URU Diaries: Part 2
When last we left you, Constant Reader, my girlfriend and I had just completed the single-player offline portion of URU and were eagerly awaiting our invitation to join the online “Prologue.” Well, we waited. Then we waited some more. I decided to spend some time reading and slogged through Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (all twelve volumes). Theresa spent the time double-checking the work of the Human Genome Project team. We both finished our respective diversions and then we waited some more.
At last we got word. On the same day, I received e-mails from Bill Slease, Director of URU Online Content for Cyan Worlds and from Katherine Postma, URU Community Manager for UbiSoft. Both of these prestigious personages wrote to tell me that they had just read the first part of this series of articles, that they had thoroughly enjoyed the piece, that they considered it quite fair in my assessment of both the game’s strengths and weaknesses (with one exception… I’ll get to that), and that they were eagerly awaiting the next chapter. So eagerly, in fact, that they offered to “slip me in” immediately instead of making me continue to wait for my place in the admission queue. I, of course, was delighted, and assured the duo that I would take care of correcting the one error I had made in Chapter One.
So here it is: You may recall, Constant Reader, that I mentioned a particular puzzle that struck us as completely illogical involving a cavern with seven pressure plates on the floor and a map that, once deciphered, appeared to give clues as to how to open the locked gates that prevented exit from the cavern. Our experience was that the actual solution had nothing to do with the clues on the map. It turns out that the deciphered map is supposed to be combined with a second piece of information that is not readily visible except from one particular spot. We failed to see the second half of the clue and therefore stumbled upon the solution by trial-and-error. The solution only appeared to be unrelated to the clues on the map. There was, in fact, a “logical” way to derive the solution.
With that taken care of, back to my URU adventures.
So we get our approval and rush to login to URU Live. The initial login screen gives you the option of either creating a new character or importing the progress of one of your single-player characters. You may only possess a single character at a time in URU Live; after the first time you play, if you want to play a new or different character you must first delete the previous one. We chose to continue playing the redheaded Mystic Rainbow from our offline game. We clicked the final “Play” button and sat back, waiting to be dazzled…. and waited…. and waited. We sat through over three minutes of game loading. To be fair, there is an option on your login screen that gives you the choice of updating all Ages when you startup or updating each Age as you link into it. We had chosen the former option, deciding that we’d rather have a longer wait at the beginning and shorter waits during gameplay. Those of you who have played the single-player version of URU know how frustrating the long load times between Ages are, and we were hoping to trim those down some. We also discovered that the startup load time is quite a bit shorter if you are using a returning character than it is the first time you import/create one. But still, three minutes? Anyway, we clicked through our brightness adjustment screen and sat a-tremble, prepared to be astonished by the sights we had been so eagerly anticipating…..
….and got the avatar customization screen instead. It seems that while you can import a character’s progress from the single-player game, you can’t directly import their appearance. In fact, you may change your name or even gender during the login process. One positive aspect of avatar customization is that URU Live offers a much wider choice of clothing than the single-player version. The skin-tone palette, unfortunately, has not been improved. Anyway, we got Mystic Rainbow looking the way she used to and crossed our fingers. Surely this time we would be able to see the breathtaking world of URU Live. At the very least, we knew we would be finally linking to our Relto, from which we could link to and explore the wonders and mysteries of the great underground city that we had been recruited by the D’ni Restoration Council to help restore. We clasped hands and clicked the button to take us into actual gameplay…..
….and materialized in some stranger’s Relto. Nor were we alone. Some dozen or so other people were stuck there with us. And I mean stuck. If you missed the screenshots from the first chapter of my URU diaries, your Relto is your “hub,” a personal home and nexus from which you link to other Ages and to which you return whenever you “die.” It consists of an outdoor plateau and a hut which contains your wardrobe and a bookcase for your linking books. In this Relto, the door to the hut was closed and no amount of clicking or bashing would open it. (In fact, it turned out that nothing in this Age was clickable except the window shades.) We were stuck outside in the rain. It turned out that those who were stuck outside were the lucky ones. Yes, it was a soggy nightmare, populated by lots of confused people who had nothing to do but run around practicing jumping over each other. But if you used your own personal Relto book to link out of the Age or threw yourself over the edge of the plateau in frustration you merely reappeared inside the hut! No need to imagine the depression of being trapped in a tiny hit with eight total strangers; I took a screenshot to show you our first experience with URU Live.
This situation continued for almost two days. Every time we started the game, we appeared in some version of the same stranger’s Relto. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes sunny. In some versions a wooden deck overlooking the cloudy chasm that surrounds the plateau had appeared. Sometimes objects were clickable, other times not. Regardless, there was nothing to do here except talk to other likewise-stranded players, and no escape other than quitting the game.
