The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness Review

Strange phenomena are being reported from Devil's Ridge Manor, overlooking Loch Ness. You are playing Alan P. Cameron, Private Investigator, and have been requested to return to your ancestral homeland to investigate the strange goings-on. In the course of your investigations, you will move from a medieval castle to a scientist's secret laboratory, and finally to the troubled waters of Loch Ness, uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the foundations of the Western world.

The game installed fairly simply and cleanly, and started easily. It also ran well, with a minimum of problems. However, it should be noted that The Cameron Files is one of those games which always require the user to begin on Disc 1. So as one progresses through the game, and most of the gameplay is taking place on Disc 2, restarting from a saved game is a tedious task, requiring the user to start with Disc 1, only to select a saved game that requires Disc 2, and then swap discs.

While the gameplay provided by The Cameron Files was mostly enjoyable, it would not be considered challenging. Despite the ability to roam around and explore, the game is quite linear. You cannot go on to Step B until you have successfully completed Step A. Often that involves finding some object, or talking with some particular person. (In one example, nothing can be done until the player has discovered one particularly small object to look at -- an object which requires a bit of "pixel-hunting" even to locate!) I was occasionally frustrated when there weren't any apparent clues as to what needed to be done next, resulting in tedious exploration of numerous locations which had already been visited. While it is nice to know that you cannot overlook something and move to other areas before you have everything you need, it is also somewhat annoying to be unable to continue, when exploration of other areas might provide a welcome change-of-pace.

Movement through the game is reasonably easy and intuitive -- especially for fans of The Messenger, Dracula Resurrection, and other games using this same game engine. Full 360-degree panning provides a "virtual reality" effect for the player. This also contributes to a quick learning curve for the game. However, the complexity of some of the scenes can become somewhat overwhelming. In particular, the main Manor House was quite difficult to navigate at times, with halls leading to halls leading to halls, and no simple way to map the house. A map within the game (such as the map of the Louvre used in The Messenger) would have been a welcome addition.

Given the plot, the game length (spanning 2 CDs, and taking 15-20 hours to complete) seemed just about right. The inventory was implemented well and was easy to use. Items were displayed clearly and identified with text. Using inventory items was as simple as selecting them, and attempting to apply them to other objects by clicking on those objects. Only a few inventory items needed to be combined -- which the game made a bit too easy by not allowing the player to attempt to use the uncombined objects.

Like The Messenger, Dracula Resurrection, and other similar games, The Cameron Files also has the same limitation of 8 saved games. I personally like games which provide the ability for an unlimited number of saved games (typically by storing each saved game in a separate file -- which also allows much more flexibility in naming the saved games). The only information stored with a saved game is a thumbnail screen shot, and a date/timestamp. It is up to the user to remember which games were saved under what conditions.

There is a lot of nice 3D rendering and animation in the game. However, even that can be disappointing, as the player will encounter quite a number of objects that can be interacted with -- zoomed in for close-ups, for example -- but which play no part in the game!

The Cameron Files contains quite a few cut scenes that involve animated characters talking with each other. I was quite impressed with the detail of the facial expressions as they were talking, particularly the detail of the lip movements. (I wouldn't even be surprised if a lip-reader could have "read" some of the conversations, based on the animations alone.) The 3D graphics and rendering were done well, and I particularly noticed things such as good use of shadows that moved accurately as either the player or the light source moved.

In a similar vein, the stereo sound was implemented quite well. Moving past (or circling around) a stationary sound source, for example, resulted in the sound panning from one speaker to another in a very realistic manner. There was also very good use of ambient sounds, such as doors creaking, water running, and so forth.

The puzzles in The Cameron Files were fairly good, and well-integrated into the story line. None were terribly difficult, although a few were a bit overly-simple, especially if the player remembers to read Cameron's journal frequently. Some required a good degree of intuition, while others (such as a terribly confusing underwater maze) mostly required patience.

One thing that was a double-edged sword was the journal kept by Cameron. While it provided useful (and sometimes necessary) information, it often was a bit too much in the way of a help -- almost insulting the player's intelligence. The same comment can be applied to the frequent audible comments made by Cameron himself -- comments that often were about as subtle as whacking the player over the head with a 2x4! ("I think I should go and talk to so-and-so now." "This would be a good time to explore such-and-such.") Some users may feel that some of the challenge is taken away from them by this "hand-holding".

The storyline was fairly original and well-developed, and the game included many entertaining aspects. It fell short of outstanding, however, due to the tedious and frustrating nature of several of the gaming elements.

-- Frank Nicodem (with Christine Zarubin)