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The Secret World's Atlantic Park tries to solve what ails MMOs

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Amusement park rides come to life in this Secret World expansion

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secret world

The Secret World's latest zone Atlantic Park detailed

The story goes like this: It's the early 1970s when honcho industrialist Nathanial Winter starts building an amusement park on the outskirts of Solomon Isle, a sort of tourist oasis that harkens back to American summer resorts of yore. Close your eyes - not if you're driving! - and think of rustic, open farmland, or an emptied Woodstock now prime for real estate moguls to take over and start construction. The locals aren't having any of it.

"Also, in the story a lot of people die!" says community manager Oliver Kunz. He's walking us through a short demo of Atlantic Park, the latest zone introduced by Funcom for their Massively Multiplayer Online title The Secret World, due out June 19.

The place is built on the ground of the old Henderson farm, which legend has is tainted with cursed blood and needs to be left undisturbed.

Distinctly anti-World of Warcraft methodology

So begins the Stephen King style subplot of death and haunted Yank retreats that drive the Atlantic Park setting. The place gets built - of course it gets built - and people begin to die. The rides are strangely unsafe, the park gets shut down, and then Winter inexplicably disappears. This is what we're told in a cut scene.

"Don't worry, you can skip it if you want," Kunz tells me.

He's telling me this, aware that a minute and a half of unadulterated dialogue probably isn't ideal in the middle of a busy EA games showcase. But at the same time it's testament to what a strangely in depth premise the game is dealing with, especially in an arena of Massively Multiplayer Online games that tend to leave narrative well alone.

So far in development Funcom's taken a distinctly anti-World of Warcraft methodology when dealing with this game. It's heavy on plot in a way that should get the BioWare guys on Star Wars: The Old Republic to tip their hats respectfully. It doesn't have a traditional levelling system, opting instead for a system that lets you spend points to learn any of its 588 available abilities. And it's set in a modern, present-day world - a setting that everything from All Points Bulletin to Flagship Studios dud Hellgate London failed to hone.

No leveling system

An odd move when as a rule of thumb fantasy settings prove to be more marketable to the Massively fanbase than anything based in reality.

"But Atlantic Park sort of demonstrates how the game really combines reality with fantasy," Kunz explains.

"There are things going on behind the scenes. In the game, while you'll travel through New York, London, Seoul, Egypt, and so on, you are also part of a secret battle against every monster and myth. All myths are true in this game."

So Atlantic Park is now abandoned and populated by whatever bad mojo was left there during the tide of deaths in the '70s. The rides are permanently vexed and spawn waves of zombies, while directly above them is evidence of what Kunz says is "the world behind the veil". It's a shifting spiral of purple that is meant to suggest there's more to the area than rusted-out carnival attractions.

And as we head closer to an eight-armed carousel, the Octotron it's called, Kunz warns "it's basically alive."

How do you entertain a player for hundreds of hours?

In fact Funcom's current method for designing quests in Atlantic Park takes more influence from what would be expected from a standard raid than standard quest. We move from one major amusement ride to the next, each of them providing the function of a mini-boss. The Octotron raises its eight hydraulic arms, lifting up each of its cars then smashing them to the ground to attack. In between its attacks are waves of zombies that the clever user can coax nearer to The Octotron as a way of using the park's machinery to their advantage.

The pacing of the game is something to note too. Player characters can actually take a break from combat at one point and ride the zone's rollercoaster, which takes them from one side of the park to another for a view of a few scattered ghouls and a look at the Veil from above. It demonstrates one of the ways the studio is trying new solutions to old design problems of the genre. How do you entertain a player for hundreds of hours?

"It used to be you could fill a game with hundreds of 'Kill 10 X' missions. I think these days you have to think beyond that. There are other kinds of content you can use to replace that. Massively Multiplayer Online game content can be innovative and interesting. They don't even have to be about combat," says Kunz.

A story driven Massively multiplayer game

Instead of being drawn to the game by the constant siren-call of a leveling system and the sight of a horizontal bar filling with XP, the user is encouraged to keep playing in order to solve the mystery of the zone. The questions posed by Atlantic Park (What ever happened to Nathanial Winter? What's the deal with the angry rides?) are part of Funcom's alternative solution. If there are secrets then you are expected to uncover them.

Fitting then, in a secret world.