was only doable if you grouped and since City of Heroes was on it's last legs (and, in fact, is now shutting down) and I didn't realize I should hit the most popular servers to have more help, I could never manage to make a group for that content. But it did it's job -- I now had enough familiarity with the common mechanics of the MMO.
So, how do Secret World and GW2 compare? Very interestingly. I'll note that I haven't played TSW since GW2 went live--and there are some reasons for that--but it's still not entirely one-sided.
I'm not, BTW, going to talk much about PVP (Player versus Player) play. This is first because I'm not that into it; I think collaborative player-vs-environment (PVE) is really where the MMO shines. But it's also because I just haven't spent that much time in PVP in either game, so it wouldn't be that interesting. I will, however, say that GW2 uses it's Event system to help guide it's PVP, and the PVP-focused "area control" system in the PVE events that that involve massed battles to indicate success there -- which I think is awesome. (similar to how TSW uses it's crafting tab for object combination and separation for quests, which I also think is an awesome concept).
First, grouping. You play an MMO because there are other people in it, right? (Actually, you might not. More content and energy is spent on MMOs than single player games these days, so you could reasonably play an MMO purely for the single player content. But still, the MMO format really relies on other people being around, so let's talk about this). Here, GW2 wins hands down -- though TSW isn't exactly awful. The key is how rewards are handled.
In TSW, the first person to tag a monster gets the credit for that monster. Quest rewards are a little different; some quests reward everyone in an area; others only give you the reward if you're grouped. The result is reasonable enough -- you'll tend to group up with people on the same quest you are, and that way you're not fighting one another over quests triggers or monsters. But it's still a bit clunky -- and grouping up with people shifts you from a model where you automatically pick up all the loot you earn (by, you know, killing things) to one where every earned item gets sent into a "need/greed" system and whoever picks it up has to hang out near the loot pile until everyone's said whether they wanted it or not.
In Guild Wars 2, by contrast, there's no -need- to group unless you're going into a dungeon or entering someone's personal story (I'll get to personal stories later) -- and either way, everything works the same way! Whenever you participate in a quest, you get credit for the quest (even if someone else did most of the work--at worst, you get "bronze" credit for the quest rather than "gold" credit). When you tag (hit) a monster, you get full XP for it when it's beaten -- and so does anyone else helping out (I think you also get XP if you heal someone fighting it; not sure on that one). If you tagged a monster and it falls down, you have a random chance to be able to loot the body--and again, so does everyone else who fought the same monster. Rather than having to make things more difficult when you work with other people, it just all gets easier (because the monsters get easier when working in groups, and because they can help you up if you fall down, plus you get the same or more xp and treasure)! Also, the events and hearts will tend to result in you working with other players just as a bi-product (see below under quests)
There is one major way that TSW is better than GW2 -- both use the "worlds" model where you select a primary world to adventure in (to avoid overcrowding issues). But in TSW, when you party with someone you get the option to transfer to their current world, so you can adventure with your friends regardless of their "home". Guild Wars 2 has, I believe, announced that they are intending a similar feature, but given that it's not built yet it can be very lonely, when all your friends are playing in different servers due to the guilds they are associated with. (at the moment, GW2 has free world transfers, but changing worlds briefly to adventure with your friends always seems rather drastic).
So: Winner: Guild Wars 2. But I do wish that they had that whole cross dimension partying thing down--it's important.
