The Dragon certainly seem the most intriguing of the secret societies that make up The Secret World. But perhaps that's because they're the group we've so far heard the least about. At a recent demonstration of the game, a little bit more was revealed, along with some news about the character creator, dungeons and the game's intriguing crafting. Oh, and the oral sex.
Character creators seem pretty crucial to MMOs. I was enormously surprised by the lack of variety offered by The Old Republic, and the peculiar disappointment of running around looking like everyone else in the world. Funcom's solution for The Secret World is to try to create a tool that's not enormously fiddly, yet produces decent variation. They've tried to offer a lot of options, but provided via relatively few sliders. There's a section for faces, then hair, make up, and finally clothes.
Having been shown this, but not being able to touch it, it's pretty hard to say how effective it will be. The results looked good on the screen, but then they would, wouldn't they? What I can say is that the results looked contemporary, creating something pretty unique for MMOs - regular looking humans. And with clothing acting as a reward for progress, as well as something available to buy in the game's shops using in-game money, that will also offer the variety so many players crave.
Past that, with the newly created trendy girl, the Dragon's opening was shown for the first time. In Seoul, S. Korea, our heroine is kidnapped and dumped in a van, driven wildly through the streets, until she's eventually dumped out. Behind her, the street she was just driven down has been replaced by a solid brick wall, and in front of her is what appears to be a small child in a yellow hooded coat, toddling off into the distance.
So the kid is followed through the twisting streets, and obvious tones of Don't Look Now resonate, along with a touch of Dark Water, the game already cramming in its cultural references. We're led to a hotel room, where we're first met by something that had previously been impossibly missing from a Ragnar Tørnquist game: someone wearing only their pants. This time it's a strange, tattooed man, in just a pair of tighty-whiteys, who grabs our character, who is then led to a bed by a very flirty lady in a slinky red dress. Oh I say.
In an extremely sexually charged scene, as the player lays helplessly on the bed, this mysterious lady crawls over us, her head above ours, and calmly informs, "You're not lost any more. The Dragon found you."
"Everything happens for a reason," she continues. "It is the curse of the Dragon. We do not know why we do what we do, But we do it, because they tell us it is right."
Uh huh, okay, so why am I on this bed, and why do you have your face so close to mine? "When our minds are empty, we are receptive to the truth," she mutters, before slowly slinking down our body, until her head is just off screen, and rather close to our ladyparts. And then the cunnilingus begins. No, seriously. (Off camera, but the expression on the player character's face leaves little to the imagination.) Goodness me.
Crashing back down to Earth, we're shown some rather more mundane aspects of the game. Like XP gathering. I'm certain that at one point it was claimed there'd be no XP at all, but something slightly more traditional is in the game now. While there are still no levels, and certainly no classes, you have an XP bar along the bottom of your screen, which when filled gains you a skill point. These are then spent in the skill wheel, letting you specialise in any field you wish, the idea being that your character is uniquely yours, focused in any aspect the game offers - rather than restricting you to the specifics of a particular class. And with these, you can have one passive, one active skill equipped at any time, as well as two weapons at your immediate disposal. But you can set up various load-outs and then easily switch between them, letting you convert yourself from, say, a range fighter to a tank as the situation requires.
We jump to what we're told is 40 to 50 hours into the game, on the Blue Mountain in Solomon Island, investigating a CDC camp. A central theme of the game is the Filth, a malevolently evil slime that's infesting the world and corrupting that which it touches. Hello Grant Morrison. This CDC outpost was part of an investigation into a particularly bad outbreak of the Filth, which appears to have killed all but one of the workers, whom you meet trying to contain her panic. "Frankly," she says to you once she realises you're an uncorrupted human, "if it didn't violate protocol I could really use a hug."
Something that struck me as a nice touch was her instructions to you at this point. Ordinarily you'd expect her to say, "Please go down into the valley to see if any of my colleagues are still alive." You know, the traditional MMO quest pointing. But here she says quite the opposite. She insists that you not go down there, telling you it's too dangerous. Of course you're going to - that's where the interesting stuff happens - but it was refreshing to see the game not so overtly signposting it, and perhaps most of all, an in-game character not expecting a stranger to risk their life for their personal needs.
We were also shown one of the game's dungeons for the first time. And it involved time travel. Time travel seems to be a recurrent theme in the game, and appears to be more a sort of temporal astral projection than literally transporting to the past. It happens to every character early on in the game, for the tutorial, and seems to be something that you'll come back to. In this instance (geddit?) you find yourself back in ancient New England, witnessing a group of Mayans about to perform a ritual to create an extra-dimensional rift.
That's not the sort of thing you want happening, so the party of players begin fighting the Mayans, and it seems relatively easy. However, as each dies, their soul is seen fleeing their body and diving into the half-created rift. It turns out you're playing into their hands, and your ritually sacrificing them brings out an absolutely enormous enemy, The Hound Of The Nameless Days.
This Filth-spewing beastie offers a far more intense fight, especially when he starts bringing out the now undead Mayans in increasing numbers, constantly shifting the balance of the fight, with the intention of keeping it interesting.
And then just when things seem far too overwhelming, a white glowing dude appears, wielding Excalibur. Er, okay! His presence makes all the players more powerful, so long as he stays alive, giving everyone the satisfaction of being able to slaughter these once super-tough enemies, before a big climactic fight with the returning Hound.
The last new feature we were shown was the crafting. And if you're like me, you'll have already fallen asleep. But wake up! This looks kind of interesting. Crafting is learned by dissembling items, but rather than this being a collection of dull icons or a pile of peculiarly named fragments and the need for a thick ledger, instead Funcom have rather boldly lifted from Minecraft. Yes, Minecraft! A hammer, when broken down, revealed its crafting recipe in a 4x3 grid of tiles, those filled forming the crude shape of a hammer. The four tiles down the middle, and the three at the right. So once you know the shape to make a hammer, now you can build a new one using "pure metals", plopping the tiles into place, and ding! A new, better hammer.
These items can then be further augmented by placing the entire hammer tile into the grid, in any old place, and popping in a special weapon assembly doodah, and they'll form themselves in the a "Rare Hammer". It's incredibly simple, and visually intuitive, and made me not hate the concept of crafting for a few moments.
Again, The Secret World appeared to be genuinely unique in the world of MMOs. But again, this will all come down to its actually succeeding when played for a prolonged time. As I sat to play the opening sequence for the Templars, I noted one line uttered by a character, and thought: that's the line that's going to bite you if this doesn't hold together.
"You haven't strayed into some atrocious Dan Brown airport paperback."
Let's hope they're right. So far, I'm optimistic.