Tabula Rasa Hands-on Preview

The problem with Destination Games' other-worldly MMO Tabula Rasa is that it feels alien at all the wrong times. An hour into the game, instead of feeling as if I'd been transported into the middle of an alien world, I was running through an environment that recalled memories of the backwoods of Planet Michigan. Massive trees, grassy dells, and rabid dog-like creatures dominated the territory--and when I finally ran across signs of civilization, I was met with a grouping of ramshackle tents populated by a few odd-looking strangers peering out from within. Are they mission commanders from another planet, or beef jerky salesmen? Alien shamen sent to guide me on a spiritual quest of enlightenment, or NRA members? What is this game about, anyway?

In recent months I've attended two demonstrations of Tabula Rasa by MMO veteran and Tabula team leader Richard Garriott. On both occasions the former lord of Ultima Online made a very strong case for why his new game was shaping up to be a departure for the industry. Featuring a minimalist user interface, frantic gun-based combat, dynamic NPCs, character save states and branching skills, Tabula sounds fantastic on paper--and, I can now report, all of these selling points hold up in practice. Combat is fun. The user interface is elegantly executed. Character cloning is a revelation. Every MMO should be pushing for these improvements.

So what's the problem?

If players are expected to spend untold hours of time inside a virtual fantasy world, it should look markedly more interesting than the mundane biosphere to which we're already accustomed. Even the earth should look different from the Earth. This is one area that World of Warcraft mostly nailed--presenting brilliantly realized zones that stimulate the imagination. Though Tabula is aiming for more of a realistic approach to its presentation, even its basic elements are lacking, right down to houses and rocks.

For instance, the enemies and NPCs found in Tabula are technically aliens, but we've seen so many of these generic purple-headed humanoid designs that they barely register as anything new. Player characters are relegated to the same breed of human, with standard spacesuits, brightly colored jumpsuits, and drab combat outfits serving as your avatar's wardrobe. The environment of the few starting zones failed to hold my interest beyond passing glances. Forest-dwelling druids with wooden platformed huts have been a staple of MMOs since the original Everquest, and the steel futuristic compounds of the human bases aren't anything to speak of either. Even the geography itself is notably uninteresting. Waterfalls and caves? In a video game? What next--crates?

Fortunately, Tabula Rasa somewhat makes up for its visual shortcomings with the aforementioned innovations, as well as an often-riveting ambiance.

Stepping into the futuristic world of Tabula for the first time is a chaotic experience. Dropships swoop down from overhead, gracefully and logically inserting enemy and friendly soldiers onto the battlefield. It's not often that a spawn makes this much sense in the context of its world. Rocket launchers and laser chainguns sent ordnance screaming through the air as I took cover behind a grouping of sandbags. Strategically placed embankments offer real protection from incoming fire--although in a lot of cases your character looks rather silly taking cover and shooting through a wall while crouched in a defensive position. However, polygonal clipping doesn't stop your avatar from locking onto enemies and shooting away, which feels more satisfying than any RPG combat in recent memory. This is still an RPG though, and while you can pop shots off in FPS fashion, you're essentially casting the "bullet" spell, eroding enemy health bars with familiar damage-over-time mathematics. While you aim from a third person perspective in Gears of War fashion, targets are locked with a "sticky targeting" system, reducing carefully placed headshots to more generic attacks.

Does this simple fact distract from the experience of firing a shotgun slug into a piggish Bane monster that sends him reeling backward into a heap? Not in the least. Without factoring in the potential for lag, the visceral feedback you receive from unloading on enemies with a plasma rifle is a well-realized effect.

Combat in Tabula requires only your two mouse buttons: the left for the primary weapon, and the right for a spell or item. As such, your skills will generally better the use of either. Advancement isn't explicitly class-constrained, but a branching tree forces some difficult choices. You'll start out choosing between the combat-focused soldier profession and the support-oriented specialist field, and will build up your character by continually choosing branch after branch. Eventually, you might narrow yourself down to a particular lightning spell that few others will use, or a firearms skill that gives you an edge with a shotgun.

With so many paths to take, the game offers the ability to "clone" your character, spawning a copy of your avatar at each branching point and allowing you to continue down different paths in the future. Each character retains the same last name, which eases the tracking of your friends' alternate characters. Also, every character shares a storage space, letting you effortlessly exchange goods between characters. By taking away the punishment related to trying new characters, Destination has implemented a simple, yet utterly essential feature, and one that should become a standard in future games.

Having previously seen an exciting full play-through of one of Tabula's instanced missions, I was keen to try one out--but first I had to beef up my character's stats. Disappointingly, questing is the same World of Warcraft-style exercise of playing fetch and carrying out random acts of genocide, collecting items and temporarily shutting down enemy spawns. Garriott billed the missions as presenting moral dilemmas rich in story, but in a dozen hours of play, I have yet to run across any matching that description. Ultimately, the quests aren't badly designed so much as they are predictably dull. In a game that tries to be the next step in the genre, these tasks stick out like stale chips alongside fresh guacamole.

After a few hours of that I was up to level 8, and made the short trek across the woods to the Pravus Research Facility. As it turned out, it was the same instance I had seen in a previous demonstration, which offered me a unique perspective on the ensuing battle. While specific details are subject to change, with NCsoft requesting press refrain from describing missions in depth, the instance was well designed from an aesthetic standpoint, and a refreshing change of pace from the bland environments of the overworld. These closed and open-air dungeons offer quests given inside, providing your own sealed-off experience from the outside competition. Picture a World of Warcraft instance, playable with any amount of users, and surrounded by a constant war between computerized forces. They draw from the strengths of single-player levels, with players making use of computer terminals to access security cameras before entering boss-like encounters. I ran through an entire instance with just a friend of mine, plowing through enemies that were apparently tuned to our small group size. Without a doubt, instances are Tabula Rasa's shining moment.

In the weeks ahead, I'm going to keep plugging away with my soldier avatar. My hope is that the presentation will improve as I progress into new zones, and that I become pleasantly surprised by the new and interesting quests I find there. As it stands, despite my initial enthusiasm brought on by its welcome advances, Tabula's world hasn't gripped me in the way than an MMO should. Check back later for more of my thoughts before the game's release.

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