Second: Quests. Here is where the games are very different, in very complex ways. The Secret World follows a more or less traditional approach where you pick up a bunch of quests and work on them, although it apparently breaks from tradition in that rather than having quest "hubs" it instead uses a hub and spoke model where you get a main quest from a quest giver, do their quest and find an item that gives you another ("item") quest, and that quest finishes up leaving you in an area near another (or the same) main quest giver, so you pretty much always have a good selection of quests to choose from, as finishing one gives you another one or two to work on until you start nearing the end of an area. Guild Wars 2 isn't nearly as quest-centered -- you never actually get any formal quests except for your main story (I'll get to main story differences later). But it's very exploration-focused, and the exploration gives you plenty of quest-like things to do and guides you into quest-ish things -- particularly the events and hearts, which are effectively standing-world quests happening around you that you share with other players. In Guild Wars 2, the quests tend to be very social (and even the main story quests, which are theoretically solo, can be entered by allies if they're grouped with you). These are a lot of fun, even though all quests involve some combination of clicking on things, fighting things, noticing things in the environment (jumping puzzles, mostly), figuring out dialogue trees, and following NPCs around. Oh, and occasionally stealth, though I've only run into a single stealth quest. Those are the core mechanics of the game, so if you don't enjoy them you won't enjoy the quests either, but it's pretty cohesive--and if you really like the jumping puzzles, there are some -awesome- jumping puzzles in the game, including some very atmospheric ones (and yeah, there are reasons to group for the jumping puzzles too, as it may make things easier and certainly makes things less forgiving as your buddies can res you if/when you miss a jump and fall to death). In TSW, though, the quests are much more varied in terms of mechanics -- there are broad divisions into combat quests (obvious), sabotage quests (stealth, where being found by the NPCs or getting caught by a trap will either involve instant death/capture or fighting monsters strong enough that they likely will kill you) and investigation quests (puzzle-based, and vary a lot, but often include mechanics similar to the old Lucasarts games where you need to figure out the answer to a cryptic clue or spot the right clues in the environment...I think the "beacon" quests where you have to follow a hot-cold sonic beacon by listening for when the beeps get closer or farther together may also fall into this category). These are -very- different approaches to quests, and in some ways they're both awesome, but I'm going to have to take them separately:
TSW. The quest openings and stories behind a lot of the quests are both very visceral and interesting and varied. The Investigation quests are obviously the standouts (and while main quests are marked by type, item quests are also divided into the three categories conceptually), and sometimes involve real-world research (or decoding full-speed Morse code). And there are puzzles involving figuring out the sequence for arranging/clicking on in-world objects for rituals, or following creepy birds around, or navigating in the dark. Sometimes these things are too hard -- fortunately, there are plenty of spoiler sites that can tell you what the decoded cipher text is, or what location that cryptic clue leads to (that you've not even got on your map yet as you haven't gone there). But it's a lot of fun. On the other hand, most of the quests just aren't that fun to replay (if they let you replay them at all--investigation quests are one-shots). And in terms of the impact on the world...well, there isn't one. If you talk to a NPC, and do a quest involving that NPC, then talk to the NPC again, they're going to react to you the same way even though in theory your relationship should have changed. No matter how often you do a quest trying to block the undead out of the graveyard with ancient Illuminati symbols, there are still just as many undead in that graveyard -- you've got your XP and item reward, but the world is exactly the same.
Now, in Guild Wars 2, the exact opposite is true. Sure, the only real puzzle-type things are "how do I fight that monster without dying" and "how to I get from here to there? Do I need to walk around? Is that jump even possible?" But everything you do in the world modifies the environment -- your actions are validated by the game, rather than ignored by the game. The NPCs aren't nearly as deep as the Secret World NPCs -- there are few hidden links between NPCs across the world (but some). But when you get a mission like "prevent the Grawls from taking this fort", if you succeed, they're driven back and the humans (or whatever) remain in control; if you fail (or nobody's in the area to help), then the fort changes side, and until someone succeeds in helping out, the mission becomes "take the fort from the grawls." I've been involved in taking evil centaur forts for humans (and defending those same forts from the centaurs attacking back), driving metal gnomes out of mines, and in the most fun and recent example, helping an amphibious four-armed dolphin (actually closer to a small beluga) become a peace-loving captain of a ruthless band of pirates (until the players win this event, it's a hostile area with hostile pirates. Once the players win, it becomes a friendly area that has the old captain attacking occasionally to try to win his crew back -- and the new captain is so cute!). This goes for macro levels like the big area-changing events -- but also on smaller levels -- at one point, I helped out in a "protect these guys from monsters while they gather berries (or something like that)" quest. Later I was talking to named NPCs and got a "Thank you so much for helping us when I was out gathering!" -- I hadn't noticed, but she was one of the NPCs I'd helped out!
So...this is a complex topic, but I have to give the nod to GW2. Even so, I can wish it had greater depth of NPC characterization and more variety of quests -- I do appreciate not having quests where I give up and start looking for spoilers. But having some division between quests that are all fight-fight-fight and ones where I have to think or navigate a complex interaction between NPCs (although TSW doesn't have dialogue trees, exactly--because unlike GW2, it has a silent protagonist. I'm probably not going to focus on this, but apparently some people prefer a silent protagonist you can project yourself into; for myself I rather like the fact that your guy has their own personality but I can see the other POV)--it does have effective dialogue trees where an NPC monologues on topics you pick and you have to navigate to the one where they answer the question for one of your quests -- just as you'll navigate a computer menu until you find the option that does what you want.
