Uru: Ages Beyond Myst Review
By some standards, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst is a difficult game to review. Although a move to cutting-edge 3D graphics was always a part of the plan, Uru was originally designed as an on-line multiplayer game rather than as a true sequel to the other Myst games. The publisher did add a single-player component in the last year or so of development, but the box still told players they could continue the adventure on-line.
What players discovered once they opened the box, however, was quite different. The so-called Uru Live was still in the "prologue" (read: beta) stages, and it was initially limited to a select number of invited players, not to every customer who might have been expecting it or paid for it. Originally, one may have argued about whether to consider the potential of the on-line component, the single-player component that shipped, or some combination of both. In fact, I held off publishing a "final" review, just to see what would happen with Uru Live. But as you may know, Ubi announced that they were cancelling the on-line component -- something that came as little shock to me, given the way the game was launched -- in favor of traditional expansion packs. So what's now left to judge is basically what shipped last fall, rather than the promised MMO adventure that had been talked about for years.
But Uru still acts in many ways the introduction to the multiplayer component, rather than as a true standalone adventure game. Even by the standards of the Myst series, the plot of Uru is rather thin. The game is set several hundred years after the rest of the series, and you play a modern-day explorer who comes across the remains of the D'ni civilization from the previous games. Most of the plot revolves around passing tests left behind by Yeesha -- daughter of Myst's Atrus. You visit various ages (or worlds), go on scavenger hunts, and report back, only to move on to the next age. And by "scavenger hunt," I'm not trying to denigrate adventures by talking about inventory puzzles -- all you have to do is find seven tapestries in each of the ages to prove that you fully explored the age. Of course, there are puzzles along the way that you must solve to be able to reach some of the tapestries, but the end goal in each age is the same.
Yeesha claims that solving her tests is supposed to teach you something, but in most of the ages, there really isn't much to see besides the scenery. Your lesson usually comes down to some simple tale about the overall theme of the ages that you might have gathered right away -- finding that seventh tapestry rarely carries any special significance in the lesson. It's perhaps not much of a surprise that there aren't any characters to talk to, but unlike the original Myst, there really isn't that much to read either. Most of the journals you find belong to scholars studying the ruins of D'ni, and they usually read more like history books (or even worse, manuals for the game itself) than anyone's intimate diaries -- so there's no plot or character to gain there. Yeesha's messages give you a bit of explanation at the end of each age, but it's not well integrated into your actions.
The ending is also not very satisfying, and in fact, I'd argue that there really isn't a true ending to the game. You don't get a big cliffhanger, or even a sense that the ending was meant to be ambiguous. Instead, attempts at an explanation aside, the ending struck me more as "congratulations, you've passed your tests, and now you're worthy of Uru Live." Not much of an ending for a game that's never going to be on-line.
Not all is bad in the land of Uru. The Myst universe has moved to full 3D for the first time (excluding one failed remake of the original Myst), and the graphics are stunning. Not only do you have full freedom of movement, but the environments often have real-time lighting effects, complete with clouds casting shadows and changing weather. The desert age and fortress ages are a bit dull, but the garden age -- with its fanciful plants -- and the forest age -- with its purple-tinted skies and otherwordly glow -- both provide unique and interesting environments.
Unfortunately, the shift to 3D also brings a few complications. The one that will annoy adventure fans the most is the addition of some running and jumping puzzles. These arguably aren't very tough by the standards of your typical arcade game, but it may still take seasoned players a few tries to get some of these right. Further complicating matters is that there is no true save-game feature -- probably done in preparation for the on-line play -- only an automatic save as you quit the game, plus the tapestries, which serve as teleport points. "Dying" sends you back to your home age, after a bit of a loading screen, and you must then return to a tapestry, again waiting maybe as much as a minute or so to reload the area that you were just in, and then retrace your steps. Plus, the manual never mentions how and when the game saves -- leading some to speculate that the tapestries are console-style save points, and leaving me confused until the first time I quit the game to see what would happen.
Most of the traditional logic puzzles that you will find should please adventure fans, but only about half of the puzzles would count as true logic puzzles. One or two of those puzzles are a bit illogical, taking familiar concepts but twisting them in ways that don't even make that much sense after you've solved them. The balance of the logic puzzles are quite fair and provide a good challenge, though. Some of the "environmental" puzzles -- those that make you find more clever ways of getting around than just unlocking doors -- also make good use of the 3D nature of the game.
However, several of the puzzles require you to move objects around from place to place in odd ways. In most adventure games, this wouldn't be much of a problem -- just drag the item into your inventory and put it where you need it. But there is no inventory in Uru. Instead, you end up having to kick items around to their desired locations -- as if this was some kind of soccer game. This wouldn't be so bad if items could move in a straight line easily, but irregularly-shaped objects behave "properly" by veering off in all sorts of directions as you try to move them. As a result, it may take you a few minutes just to get an object in place -- and even then, you may have to repeat the process if you didn't solve the puzzle correctly. (And that's likely, since either jumping or twisted logic accompanies several of these puzzles.)
Inventory issues aside, the interface still leaves a little bit to be desired. You can choose between first-person mode (as you may be used to from other Myst games) or a third-person mode (which seems more suited to showing your avatar for on-line play). Although the designers presented this as a choice, neither mode is good all the time -- you may need to use first-person to get a close-up of a console or take a better look around, while third-person may be better for some of the jumping puzzles.
The controls themselves also seem to be an odd hybrid of the traditional point-and-click adventure controls and keyboard controls. You can choose between mouse and keyboard controls to do most things, but some things (like using items in the environment) require the mouse, and others (like jumping) require the keyboard. Even though the interface uses both keyboard and mouse, there's no traditional mouse look option, as would be common in most first-person 3D games (where you use the keyboard to move and the mouse to look and turn). You can get close, but the interface still struck me as less than natural, even after attempts at customizing. I also found myself moving when I didn't plan to quite a bit at the start of the game, as the left mouse button can make you move, turn, or use an item (depending on context), and the hotspots for objects seemed smaller to me than I'm used to in other games with similar setups.
Some of the things that annoy me about Uru -- like the quirky controls or the occasional illogical puzzle -- are potential pitfalls in any adventure. But the problems seem to have been exacerbated because this was designed first as an on-line game, with what ended up being the core single-player game added as a relative after-thought. I would argue that if Uru had been designed as a single-player game all along, the interface might have been a bit different -- since there would be no need to show your avatar walking around. And hopefully, a purely single-player Uru would have had a true save feature.
But the real problem with Uru that it has no real story, even the way the original Myst presented one. Uru simply played to me as if it was an advertisement or introduction to the on-line game, albeit one with a good 10-20 hours or so of playing time. Even if the single-player component were impeccable, it shouldn't have been any surprise that Uru Live was cancelled, since the publishers didn't have the on-line component ready to go as people were finishing the single-player game. But when you don't even provide the strongest single-player experience because you optimized the game for on-line play, you're definitely not going to find too many people waiting around weeks or perhaps months to continue their adventures.
I'll surely take a look at the expansion packs Cyan is planning when they become available, but I can't say that I see the loss of Uru Live as any huge failure. Pretty graphics and the mere promise of more can't make up for what I got in the box when the game was first launched. And whatever the track record of Cyan has been, or whatever their ambitions were, it's what's in the box that ultimately has to count.
-- Jason Strautman