There's a point in The Secret World's main quest line where, in order to access a sort of peyote-fuelled time-dream, you and your buddies must all climb into a single sleeping bag while an old man stands nearby doing a suspicious bit of time-magic. Once you've all clicked your way into the sack-portal, this crossroads of MMO mysticism and Carry On campness propels your party into one of the game's more fantastic dungeons: The Darkness War, a vicious and blood-spattered clash of ancient Vikings and Mayans that, visually at least, harkens back to Funcom's work on the less contemporary looking Age of Conan.
If you haven't encountered The Secret World yet, its setting is a twisted version of our own reality, one in which the mundane intertwines with all manner of arcane conspiracy and supernatural oddness: Templar orders, Illuminati organisations, dark magic and living mythology. It's a clash of fantasy and the everyday, magic in suits, assault rifles and steel longswords, Gap hoodies and mana reserves. For our sortie into the troubled Mayan nightmare I'd been loaned a pre-levelled and proudly hand-crafted character as mismatched as the world itself: the pinstripe-wearing Draven, who came armed with a laser-scoped rifle and some occasionally magic hands.
It took some time to familiarise myself with my character’s selection of seven hotbar mounted skills – being handed a pre-prepared character in an unfamiliar MMO is disconcerting at first, like stepping into somebody else’s shoes, or being handed the controls of a hovercraft halfway through a big hovercraft show. My primary attack, Safety Off, is straightforward enough, firing off a few standard rounds to cause ranged damage while charging up a resource stat. This resource pool is then used to activate other, more powerful skills. Red Mist, for example, is a resource consuming ranged attack that employs a funky laser-sight effect, does huge amounts of damage and cannot be evaded. It comes with a 30 second cooldown, which makes it seem even more severe.
Draven's also able to fling himself backwards out of a scrap, stunning nearby enemies with his balletic departure and leaving a grenade where he once stood. That's the sort of loud action pacing that runs throughout The Secret World - it's all frantic sprinting and last-second dodges. The string of mini-bosses and mega-bosses that make up the Norse-on-Mayan dungeon my four teammates and I ran through illustrated this combination of triggered-skills and deft character control.
The Darkness War dungeon is a series of open boss arenas connected by mob-ridden corridors, with each choke point presenting a different flavour of tailored challenge. There are, for example, Mayans who are charged and primed to detonate like demented pre-Columbian time-bombs, and so must be avoided. We encountered dark dogbeasts drawn through corrupted portals who spat poisonous tar out in huge (and, again, avoidable) cone shaped spurts. These mucky pups littered their arenas with this goop, damaging any players standing in the stuff.
The Dark House Sorcerer was an even tricksier boss encounter, with spells that would cause whole sections of the floor to erupt into flames. These area of effect attacks are telegraphed enough to allow you to quickly move to safety, turning some of the game's longer fights into Dance Dance Revolution styled exercises in hot-floor avoidance. In fact, The Secret World's toxic floors will kill you more often than its long-dead Mayan witch-doctors will, unless you can quickly get comfortable with juggling your skills as you simultaneously manoeuvre your character's legs. Keeping clear of danger zones can be an uneasy multi-task, and one that the game's typical MMO controls often leave you poorly equipped to deal with.
When the mechanic of actively positioning yourself around the boss works as intended, it creates welcome disparity between ranged and melee builds. The dungeon's final boss is a 30 foot tall bat-lizard monstrosity, not quite a dragon (and a bit frog-like, actually), but easily the largest and most fearsome enemy encountered in the beta so far. The melee-focused group members went about pummelling the boss's scaly flanks with hammers and claws, until such point as he began scorching great swathes of the ceremonial arena. These unrelenting patches of flames effectively created a maze of health-sapping, corrupted ground, around which our team scurried, the ranged characters scouting spots from which to unleash volleys of gunfire. There’s more combat variety tied up in The Darkness War dungeon than you’d see in the entirety of some MMOs.
Before long a Viking showed up with Excalibur, giving us all a lovely buff and helping us murder the horror-lizard, who (in case you were wondering) had been summoned by the Mayans in our collective dream, which (in case you were wondering) had been evoked by the memories of the land in the present, modern day. Where we were all still sleeping. In a single sleeping bag. Next to an old man who, we would love to presume, had not inappropriately touched us while we were fighting disco sorcerers in our minds.
The Secret World's strength undoubtedly lies within this off-kilter, densely woven and artfully realised setting, in which the potential for beautiful, hypnotic weirdness, both in visuals and narrative, is rife. It's very different, and triumphs for that alone. If climbing into a sleeping bag with a suit-wearing magician is the sort of hypnotic weirdness that floats your Norse longboat, there’s a beta weekend coming up ahead of the game's release on July 3rd. Otherwise, there are a range of specialist camping tours who would gladly accomodate your needs.