URU Diaries: Part 1
(Editor's Note: A massively multiplayer game is difficult to properly review in its early stages. Therefore, we've decided to cover Uru a bit differently: our reviewer will be sharing his impressions of both the single-player and multiplayer portions of the game in a series of three hands-on diary articles, and then once the product has had a fair chance to work the online kinks out, we'll publish one review that will evaluate both the single-player and online portions as one product. Enjoy!)
Oh I love Myst!
Anything D’ni and pretty and puzzly.
Just make sure that my graphics aren’t fuzzly.
Oh I love Myst!
-Oskar D’Growch, First King of the Gahrbaj Kan Age
Like King Oskar, I have a long love affair with Myst. It was the game that brought me back to adventure games after an overextended foray into the RPG universe. Our shared affinity for gorgeous, difficult, logical puzzlecentric (Microsoft Word tells me I just made that word up… and about time) games was part of the original attraction of my girlfriend/roommate. Like many others, we both thrilled to Riven, one of the few game sequels to surpass its progenitor in every way. And like others, we eagerly bought and enjoyed and were left vaguely disappointed by Exile. Over the years, we have sought out and reveled in the wonder of the best of the “Myst-clones,” including Obsidian, Morpheus, Timelapse, Amber and a host of other similar games; many of them are on our “All-Time” lists. When UbiSoft announced that they were recruiting beta testers for URU last February, we both signed up (unsuccessfully). We pre-ordered the game as soon as we could and waited impatiently all fall for the magic day to arrive.
Well, we now sit here having completed the single-player version of the game and waiting for our acceptance into the online “Prologue,” and we both have the same nagging recurring thought: “THIS IS NOT A MYST GAME!” No, though it shares much the same pedigree as the first three entries in the world’s best-selling adventure game series, URU is more like a first cousin to the other games. There is a strong familial resemblance, but a closer inspection reveals more differences than similarities.
For those of us who have played faithfully through the first three games, the difference in appearance will be almost immediately obvious. Much has been said already about the fact that URU is played in 3D third-person perspective with a choice between keyboard-only or keyboard-and-mouse control, while the other Myst games have all been first-person slideshow point & click format. (Quick note: you can toggle between first- and third-person view and will actually end up using both quite a bit.) I won’t belabor that difference in this discussion other than to say that URU has added something completely unique: the ability to completely customize the appearance of your character’s avatar. The player can modify everything from gender and hair color to shape of the nose and color of shoelaces. This adds some real fun to the game setup. My only complaint is that the skin tone palette tends to be wildly unrealistic. In this respect, WASPs will be at a disadvantage if they are trying to create a character that looks like themselves. The lightest natural-looking skin tone appears deeply tanned at best; anything fairer makes the avatar come out with blue- or green-tinged skin. For our shared game we created the redheaded woman you see in some of my screenshots.
No, the striking difference in appearance to which I referred isn’t being able to see yourself, but the look of everything else. While Cyan Worlds has crafted arguably the most beautiful 3D environment ever, it still lacks the amazingly sharp, detailed, breathtaking ray-traced graphics that were virtually the trademark of the other Myst entries. I’m not really complaining here; they’ve given us a trade-off. Almost any given view of an URU landscape has more movement in it than any of the first three games in their entirety. URU gives us cascading waterfalls, bubbling lava pools, fluttering insects, soaring bird-creatures, swimming fish… a whole moving, living environment. Unlike the other Myst games, you even have day/night cycles and weather. (I was absolutely thrilled when I got caught in my first Myst thunderstorm.) But to a purist, as lovely as the graphics are, they still aren’t truly Myst. At best you can call them “Myst-like.”
