Guest review series continued: Myst IV

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Peter Miller continues his guest review of the latest in the Myst saga, Myst IV: Revelation (Mac version). WARNING: SOME SPOILERS!

A few days on and I’m still enjoying Myst 4. I have now spent some time wandering around Spire, Haven and Serenia. Without spoiling too much, some further musings. One thing that occurred to me yesterday is that I’m playing the game with a very critical eye, and after thinking about why that was I came to the conclusion that this game is so good that its imperfections, when they appear, stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game. Because this project is so well realised, it should be perfect. Or at least, some of the rough edges should have been sandpapered a little more.

A few examples by way of explanation: after a little exploration of Tomahna, I went through to Spire and was delighted to find myself in an original and engaging Myst world. Everything about it, from the craggy vertiginous staircase to the glowing crystalline floating rocks with their swarms of luminous fireflies, is wondrous. Ubisoft have understood a fundamental thing about the Myst experience, and that is that delight in the environment is as important as solving the little mysteries along the way. Spire is enigmatic, dramatic and beautifully executed. The puzzles are tricky (and in one case bereft of logic, or at least any I could see) but integrated appropriately. The musical score is engaging and mysterious and the ambient sound works very well.

My first disappointment came when I visited Haven. Now I hasten to say that I am being picky with these criticisms, but only because I think that a little more attention to these details could have elevated Revelation from a great game to sheer artistic genius. Haven’s jungle world is beautiful and lush. The designers have excelled themselves in conjuring an exotic and fantastic environment. The music is a little less than perfect in this world, with (as pointed out by the Headless Hollow illuminati) unfortunate faux ‘native drums’ a la Lion King being a little too focal in some areas. The sound ambiences are rather better, with mysterious sirens and wolf howls off in the distance, and all manner of unusual chattering wildlife. What really lets Haven down are the CG creatures that populate its wonderful scenery. It is almost as if the designers suddenly lost all their creativity in some late-night beer-and-pizza blowout. It’s not that the concept is not good—far from it. The creatures that browse in the swamp weed and clamber up through the trees are a great idea, it’s just that they are done poorly. I’m sure that what the designers have achieved is technically very clever; integrating 3D animals into the world in such a way that they appear to be actually there is quite impressive. But there are two major problems in my view: First, the creatures are for the most part daft. I wish people would avoid the compulsion, when creating alien life, to use the “what if we crossed a cow with a triceratops, gave it some wacky appendages, paint it mauve and made it walk on its hind legs” method. It never works. How about getting some biologists to advise you on what a browsing swamp creature might actually look like? And while I’m on the subject, never, never, never rip off another person’s alien creature: “hows about we cross one of those cute mogwai with a monkey?”—cheap and annoying. It’s not Gremlins it’s Myst and it deserves its own original and sophisticated creatures.

The second problem is that all the animals feel very ‘stuck-on’ despite their relation-to-the-player persistence. It’s a shame. It’s one of those things that drops you out of the reality of the world, rather than draws you in. It makes you aware that you are playing a computer game. Personally, I think it would have been preferable to have dropped these creatures entirely, and risked criticisms of the world feeling ’empty’.

Serenia, on the other hand, has some fine ‘otherworldly’ life. Its Roger Dean influenced quasi-Mayan landscape is simply beautiful. I haven’t explored much here yet, but suffice to say that I found it intriguingly explorable and well worth the effort of solving the extremely annoying and badly executed bookshelf puzzle (I mean, come on guys—I knew how to solve the puzzle well before I could wade through the illegible and obtuse D’ni text renderings. That’s not good puzzle-setting; that’s just difficult game mechanics. And I had to use pencil and paper, which kind of defeats the whole concept of the photographic journal introduced in Myst 4.)

I re-iterate: my criticisms are minor in the scheme of the whole show. Myst 4 is a remarkable achievement. I strongly feel, though, that it is a pity that a final Quality Control pass was not done on the game and some of the messier elements whipped into shape. It would have been worth the extra wait. I’m up for testing of Myst 5 chaps. I’m a hard taskmaster, but your game will be better off for it.

Stay tuned!

Guest review series: Myst IV

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Headless Hollow once again welcomes Peter Miller with the first in a series of guest reviews of the latest in the Myst saga, Myst IV: Revelation (Mac version). Go here for his review of the downloadable demo. Take it away Pete!

Well, first impressions of Myst 4: Revelation are that it might well live up to expectations. Even my very high expectations.

