Uru: Ages Beyond Myst Impressions
The next game in the Myst series will support online multiplayer. Get the details here.
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The Myst series comprises some of the most popular games in history, selling more than 12 million copies on several different platforms since its debut on the PC 10 years ago. Developer Cyan will attempt to take the series in a more-modern direction with the next game, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, by building the new game with a real-time 3D engine from the ground up and by giving the game online multiplayer capability. Despite these departures from traditional Myst games, Uru promises to retain much of the same charm, wonder, and classic adventure gameplay that has made the series so popular. We recently had the opportunity to visit the team at Cyan, the developer of Uru, and they were gracious enough to give us a demonstration and some hands-on time with the newest game in the Myst series.
Uru's story focuses on the mysterious D'ni civilization, an ancient race that traveled to Earth 10,000 years ago and created a vast underground empire. The D'ni possessed the ability to create mystical linking books that would let them travel freely between different worlds. At some point in time, the underground citizens of D'ni came in contact with a single human, forever creating a link between the D'ni world and the one we know. Sometime soon after the meeting of the two worlds, the underground civilization of the D'ni mysteriously collapsed, leaving vast subterranean cities completely uninhabited. As you go through the game, you'll learn more about the mysterious civilization as you meet up with the DRC (D'ni Reconstruction Council), a group that is attempting to rebuild the underground cities. As you explore these areas and the different ages, you'll also find some recorded messages from Yeesha, the daughter of Atrus--one of the principal characters of the earlier Myst games.
The first thing that longtime Myst fans will notice about Uru is that the game starts you out with an avatar creation interface. Yes, for the first time ever in a Myst game, you'll be able to see yourself running around the wondrous environments. Using the avatar creation tool, you'll be able to pick your gender, clothes, and hairstyle. Myst purists will still have the option of changing the in-game perspective to a first-person view to give Uru a more-traditional feel.
As you'd expect from a Myst game, Uru's onscreen interface is very minimal. There are no inventory indicators, health meters, compasses, maps, or anything else cluttering up the screen at all as you play the game. The lack of onscreen clutter gives the game a very clean look and allows you to concentrate on taking in the game's beautiful environments. Even the cursor you use to interact with the world is uncomplicated; it's a simple circle. If you mouse-over something that can be pushed, pulled, or otherwise disturbed, the circle intuitively fills in with a dot to indicate a hotspot. Moving around the environments can be done with just the mouse, but those who have played an action game or two may find it easier to map the movement controls to the keyboard along with the jump button.
While Real Myst was technically the first game in the series with a real-time 3D engine, it's safe to say that Uru's implementation promises to be a lot cleaner, as the game is designed from the ground up with 3D exploration in mind, including running, jumping, and climbing. Of course, fans shouldn't worry that Cyan has turned Uru into an action game--the bulk of the gameplay will still focus on exploration and puzzle solving, and you will never have to worry about taking damage from a fall or plummeting into a bottomless chasm.
Gameplay and the Online Component
You'll start out in Uru near a strange rift in the floor of a New Mexico desert. After a bit of exploring and puzzle solving, you'll eventually find a linking book to a strange island in the clouds, with a small house built on it. This house serves as your home, a hub to all the other ages you'll explore throughout the game. The island contains the first few linking books you'll need to explore other ages, while a shelf inside of your house stores all the books you find during your journey. If you choose to play the game with friends, you can bring them to your home and share your linking books to jump into an age together.
The details about Uru's online component have, until recently, seemed unclear. It may seem odd that Cyan would even bring multiplayer play to the Myst series--a series that is largely known for its immersive single-player adventures. Yet Cyan has noted that the company's own user research indicates that the Myst games do lend themselves to multiplayer play; specifically, many Myst players often played the games with a friend or two watching over their shoulder, or they discussed the game's puzzles with other players while not playing the game. By including multiplayer, friends can share the game experience in a more-direct way.
Uru is not, however, a massively multiplayer game in the traditional sense. While it will be possible to get online and meet up with strangers to take on certain adventures, the online spaces will be broken up into "neighborhoods," which are small subdomains of a larger online space. From time to time, you'll run into game moderators and listen to announcements about the reconstruction of D'ni from game officials, so in this way, Uru will resemble other massively multiplayer games. However, you will be able to create your own neighborhoods and even protect them with passwords so that the meeting areas are restricted to friends. From there, you can take your friends back to your own "island in the clouds" and jump into different ages together. In that sense, Uru will be a more-private multiplayer experience.
The purpose of the game's subscription model is actually to allow Cyan to continue producing new downloadable content in the form of new ages, puzzles, and adventures for players to solve together. Other content in the form of features may also be introduced. For example, we were shown a special item for the online component called the ki. Completing an early puzzle will give you access to the ki, which is a tool carried by your avatar that lets you keep buddy lists and contact friends who may be online but in a separate neighborhood or age (normally your dialogue can be heard only in the immediate vicinity). The ki will also allow you to take screenshots, which can be shown to other players in-game by loading them into special projector units scattered around the neighborhoods.
It's worth noting that the online subscription is purely optional--with nine different ages included in the box, there will be plenty of content for players to enjoy without paying anything above the price of the software. To entice people to try out the online aspects of the game, there are tentative plans in place to allow Uru customers free access to the online worlds for "a few months," instead of the traditional single month that most massively multiplayer games allow.
As it stands, Uru looks quite polished at this point. The custom 3D engine runs smoothly and renders extremely detailed and attractive environments, even without the help of fancy shader effects. As Josh Staub, Cyan's art director, noted, much of the focus in Uru's graphics was placed in level geometry and creating clean, crisp textures. The obvious benefit of this straightforward approach to the game's graphics is that Uru will look great on a much wider variety of computers than if the art direction relied more upon the latest DirectX 9 effects.
Currently, the team at Cyan is in crunch mode, and they've hired a lot more on-site QA staff to help with the final leg of development on Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Much of the groundwork and construction is complete or nearly complete on the nine ages planned for inclusion in the final product--in fact, some of the team is already preparing for production of the new content that will be released online for subscribers. The game is currently scheduled to ship toward the end of 2003.