The other major way in which URU announces to the player that it is not really a Myst game is quickly encountered in the gameplay itself. The first three games in the series all had pretty much identical gameplay: you ran around various empty Ages solving deucedly devious mechanical and environmental puzzles in order to open up new areas to explore. Because of the first-person perspective and the node-to-node navigation, there were no action sequences whatsoever (which was part of the appeal for many fans). In URU, the designers have elected to forego much of the intelligence of the puzzles of the other games for action elements. I learned early on that well-timed jumps are an essential part of gameplay. I found myself forced to carefully drop down cliff faces and clamber along narrow ledges. In one particularly annoying sequence, I had to knock several large baskets into a pool of water and nudge them into place using only my feet to kick them (for some reason, your character refuses to use his/her hands to move anything that needs moving) in order to create a walkway to a cave behind a waterfall. I found a couple of the run/jump/drop sequences to be extremely challenging (read “obnoxiously difficult” if you aren’t an action game fan). In their defense, Cyan Worlds has really done an outstanding job of creating a control interface that is easy to use, allowing complete control of the avatar from either the keyboard or mouse, with the exception that the “jump” and “strafe” controls are necessarily on the keyboard. If you are unhappy with the default control setup, you can remap it as you wish.
The flip side is that in adding “action” elements, the designers have seemingly dumbed down the puzzle aspects from the earlier Myst games. The really odd thing is that it seems like this “dumbing down” came at the last minute, and at times it results in complete illogic. I’ll provide one glaring example. (WARNING: partial spoiler ahead.) In Teledahn (The “Mushroom Age”) we found a map of a cavern showing seven squares on the floor, each marked with a number in the D’ni language. Rabid fans will already be able to decipher these numbers, but there is a book in another area that will let mere mortals puzzle out the D’ni numbering system. Eventually we discovered a room resembling the map, with seven plates on the floor that depressed if we stepped on them or kicked any of the many scattered stones onto them. At the far end of the cavern were two locked gates. “Aha!” we shouted in unison, experienced Myst players that we are. “We made a copy of that map we found and we know in what order to push the plates!” Wrong. Dead wrong. It turned out that the carefully copied and deciphered map had absolutely no bearing on the illogical solution. Throughout the entire game we ran into puzzle situations like this where the background and layout for a typical logical Myst puzzle were present, yet the actual execution required little or no thought or was not very logical. (Would it occur to an experienced Myst player to body-slam a drawbridge when the operating lever failed to lower it?) Of the four URU ages in the game, only one of them, Kadish Tolesa, truly has the devious brain-bending type of puzzles we have come to expect from the Myst franchise… and even these call for a very un-Mystlike twisting of logic. One of the tougher puzzles in this Age is completely unclued, while the rest of them follow a pattern of “Find the appropriate clue and then figure out what we left out or do exactly the opposite.”
A final annoying difference between URU and its predecessors is the lack of a game save system. This was particularly troubling when combined with some of the dangerous leaps we’ve had to make. Rather than allowing us to pick spots to save our game, URU continually updates our progress anytime we touch or move anything and again whenever we exit the game. When we restart the game or recover from a “death” we begin from the Relto Age, a private domain that acts as our hub from which we can link to any of the other Ages. From here we have the option of jumping to an Age’s starting point or to the last “journey” (elusive hidden tapestries, the hunt for which is the game’s real purpose) that we touched in an Age. There is also a wardrobe in Relto that allows us to change the appearance (but not the gender) of our avatar whenever we wish.
I don’t want to leave you thinking that we aren’t enjoying URU at all. Far from it. There is still some of the magic that originally made us fall in love with the Myst series. If the single-player game has left us disappointed in some ways, it hasn’t dulled our anticipation for the wonders it promises for the online mode. Along with some features that annoyed the heck out of us, URU has thus far provided some spectacular eye-candy. But if you are a fan of the original games, don’t be surprised if you finish the single-player game echoing our sentiment: “This is not a Myst game!” For many players, it will seem more like a game of hide-and-seek. I'll discuss my single-player experience in greater detail in my full URU review at the end of this month. Tune in soon for my first experiences with the online mode!
[Goto Part Two of Jim's URU Diaries series here.]