Tabula Rasa (Hands On)

Preview

posted 8/8/2007 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista

[EDITOR’S NOTE: It is important to note that these impressions are based on a beta version of the software and will probably change between now and when the game is released. This is especially true for MMO’s so take the following preview with a grain of salt. These impressions were based on the first open press beta and since this exchange NC Soft has released a new client]

Richard Garriott leveled stern criticism at online game developers recently.  The once and future Lord British proclaimed that the MMO genre hasn't progressed in a decade, with the majority of MMOs hashing and rehashing the conventions put forth in EverQuest or (his own) Ultima Online.  His point is arguable, for and against, but them's fightin' words nonetheless.  The only thing louder than Richard Garriott's new-fangled Tabula Rasa General's uniform may just be Richard Garriott himself.  But when a game designer's resume spans nearly 30 years, from his premier title, Akalabeth: World of Doom, and up through 19 iterations of Ultima titles, … well, at that point, the hecklers stop heckling, whip out their wirebounds, and start penciling notes.

Tabula Rasa, executive produced by the aforementioned Garriott, is gunning for a late 2007 release, and his team was kind enough to invite the gaming press in for a sneak preview weekend before going Open Beta.  GamingNexus Editor-in-Chief Chuck Husemann and Editor Randy Kalista took two of the keys, took Richard Garriott up on his offer, and took a trip into Foreas, the host planet of Tabula Rasa.  The following is a dramatic recreation of emailed experiences bouncing back and forth between Chuck and Randy during those few days. 

Randy:  In the spirit of "first impressions," what are some of the good, bad, and ugly things you've run across so far in Tabula Rasa? 

Chuck:  I'm at level eight right now, and it's got some promise -- I've played almost every game Richard Garriott released over the years -- but I'm not sure there's any way they could release Tabula Rasa this year.  There are too many bugs and too many things need ironing out that I think it will be tough to have a good launch before the end of the year.   

I'm enjoying the game a lot though.  I really like the real-time strategy aspect of taking territory away from the Bane(the bad guys in the game).  But it's currently very buggy and rather frustrating that we aren't able to get a feel for some of the back and forth so far.  I dig the run-and-gun style, but it feels a lot like Auto Assault.  What do you think? 

Randy:  Auto Assault certainly came to mind … minus the incessant junkyard collect-a-thon from Auto Assault drops.  Instead, in Tabula Rasa, I'm running out of credits trying to keep my ammo stocked.  I've recently learned how to use a chaingun, but I'm also learning that its upkeep costs are spendy.  

I'm with you on not being able to capture back sites from the Bane.  I was running around that friggin' Wilderness L.Z. for half an hour, trying to figure out if the mission was bugged, or if an invisible wall was set up by the developers.  

Additionally, slow spawn times are creating some serious campgrounds in areas.  I had to pitch a tent in the cave below Pinhole Falls in order to nab my quota of flying, two-tentacled octopus creatures.  I do like how the enemy is constantly dropping in, knockin' on the front doors of the bases, though -- even popping up inside of the walls.  Keeps the bullets flying, even when you're in a "safe zone."  Also, the methods behind the spawning seem more natural here, too.  Instead of creatures just reappearing out of thin air, they're beamed down from dropships, they're hitting the ground and bounding out of dense woodlands, they're pulling themselves up from underground.  Yes, they're still "spawning," per se, but at least an effort's being made to make them do more than just "blink" into existence.

I've run across several memorable locations, too:  Pinhole Falls, the Memory Tree, and the Twin Towers of Light thingies (when you see them you will think of the World Trade Center).  I haven't made it all the way around this particular island yet -- the map holds plenty -- and you're a level ahead of me so far, so you've probably spotted even more sights.

It's silly how the NPC soldiers run around cussin' up a storm, but anything written in the text that's even remotely mistakable as a 'bad word' is covered up with a string of **********.  Some NPCs were even being censored when talking about "Pinhole" Falls, heh heh.  Ah well.  That hypersensitive filter will get some fine-tuning, I'm sure.

Mostly I appreciate how tautly written the missions are.  They're on par with WoW's writing.  (And hopefully no one would think that's a bad thing.) 

Chuck:  Give it time, as the crafting stuff kicks in around level eight or so.  Not sure if it's as bad as Auto Assault yet, but I hope not. 

