MrLipid's Closet of the Odd

Review by MrLipid
July 2006

Once upon an Era ...

Remember the early 1970s? Nixon was still in the White House, George Peppard was vexing insurance companies as Banacek and a young Englishman released a bestselling album that became the musical signature of The Exorcist.

Though Nixon and Peppard are no longer with us, that no-longer-so-young Englishman is and he has been busy. That Englishman is, of course, Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame, and for the past decade or so he's been intrigued by something he calls MusicVR.

Sounds ... Promising

Maestro, the second program to make use of the specially written MusicVR engine (Tr3s Lunas was the first), enables players, alone or networked and chatting with each other, to fly through spacious fantasy worlds while searching for objects called medals—medals that look like self-adhesive premade silver ribbon gift bows. In the namesake Maestro mode, players achieve the title of Maestro by collecting enough medals to reach enough worlds to find and escort a quartet of "Gravitars" to a special Gravitar holding pen. (Don't ask what a Gravitar is. I have no idea.) Another mode involves collecting precisely two dozen medals from all of the worlds of Maestro. (If one is playing with a friend, one can exchange medals or simply give them away.)

Maestro is, in many respects, the embodiment of what more than a few adventure gamers have described as the ideal future of adventure gaming: a nonlinear quest set in an enormous universe that can explored from a first- or third-person perspective, alone or with friends, with complete freedom of movement. What's not to like?

Say What?

How about this: Maestro has no save game function.

Let me repeat that. Maestro has no save game function.

Exiting the current game, whether by choice (F4 = exit), accident (F1 = new game) or crash (nothing's perfect), erases all traces of a player's progress. The next time Maestro is fired up, it will behave as if it has never been played before.

There is no clue, either on the website or in the game, why this particularly odd design choice was made. There are oblique references to leaving Maestro running—"When you are not participating in Maestro, leave the world running all night as an active screensaver or as a Windows background to your day-to-day tasks"—but that's not quite the same as saying, "Leaving Maestro = starting over."

(Leaving Maestro running makes sense if it is possible to minimize it and get some work done. While I was never able to minimize Maestro in 98SE, it obediently shrinks to the task bar in XP Pro.)

What's the Good News?

If you can't imagine yourself playing a game you can't save and come back to, you might as well quit reading now. If you're a patient soul with nothing else to do, read on.

Maestro's defining characteristic is scale. The worlds in Maestro are huge. There are seemingly endless plains to fly across and entire mountain ranges to soar over. There are massive building exteriors to examine and immense interior spaces to explore. While the player may not have a clear idea why a certain world is full of floating clock gears or how to relate to a scorpion made of circuit boards, there is always something to see and, more often than not, that something is worth seeing.

More Bad News?

That said, there are more than a few instances where inspiration appears to have failed, and a placeholder, be it an overly familiar texture or an incongruous object, was inserted while Maestro's creators awaited, in vain, the return of their muse.

More fundamental than the sometimes stale textures and overall coarseness of the objects throughout Maestro are the limitations of the game engine. Maestro is striving to offer the player something resembling the dream state of flying. It needs a game engine with the flexibility of 1995's Descent or 2000's Shark! Hunting the Great White. Both of those engines offered players full freedom of movement. Want to tumble in space? No problem in Descent. Swim along the ocean floor while looking up at the surface? Go ahead in Shark! A few moments of flying in Maestro reveal that the game engine not only enforces the idea of up and down, it also limits how far one can turn upon an axis. There are times in Maestro when one feels one is dreaming the dream of a tether ball, wrapped too tightly around the pole to move and forced to "unwind" in order to proceed.

Control in Maestro could not be simpler. Pressing the left mouse button moves one forward, and pressing the right mouse button brings one to a full stop. Press the right mouse button after a full stop and one reverses direction. While the control is simple, it takes a fair amount of getting used to. Expect to overshoot more than a few doorways and pile into more than a few walls. Though Maestro is a nonviolent game, there are times when it is necessary to open doors or trigger puzzles by launching a volley of circuit boards or chunks of DNA at them by pressing the space bar.

A substantial portion of the gameplay in Maestro consists of drifting through massive spaces looking for the aforementioned medals and Gravitars. The speed at which the worlds drift past is determined by the MusicVR engine and, because said engine is designed to convey a sense of scale, the pace is leisurely. Maestro is not a title designed for those who can vividly remember demanding to know, most likely from the back seat, "Are we there yet?"

Between long drifts, the player can ponder how each world works. What ties to what and how does doing one thing affect another? Is it a good idea to open the birdcage by pressing the spacebar and firing what look like circuit boards at it? Should one pelt a chrome statue with chunks of DNA? Is it always a good idea to fly through a painting? And what about those unicorns?

The Living Diminuendo

For a game designed by someone who made his name as a musician, there is surprisingly little music in Maestro and not many sound effects. Just a quiet, slow drift through worlds that frequently look like they were wallpapered with web page backgrounds from the mid-1990s.

Am I glad that I've spent some time in the worlds of Maestro? Yes. I haven't run into anything quite so odd since Welcome to the Future or Weird. Can I recommend that folks dash to the Mike Oldfield website and buy a downloadable copy? No. What I can recommend is that folks drift to the Mike Oldfield website and download the demo. If you like what you find in the demo, you'll find even more to like in the full version. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Mike Oldfield
Publisher: MikeOldfield.Com
Release Date: March 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 3 processor
OpenGL compatible graphics card
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
128 MB RAM

Where to Find It

Mike Oldfield website

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