It's the morning after the GDC earthquake (only 4 or 5 on the Richter scale, but enough to make your correspondent feel like he was about to be thrown out of the bedroom window) and the Funcom crew are having trouble getting their demo kit working. A major power surge ten minutes before we arrived fried half their room, and Ragnar (Torquist, Creative Director) and Joel (Bylos, Lead Content Designer) perform a double-act as cables fly in a back-room. It seems unknown chaotic forces are attempting to prevent them showing us the Dragon introduction to the Secret World, complete with character creation, soul, achievements, lore, and crafting. We suggest they act out the introduction instead. They look at each other, before Joel glances away, muttering; “you really don't want us to do that.”
The following day, we come back, to find out why. The set-up seems to be working now and the interfering forces (possibly the gods of Chaos, possibly the Lego Batman 2 demo team in the hotel room below) seem to have been temporarily thwarted. The Dragon demo starts running.
We've picked a female character – and this is the first time we've seen the character creator, which produces mostly normal-looking characters; a small amount of customisation results in a reasonable amount of variation. “I tend to like the boyish looks, so let's go with tha...” says Torquist, catching himself “...that just came out wrong.” I start to wonder if this is the homo-erotic presentation ever. The characters start with simple clothing, but they can unlock more, either through achievements, as they level up, or by buying it from the London clothing store with in-game currency – Torquist vetoes our character's hotpants “they're not protective on the battlefield” and, finally, we choose a name – first-name, surname and nickname (the latter being what you're referred to in-game.)
The main part of the demo begins with the new Secret World character waking up, disoriented having been kidnapped from her home and thrown into a strange suburb of Seoul. Seoul is the Dragon's hub area – and each hub has auction houses, banks, PvP areas called “fight clubs”, dance floors (hopefully as good as that in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and not just a /dance), theatres – and of course, a faction headquarters.
The entrance she's come in by has closed behind her, the streets ahead are unfamiliar and non-distinct, save for the strange little figure in a red coat running away – inspired, as Ragnar has admitted, by the classic movie Don't Look Now. The Dragon's philosophy is 'The Art of Chaos'; the Dragon is intended to confuse; and the small girl is making deeply disturbing, confusing sounds as you wander after her through the streets, up past PC Bangs, Karaoke bars, and boutique hotels – later on you get missions from one of the Karaoke singers in a local bar, who sings in broken Korean and English.
We follow the red-coated child into a boutique hotel, called the Kumiho hotel, named after the nine-tailed fox of Korean legend, which can change into any form, often into a beautiful girl who seduces men – and then eats their liver. Inside, there's no liver paté but there is a heavily tattooed man wearing little more than a nappy – the girl has vanished.
The scene has become totally silent. The man steps aside, and music starts up. A beautiful lady in a red dress grabs our character, leads her to the bed and, whilst seducing her, starts explaining the Dragon's philosophy to our hero. Before, ahem, 'going down' on her. Which triggers a flashback to the same Tokyo introduction sequence that the other factions experience. Now we understand why Joel was so shy about acting this out...
The next section we're shown is to demonstrate the achievement, hacking and lore systems, and the main opposition mechanic permeating the world, The Filth (Grant Morrison fans ahoy), a black tentacular ichor that infects everything it touches. It's an area called Blue Mountain, an abandoned CDC camp, where the majority of the scientists testing The Filth have been killed and corrupted by it; the sole survivor warns you off approaching the area. To actually get closer, you'll need to hack the CDC computers using Ghost, the Linux hacking interface given to players at the beginning of the game, which integrates with the in-game browser.
Approaching the Filth, you realise quite how insidious its mechanic is; being struck by it is some sort of debuff that stacks more powerfully as the game goes on. Our first exposure to it, gives us an achievement - “Got Filth” - so Bylos takes us into the achievements menu to explore it. It's nicely varied, with the achievements for all sorts of behaviours, such as PvP or crafting or even just paying attention to the story, each giving items, XP, money.
Going back out we kill a few filth monsters, including a corrupted CDC member, and recover a filth pustule that gives us a little more information about the game; however, all of the Secret World's lore is a narrative, building up a short story from each lore entry, so that the story won't make complete sense without finding them all. They're being told to you by a mysterious narrator in the world – which is one of the big things for players to discover in the game.
Then, we move on to Transvlvanvia, the high-end area of the game. We start in a soviet-era abandoned town, straight out of STALKER, under siege from The Vampire Crusade; around it, are endless magical forests stretching up into the Carpathians. The enemies are here are standard vampires (wearing lots of clothes, to keep the sunlight off), blood vampires, and mutated soviet experiments, half-vampire and half-man, generated by old Joe Stalin's experiments under an organisation called the Red Hand.
Here, after killing many vampires, we're taught about the crafting system in-game, which owes a lot to Minecraft. Many objects you collect can be disassembled into their components; if you dissemble a hammer, you'll be left with a hammer-shaped array of materials on the crafting table. To make a better hammer, you'll need better materials (which you can do by refining lower-quality materials), along with a weapon assembly kit, to make the right item. Then you can add in discovered buffs, which you arrange into a prefix and use a prefix assembly kit to bind them. Finally, combining the two allows you to make your magic, custom, hammer. It's simple Minecraft design but it looks really fun to try.
Our last demo in the secret world is back in New England; it's to defeat a Mayan insurgency many hundreds of years before the present day. This is a five-man dungeon which Old Joseph, one of the local native Americans, the Wabanaki, puts you into a trance to reach, and narrates the story to you as you live it. The Mayans invaded New England looking for something, the Serpent, buried deep in the mountain. To defeat them, the Wabanaki teamed up with Viking invaders (who obviously found the new world before Columbus), lead by their leader the Varangian, who carried a sword that looks very much like Excalibur. After a lengthy battle to the heart of the mountain and the defeat of the Mayan invaders, you have to fight some Cthulhian beast, Wayad-Zuul, the Hound of the Nameless Days, rising out of a rift into deep space that's been opened beneath the world. He's too strong for you, and all seems lost – until the Varangian arrives...