The The Secret World reveal at GamesCom began with a video that rapidly confirmed a heaving mass of conspiracy theories. "Stonehenge is a portal!" flashed the text. "The Dead walk the Earth! Noah's was not the only ark! The Merovingian bloodline is pure!" After 30 seconds of these, I was laughing. After a minute and a half, I realised Funcom's point. In making a setting where absolutely everything is true, you immediately get a world as rich and fantastical as any fantasy setting, but one that everybody's already familiar with.
With this over, Ragnar Tornquist and Lead Designer Martin Bruusgaard cheerily talked me about The Secret World, and explained everything they're doing with combat, character progression and the contemporary setting. This game's been thrown wide open. Squeeze yourself down the rabbit hole of the jump for our preview and a video of the first 30 minutes of the Templar faction.
As has been revealed before, The Secret World puts you in the fashionable shoes of somebody who's become newly infused with Anima, the mysterious Earth magic that allows you to see and generally take part in our reality's secret world. For the Templar faction I was shown, the game begins with a montage of your character first freaking out and then learning to control their new powers, followed by a Templar representative dropping into the flat like an exceptionally presumptuous Jehovah's witness to provide an explanation.
From here, the footage moves on to the Templar home city of London, with the character exploring, chatting to NPCs and receiving quests. There's an enjoyable Hellblazer-like vibe to the city, with African mystics hanging out around fruit'n'veg stands, and hideouts decked out in fairy lights hidden along rickety walkways.
There's been so much secrecy (not to mention beautiful, hyper-real artwork) surrounding The Secret World that it's probably worth mentioning that it is, in fact, very recognisably an MMORPG both visually and in its structure. An MMORPG that's full of ideas and doing its own thing, but an MMORPG none the less, one with PvP, raid content and crafting. There are no classes, but you do go on missions for experience and loot. And while there are some exciting-sounding puzzles that I'll get to later, the mainstay of the game is monster-killing and dungeon-delving.
And the monster-killing does look very cool. The Secret World will feature hundreds of abilities that you spend your time collecting, "Like a trading card game" chimes Ragnar, and from these you equip your character with 7 active abilities and 7 passive abilities. So, before any mission you can spec yourself towards melee, ranged or magic, soloing or teamwork, supporting, damage dealing, tanking, healing or any mix of all of these.
Combat also centres around the idea of putting your enemies in various states, which Martin explained with animated hand movements.
"Let's say I throw a fireball at you. It does 100 damage, and puts you in the Burning state. But then if he [gesturing at Ragnar] comes along and shoots you with his AK, it does 50 damage- unless the target is in a Burning state. Because you're in the Burning state, you're also knocked down."
What this means is that you and your friend, or your entire guild (called Cabals in The Secret World) can spec yourselves to be completely in sync with one another, and choreograph intricate battle plans or little emergency procedures. It sounds great. Anybody who played Everquest 2 will be able to tell you how fun it is when your whole team is timing attacks together, and this sounds much richer.
In the demo, our newbie character was now in the Templar faction's first dungeon. With no quest text it was hard to tell precisely what was going on, but it was called Future Tokyo and took the form of a subway station full of horrible, fleshy monsters. Some sections of the station were literally full, with holes in the wall revealing mutant pockets of flesh that had grown to fill their surroundings.
At around this point Ragnar first mentioned the puzzle missions, leaving me a little stunned.
"We're actually putting teamplay into things other than combat. We have puzzle solving and investigation, and we're not afraid to challenge the player. Even going outside the game to do research to find the solution."
I responded by saying the thought of an MMO that makes you stop what you're doing and, well, think was a bit mind-blowing for me.
"Yeah! But that's exactly what we're doing. We're tired of games that just give you a marker on the map and tell you to run there, do something and run back. We want people to actually be challenged. Yes, we have missions that are just about going and killing demons in inventive ways. I mean, those missions are fun too, we have a great mechanic there, but the missions that intrigue me are the ones that encourage you to decipher ancient heiroglyphs or find the code to the door to solve an Illuminati mystery. We have a lot of these puzzles and riddles, and people can choose from different mission categories. So if you don't want to, you could progress without doing the puzzle missions. If you don't want to use your head, you can focus on the combat stuff."
It dawns on me now that for lots of players any research will probably begin and end at an online guide for the game, but if I'd raised the point I doubt they would have cared. Martin explains that this kind of unorthodox design is what The Secret World is about.
"We have to acknowledge that a lot of people play MMOs just to reach the endgame, but we want people to actually enjoy the ride. People have gotten so used to being on rails, and we're trying to remove those rails, shake the players, and wake them up a bit."
Lowering the tone a little bit, I ask whether they got any Norwegian folklore in the game.
"There are definitely elements of the vikings," says Ragnar. "We all know the vikings visited North America. They met the Native Americans and... shit happened. So that's definitely a Norwegian influence. But especially for me, I love Norwegian mythology, nature and history. Growing up in Norway you're surrounded by this vast, dark nature, and all of our fairy tales are very dark. They all end with kids being eaten by trolls. And the trolls aren't cute things with big noses, they're vast, natural things. I'm actually writing stories about this because I love it and I think it's influenced this game.
"A lot of people have talked about the Lovecraftian influence in this game. We have that too, but it goes further back than that. Lovecraft was influenced by European fairytales, and that's part of our universe too. It's light and serious, but there's a darkness at the centre of it."
Which leads me to the same question I asked the developers of the 40K MMO- with both games there's a visible shift away from the setting's artwork and towards a warmer, more friendly visual style. Ragnar remembers the initial teaser images they put out for The Secret World.
"Yeah. The poster with the big tentacley things. We've been asked to steer away from that, because then people get this feeling of being trapped inside this darkness all the time. I wouldn't want to be inside a dark, Lovecraftian universe for hundreds and hundreds of hours. You need some light there as well, and I feel we've found a good mix of a world that's magical and ethereal, and also dark and ominous and cool. And the deeper you dig, the darker it gets."
There's still plenty left for Funcom to reveal- my knowledge of The Secret World's loot and crafting is limited to the fact that you equip weapons, tattoos and jewellery, while clothes can be bought or received as quest rewards- but The Secret World's already looking very interesting.
Unlike Guild Wars 2, which is reinventing the MMORPG with the force of a plastic explosive, The Secret World feels like another City of Heroes- a gentle revolution in every respect. I'll be keeping my eye on this one.
Ooh, I've been talking for a while. I bet all you really wanted was the video, you swine. Well, here it is. Enjoy!