In college, I spent many hours in the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri. The gigantic old building is a huge and somewhat forbidding place. The farther up you go, the less light you encounter. Shelves of books press together against narrow aisles, with study desk cubbyholes squeezed in wherever they fit. I’m guessing it’s fairly typical for big universities. But whoever designed the top of the Innsmouth Academy knows places like the Ellis Library.

After the jump, shhhh!

There’s an attic-way space on the top floor of the Innsmouth Academy, which you’ll find in Secret World’s Savage Coast area. Books are stacked untidily. A few lonely desks are placed here and there, with papers and pens and texts littered atop them. There’s wood and brick everywhere. Porthole windows allow hazy afternoon sunlight to slant across the main aisle. Every book, paper, storage box and chalkboard has been placed just so with obvious care and precision. It captures the essence of such places perfectly. It’s an example of Secret World’s mastery when it comes to setting and tone.

But you’ll likely spend just a few minutes here. You run through, easily dispatch a few monsters haunting the spot, and then move along to another location. This is just a hallway. Most players will pass through once, very briefly, and never again. The Secret World is full of wonderful places like that that you’ll visit for only a moment, on your way to somewhere else.

Funcom gets the big picture right, too. Kingsmouth feels like a real New England town. The architecture changes as you get close to the shore. The streets are laid out in a way that reminds me of an old town in Connecticut I drove through a few years ago. In the Savage Coast an abandoned amusement park is every bit as creepy as you’d want it to be, and that Innsmouth Academy is a marvel of evocative world building. Even if there were no missions or monsters there, I’d still want to explore it. In the Blue Mountain area, a cabin feels creepy simply for being a cabin in the woods.

It’s tempting to offer an unconditional recommendation for The Secret World based strictly on the 20 or so hours you’ll spend on the richly imagined Solomon Island. The lighting and shadows accentuate everything. The magic hour of pinkish sunlight and long shadows has obviously been extended into a magic several hours, but it enhances the experience. Few games in any genre have done magic hour this well.

Unfortunately, the follow-up areas in Egypt and Transylvania pale in comparison. Egypt never feels particularly spooky, with the bright sun and cultists lurking hither and yon. For folks looking for something more tense and earthy, I suppose it could work. But daytime in Egypt doesn’t feel nearly as foreboding as daytime on Solomon Island. Transylvania’s a bit better, but here I think Funcom undermines the setting a bit by making it so perpetually hazy that it always feels like night. It seems all too likely that much of the development time spent on the game was spent with Solomon Island. Given how good it is, I think they made the right choice.

5 stars

Up next: in defense of Egypt and Transylvania
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