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Orcs and elves aren't invited to The Secret World

Right, science time. Imagine the characters of Left 4 Dead within an MMO: normal, heavily-armed people in extraordinary circumstances, surrounded by NPCs with intelligently scripted and well-acted voices and whose pretty ladies don’t have up-front areas that come with a jiggle function.

Your next step is to remove the sprint abilities of the zombies and tie them into the Norse myth of undead mariners that was covered in Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who adventure The Curse of Fenric. Next: mix in two tablespoonfuls of Alan Wake, alongside a pinch of John Carpenter’s The Fog. What you’ve just laboriously produced in your mind’s eye is (with some help from H.P. Lovecraft) Kingsmouth: one of the early locations in The Secret World – a game that’s fast becoming one of the more fascinating prospects around in modern MMOs.

The deal is that you play a real person, not some mana-slugging member of the faerie-folk, who’s been inducted into one of the world’s secret societies (Illuminati, Knights Templars or Dragon). Then from a base in New York, London or Seoul (and with growing specialisations in skills like gunplay, martial arts and magical voodoo leanings) you’ll set out to uncover the truth behind the various myths inflicting damage on pretty much every continent available. Invariably, said myths will involve monsters of some description.

The coastal town of Kingsmouth is beset by the living dead. And although the residents refuse to use the z-word, it’s a phrase that Funcom aren’t afraid of when showing off their frankly remarkable menagerie of beasts. Every night, accompanied by a spooky fog emanating from something Nordic and evil lurking out to sea, the townspeople come under attack. Said locals are quest givers, and each of them is written and acted impeccably – from the passionate government agent constrained by her by-the-book superior (think Scully if she’d ever listened to Mulder) all the way through to old ladies, worried gas station attendants, and a grizzled and weary hunter obsessed with putting bullets in zombie heads.

In fact, with the evidence at hand it’s fair to say The Secret World’s characters will dole out their quests (presumably, “Go and kill 10 topless ladies with tentacles coming out of their stomachs”) with a drama and gravitas that goes over and above those we’ve encountered so far in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The subtle touch of Ragnar Tornquist, writer of The Longest Journey, can be felt throughout the impeccable voice-acting, although whether sustained exposure will get tiring, or indeed whether players will want to sit around listening to drama unfolding when they could be out harvesting zombie tentacles is a matter that’s yet to be resolved.

As for combat, the Funcom plan is to make it more reactive than your usual pattern of cooldowns and damage dealers. You’ll take 14 skills into the fray, seven active and seven passive, but you’ll also be aiming and strafing around the place in a far more organic way than you’ll be used to. Sure, Funcom have promised great shakes with combat that came to little in Age of Conan, but watching four people take on Kingsmouth’s ghoulies, combining their various talents as a group, suggests a fighting style that avoids the rinse-and-repeat number-tapping that’s prevalent in MMOs.