If there was ever a case of releasing an undercooked title to a hugely demanding, motivated and canonically literate audience, look no further than Age of Conan.

Once briefly touted as a World of Warcraft competitor, Funcom's sword-and-sorcery MMO burst on to the scene back in 2008, promising much more than the buggy, underdeveloped experience that actually eventuated.

Despite a herculean effort to tidy up code and actually offer the kind of experience fans were clamouring for, the damage had been done. This wouldn't have come as any surprise to the Norwegian developer; Anarchy Online, its other major online title suffered from similar teething problems way back in 2001.

Major issues that surface in the critical launch window can make the difference between a healthy, active and ongoing subscriber base, and a terrible mess that nobody plays.

The Secret World, Funcom's latest attempt to use their proprietary DreamWorld engine to craft a convincing online experience, may feature the smoothest launch yet. At least, that's according to director of communications Erling Ellingsen:

"This is our third MMO, and we've been perfecting the DreamWorld technology for over ten years now.

"It's an incredibly robust engine. I'd say it's the most solid MMO engine in the business."

These are strong words from a company with a lot on the line, however the contemporary setting and deep conspiratorial tone of The Secret War – coupled with a relatively unusual lack of classes and levels – is likely to find favour with many gamers jaded by the now-commonplace fantasy MMO genre.

The premise is about as far-flung as possible. As it happens, all the myths of old are actually correct; Warewolves, Vampires, secret societies and all manner of paranormal ghouls are not only real, but they're out to take over the world. Players must join one of three groups, Illuminati, Templar or Dragon, and despite the ability to fight in PvP inter-societal battles the real threat comes from the multitude of beasts inhabiting the extensive world.

Code on hand at EA's London Showcase recently afforded members of the media the opportunity to participate in a brief mission set amid an abandoned and extensively haunted fairground. There's an air of familiarity about this place, but fortunately players aren't merely left for dead; instead they're partied in a group of four specifically to showcase their vastly different skills.

Upon arrival outside the dilapidated gate, the team is provided with the mission parameters in the form of a cinematic cutscene; a nice touch, and one that hints at the deep importance placed on story narration. Indeed, Funcom has declared them so important as to create a distinct cutscene for each mission in the game, which may go some way to explaining the protracted development period.

By entering the fairground, the explorers are immediately attacked by a swarm of zombie-like creatures, and it's here that the first combat mechanics come into play. These aren't really too far removed from the tried and tested MMO staples; each attack has a cooldown, and multiple physical or elemental attacks can be chained to enable larger attacks. The attack animations are suitably detailed – enabling a deadly barrage by leaping in the air, flinging knives upward and watching them rain blade-down on the enemy is particularly satisfying. Other players brandish guns with suspiciously long cool-downs between shots. The fallen zombies did yield loot, although the acquisition and examination of this was disabled.

By moving between the fairground attractions, additional waves of creatures are dispatched, requiring different takedown methods. Further examining the skills available to the character, Ellingsen points out that various skills can be grouped together in a "deck". Quickly pointing out that this deck does in no way enable a class structure for the characters, Ellingsen insists that this is merely a convenient way of swapping between oft-used abilities. The Secret World's complete lack of class and level structure is a huge selling point, and the requirement to survive by utilising the 500-odd skills is an attribute Funcom is promoting heavily.

Tied in with the tight close-quarters combat, environmental objects can be utilised to aid progression. In one memorable scene, a spinning ride could be appropriated as a mincing machine provided creatures could be fooled into straying too close to the rapidly rotating arms. Other party members are at risk too, so communication and a keen eye for danger play a crucial role in staying alive in this violent world.

Having largely cleared the level, an inevitable boss fight ensues. A massive ogre-like creature is lured across a large bridge, and after selecting a new deck, the team have at him. It's an opportunity to see various skills in action, and despite a great deal of frantic clicking the combat remains fluid and uncluttered. The boss defeated, our team is able to use personal communicators to phone home and receive their loot and experience – no backtracking to the mission provider is necessary here.

Rounding out the session by stepping through the skill wheel reveals a tremendous level of detail. Almost all the abilities are tailored towards particular types of encounters, and loosely grouped into the requisite tanking, area-of-effect and healing categories familiar to any MMO player. Yet here, there's no need to burn currency or experience to swap between skills – merely selecting different decks instantly equips entire groups, even including hotkeys. It's a freedom rarely encountered in gaming, and it's likely to prove popular with players who want to spend more time fighting, and less time buried in a wiki page trying to figure it all out.

Speaking of which, the in-game browser is a definite plus too, although Ellingsen pointed out that this is intended to be used to investigate cryptic markings and obscure puzzles around the game world rather than as a portal to third-party fan sites.

The Secret World enters open beta on May 11, at which point Funcom will be provided with a suitable stress test to ensure their network can withstand the demands of its rapidly growing userbase. Fuelled by the ongoing Secret War web-based application, these early participants will tolerate little instability, and many more will likely adopt a "wait and see" attitude given Funcom's less-than-stellar previous performances.

But if it all works as intended, The Secret War will provide many with a well structured, compelling, contemporary MMO experience, and there's certainly always room in this marketplace for that.