The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness is the fourth adventure I’ve reviewed from French developer Wanadoo (formerly Index). It uses the same sort of 3D engine as other Wanadoo games (like Dracula: The Last Sanctuary and Necronomicon), but don’t be fooled; it is nowhere in the same class. In fact, everything about Secret at Loch Ness is inferior to other Wanadoo games. I’d say something like “Oh, how the mighty has fallen” except that Wanadoo hasn’t exactly made great games in the past, and “Oh, how the mediocre has fallen” doesn’t have the same ring to it. But where Wanadoo at least made games that were good to look at before, the graphics in Secret at Loch Ness are sub-par, and the puzzles (if you want to call them that) might have taken all of a single day to think up. It’s like somebody at Wanadoo wondered just how little time they could put into a game and still release it, and Secret at Loch Ness is the result.
In Secret at Loch Ness you play Alan P. Cameron, a private investigator from Chicago. You’re hired to look into a missing persons case in Scotland, but when you get there it soon becomes clear that the disappearance is only a secondary issue, and that the main mystery has to do with three ancient crystals. But then, if that weren’t enough, along he way you also encounter a banshee, a character named Peter Evil, a mysterious maid, an old Scottish manor, lots of B-move science fiction, and even the Loch Ness Monster. It’s like Wanadoo, realizing they didn’t have much of a story, decided to just throw weird things at the player, as if that would be close enough. But it doesn’t work, and when you eventually discover there’s an Evil Person planning an Evil Deed, nothing makes any sense.
Worse, there are almost no puzzles to speak of in Secret at Loch Ness, and the very engine Wanadoo uses for its games might be the main problem. The interface tells you exactly when you can use an object, and there aren’t any red herrings, so all the inventory puzzles are simple. I mean, if you see a boarded-up window, and if the interface tells you that you can interact with the boards, and if you’re holding a crowbar, just how difficult is the puzzle? And do you call it a puzzle at all?
The engine works fine for mechanical puzzles (as games like Myst 3 and Schizm have shown), but Wanadoo apparently doesn’t know how to create them. When they tried in Necronomicon the results were disastrous, and in Secret at Loch Ness, whenever they offer a puzzle that is even remotely mechanical, they also provide explicit instructions on how to solve it. For example, at one point you discover a chair that is also a container. To open the chair, you have to operate six knobs / levers in the right order. Now, without any hints, there are 720 possible combinations, and that’s just too many for trial and error alone. But how hard could it be to, oh, create a riddle or something with hints about “arms” and “legs” and things like that? Instead, Wanadoo includes a piece of paper that tells the exact order to manipulate the knobs / levers, and so the puzzle isn’t any fun at all.
In fact, the most difficult part of the game is tracking down events and objects. Wanadoo created Secret at Loch Ness so that it is completely linear, and to trigger any event you first have to find the objects needed for it. While that’s friendly (in a way), the manor in which you spend most of the game is rather large, and it’s sort of annoying the scour the entire place only to finally discover a dishrag in the sink that for some reason triggers a teacup appearing in a dumbwaiter. Wanadoo tried to help things along for this part of the game by giving Cameron a notebook where he jots down some not-so-subtle hints (“I should go to the parlor next”), but he only provides hints like that sometimes, and pixel-hunting your way through a manor once is sort of boring, and after five or six times it’s just deadly.
Plus, Wanadoo does some other annoying things. Right now, without fully testing the theory, I’m conjecturing that if an adventure game has any of these things -- a maze, a timed puzzle, or a universal tool -- then the game isn’t likely to be very good, because all three things indicate a lack of creativity on the part of the developer when it comes to making puzzles. And, wouldn’t you know, Secret at Loch Ness has all three. In fact, while it has “only” one maze, it has no less than two universal tools (a crowbar and bolt cutters, that are used far too often) and a whole mess of timed puzzles, all of which kill you if you can’t finish them in time. In a nutshell, Wanadoo didn’t do anything right in terms of gameplay, and Secret at Loch Ness ranges from being boring to tedious to annoying at regular intervals.
Maybe there was just a bug going around Wanadoo during the development of Secret at Loch Ness, because even the graphics and sound are rather shoddy. Wanadoo didn’t use a high enough resolution for the backgrounds, and so there is just way too much pixellation going on, and every line is a jagged line. Plus, there are even some weird effects, like trees having white outlines, that make the forests look like Wanadoo was using paint-by-numbers templates. The result is that you won’t ever feel like you’re really traipsing through the Scottish countryside, or really exploring a Scottish manor, and it’s difficult to get involved in a game when absolutely nothing is going right.
Overall, The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness is just an embarrassment. At least when other games go badly, you can usually get a sense that the developers had something good in mind when they started out, and that things just didn’t go well. But with Secret at Loch Ness, Wanadoo aimed low and then hit their target dead on. So I wouldn’t recommend the game to anybody for any reason, and I can now understand why, since Wanadoo is the main horse in DreamCatcher’s adventuring stable, that DreamCatcher is branching out to other genres.