Tabula Rasa Review

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Publisher: NCsoft
Developer: NCsoft

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium IV 2.5 GHz or equivalent, 512 MB RAM, DVD ROM, ATI Radeon 9600 or nVidia GeForce FX 5700 with 128 MB VRAM, DirectX 9.0c, 5 GB HD space, broadband internet connection, Windows XP or more recent operating system

Thousands of years ago, the Eloh had settled worlds across the galaxy. As peaceful as they were powerful, the Eloh devoted themselves to the pursuit of knowledge – both of the universe and themselves. Their galactic settlements were possible thanks to the power of Logos, a science that seems mystical to us, that harnesses the power to control matter and energy through word and thought.

When the Eloh encountered "primitive" races, such as humanity, the Eloh left clues to help those races peacefully discover the universe on their own. When the Eloh met more developed races, the Eloh shared their knowledge and developed partnerships that benefitted both races. When the Eloh encountered the Thrax, their way of life ended.

The Thrax pretended to be peaceful partners, learning all they could before crippling the Eloh with a devastating surprise attack. The Eloh survived, but Eloh society split. One faction chose to pursue the Eloh's peaceful past. The other faction allied itself with the Thrax, forming a vicious coalition of alien races called the Bane.

When humanity began our rapid technological growth in the 20th Century, launching spacecraft and broadcasting electromagnetic signals into space, the Bane invaded. They rapidly overran the planet, exterminating or subjugating the populace. But a handful of humans, with the help of those seeds of knowledge planted by the early Eloh, escaped to other worlds. We met up with the survivors of other alien races, forming the Army of the Allied Free Sentients. As a recruit in the AFS, now is the time for you to fight for the future of humanity. And that of every other peace-loving race.

Kyle Ackerman

It's a pity that you probably haven't been playing Tabula Rasa. It's worth investing the time to enjoy the well-conceived fusion of futuristic battlefields and individual adventures that pepper this game in which you serve as the last line of defense against cruel alien overlords.

The Garriott Factor

Richard Garriott is one of the most senior designers in the game industry, having given birth to the Ultima franchise, and his influence on the game is clear (the phrase Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa is right there on the box). Tabula Rasa has been in the works for most of this decade, and I had a chance to speak with Garriott about the game as far back as March 2002. At the time, he made three big points, concerning anonymity, instances and moral choices.

Your Telomeres Are Getting Short

In the interview, Garriott said, "One of my biggest charges is to get rid of anonymity." That doesn't mean putting your real-life identity on the line – by no means does Tabula Rasa do anything like that. In that same way that Lord British (now, sometimes, General British) is Garriott's consistent online persona, he wanted people to always know your online identity. The hope was that Tabula Rasa's clone system would take care of that. Every character you make has the same last name. That character can then spawn clones with different first names (and even a different gender or appearance). In that way, you will always know that a character with the last name Henderson belongs to that guy who cleared your way out of a firefight, while any character with the last name "Fgdfgsdf" belongs to that same stinking gold farmer who stole the spawn you were camping.

The clones are also a genuinely interesting way of making sure that you are more likely to experience new content than to be rehashing old experiences. Since Tabula Rasa sports a branching character class system (with a new tier of options available at levels 5, 15 and 25), in another game you might have to replay those first five (or even 25) levels to try a different specialty. Instead, in Tabula Rasa, you clone your character at critical junctures (using the same technology that can return and revive soldiers who neared the brink of death on the battlefield). That character can then progress from the point of cloning and follow a different path, without having to replay the introductory quests and battlefields. That character can even sport a different first name, but will be identifiable as "you" online.

Man is a Moral Creature

Another thing Garriott described in 2002 was the importance of moral choices in his games. He felt that games were both an opportunity for interactive storytelling and even for teaching (especially lessons of self-knowledge), and are more interesting when the player is forced to make difficult moral choices. He planned to include ethical parables that could affect the long-term story arc for your character.