So this brings us to Story. Both games have an early gameplay centered around your personal story. In Guild Wars 2, it's ignorable -- if you don't like the central story (which if you're one of the people who hate when your character talks, you probably will; the main story is where you do most if not all of the talking), you can just explore, do area quests (and hearts, which are the non-reactive quests that guide you to the events and mark a lot of your progress), craft, gather things, and do PVP. In TSW, it's not, really -- the personal story missions are how you unlock access to the various zones, so if you try to ignore the personal story you're going to find you can't access most of the game -- although I think you can do pure PVP play and ignore the PVE experience entirely (I don't know; I haven't tried).
The stories, though, are very different. The TSW main story is clearly better written than any of the stories I've seen in Guild Wars 2. On the other hand, it's just that -- a single main story, regardless of character (there may be variations depending on which of the three conspiracies you choose to join in the beginning of the game, and there's one sequence of choices that will influence some of the interstitial bits, but nothing aside from that). Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, has one main storyline for each race (and 6 races), and each of those has branches based on the 4 or so decisions you made at character creation, which can shift if you've had your character change personality since then, and there are also branches based on the decisions you make within the story itself. More, in TSW, your story is inherently a solitary thing -- you can do sections with help, but only you will get credit for them unless you work with someone who is also working on the same sections of story. And there are other sections of your story that are solo instances -- parts of the game that only you can go into. You can't get any help at all for those--you're on your own, and if you've spent time adventuring with a friend, you're going to have to split up at that point. In Guild Wars 2, though, while your story is your own, if you're grouped with someone you can follow them into their personal story and vice versa -- and even help out (although depending on the situation, you might be limited. I went into one of Josh (from Spoiler Warning)'s stories where he was getting himself made champion of the frog-people -- and while he could fight at full abilities, I was limited to helping out in minor ways and cheering. In most sections it just scales up the opposition and you fight together, though). So you can not only experience other people's storylines (as odd as it is to watch someone else go through exactly the same scene you've previously gone through); the storylines can and do maintain the same social system the rest of the game is encouraging.
So TSW's story is better written--more interesting--deeper. But the Guild Wars 2 stories are far more involving, and there's far -more- of them. I really like the TSW stories -- but for my money, the GW2 stories make for a better -game-.
OK, here's one place that The Secret World gets is a clear win. Guild Wars 2 is a funny, fairly traditional (despite the etheric Asura technology) fantasy world. Maybe with some interesting new races (like the beluga-people and frog-people, among others), and maybe with some interesting shifting alliances (there are a bunch of "enemy races" that are never friends (like the Centaurs and Krait--and, of course, the Undead "Risen"), but there are also a bunch of non-PC races that vary between "friendly" tribes/groups and unfriendly/inconvenient/belligerent ones -- so you'll spend some time fighting the rat people, some time helping them against the Grawls, some time helping the Grawls against -their- enemies, some time helping the frog-people, other times sneaking through their encampments or fighting them, etc. On the other hand, The Secret World is a Lovecraft homage wrapped up in a web of fascinating character studies, and it just doesn't get much better than that.
However, just to also present the contrasting view -- The Secret World is an interesting world with lovely stories. Guild Wars 2, however, is imaginative and -gorgeous-. I never just stopped to stare at the scenery in TSW; I do so all the time in GW2.
Combat, Leveling, and Builds
OK, now we're starting to get to the meat...not of the games or what you're interested in, necessarily, but certainly what you spend the most time doing in a game.
First, there are some basic similarities in the combat systems of the games. Both have a directional dodge mechanic, where you can anticipate an attack and get out of the way; both indicate building attacks by drawing shapes on the ground so if you're fast you can use a dodge, dash (a special move that moves you quickly) or just walking to get out of the danger zone before a pile of damage shows up in it, and both let you put a solid object between yourself and danger -- which does at least some of the job of focusing you on what's happening on the screen (i.e. the game) rather than simply watching your cooldowns (that is, the counters that tell you when you can use an ability again) and functionally playing a complex rhythm game.
But after that, the models diverge, in many ways substantially.