I was suspicious at first. The installer boots a frustrating command-line ‘Wizard’ that is so redolent of Windows that I felt that I might need to wash my hands after touching it. I would have thought that Ubisoft might have gone the extra few inches to make an OS X friendly installer, but I guess I should just be grateful that Revelation got to Mac in the first place. Anyway, it’s but a moment’s distaste and the installer did its thing without problems. Be warned though, a complete install takes in excess of 7 gig so you need plenty of space on your drive. There is a minimum install option which I assume may require swapping of the 2 DVDs which the game comes on.

The menu page is still rather cheap-looking. It seems kinda weird to me that it shouldn’t be a beautiful hi-rez illustration. It’s not as if it has to do much. The music here is the same lovely piece used in the demo.

Without spoiling things, starting the game moves you quickly into the story. There is the usual preamble from Atrus and a rather twee but bearable intro to the new world.

Then you get to see just how good the game mechanics are. As promised in the demo, everything is full of life and movement. There are beautiful lighting effects, sun, shadow, moving clouds, birds, insects, smoke, water; it’s all there. It is a joy to just move around this world and look. It reminds me of the first impression I had of Riven which is my favourite installment of the Myst saga.

There are still some ragged moments; on my PowerBook the synchronisation of dialogue in the movie clips was never right. Some of the transitions are a little bumpy and there is annoyingly long pause between most of them.

Music-wise, Jack Wall’s score is more evocative and better realised than Exile. It seems to have a greater emphasis on atmosphere, and a much wider palette of instrumentation. It feels folkier and more appropriate to the Myst ouvre than Exile’s rather more derivative offering. That’s not to say it doesn’t have drama—there are some great moments and I found myself getting quite caught up in the story at one point when I should have been hurrying off to keep an appointment. I think that can be taken as a very good sign. The music features quite a bit of vocal work too, which is a thoughtful musical reflection of the addition of more player/character interaction than in the previous titles.

The ambient sound is also nice—not quite as evocative or original as Riven but appropriate and well realised. I recommend that you play the game on a good sound system to get the best out of the beautiful sonic environment. There are some lovely little tricks that you might miss if you’re just relying on your Mac’s inbuilt speakers.

Thus far, I have encountered only a couple of the game’s puzzles, and they seem appropriate and clever. The story is simple but there is already some subtext: SPOILER FOLLOWS! (For instance, at one point Yeesha shows you a pendant and talks about what it can do. She complains that Atrus doesn’t take it seriously when it shows her ‘visions’ but that her brothers do… Wait a minute. Her brothers? Sirrus and Achenar? Aren’t they supposed to be imprisoned and isolated on other worlds… and she has spoken to them? That doesn’t bode well… )

There’s also another engaging feature in this game—there is humour! I laughed out loud a few times, once at some clever psychological manipulation (oops, I probably shouldn’t have opened that box… ) and another time at a pretty obvious reaction (well, what do you think happens if you poke your finger into an electrical generator?).

Some warnings. A friend who is running the game on a PowerBook with a slightly slower video card than mine doesn’t have access to the interactive water effects, nor to some of the ‘immersive’ effects (the moving trees and plants and the depth-of-field effect for instance). The same thing happens on my G4 and Cinema display. On that machine, even at the minimum resolution there are also many graphic anomalies such as visible mattes, image tearing, strange glitches and so forth. So you need a pretty fast video card to make the best of the game.

So, first impressions are good. More as it comes to hand.

Guest review: Myst IV demo

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Headless Hollow welcomes the esteemed sound designer Peter Miller (of ‘The Ring’ fame) with this guest review of the new Ubisoft Myst IV downloadable demo (Mac version):

Let me say from the get go that I am a big fan of the original Myst, and of the sequel to that game, Riven. I think it is universally agreed that these games redefined the puzzle/adventure style game which, up until they came along, were pretty much devoid of atmosphere and style. Having said that I was less enamoured of the clumsy Exile, which, for all its technical progress on the first two titles was bereft of the magic and charm of those games.
So it was with high hopes for a return to form that I downloaded the demo for Myst 4: Revelation.

Well. It started badly. This is no tiny example file—the zipped demo is a whopping 185 meg, which is a sizeable investment of time if you’re not on a fast pipe. What makes matters worse is that if you’re a Mac user, the archive has been incorrectly formatted and it took me quite a bit of experimenting and hunting around the web for advice before I could actually boot the demo. That this problem has not been rectified as of this writing is a sad indictment of the disinterest which Ubisoft shows to Apple users, forgetting that the Mac platform was where the Myst saga was originally born. Why should they care, I guess, when all the money is in the PC world.

My first impression on beginning the game was one of shoddiness. After an explanatory introduction by our old friend Atrus, we are taken to a game menu that looks cheap and poorly designed. It is offset somewhat by the music that we hear: an engaging change of style from the previous Myst adventures. The track is interesting and evocative and even a little dark, something like a cross between the almost ubiquitous Lisa Gerrard and some of Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings.