Initially, I was skeptical. These dilemma quests typically come in the form of quests with multiple, mutually exclusive outcomes. Early on, you encounter a drug dealer selling a product that is illegal, but arguably helpful. Do you turn him in to the base commander or help him distribute his product? When you are given combat supplies to distribute to several far-flung waypoints, do you deliver them all or hand over the direly needed supplies to the first (and closest) group in need? As someone who usually tries to do the "just" thing (at least in games, I am ever a slave to my duty), these seemed like straightforward and simplistic choices. But as I progressed in Tabula Rasa, things became more interesting.

Often, things became more interesting because I (and other gamers I played with) tried to game the system. I didn't always realize that two choices were mutually exclusive, and in trying to do the "good gamer" thing of picking up and solving every quest I could find, I would try to do both and inevitably fail to finish one (often, unwittingly making the darker choice). Other times, the choice was made for me by my squadmates. There's nothing like pondering the fate of an NPC, taking into account the appropriate ethical issues, and then noticing a squadmate unleash her chaingun into the back of the NPC's head. I can only suppose that his blood is still on my avatar's hands.

A World of Your Own (Sometimes it's a Prison Camp)

The last thing Garriott emphasized in the interview was the importance of instanced spaces. In Tabula Rasa, much of the world is wide open spaces, filled with quests, battles to fight on behalf of the AFS and fortifications dynamically changing hands. But it's hard to feel like a critical part of the story when you're fighting over a spawn with other players. (I'm still shaking my fist at that guy who stole my turn at Splatter!) So, Tabula Rasa contains instanced spaces in which enemies often stay dead without respawning; quests that can alter the landscape; and puzzles that are introduced in a practical and interesting way.

In 2002, it was a radical idea and unusual for MMOGs at the time. Now, instances (even those with complex traps, plots and changing environments) have become the norm rather than the exception. But they are still used well in Tabula Rasa. These spaces tend to be huge, closely tied in to story elements, and even come with an introductory cut-scene. Unlike the ordinary spaces, where players can jump into battles for a few minutes, instances require a more serious commitment, and are much easier with a group.

The Word is Mighty

Logos is integral to the universe of Tabula Rasa. The Logos are a symbol-based alien technology left behind by the ancient Eloh to help junior species unlock the knowledge to let them emerge as forces for good into the universe. The Logos are the basis for all of the "magical" powers in the game. The Logos are also a hieroglyphic language developed by Garriott for Tabula Rasa.

There are a lot of things I like about the Logos. For one, even if you spend your character advancement on advanced skills, you can't use them if you haven't discovered the critical Logos shrines related to those skills and learned those symbols. I also like that while there's plenty of detailed story available in Tabula Rasa, the Logos present an extra layer of background that you can pursue if you want to go to the effort. If not, you can just enjoy the ancient, glowing blue, alien obelisks as pleasant scenery. My only issue is that the AFS sent me into combat with a very poor tool for learning the Logos. It would be appreciated if the game software included a method of easily indexing the Logos I've learned rather than forcing me to consult online sites or construct my own database of the powerful alien language.

Finally, and this may be a tangential point, there's everything that didn't make it into Tabula Rasa. It's an open secret that the game has been in development for years. In fact, early builds of the game were being shown before the game disappeared from the public view and re-emerged as the militaristic struggle against an alien threat that it is today. Many of the elements are true to what was being shown originally, but the current game is more martial, and doesn't feature some of the things we caught glimpses of earlier (like classes that relied on musical instruments, viciously tackling alien machines with a Logos-enhanced lyre). Presumably, the game that finally reached us is more accessible (or at least more marketable) but I can't help but wonder what we missed.

The Martial Factor

Fundamentally, my favorite aspect of the game is that martial factor. There's plenty of PvP, but at some level we're all in the fight against the Bane, together. Troops are constantly materializing thanks to ubiquitous drop ships, and forces ebb and flow in a way that measurably responds to player intervention. It's a dynamic setting that allows for the graphical splendor of gigantic invasion ships, horrific and organic alien technology taking over familiar landscapes, a gigantic fiery moon and huge defensive emplacements occasionally firing colossal lances of energy at orbital targets.