First, TSW is both very a traditional and relentlessly traditional at the same time. They've in some ways dramatically changed the leveling curve by dropping classes; instead you climb the ability tree in a way that will eventually get you every ability with what you're doing at any given point being based on what builds you have support for and what you like to do, and your real level is your weapon -skill- which determines which gear you can use (and once you get to 10th level in all your relevant skills, it's really the quality of your primary gear). On the other hand (and as part of this, as this system encourages you to specialize) "The Holy Trinity" is alive and well here, with players having a lot of power and encouragement to focus on attracting the attention of monsters and being impregnable tanks, being healers who keep the tanks alive, or being damage guys who make sure the monsters fall down before something bad happens. Guild Wars 2 uses a fairly tight class system -- but every class will have at least two big options they can switch between within combat -- plus they get choose their healing skill (everyone always has a healing skill available; one of the ways they try to stay away from the Holy Trinity) and utilities between combats. (and in terms of gross customization, TSW has passive abilities, which you can choose from any of your ability trees regardless of weapon [your active abilities are restricted to those for one of your two weapons]; GW2 has Traits, which also come along with some stat bonuses and which also include passive powers you can switch around out of combat). There are some resources in the game that you build by making one sort of attack and spend by making other sorts of attacks, but in the end it's still basically a pattern game.
The thing is, in the thick of things, the games feel very different. In TSW, you're generally "doing your thing" -- you've got a basic attack sequence you've worked out, and probably have some panic switches for when something hits you with something nasty, plus you're watching the screen to dodge or otherwise maneuver when something nasty starts happening. If it doesn't work out -- if your tactics just aren't working, you're generally going to spend 20 minutes reworking your build (or switching to another one) that hopefully works better for the situation you're in -- or look around for someone to help you. There are combos in the game, but they're generally "I put this status on a monster, and then exploit it" or "I put this status on a monster, and me and all my friends exploit it" -- which might cause you to spend some time before combat talking with a group about who is Corrupting and who is Debilitating -- or whatever, but isn't going to affect the game post-planning much. Additionally, there's a whole class of items that affect combat -- one type of potions, plus gadgets, which are reusable potions of that sort, which you have to click on -during- combat to use -- which is amazingly frustrating and unfortunate. I don't want to click on things during combat -- in combat, my mouse is reserved for maneuvering. So having combat-essential skills that require clicking (and can't be put onto hotkeys) is immensely off-putting.
In GW2, by contrast, sure, you have your abilities -- but you can't rebuild your entire character from scratch whenever your current plan doesn't work -- and more importantly, don't have to. You might find that a given area works better with two daggers than a staff (my main is an elementalist--the class that cannot switch weapons at all in combat, but instead can switch between the four western elements within combat with different main powers for each) or that you're better off in Earth whereas you're used to focusing on fire (although that realization you can have -within- combat). But also, player powers will not infrequently drop zones which will combo with attacks so you'll find yourself wanting to drop them around friends (or yourself) or putting yourself inside ally zones or putting them between yourself and the monsters. And there are also environmental weapons and player abilities that drop weapons onto the field, so you'll find that when working with that helpful elementalist it's often worthwhile to pick up the big bow or fiery greatsword she leaves on the field and fight in an entirely different way for a while. And on top of that, in contrast with TSW where when you die, you have to do a corpse run back to your body or resurrect in a designated resurrection zone, in GW2, the options are "res in a designated zone" and "an ally resurrects you" -- so one of your options in combat is to try to resurrect an ally and hope not to attract (or just absorb) the attention of the baddies -- another useful tactical choice that everyone has available (although eventually you can get access to powers that will let you res allies in a much safer way if that's what you want to do). There are even areas where there are siege engines you can step into and operate, sacrificing your mobility for considerable amounts of firepower for a while.
This is probably the biggest difference between the games -- and it's one where GW2 is amazing where TSW eventually can get a bit boring and frustrating. The fact that in GW2 you -don't- have to inspect the entire ability tree to figure out what options are available (and instead are picking your Trait powers out of a "mere" 60 options for your class) is also a bonus for me.
There is one place where I find TSW combat superior to GW2, however: targeting. In TSW, you target a single monsters, and all your attacks are centered on them. If you use an area ability, it's centered on your target. (unless it's a "point blank area attack" in which case it is centered on you, naturally). If you use a targeted ability, it hits your target. If you want to switch targets, you hit tab -- or click on the new target -- or kill your old target and face the new target (Melee follows different rules and will generally target whatever you're facing, but is still pretty intuitive).
In GW2, however, your guy will shoot at whoever they're facing, and area attacks each have to be individually targeted -- click out the area attack, move the mouse to where it's supposed to go, then hit the hot-key (or a mouse button) to launch it. This means it's much easier to accidentally attack too many enemies with ranged spells (just face a little off from the guy you're fighting and you might end up attacking the one behind him instead of the one you were -intending- to hit, and suddenly be facing two foes) -- and that area attacks are unnecessarily cumbersome to use (not that I don't -mind- the flexibility of individually targeted area attacks...but really, I usually want them centered on my primary foe. Just default to that and we'll be fine, 'k?
