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Lord British delivers his brand new MMO and offers a 'clean slate' to those tired of the same old mechanics...
- Innovative real-time combat.
- Dynamic battlefields.
- Logos hunt encourages exploration.
- Doesn't have that 'WoW' factor.
- Grinding remains prevalent.
- Euro server is always highly populated.
The debut title from the new House of Garriott - Destination Games - Tabula Rasa has finally arrived on PC with promises of taking the heavily congested MMO genre into the next stage of development. Forgoing the High Fantasy setting used by top MMO titles World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online to focus on a futuristic intergalactic war, Tabula Rasa aims to offer MMO veterans and newcomers alike an entirely new experience. But in a year that has seen one of NCsoft's portfolio (Auto Assault) shut its servers, and rival Codemasters Online Gaming switch two of their titles into totally free-to-play experiences in a bid to boost the population, Tabula Rasa is certainly stepping out at a time when questions over the genre's sustainability in such a crammed environment continue.
A clean slate for the genre...Earlier in the year, TVG spoke to Destination Games' key figure and founder of the Ultima series of RPGs, Richard Garriott about his thoughts on the MMO genre in the run up the launch of Tabula Rasa. Describing how even Blizzard's current pinnacle of the MMO world is little more than an "extremely beautiful and refined version of the feature sets" begun in the decade old Ultima Online and Everquest, it's clear that the self-styled Lord British has set out to take the first baby steps of a whole new selection of feature sets.
So what's this new age of MMORPG all about?
Well, first of all there's the setting. Traditionally, the realms of sci-fi haven't fared particularly well as MMOs, just look at Star Wars: Galaxies, The Matrix Online, and NCsoft's own (now defunct) post-apocalyptic Auto Assault. Now, the mantle has passed to Tabula Rasa. Set on a couple of planets in a near future where mankind's existence is threatened by the traditional all-conquering (though likely misunderstood) race called the Bane, players take to the plains, hills, valleys, and caves in a bid to rescue humanity - now part of a conglomerate of alien races known as the Allied Free Sentients - from the brink. Not exactly the most original plot granted, but what Tabula Rasa does deliver is a smattering of game mechanics new to the genre.
The Class system is branched for instance, setting all players as generic 'Recruits' at the very start of the game. But as the character levels up, the path begins to separate. Do you want to be a Soldier or a Specialist? Decision made, the next set of branches occur further down the line, creating a feeling of character progression unlike its competitors. The strategy also opens up to a second dynamic of Tabula Rasa that addresses the issue of experiencing the game as a different class: Cloning. Cloning may be something of a contentious issue in the real-world, but in Tabula Rasa it's gripped by both hands with great glee. Want to see what life is like as a Tier 4 Grenadier instead of the Tier 4 Spy you've been running around as for the last 100 hours? There's no need to start as a Recruit in Tabula Rasa, killing the lower level grunts and putting in another ton of gaming - with cloning, players can create a new character at the same level of the old one, opening up a whole wave of potentially new higher missions right from the off.
With such a sci-fi setting, the question of key MMO constituent 'magic' could have been lost by Destination over the last few years, but Garriott and his long-standing love of new languages and syntax continues to show itself in Tabula Rasa too. Entitled 'Logos' in a nod to the Ancient Greek word that describes 'discourse', 'oration', and 'reason' (amongst other modern words), the symbols are scattered across the lands of Tabula Rasa and have to be collected by players. Left by the ancient and wonderfully benevolent Eloh, an alien race of supreme knowledge, Logos are used in combination with each other to unlock and develop new powers such as the ability to shoot lightning at Bane troops in an oh so malevolent way. Literally dozens of symbols are up for grabs in the game, with their integration into the gameplay fitting well into the over-arcing narrative and situation. The fact that unlocking additional abilities is directly linked to the mass exploration that players inevitably do in an MMO is creative, and at least encourages the more 'timid' player to get out into the world.
An Ultima-te online experience?The release of Tabula Rasa has been practically simultaneous with the launch of EA and Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London, which has been produced by another key member of the MMO genre, former Blizzard man Bill Roper. Both are offering a different approach to the established titles, and yet it so far seems that critically at least, Hellgate has fallen on its sword by suffering an identity crisis of Jekyll & Hyde proportions, leaving Tabula Rasa standing somewhat lonesome as it tries to break new ground. But how does it fare?