Donning armor and running around the landscape makes the constant slaughter of aliens feel more sensible (although I've never seen a game come up with a good excuse for why enemy troops segregate themselves by level so clearly). It also provides an easy framework for quests. There are always superior officers with missions in dire need of being accomplished, and lower ranking officers that need something done… unofficially.

Interestingly, for a game with such a strong military theme, soloing is surprisingly practical. There are a number of activities for which you really need a squad, but the game can be played alone if you can't find online companions. The martial theme also offers a chance for the Tabula Rasa team to explore their humor. Particularly with the Radar O'Reilly-like announcements in the Forean Base. Or the Christopher Walken-like voice that claims he found "your father's watch."

The Auto Assault Problem

In many ways, the easiest game with which to compare Tabula Rasa is Auto Assault. That's not entirely fair, because Tabula Rasa is free of many of the problems that led to Auto Assault's being shut down by NCsoft. However, there are similarities that undoubtedly result from the two games sharing a technological heritage.

The biggest issue has to do with aiming. While the combat is still fundamentally that of a typical role-playing game (with behind-the-scenes rolls (random numbers) determining the efficacy of a given shot), there is a reflex element. Personally, I'm a fan – I think it makes a big difference in how engaged you are, since when I run through massive areas filled with enemies, I have to make sure my aim stays true. But not everyone is a fan. Traditional MMOG fans don't always want to worry about the arc of fire on a shotgun, or having to paint a target with a torqueshell gun.

There's also the crafting system, which remains very similar to that of Auto Assault. To craft items, you have to find loot on the battlefield, break it down into its component parts and hope to acquire the right parts with which to craft useful items. It's a little unwieldy (given the diversity of parts) but not unworkable. My issue with the crafting system revolves around clones.

Tabula Rasa requires that players spend the same resources needed for combat skills on crafting skills. That's not too big a deal, given that you can create a clone with crafting talent as support personnel to aid your combat character. The problem comes from the need to switch between combat and crafting characters for the different tasks. The need to constantly jump to the character selection screen isn't fun. There should be a more streamlined way to develop craft skills without needing to experience so many loading screens. This is worsened when the footlockers that can be used to transfer items between clones are misbehaving. Glitches can make items disappear (if only for a time).

The Battlefield is Always in Flux

Sadly, despite being available for around three months, the game is still in a state of flux. On one hand, the NCsoft team continues to add interesting content, including the brand new ability to splice alien DNA into that of your clone to create variant hybrids of your purely human genetic material. But there are still technical and balance issues that pop up occasionally.

The map and some of the quests suffer from persistent glitches. While none are game-stoppers, every one is inconvenient enough to drag you out of the immersive world. Also, the tide of battle is interesting, and while the tide of battle should always shift, sometimes it goes from a ripple to a tsunami. For example, until recently, battles for control points were fairly evenly matched between AFS and Bane NPC forces. Without player intervention, they would shift, but a few players could easily shift the tide. That meant control points were usually held by the AFS. But the very recent v1.4 patch transformed things such that now, unless a dedicated team cooperates to retake a control point, that point will be held by the Bane. With the low server populations, there's rarely a group large enough to coordinate in that way.

Changes in a game are completely appropriate over time, but it would be appreciated if the changes were less drastic at this point in time. Of course, balance is difficult because the server populations remain low. It seemed like there were few players at launch, and there continue to be few players even now. Don't get me wrong, the chat channels are always active, and I was always able to find people to form a squad, any time of day or night. It's even nice that you aren't constantly running past every other PC gamer anytime you use a major thoroughfare. But more players would make the group warfare dynamics more interesting (and presumably easier to test and balance).

Despite the game's issues, there are so many unique and entertaining things about Tabula Rasa that it's a shame if you haven't played it yourself. It incorporates much of what is great about current MMOGs with an incredible setting and plenty of unique twists (many of which are the product of the unseen but everpresent hand of Richard Garriott). I had more fun playing Tabula Rasa than I've had in an MMOG in a long time. If you haven't, you should test the waters yourself.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 4, 2008 9:40 AM.

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