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The Secret World: The MMO BioWare couldn't make?

Hands-on with EA and Funcom's promising online contender

It's funny; Bioware spent a banker's bonus trying to make Star Wars: The Old Republic the best story ever told in an MMO; rich and complex, personal but shared.

They partially succeeded, they made something a committee makes, like Friends, polished and full... but ultimately soulless and derivative; a good boy, safe and cautious. And over in dark Oslo, Funcom is quietly crafting what all that money and morality couldn't achieve; the Secret World.

The Secret World is Funcom's attempt to unify various modern mythologies into a totally-accessible action-heavy but smart MMO. The writing team (headed by Ragnar Torquist, writer of The Longest Journey) has dug deeply into the portentous 19th century fiction of Poe, Verne and Lovecraft; has mined the Dan Browns and Umberto Ecos of the world; has followed Deus Ex and Hellboy in unearthing the games' factions, the Illuminati, The Templars and The Dragon.

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It's the world beneath ours, metaphorically in the sense that it's all around us, hidden by conspiratorial news stories; literally, in the case of Agartha, the hollow space inside the Earth that's accessible from anywhere in the world, but is closely guarded.

Each character's plot starts three weeks before the game begins, in a montage triggered by a glowing bee he or she swallows in their sleep, while the radio plays news of a disaster in Tokyo. Gradually, like a classic Rocky montage, they gain power before being visited by their chosen faction's recruiter, who sends them off to the faction's headquarters.

The character creator isn't in place yet, but all the character designs we saw were very normal human types, if awfully fashionable. Much of the game's feel is like Angel or Buffy without the high school and cheerleaders - as far as we've seen.

Key to the game is that, like Planetside or Guild Wars, players have no classes. Instead, the experience system is used solely to buy abilities, from a huge selection (588 at the last reckoning). As you explore the world, fight and finish quests, you gain experience that can be used in literally any direction; the early levels of every archetype are very, very cheap, but as you get further into any specialisation it becomes more and more expensive.

Right from the start, therefore, players can play together and specialise apart. The levelling structure is divided into melee, ranged and magic, each with further sub-divisions (so melee fighters, can specialise in hammers, swords, and knives, and then further specialise in these.)

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There's nothing to stop players taking all of these, given that your current build can be saved and loaded at any time and, of course, this ability to play together means that you'll never feel left behind when playing the secret world; there's always someone to group with and parties can re-specialise on the fly depending on the skills everyone has available.

The settings are beautifully sculpted too, with the Templar's London headquarters and the Iluminati's New York-based labyrinth feeling somehow more true than the actual places. The wide open desert area we played, the Scorched Desert area of Egypt, is more believable than the real world, combining open desert, magnificent tombs, a sprawling tourist hotel, and a small hill village, with its map represented playfully as a tourist guide.

Similarly, Kingsmouth, the Lovecraft analogue, is a small US coastal town covered in a mysterious John Carpenter-style Fog that's zombifying its population.

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