It does feel like a constant battleground, which is cool, but I'm interested to see how that works with a higher/lower population of people.  Once you get past the n00b areas it gets harder and harder to move around without having to fight every few minutes (which does work at a certain level given the nature of the game). 

Missions are decent - but nothing really new.  Have you done any of the Logos missions yet?  There at least 20 of them and it's a pain to track all of them down.  The cool spell stuff they bestow does work though from a narrative sense.

Did you clone when you reached the specialist/soldier branch or not?  Kind of a cool feature as you can create alt's quickly without having to suffer through all the tutorials again and it seems like there are enough slots that you can explore all the different options the game has to offer.

I heard there will probably be a patch tomorrow (July 31) or Thursday, so hopefully it will fix the capture bug.

What level are you at right now?  I'm about halfway to nine right now with my main character. 



Randy:  I've snagged three of the Logos so far, but none of them were from missions.  I just happened to run across them and activate them independently.  I'm glad you mention that there are missions behind these things, because the Logos by themselves weren't telling me anything, and I couldn't ascertain how I was benefiting from them, if at all.  My Logos Sheet (or whatever it's called) tells me nothing, but I know it's gotta be a big deal, since Garriott apparently spent some time creating an entire language out of it, and I didn't think he was just flexing his Tolkien Language Creation Skills for nothing.

I did clone.  It kinda sucks though, because my clone was only given noob armor, 1000 rounds of ammo, a few med kits, and absolutely no money.  I also couldn't figure out a way to transfer the money to my clone from my primary character, so that clone is kinda worthless with no cash and not even a gun to fit the ammo into.  I'm obviously missing some important step.  It is pretty sweet that the clone of my average height, white male character is that of an intimidatingly-tall African princess.  Hey, no limitations once you clone and hit the character appearance screen again. 

I think I'm halfway to level eight, but you're absolutely right, it's getting much harder to move around the map.  The enemies are appropriately ramping up in number and ability.  And this crouching in combat thing isn't convincing me it's doing any good.  I'm a smaller target, but I'm supposedly easier to hit, if the tutorials are right.  But that's still making very little sense right now.  The cost-benefit just ratio isn't there.

So what the heck's missing?  I mean, overall.  Why am I just thinking this is "okay" and not stellar?  It's a rare setting, it's doing (a couple) new things, it's fairly well written … but I'm still kind of on the fence about it.  Anyone playing, say, Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online, or GuildWars can almost instantly tell that they're playing something special.  But with this?  I'm not getting that feeling, despite all the strides it's taking.  I mean, I'm not hating it.  But I'm not loving it either.  This shouldn't be a surprise, I guess, even though there are so many garbage MMOs out there, I'd say that this one's at least above average.  But still.  I was ready to fall in love, and it just isn't happening. 

Chuck:  Backtracking for a second, I had that happen as well with the Logos.  Some of your abilities require certain Logos to work; something I found out the hard way after picking an ability that required two Logos I didn't have.  The guy who gives you the Logos missions is over by the falls west of Concordia camp and they are worth getting as they give out a decent amount of XP.

That sucks about the clone.  I really haven't tried mine out yet, but that's good to know.  It will suck if you can't transfer stuff between the characters, but I'm also guessing that's something that will get fixed at some point.

I'm with you on the crouch and cover system.  I'm not sure it's really doing anything at this point and I'm wondering if they haven't implemented something that's coming in a later build.

I'm digging the new combat system, but like you, I don't think there's anything that really sets this apart from any other MMO other than the fact that Richard Garriott's got his name in the title.  I'm hoping that the next beta will fix some of the issues and add a bunch of new stuff, but the game is supposed to ship this year and I just don't think there's anything they can really add in that short amount of time that's going to set the game apart from everything else.

Randy:  I don't know much about programming, but you're right, it seems like there's a lot here to fix, and that the fundamentals are pretty much solidified.  In a couple months, it might still only be at a Vanguard-level of readiness.

I found that the key to transferring equipment and money between clones is the footlockers in the barracks.  One character drops something in, and any character you've created on the same account can pick it up.  Money, too.

The Wilderness L.Z. was fixed -- it was taken from the Bane when I last visited.  I didn't see the takeover happen, but several mission-givers and a hefty group of good guy NPCs were patrolling the area. 

Chuck:  Vanguard … ouch … that's harsh! 

