"You haven't strayed into some atrocious Dan Brown paperback," comments the recruiter for the Templars, one of the three secret societies you can join in The Secret World, Funcom's modern-day MMO. Well no, that much is clear - from that self-same gag, if nothing else. Dan Brown was never especially self-aware or prone to post-modern irony.
That said, Brown's airport-novel take on the bookish conspiracies of Umberto Eco is an identifiable part of The Secret World's make-up. It's just one of the many dirty mugs in its overflowing kitchen sink of influences from pop culture and post-Crowley occultism: The X-Files, Cryptonomicon, Hellblazer... Maybe you haven't strayed into The Da Vinci Code, but you have strayed into a playable version of every Neil Gaiman graphic novel you've ever read.
That's The Secret World's secret weapon in the not-so-secret war for the future of MMOs. It's a good hook - and creative director Ragnar Tornquist and his teams in Oslo and Montreal know it, making enthusiastic if not constant use of it to keep the genre tropes feeling a good deal fresher than they do in rival games. It's not this game's only new idea, but it is its best one. Personality goes a long way, and The Secret World has it in spades.
It takes a decent amount of time and a broad spread of play styles to soak in the feel of an MMO, so the opportunity to spend the best part of a day playing it at Funcom's swish Montreal studio is not to be missed. We get to try the first few hours of the game, sampling a showy tutorial, the hub city of London, induction into the Templars, everyday questing in the New England town of Kingsmouth, a 'dungeon' and a spot of player-versus-player.
Character creation isn't available in this internal beta yet, so we pick from Funcom's pre-made offerings. As a sample of the contemporary stylings on offer, they're almost parodic: hipster chicks in camo, trenchcoated albino mystery men and what appears to be an H&M advert version of Doctor Who. Still, makes a nice change from spiky shoulder pads and chainmail by Victoria's Secret.
A cut-scene then shows your character experiencing the awakening of magical powers in a dingy bedsit while radio news reports talk of a mysterious happening in Japan, a supposed terrorist attack on the headquarters of a dominant mega-corp called the Orochi Group. A mysterious lady turns up to recruit us for some kind of cause; it turns out she's a Templar, a business-card-touting take on a medieval holy warrior. Unfortunately, we can't try joining the Triad-like Dragon or the Illuminati today - the latter seem very enticing in The Secret World, a cadre of hedonistic technocrats summed up by the phrase, 'Sex, Drugs and Rockefeller'.
Cut to London, where we've been invited to present ourselves, and after a quick foreshadowing chat with a weary lady copper who's more Prime Suspect than EverQuest, we're following a series of waypoints to a mysterious gathering. But it's impossible not to wander off the beaten track in this fabulously atmospheric digital city, which will be the main social and trading hub of the finished game as well as the location of Templar HQ.
Immense care has clearly been taken with this condensed London, which pulls off the neat trick of being recognisable as both the real present-day capital and the fantastical Victorian tangle of Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter. Many of the shops are just facades, but it's still fun to read their signs and newspaper billboards ("LIZARD MAN SEEN IN WINDSOR"), or to explore the cobbled nooks and abandoned Tube stations containing fruit & veg stalls or portals to other dimensions.
Then, after listening to a surreal rant by a homeless prophet ("Have you ever noticed how the apocalypse always comes on a wet day?") we fall into a trance and enter a playable flashback to the incident in Tokyo. It's a dramatic trip through a ruined subway station, battling mutant creatures infested with "filth", and ending in a cosmic hallucination. It's also a tutorial of sorts, throwing you in at the deep end with The Secret World's combat, which is only half-familiar.
Divided into three schools - melee, guns and magic - combat employs a number of rather obscure-sounding systems such as 'focus' and 'weapon resource' that confuse at first, but mostly boil down to building points with some of your skills and spending them with others. Movement is apparently encouraged, although it was hard to tell whether dodging and positioning was having much effect, and the MMO basics of hard-targeting an enemy then clicking on skills remain.
The skills are thoughtfully designed and fun to use, with potent effects, although the guns - despite being a standout attraction in this MMO - feel a little weedy and lack the feedback of spells and melee combat. Combat is a little scrappy, and far from a masterclass in overhauling MMO mechanics, but nor is it the thoughtless grind you see in some other games.
