URU: Ages Beyond Myst review
[EDITORIAL COMMENT: Fifteen hours after we posted the following review on our site, Bill Slease, URU Director of Online Content for Cyan Worlds, posted this statement on the UbiSoft forums that the URU Live project was being shut down. We sympathize with the rest of the adventure game community at this loss and wish for a quick rebound and continued success for both Cyan and Ubi, two true legends in the adventure gaming industry. We have elected to let the review stand as it was originally written.]
Welcome back, Constant Reader, to the third and final chapter of my URU Diaries. “Wait!” I imagine some of you crying. “You promised us four parts in the series!” And those of you saying this would be correct. Part Three was originally supposed to chronicle my experiences in the post-Prologue game of URU Live. However, it now appears that this portion of the game, which was the original purpose of the entire project, won’t be ready for its grand opening and full-scale play anytime in the near future. In fact, the date given for the end of my Prologue subscription has changed from Feb. 4 to Dec 31. As a result, I am going ahead with the official, final Adventure Gamers review, based on URU as it exists now, right out of the box
The standalone “offline” portion of URU (or “Prime,” as it is called by those in the know) is two-thirds of a pretty cool Myst game. Graphically, it is a wonder. While no real-time 3D graphics engine can match the breathtaking beauty and clarity of pre-rendered ray-traced graphics, Cyan has narrowed the gap considerably with URU. I’ve said it before, and I imagine I will be saying it for the next couple of years: This is the most gorgeous 3D game on the market. The Ages of Teledahn (the Mushroom Age) and Eder Kemo (the Garden Age) are particularly stunning, while Eder Gira (the Lava Age) has the kind of primitive, desolate beauty that appeals to those who thrill to documentaries about volcanoes and the formation of the Earth. Perhaps prettiest of all is Kadish Tolesa (the Tree Age), which, while semi-dark, is lit in a permanent blue-purple twilight that brings an otherworldly serenity to the environment. Only Gahreeson (the Prison Age) fails to live up to the incredibly high standards of the rest of URU. Most of this Age is set indoors in dingy rooms that all look basically alike. You do eventually make your way outdoors in Gahreeson, to find yourself on top of a rotating building looking out over a pretty-but-dull forest. If you are prone to motion sickness, this Age will have you gobbling Dramamine, as trying to walk straight toward a distant point while the floor and background spins around is certain to induce nausea among those who are prone to such. This aside, URU more than lives up to the graphic standards of its predecessors, even showing dramatic improvement over the 3D realMyst. The controls have a bit of a learning curve, but generally are smooth and workable regardless of whether you prefer a third- or first-person perspective and whether you prefer keyboard or mouse control.
The gameplay of URU Prime is a 50/50 good/bad split. Besides the aforementioned ages, there is the Cleft, your starting point in URU. Unlike other Myst games, this Age is located on Earth, in the remote New Mexico wilderness. Here the player is introduced to the basic elements of URU: puzzle solving, jumping and Journey Cloths. There are a couple of easy puzzles and a little bit of jumping to acclimate you to the controls. It is in this Age that you discover the true nature of URU – the game is an elaborate version of hide-and-seek. There are seven Journey Cloths hidden in each of the five Ages. The entire point of URU is to find and touch each Journey Cloth. Some gamers will rejoice at this concept, as it incorporates 3D into “puzzle” design more successfully than even the much-ballyhooed Broken Sword 3. You have to look up, down, and around on the back side of various environmental features to find the Journey Cloths. However, adventure purists may come away feeling that this primary component of URU isn’t “puzzling” at all. The fact that two of the Ages focus primarily on dexterity tests of running and jumping to obtain the elusive cloths just added to my frustration and sense that I wasn’t playing a Myst game or even an adventure game at all. Fortunately for all concerned, the Ages of Teledahn and Kadish Tolesa provide exactly the kind of brain-busting environment-manipulation puzzling that we have come to associate with the name Myst.