Eventually, the time came when we fired up the game and lo, we appeared in our own Relto! Overjoyed, we ran to our bookcase and pulled out the book which would link us to the Neighborhood, the glimpsed but never-really-seen Age that serves as the focus and gathering-place for the Prologue of URU Live. (If you have played the single-player version, this is the book and Age that contains the balconies from which there is no exit.) That is, we pulled the book halfway out… and we were frozen. The book would not come out from the bookcase and there was no way to back away from it. Once again, the only escape was to use the Relto book on our hip to link out of the cutscene. We quickly discovered that the same thing happened no matter which linking book in our library we tried.
This resulted in two more days of back-and-forth with the URU tech support team. (I want to stress that unlike my previous experiences with UbiSoft tech support, the URU Customer Care Representatives were excellent about responding to questions and actually trying to help us solve them.) We got a variety of sometimes conflicting suggestions, from getting a new soundcard to deleting the files in a particular folder (which entailed a 300+ MB download to replace) to deleting the entire character to doing nothing because the problem might be on their end. Eventually, we ended up completely uninstalling/reinstalling the game and starting over with a fresh character.
And the day finally came when we were able to successfully link to the Neighborhood. It was gorgeous. People walk the streets of the restored areas of the city greeting passers-by and spontaneously jumping for joy or doing a dance of delight. Others sit by the city’s central fountain in conversation or link to the scenic overlook that provides a telescope for viewing the vista of the enormous underground realm.
And there is absolutely nothing to do.
Well, that’s not completely true. You can play Heek. This is a version of rock-scissors-paper played at a hologram imaging game table by up to five players. Heek is good for up to an hour’s diversion, depending on your attention span. Besides that, your activity is pretty much limited to talking to people and kicking around orange construction cones. I have heard rumors that occasionally the Powers That Be drop a new Relto page into a particular Age that people can hunt for. (Thus the disappearing/reappearing deck in the Relto in which we originally were trapped.) However, I have yet to confirm this for myself. And you often find yourself doing your nothing while in the grip of a maddening “freeze every three seconds” lag as the server struggles to keep up with the volume of traffic. That’s assuming you can login to the game at all. Even as I write this at one computer, I have been trying unsuccessfully to login to the game on the other computer for the last 20 minutes.
Potential URU Live players need to be aware of one important thing going into the game: at this point, the Prologue is still very much in Beta testing. On the one hand, this may seem a bit odd. After all, there had been at least seven months of Beta testing before the game was ever released. Somebody who presumably had knowledge of the game’s status agreed that it was ready to release to an eager public. That person(s) was obviously quite mistaken. I suspect that the suits in marketing who were likely pushing to have URU out for the Christmas shopping season and the nerds in programming who surely knew that URU Live needed a few months’ more work both passed on their advice to some Honcho who totally blew this call. However, said Honcho may also be forgiven to an extent. He was likely basing the nerds’ warnings about how much work still needed to be done on the game on UbiSoft’s previous experience with multi-player online games. He may not have realized that never in the history of online gaming has any project that is so immersive, so detailed, so huge, so visually spectacular and so completely interactive ever been attempted. Timetables based on other games are meaningless when applied to something of URU Live’s scope. So you and I, Constant Reader, end up with a half-finished product that is riddled with more bugs than a colony of Arcturan Mega-Termites.
And that isn’t the end of the bad news. UbiSoft had announced that they expected the “official” version of URU Live to be ready to go by early February. However a “clerical error” over the New Year resulted in the accidental invitation of every person still on the waiting list at the same time. This brought about a massive flood to the only server “shard” currently in operation and forced a temporary shutdown. While the server is back up now, it wouldn’t be surprising if fixing the problems caused by the flood pushed back the launch date of the official version of the game.
But there is hope. Lots of hope. The things that do work in URU Live are beautiful and interesting. If you get bored, you can spend the time getting familiar with your KI. Remember that odd bracelet you picked up out of that machine in Gahreeson? Now you can put it to use. Your KI serves a multitude of functions, with more on the way. You use it to take pictures, to manage buddy lists, to make journal entries, to send intra-game mail, to manage your own Neighborhood (more on neighborhoods next time) and, most importantly, to talk to other players. With true voice chat promised down the road, knowing how to operate your KI will be an indispensable part of enjoying your URU Live experience. Ours seems to function about 85% correctly at this point, and getting to know its intricacies now will flatten the learning curve later.
So, Constant Reader, have I been enjoying my time spent in the Prologue of URU Live? I wish I could say I have, but it has mostly been a source of continual frustration and boredom. But I have no intention of giving up on it yet. Because underneath the technical troubles I can see the promise of what URU Live could be when it is fully operational. And that promise is glorious. A new dimension awaits the serious adventure gamer: puzzles that require several people at once to solve, coordinated effort to physically rebuild ruins, team-based competition where one player doesn’t control the entire team. The question now is whether technology can catch up to the Miller Brothers’ imagination.
[If you missed it, don't forget to check out Chapter One of Jim's URU Diaries too.]