Crafting, and Items
This is one place where I think TSW really falls down, and where despite my expectations, GW2's model really works (mostly).
TSW has an interesting, at first, crafting system. You've got a bunch of items in the game, each represented by a shape; stick a bunch of crafting components into the crafting tab in the right shape (and spend a crafting kit if it's a kind of item that needs a kit) and you get an item of the same quality/type as the components. The problem is, when you get down to it, that when leveling up, you are always scrambling for these components (or ignoring them and getting your items from dungeons instead) -- but in the endgame--and really, since the trading post is now live, probably throughout the game--none of these matter, since you can never get top quality gear through this mechanism--the only rare items in the game are high-quality items (which you can only get by running the dungeons on the highest level or spending lots of PVP tokens) and Signets (which you need a hundred of in order to get the maximum value from them). Which turns the whole collection thing, in the end, into a grind to run the same high-level dungeons over and over and getting money to buy your favorite Signets. There's no leveling or grind (beyond the grind of collecting many, many components and combining things into other things), but there's also no thrill of discovery.
The other element is inventory management, where TSW went with an effective (but not very rich) approach -- you have an inventory capacity, can spend escalating amounts of in-game money to grow it indefinitely, and can make virtual "bags" (and even stick them on the screen; useful, if not sufficient, for holding those items you want to use in combat) at will (but those bag contents count against your inventory).
In GW2, they went with a more traditional, but also more effective approach. There are 8 crafting skills -- 3 types of armor skills for the three types of armor, each of which can make their type of armor (light/cloth, medium/leather, heavy/metal; each class can only wear one type, plus each can make bags made of the appropriate component), 3 types of weapon skills for the three types of weapon (hunter for bows and guns, weaponsmith for melee weapons (including ones that are primarily used by mages, like dagger), artificer for caster "weapons" -- staff, focus, trident, scepter, nothing that staff gets used by some melee types as well -- plus potions, jeweler for accessories (everyone needs accessories) and cook for food (which provides an experience bonus and some special that lasts half an hour). The components these use to do to an extent compete with one another; Jeweler uses metals which in some tiers compete with the weapon-maker and metal armor classes (in some tiers, the jewelry metal is a different metal than the functional one)
First, the bad. These used tiered components -- you mostly get "weak" items in the 1-15 zones which are used for the first tier of crafting; once you get past that you need "lesser" items found in the 15-25 zones, and so on. And completing a single zone doesn't give you enough items to level up -- you need about a zone and a half (at minimum) worth of items to get to the next tier. On the other hand, as you'll see when I talk about the world, there are a massive number of zones -- so while you -can- grind (or just buy, using in-game money) the missing components you need, you can also just adventure more to new and exciting places and things will work out (if you're patient). Still, I found that I easily out-leveled my ability to craft (and that was with my crafters generally being different characters than my main -- it's not efficient for the same person to learn more than 2 crafts, as you pay cash whenever you switch, so I have 4 characters even though I only have one main -- each knowing two of the crafts (and I'm working on four of them more or less seriously; artificer, jeweler, cook, and tailoring--not coincidentally the four crafts most important to my Elementalist main). On the other hand, crafting is decidedly optional in this game -- sure, it's the only way to make bags (but you can buy other people's bags on the trading post, and the biggest use of lots of bags is to hold the middle-stage items you need for crafting) and potions and food (but you make more food and potions than you'll ever need when leveling crafting, so you can just buy them cheap if you want). But regarding all the other items, while crafting -won't- be outstripped by the items you can find or make other ways (as it will in TSW), you -can- simply buy the items you want in the game; you might not get exactly the set you want without a lot of work, but you'll level up just fine.
The good is that the items are interesting, and the crafting system (and inventory system) is deep and intuitive. Sure, you do need to make/buy bags, but all first-stage (of whatever tier) crafting components have a special slot they can fit into among your "collections" You've got a discovery pane, which only shows you the items that still have discoveries left on them -- and includes items in your bank or your collections, so you don't have to do a lot of inventory management (this wasn't true on launch, but it is now). When you put something into the discovery section it highlights the items that could combine with it, and tells you when you've got a potential item you can (or can't, if your crafting skill isn't up to it yet) make.
There are also recipes scattered around the world that can let you make slightly better things than you can discover on your own (but only if your crafter goes off and buys the recipe, and only if they're of a sufficiently high crafting level to be able to make it), helping the crafting system play into the exploration system nicely.