The storyline in URU is presented in much the same manner as the original Myst. While small bits of it are told to you “live” during the gameplay, the majority is contained in reading material. The “live” bits are monologues given to you by Yeesha, the daughter of Atrus and Katherine of the earlier games in the series. These lectures are mostly a cryptic and incomprehensible mishmash of historic references concerning the Bahros, a race of sub-human (or are they?) creatures discovered in one of the Ages created for an ancient D’ni king. A second storyline which is more relevant to the online game is revealed in a few of the dozen or so notebooks you will run across in the course of your explorations. If you are an “Avid” (i.e. someone who is as fanatical about Myst as some of us were about D&D twenty years ago) then these notebooks are a treasure trove of otherwise useless information. You can peruse book after book detailing the history of D’ni royalty, marriage customs, guilds, social structure and other such trivia. Though I can’t swear to it, I am guessing that much of this material came from a couple of the more prominent Myst fansites.
Overall, there is much to like and much to dislike in the standalone version of URU. It provides a variety of truly eye-popping worlds and a few great puzzle sequences combined with some very un-Myst-like run/jump platform gaming. The coma-inducing load times when “linking” between Ages become frustrating in the extreme… especially when you find that you must go through this annoyance twice every time you “die” from an unsuccessful jump. The lack of a save game feature just exacerbates this annoyance into a real design flaw. As a Myst game, URU succeeds to a limited degree. As an adventure game, the primary success lies in the innovative implementation of 3D technology into the game design.
But then there's URU Live...
Is it Live, or is it Mymorex?
URU Live was what URU was supposed to be-- until the developers took 80% of the live-game content and turned it into the standalone URU game six months before URU’s release. I have already chronicled my long wait to get into the live Prologue and the assistance I received from Katherine Postma at UbiSoft. (I want to take this opportunity to once again thank Katie for her patience, answers and assistance with the game itself and for attempting to get me additional information about URU’s future for this article.) I’m not going to delve deeply into all the technical problems with the game; I talked about those in Part Two. I can add that there are now three servers online, though any one of them is likely to be malfunctioning at any given time, particularly during weekends. Slowly but surely, UbiSoft (which oversees the delivery of the online game, while Cyan controls the content) is working out the bugs. It is still common to have the game crash to desktop because it hangs while trying to “authenticate” the player when he first logs in or links between Ages. But this is getting better. The lag that would freeze your avatar’s movement every few steps is now mostly confined to the communal Ae’gura City Age. And since there are only thirty-five people total allowed in this Age at one time, you are unlikely to ever get into it to have to worry about the lag anyway. Eventually, I am confident that Ubi will get the remaining technical problems ironed out. In the meantime, someone who purchases URU tomorrow will have to struggle with some maddening technical glitches in trying to play online.
But the real problem with URU Live, at least from the point of view of an adventure game critic is this: there’s no game in that game. While there has been a slow dribble of new content added to URU Live, this has mostly consisted of a few new areas to look at, a new hide-and-seek game where players are looking for electronic markers instead of Journey Cloths, new clothing and new pages for your Relto book. To date, there has not been a single puzzle added to the online world, despite many cries for exactly that from the online community. It now appears to me that Cyan does not see URU Live as a “game,” or at least not as most people define the word. The steps they have taken in the development of URU have all been to increase communication and interaction between players, while offering little new interactivity with the game world itself. What Cyan seems to be offering customers isn’t an actual game, but rather a persistent online world in which players are free to invent their own games, personas, role-playing, stories and interactions. It is as though Cyan is giving the players a huge theater stage and building all the sets, then letting anyone who wants onto that stage with no script, no director and no props. Some less-than-happy players have described URU Live as “a really pretty chat room.” While that does a disservice to the experience, it is perfectly possible to utilize the game in this way. It is common to see conversations about boyfriends, TV shows or other mundane topics broadcast to everyone in the Age. On the other hand, you see “Avids” who are thrilled at the chance to invent their own role-play and take on the personas graphically which, until now, they have only been able to live out through the written word.