Upon entering the game proper, however, the music turns into a bland Riven copycat, with none of the panache of that work. It was so reminiscent of the mediocre Exile music that I found myself wondering whether they’d just re-used some music from that title for the sake of expedience.

Visually, this segment of the world of Revelation looks wonderful. In the demo, the player arrives on a moonlit night outside Atrus’ room. Complete spherical vision is implemented—you can look left, right up and down, wherever you wish. From the wooden walkway on which you first appear there are a number of buildings visible, although unreachable in the demo. The moonlight illuminates everything with a soft blue glow, and a slight mist drifts across the moon and stars. Stand there staring at this beautiful sky for a minute or two and you might even see a shooting star zip across the heavens. Beneath you, a river runs down into a chasm, a mist of water spray rising above it in the distance. A breeze stirs the trees and moths dance around the lamps that light the walkways. There is motion in everything. In addition to all this, a clever depth-of-focus trick is used to defocus the background slightly if the player is looking at something close. It’s subtle but effective. Sound-wise, we are treated to the usual ambient sound, nice but not spectacular. The outside atmosphere sounds a little generic to me, almost identical to the town ambience in Diablo 1 (or maybe it’s just the owl). One annoying thing: on transitions, the ambience fades out and in again. This has the effect of breaking the continuity of place and I hope it isn’t this way in the game. They managed crossfades in Exile, so it seems to me that it should be possible here.
A major disappointment happens when you click to enter Atrus’ room. As with Exile, transitions through doors and so forth are accomplished by a bridging movie sequence. This particular one is very rough, with jagged edges on the doors, lighting mismatches and a very noticeable drop in resolution. It’s the kind of thing that Cyan spent so much time on getting right in Riven. It might seem like a small criticism, but these things smack of franchise to me—let’s just get the game out so we can make some money! Attention to detail is not just a luxury in the world of Myst: it is the very foundation upon which the Myst reputation was built. I sincerely hope that this is just an artifact of the demo. Personally, I wouldn’t even have allowed this in a demo, but maybe I’ve got higher standards than those that Ubisoft find acceptable.

Inside this room, we are treated to more beautiful visual ambience. The light from the moon picks out dust motes floating in the air, and potted plants sway gently in the breeze. There are a number of things to be discovered whilst poking around. One innovation for Revelation is an animated 3D hand cursor (available in left or right handedness!) that changes to indicate the actions it can perform. Clicking on objects throughout the room has the effect of causing the fingers to tap on things with an appropriate sound: glass, paper, wood. It’s cute. If something can be examined closely, the hand magically produces a magnifying glass.

There are the requisite journals and notes to be found in here, the threads of the beginning of a story concerning Atrus’ two troublesome sons. It seems a bit like a rehash of things we have encountered before, and it’s a tad disappointing to be going over this ground again. Still, I will reserve my judgement on that point until the full story is available. It seems to me though, that given the extraordinary possibilities inherent in the Myst universe, the tale of familial woe has been explored a little too thoroughly. We shall see. The documents in the study are adequately ‘Myst-like’ but they are somehow detailed with less love and conviction than we have come to expect. Once again, it smacks of a watering-down of a concept, and a fear of deviating too far from the tried-and-true formula.

There is of course, a puzzle to be solved, and it is a relatively straight forward button-pusher, with a superfluous ‘hint’ parchment to be found in the room (I suppose you don’t want the demo to be too puzzling or you might scare off the faint-of-heart). It’s a nice enough teaser though, with a pretty visual component.

We also discover that there are some tools for ‘recording’ your Revelation experience, both as stills and movies. While I could figure out how to make a recording, there are no notes with the demo to tell you how to retrieve your recording. I assume that will not be a problem with the game proper.

There is also an amulet to be found that enables flashbacks and voiceovers in appropriate places. A friend who ran the demo was unable to activate these features properly, even though his computer was almost identical to mine. On that subject, I have to report that the demo was very buggy, and crashed several times in play. I am so unused to crashes under OS X that this seemed entirely unacceptable to me. Once again, I will make allowances for the demo. I desperately hope this is not indicative of the release, or I will be first in line for my money back. There is no excuse anymore for a full release that is this unstable.

Myst 4: Revelation has a lot to live up to. My own hope is that it transcends the rather vapid puzzle solving that was the main point of Exile and has something of the flair of Riven with its complex subplots and wonderful air of mystery. The demo has enough intriguing and magical set dressing to make me want to like it and I only hope that Ubisoft has taken the time and care to look after this special world.

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