In the end, it's fun, it's optional, and while it's potentially grindy, it's not actually so grindy that it's frustrating. That said, I do wish that crafting didn't leave you with a giant pile of items to break down/sell/buy (or for the more complex crafts, cooking particularly, didn't leave you with an inventory full of intermediate-stage components that made it hard for your crafter to get out of the kitchen and go adventuring). All in all, a fun and rewarding minigame.
Ok, this one's easy. TSW features three big maps (divided into two or three sections), plus the combat-less homelands of each of the three conspiracies and 3 dungeons per map and two harder versions of each dungeon. Once you've played through story mode and each dungeon once, there's not really much to explore except for trying out the new content or going to the harder versions of the dungeons (which involves grinding those dungeons for better and better gear so you can survive in the harder ones). (also, there are the pvp zones, but I don't know them and won't mention the GW2 pvp zones either). The harder versions of the dungeons do have an extra encounter or three, and there are also "lairs" in each section [aka "the areas you stumble into and die when exploring" although they're apparently going to fix this] with top tier monsters that high level teams can challenge over and over to get even better gear. Fully exploring a map gives you an achievement and an experience/cash bonus. There are lore items scattered around in places, and completing all the lore for a topic gives you access to a story, but some lore items seem to be mostly inaccessible so you don't generally see chains of players completing all the lore items, helping one another find tricky lore, etc. Completing a section of lore gives you a (usually incoherent) section of the complete story. The monster selection is...kinda sad, actually; each area has some typical monsters, and usually monsters cross types, but one will fairly quickly get tired of fighting zombies and Draug on Solomon Island, filth and ghouls in Egypt, and vampires and werewolves in Transylvania (ok, who am I kidding? You never get tired of vampires and werewolves, and I've -mostly- stopped having monster fatigue after getting out of the first island -- but it's still very much an issue).
Guild Wars 2 features something on the order of 30 big maps -- each of which is of comparable size to each of the TSW maps, and most if not all of which have a dungeon somewhere in there. Fully exploring a map gives you cash, and an item, and some experience. While you can level from 1-80 in only 6 or so maps, you are auto-leveled down to any zone so you gain full experience and cash and don't completely trivialize the content (although if you're adventuring downlevel, your traits and better gear, even down-leveled, will tend to make you stronger than anyone of the actual level, just not enough that you can't attract the attention of too many monsters and get killed), so you're still getting rewarded for exploring every single map (and there's an achievement for exploring -everything). The hard exploration type is a vista -- a little icon usually sitting on some part of the map that's hard to get to, like the top of a mountain or a cliff only reachable by climbing a giant series of cranes. Completing a Vista gives you a panoramic view of the area you just navigated -- one generated by the game engine (you can sometimes see players doing...whatever, along with the gorgeous view of the piece of scenery you just climbed (or whatever). There are also jumping puzzles, which are like vistas, but usually harder, and various world bosses, Champion monsters, and other challenges, which usually take a group (but unlike TSW Lairs, are actually of the level of the area, so a determined group can generally take them on). There is a -huge- bestiary for the game, and while zones have thematic enemies, and you will certainly be seeing spiders and risen all the way from the first world to the last, you will certainly never get bored with the variety of enemies, with new ones appearing on every tier and a large variety at every level. Also, all players can breathe water (don't worry about it; it's a magic-tech world anyway) and can adventure into the oceans, where you have a different weapon and powers (and some utilities don't work; no summons in the ocean for me, but turning into a whirlpool is much fun), there are entirely different sets of monsters for the waters (and some amphibious types), enemy/ally creatures in the water, and so on; it's a realm of it's own!
You can guess what I prefer here; it's not hard.
The Big Picture
In the end, they're both interesting games. But frankly, you could take the best parts of The Secret World and package it up as a movie and get 90% of what makes it a good experience. Whereas Guild Wars (despite having problems--and it does!) is just an amazing game, and with the player base they have, will only get better.
I'm sure that TSW will get better too; they have already released two new content packs (and since TSW is fundamentally subscription based, unlike GW2, I expect that all their content packs will be included and I'll get access to them as a lifetime subscriber, whereas GW2 will be extending content throughout, but presumably will eventually make an expansion that they release as a new quasi game and that asks me to spend another $30 or whatever).
tl;dr: Guild Wars 2 is amazing, and you should get it if you're at all interested in MMOs. The Secret World is interesting and engaging, but probably not worth the money unless you're really into the theme.