The real fun is in selecting your 'deck' of skills. You have slots for seven active skills and seven passives, filled from an expanding range as you spend the skill points awarded instead of experience - there's no explicit levelling in the game - on new toys. Skills are bought from a radial wheel (a showpiece of The Secret World's exceptionally slick and pretty UI). This isn't much more than a fancy way of presenting an open series of parallel skill trees; although The Secret World claims to have no classes, you will find archetypical skills for tanking, healing, crowd control and so on within.
However, you are genuinely free to develop your own hybrid or switch between multiple builds with different utilities, and this is clearly where the long-term satisfaction of character development resides. Meanwhile, the limited number of skill slots ensures that combat should stay focused and manageable despite the ballooning possibilities.
Back to the action, and (via Agartha, which is a handy transport system disguised as a tantric dream) we're in the sleepy, autumnal New England fishing town of Kingsmouth, now overrun with zombies, robotic golems and other horrors. We're handed missions by an appealing cast of characters: a cowboy ranger camped in the woods, a conspiracy theorist priest, a fortune teller, a harassed Sherriff operating her station like a bunker.
Although The Secret World does a fair amount of its communication in text, major missions are introduced in voiced cut-scenes; quotable dialogue, charismatic voice actors and good direction ensure these add colour and atmosphere without descending into the endless reams of talking-head exposition found in Star Wars: The Old Republic. (This is one respect in which players should be glad that Funcom doesn't have BioWare's budget; it forces the developer to edit.)
Missions come in a number of different flavours and, at least at this early stage, offer welcome variety. Even combat missions tend to have more imaginative objectives than scalping 15 boars, although you will nautrally have to wade through monsters to get to them.
Our group became obsessed with Kingsmouth's investigation mission, a combination of scavenger hunt and cryptic crossword that will send you out of the game to Google to decode some of its clues. It's a nice change of pace and a tip of the hat to Tornquist's past as an adventure game designer, although there are more red herrings than Funcom probably intended.
Sabotage missions, meanwhile, shift the focus onto navigating mazes while avoiding hazards and traps in an action-adventure style. An early example feels rudimentary and ill at ease with the MMO control scheme, but if these can be polished up they'll provide another entertaining distraction to The Secret World's broad repertoire.
Group instances - or The Secret World's dungeons - see Funcom falling back on more familiar territory. The Polaris might be named after a wrecked ship, and its monster-infested corridors made by cargo containers under moonlight, but squint and you might as well be playing Age of Conan, with the supposedly free-form classes suddenly resolving into tanking, healing and damage roles.
That's fine; dungeoneering is an MMO staple that needs to be done right, and The Polaris has the poise of many years' experience in its balancing and eventful, rhythmic delivery of trash mobs and bosses of escalating difficulty and complexity. The final boss is a long slog enlivened by memorable phases when this giant Lovecraftian monster sends players into a dream world, where they have to hide from his line of sight and deal with scouts before their position is betrayed.
PVP is something of a mess, however. We try El Dorado, a battle between three teams of 10 to pick up and defend three artefacts; it's essentially a Capture the Flag variant where you get to choose where to plant the flag. The big, rambling map and impossibility of reading player silhouettes - you can't tell which team someone's on without targeting them, let alone gauge their combat abilities - make for a rather aimless and long-winded game. On this basis, it's hard to be hopeful for the intimidatingly large and complex persistent Warzone map.
It's also difficult not to worry about Funcom's ability to deliver enough polish and enough content to keep players paying a subscription for The Secret World after it launches in April. But for a day, at least, the game is fun, surprising, varied and possessed of more than enough ramshackle charm and contemporary vigour to hold your interest. Only a glimpse of a later adventuring zone in Egypt suggests it might slip into a more orthodox fantasy setting if the developers aren't careful.
Even if The Secret World approaches the climax of its long development slightly more conventional than it first sounded, it's managed to retain its most important asset: its identity. That's more than many of its contemporaries can claim, and more than enough to set it apart - for now.