When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King,
Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.
You rouse them for your son who came from your body.
The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,
The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns,
Akhenatrn, great in his lifetime;
And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,
Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever.
- The Great Hymn to the Aten, translated by Miriam Lichtheim
When I first ventured into the Scorched Desert, the first Egyptian zone in The Secret World, I admit to being a little worried that it wasn't going to live up to what had gone before. There were two reasons for this. First of all, one of the reasons I so loved Solomon Island was because of my enjoyment of all things Lovecraftian - the fog, characters, story and atmosphere of Solomon Island matched my tastes perfectly, and the myriad Lovecraft references were fun to spot. Secondly, towards the end of The Blue Mountain, the final Solomon Island zone, I felt that the quests had got a little grindy and showed less of the inventiveness and imagination of earlier quests.
I really needn't have worried. If anything I found The Scorched Desert to be even more fun.
The bright sands of the desert make a nice change from the foggy autumnul streets of Kingsmouth, and there are some great vistas to be found. The town of al-Merayah sits atop an escarpment overlooking the sands, and the tourist traps of the Temple of the Sun God and the Hotel Wahid International.
There are three things that made my time in The Scorched Desert so memorable however. The storyline is interesting (a strange cult seem to be trying to awaken Atenahken so that he can release The Aten), with the townspeople fighting a guerrilla war against the Atenists. There are plenty of interesting and shady characters, and the quests remain some of the most inventive and fun I've played in an MMO, even many of the standard action quests or side quests.
One reason I found the storyline so interesting is that I have just started running the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for my Call of Cthulhu group. A large part of that campaign involves the Black Pharaoh, who is also referenced extensively in TSW. In fact, as I've been researching the character for my CoC campaign, I found it interesting to learn that that Akhenaten was a real historical Pharaoh who defied the pantheon of Egyptian gods.
I also can't be the only one who has noticed the similarities between Nyarlathotep and the Filth. Lovecraft's influence has spread from Solomon Island to the Egyptian desert as well.
There are plenty of interesting and fun characters in the zone. Characterisation and dialogue remains one of The Secret World's strengths. Some characters such as the freedom fighter Nassir had me in gales of laughter at his dancing and references to 1980s action movies. Saiid, a 4000 year old mummy in a dirty Armani suit and a plummy English accent, managed to be both funny, interesting and creepy as hell. I found the whole idea of The Kingdom (Saiid's society of dead ancients) to be interesting and wanted to find out more. The lore samples in the game are really worth spending some time reading.
Many characters in the game have left me with more questions. Who or what was the Sixty-Four? What is the mysterious Berihun up to, and who does he work for if not the Phoenicians?
One thing which has struck me before, but was reinforced by the characters in The Scorched Desert, was how well the game handles themes of religion. Many religions are represented in the game, with some religious figures actually apparently appearing (I'm sure Khalid is some kind of Moses-or-Aaron-figure if not one of the actual people themselves). However, all of the religious subject matter has been treated with a fairness and maturity that is unusual for a computer game. The characterisation of characters with faith is nuanced, avoiding the stereotypes that can so often be offensive to some.
As it happens the game treats sexuality in much the same way. The relationships between characters like the Oxford archaeologists, or between Moose and Andy, are all treated in a realistic and sensitive way. Very few of them push it in your face, but quietly mention it where appropriate and in context. Syp at BioBreak made a great post about this very subject recently. The writing in TSW really does stand up and make you take notice.
There are some really fun quests in The Scorched Desert. The investigation missions had me researching Edgar Poe stories, translating Hebrew runes, translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (that is a really difficult language to work out, it took me two nights of work), and working out a Caesar cypher. Even many of the normal quests required thought however, whether it was working out the order of a sequence from clues in an ancient text or trying to crack a keypad code from the sound of the buttons.
So, despite my worries I've found The Scorched Desert to be a zone full of interesting characters, involved and imaginative quests and a fabulous and confusing storyline. Vinculus is now ready to enter The City of the Sun God, and I'm looking forwards to seeing if some of my questions will be answered there.
Here are a few screenshots from my adventures in The Scorched Desert.
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