Most of the gushing reviews that the rest of the gaming press prematurely gave to URU were based on the game’s “potential” to create something new and wondrous in the online portion. Various critics who rushed to get out early reviews without waiting to see how the URU Live component was going to be implemented seemed to base their high scores on such statements as: “With the launch of Urulive approaching soon, the possibilities for expansion of the game are limitless.” And this piece of wild speculation: “URU is in fact a MMORPG… if it’s anything like the single player portion, I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy it.” Now, some 2 ½ months after URU’s release and the publication of these “hot off the presses” reviews, I wonder how many of those critics are eating their words with a side of humble pie. Ubi and Cyan aren’t doing anything with that vaunted potential except making URU Live ever more shapeless and free-form. With no puzzles or other gameplay elements being added while the “stage” is slowly made larger and new degrees of communication between actors being introduced, the URU Live experience bears more likeness to The Sims than it does to any adventure game. Except even The Sims has certain goals. The only goal in URU Live seems to be to have no goal, the only rule that there are no rules, and the only purpose being to do whatever you want… so long as you don’t need puzzles, props (other than orange construction cones) or an interactive environment to do it.
Is that your final answer?
I have to admit, Constant Reader, that like many other critics, I was initially taken in by URU. It is beautiful. It has Myst elements. It had some pretty good puzzles. And it held the promise of becoming something unheard of, a Massive Multiplayer Online Adventure Game. Although the technology had yet to be proven on a large scale, we knew it had been mostly successful during the initial beta test. We had the brilliant and creative minds at Cyan promising us frequently updated and expanded online content. The interpersonal interaction coupled with the patented Myst puzzles virtually guaranteed an adventure game experience that would offer something to appeal to all fans of the genre. PC Gamer, in awarding URU Best Adventure of 2004, stated in this month's issue: "Visually stunning, this new Myst game will introduce yet another invention by the time you read this: online adventuring." If only that prediction had come true.
This is why games shouldn’t be reviewed based on their potential. We had as much patience as we could possibly stand, waiting on writing our final review until we actually had some evidence of what URU Live was going to be, prying and begging to try to get an interview that would provide a factual look at URU Live’s future...but it's a future that looks more and more bleak every day.
A few months ago I might have fallen for this bit of fool’s gold too. After two months struggling with the technical difficulties and the nebulous content of URU Live, I have had a complete change of heart. It turned out that what Cyan and UbiSoft have given us isn’t online adventuring or even a MMORPG, but rather a graphical MUSH. (Multi-User Shared Hallucination, to those of you unfamiliar with online text-based RPG’s.) They have turned players loose in a pretty but empty world, hoping that players will be so blinded by the pretty sparkles that they will overlook the lack of purpose or gameplay and invent their own. Given the lack of direction and the difficulty in getting and staying connected online, players are likely to spend as much or more time at the Ubi URU forums trying to figure out what to do or find something to do as they spend actually “playing” URU Live. I find it hard to imagine that any adventure gamer will shell out the $13/month I was quoted on the phone from the UbiStore to participate in such a formless, directionless, plotless, puzzleless experiment, no matter how pretty it is. As to the standalone offline URU game, it is a mixed success. However, it is certainly not worth the $50 being charged for it in some places. The price has dropped to $30 in many stores, reportedly due to abysmal sales. At that price, URU might be worth it to an adventure gamer starved for something different from the standard fare. But I’d recommend instead that the typical gamer save some money. For a mere $20 you can get the anniversary editions of Myst Masterpiece Edition, Riven and Exile on DVD and updated to run on WinXP. You’ll get a better value and a much better time -- and about the same online experience that URU gives you.
(Editor's note: We will revisit URU as new expansion packs for the game are released. At this time, the 2.5 star rating represents our recommendation.)