The Secret World is a new MMO from Age of Conan developers Funcom. But you won't find any orcs, castles, or dancing elves here - it's set in the present day, and sees you battling zombies and other supernatural horrors with an array of modern weapons. But is this enough to separate it from the likes of World of Warcraft and The Old Republic?
Our hands-on demo sees us exploring a haunted carnival with two other players: a fellow journalist and a developer acting as our guide and healer. The setting is reminiscent of TV shows like Buffy and Supernatural, mixing fantasy with a contemporary, real-world setting.
According to the game's mythology, the legends we write off as mere fiction - demons, zombies, vampires - are all real, and a global war is raging between secret societies including the Templars and the Illuminati. Your character will swear allegiance to one of these factions, and PVP will see you fighting for control of a persistent, Risk-style world map.
But back to the carnival. We approach a shady character stood by the gates who tells us via a voice-acted cut-scene that the place has been possessed by mischievous spirits. Funcom say the story in The Secret World is rich enough that it can be enjoyed as a single-player game. Our mission is to make our way through the carnival, drive away the spirits, and cut through hordes of the undead, who are running wild through the park.
If you've ever played an MMO before, the game will be instantly familiar. The setting is unique, but the game itself embraces most of the genre standards, including a number key-controlled quickslot bar at the bottom of the screen, and a quest log at the top right.
They have, however, ditched levels and classes. Your character develops via a large skill tree, and you dictate their speciality manually. So you can still create healers, tanks, and so on, but in a much more organic way. You aren't driven down a single path like in most modern online RPGs.
As we make our way through the carnival, we're rushed by zombies. Our character is equipped with a shotgun, which is a basic attack with an instant cooldown, and a rifle that unleashes a barrage of bullets, but takes a minute or so to recharge. So even though you're using guns, it's no shooter. It's a classic MMO combat system in every sense.
Between groups of zombies, we visit rides in the carnival that are being controlled by malevolent spirits. Each ride presents a different set-piece, from fighting a huge, lumbering mini-boss, to using the spinning seats of a swing carousel to smash through groups of enemies. It's a mission structure typical of an MMO, with multiple tiers to complete, and then a big XP dump at the end.
It's the setting that will dictate whether The Secret World is for you. The 'tween' horror style won't be to everyone's tastes, and it's far from a giant leap for MMOs. Funcom have created a solid, polished, deep online role-player that doesn't stray from the conventions of the genre - it just seems to lack a compelling selling point for anyone who already dedicates their time to existing MMOs.