To be honest, much of what Garriott and the team at Destination Games have tried works fairly well. Freeing gamers from the traditional form of combat in MMOs with contextual real-time shooting works to a better degree than it did in Hellgate from the point of view of MMO players. The combat still remains far from frenetic enough to satisfy fans of shooters however, occasionally feeling sluggish and failing to capture the sort of fast paced action required to get the adrenaline pumping. Where the combat system does work particularly well, and is one area that the genre as a whole could take note, is the role of using the environment for cover. Defined on the aiming reticule and colour-coded according to how much of the total potential power of an attack has been inflicted on the player, the feature really adds a slight spice of strategy to what has traditionally been a rather lacklustre element of MMOs. Enabling players to assess how successful their cover is working, not to mention that it also gives players the chance to find better shelter if needs be, the function is one avenue that other MMO developers will no doubt take notice of from here on.
In an attempt to push through more substantial narrative arcs and a feeling of story participation and choice, Destination has built in the much-publicised 'ethical parables'. For instance, one of the early ethical parables sees players tasked with a mission in a quarantined AFS base by the Tabula Rasa equivalent of a deal dealer. Given a stash of medical equipment and told to deliver it to a second base under the strictest confidence, players have the choice to either do that for a huge reward or take the stash to a commanding officer and grass on the dealer - the choice is yours. Approximately 20% of the missions in the game are parables, though that leaves the bulk of Tabula Rasa's missions stuck firmly to the core quests that have dominated the MMO genre for the past decade - 'Fedex' quests, the occasional timed event, and 'kill "X" many of these monsters/collect "X" many of these objects'.
Another element built into Tabula Rasa are dynamic battlegrounds, where players have to rally together with NPCs to either defend their bases from attack, or attempt to capture one from the Bane. Coupled with the fact that it's a rather nifty way to rapidly build up XP, the battles also form a pivotal part of the gameplay as losing a bases can mean that gamers are unable to complete a quest - because the person you're tasked to speak to has, to put it mildly, done a runner. Whilst in practice this can mean levels of frustration, especially when you've travelled across half a region, it does at least mean that a battle isn't too far away, cue Bane killing until the base is captured or your valiant offensive is obliterated like a tower of talc. In essence the natural progression of the dynamic battlefields used in Guild Wars Factions, another portfolio piece of NCsoft, they do throw in an extra level of variety to the mix of grinding and choosing the right path in ethical parables.
As a European gamer, there is one gripe that NCsoft will have to rectify as soon as humanly possible. Tabula Rasa has four 'realms' open to public use: three for the United States/North America, and a single one for Europe. So whilst traffic on the three server banks on the other side of the Atlantic seem to rarely move above a medium load, European gamers are left with a server where high is considered the norm. The result is of course lag, which seemed to crop up a number of times during our experience of Tabula Rasa, making the combat particularly flaky.
Something that doesn't work is the humour of Tabula Rasa, which comes across as tired and severely out of place. NPCs that players can talk to have a predetermination to be funny just for the sake of it, with some even commenting that their fight against the Bane was a way of punishing us for Reality TV...it's a tad random, and doesn't much sense at all. Are they being literal or indirectly suggesting that Tabula Rasa itself is a response to the likes of 'I'm a Celebrity', 'Big Brother', and (shudder) 'Celebrity Love Island'? Either way, it's drastically misplaced and doesn't help to give Tabula Rasa the sort of gravitas that epic MMOs should instil in its players. It works in the likes of WoW because of its visual style, setting, and atmosphere, but it falls a little flat here.
Of course the true success of any MMO will come in the weeks, months, and years that follow its release. But early impressions are that Tabula Rasa's structure and gameplay advances, such as the real-time combat and class advancement, really do represent where the future of the genre should be heading. However, it does lack the initial 'Wow' factor compared to Blizzard's epic MMO - an element that has caused the game to be renamed 'World of Warcrack' in some corners of the web. Hopefully this is something that Destination Games and Garriott himself can mould in the future, especially when the conflict with the Bane builds in the coming updates and expansions. NCsoft knows all too well that their specialist genre is prone to total failure, when they finally dropped Auto Assault earlier in the year.
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