Ah, those footlockers make sense.  I saw them, but I wasn't sure exactly what they did. 

I noticed last night that they'd tweaked a lot of things, like my rifle overheating a lot more.  Some of the new missions from the Wilderness L.Z. were kind of cool as well -- although camping the mortars with ten other people kind of sucked.  I didn't see the re-taking o the LZ either, but I did stop and help defend against the Bane that were consistently trying to take the L.Z. back (which is kind of cool).  I did see a few people trying to get a group together to take back the Twin Hills place, but I didn't join them. 



Randy:  I didn't go shooting around much last night, but yeah, my rifle did seem to overheat rather quickly.  I guess that's where swapping out a rack of five different weapons comes in handy.  I still wish I could see my entire toolbar at the bottom, though.  For a game that's not necessarily twitch-based, it gets a little hectic for me going from lightning bolt, to med kit, to sprint, and back again while trying to keep my sights poised, trigger pulled, and bullets hitting the dancing-around bad guys.  I'm a little lazy when trying to pull off that kind of manual dexterity.  I know they're going for a 'minimalist' look on the HUD wherever they can, but I don't have those hotkeys memorized yet. 

Chuck:  Seems like they also increased the cost of ammo a bit, but nothing major.  I was kind of surprised that I didn't have to download a ton of stuff last night. 

Have you tried using the lock-on feature with the tab button?  Helps mitigate some of it, although it doesn't seem like you can tab from enemy to enemy, which is kind of annoying.  Hopefully that will get fixed, too. 

[End of correspondence.]

It speaks highly of Tabula Rasa that the only thing Chuck and I could muster complaints about were gameplay technicalities -- all of which are rather forgiven at this point, since the game is still in beta (and "beta" is the Latin word for "bugs"). 

And we walked away, marginally impressed by the combat-centric setting; though don't think for a minute that this is for shooter fans.  At its root, this is still very much an RPG, much less so an FPS.

I'm a certifiable explorer when it comes to MMOs, and I was pleased that so much of the landscape is unlocked and easy to travel over.  There's plenty of terrain to bound around, and the addition of a healthy, seemingly low-grav jump button helps in the getting up-and-over obstacles part.  And while Tabula Rasa is sci-fi, a fantasy fiction feeling coats the entire planet.  Looking into the night sky, a gigantic moon, still reeling from volcanic forces, pushes aside the evening.  Tropical palms share root space with deciduous trees.  And air and light is thick and palpable, while the surround-sound battle adds an aurally-painted layer of atmosphere, even when there's nothing directly exploding onscreen.  The Bane -- and their perhaps/perhaps-not brethren, the Eloh -- fondly carve Mount Rushmore-sized heads inside of caverns and overlooking cliff sides, making Easter Island look like a collection of Easter Eggs in size comparisons.

In Tabula Rasa, the standard "earn mission, kill monster, grab reward" formula is intact.  This is, after all, the expected rise and denouement of storytelling for everything from Beowulf to Harry Potter. However, the ability to lose and recover strategic points on the map throws in a now-popular RTS convention; cloning your character -- thus saving your game -- is a long-overdue idea for all-or-nothing online games' character creation; and introducing so-called "ethical parables" into the mission structure proactively routes you down one branch of the storyline, while cutting off another.  Sure, one can choose to skip certain missions in your average MMO, but it's rarer, as it is in Tabula Rasa, to present various possibilities with conflicting interests.

These "ethical parables" sometimes beat you over the head with their ideologies, but it's a beating one should learn to take.  It only richens the gaming experience to hear an NPC wax philosophical on how "Once you start to understand something, it becomes much less terrifying."  Even reading Murphy's Rules of Combat off a data terminal is a blast with pearls like "Friendly fire -- isn't,"  "A sucking chest wound is nature's way of telling you to slow down," and "If your attack is going really well, it's an ambush."  Anybody that's served in the U.S. military has had these rules forwarded to their email inbox at some point, which makes them all the more perfectly suited here, in the combat-stricken world of Tabula Rasa. 

The gag order for talking about Tabula Rasa has relaxed somewhat, but overly-technical specifics about the gameplay (and anything but official screenshots) are still under wraps as the dev team deploys their bug exterminators, and generally continues to implement changes here and there through the beta period.   

We’ll follow-up in a few weeks with some updated impressions of the game based on newer builds of the game.