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The Secret World: 30 hours on Solomon Island

Our verdict on the first act of Funcom's MMO of horror and conspiracy

Meet Henry. He's a priest, but perhaps more importantly he's also an Illuminati hobbyist. A groupie. He probably subscribes to their newsletter and RTs all their tweets.

Henry lives in Kingsmouth, the first of the three areas that make up Solomon Island - the location of the lengthy first act. He's The Secret World at his best. For a start, he's well written; a pragmatic, righteous but slightly unhinged conspiracy theorist, understandably thrown even more off-kilter by the zombie invasion of his town.

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But then, Kingsmouth is full of well written characters. Each main mission kicks off with a cutscene starring one of them, and each is a joyous slice of pulp pastiche. The teen chomping at the bit to use the skills he's learned from Left 4 Dead, the shotgun-wielding granny, the fake clairvoyant now actually psychic. The game carries cliches with a wit and charm that makes them its own.

What makes Henry important is he gives you the high point of one of The Secret World's best elements: Investigation missions. They're little slices of adventure gaming and real-world Google scouring, inserted into an MMO template.

During his quest, The Kingsmouth Code, I cracked passwords, hunted for hidden locations and deciphered riddles by searching for... well, spoilers, but solving it was both satisfying and empowering.

DIMMED LIGHTS
Meet Sam. He's an author, but perhaps more importantly he lives in a lighthouse. The giant brooding landmark has been signalling its presence in overhead shafts of light throughout The Savage Coast - Solomon Island's second area. As someone old enough to remember Aussie kids show Round The Twist, I'm hoping for big things here. I love a good spooky lighthouse story.

Sam's melodramatic, his acting hammy - which is fine - but the heavy handed waffling is missing the same spark, the knowing fun the game was having with the earlier characters.

And the missions he's handing out? Action missions are the more traditional combat-heavy affairs you'll have seen in countless other MMOs. They're the most frequent you'll encounter throughout the game. Sam's are among the most derivative of all: scour the area, kill this, kill that, kill enough of each to fill the objective and win. The Secret World at its worst.

Throughout Solomon Island, the game regularly oscillates between these highs and lows. It's both entertaining and mediocre. Inspired and insipid. Ambitious and compromised. For every truly interesting innovation, there are a handful of ideas that just don't work in execution and (arguably worse), plenty of moments where it's just retreading old, dead ground.

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Like the Sabotage missions, the last of the three main mission types. On the surface they're a nice balance between action and investigation; featuring exploration, lore, and just a brief smattering of smackdowns. But they also have hilariously clunky stealth sections. In them, you're running around a cellar avoiding security cameras, which blow you up if they see you. Which they usually do, through an object you're supposedly hidden behind.

Or the locations: all atmospheric horror homages. An abandoned motel soaked in demonic red fog; a creepy treehouse, heavy with a sickly green fog; a creepy fairground under an oppressive purple-grey fog. The setting is key to the what works about the game, but expect a lot of fog covering the unimpressive draw distances.

Or factions. There's hints of a simmering tension at the heart of the truce between the three powers. And yet ultimately it doesn't seem to mean much. Whether you prefer the power-wrangling of the Illuminati, the new testament whoop-ass of the Templars or the order-from-chaos philosophy (and implied blowjobs) of the Dragon, only a tiny fraction of your first thirty hours will differ from anyone elses.

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