Tabula Rasa (PC)

Another MMORPG, another tricky one to sum up with limited time. Reviewed at launch, pre patches. Unfortunately it’s now due to be closed at the end of January 2009 which is a shame.

It’s increasingly hard to review any new MMORPG without instantly comparing it to World of Warcraft. In the case of Tabula Rasa, it looks like a World of Warcraft developer and a twitchy Counterstrike player spent a passionate night together and came up with this idea. Instead Lord British (Richard Garriott) the famed developer of the first mainstream MMORPG, Ultima Online, came up with this new and hopefully innovative mix of RPG and shooter within an online environment. Having vanished from the limelight for quite a few years, Richard Garriott has actually been pretty busy, despite some turmoil in 2000 where many of his projects were cancelled by EA. Since that time he’s become aligned to NCSoft and has been executive producer for many of their MMOs such as City of Heroes and Lineage 2. From his background, it’s obvious that Garriott knows his stuff when it comes to MMOs, plus throw in his keen interest in science and space travel (his father having been an astronaut), it makes perfect sense as to why the setting of Tabula Rasa is somewhat removed from the traditional MMORPG background of elves and dwarves fighting it out in fantasy scenarios.

Once you’ve installed and patched up your game (which at the moment takes around an hour to do), you’re given a choice of servers to play on. There are currently 3 different US based servers and 1 EU based server. All the server populations are currently not too busy, and it would be reasonable to assume that in the future more servers will be added as the game becomes more popular. The character creation screen that follows offers quite a large variety of different options. Initially you are required to enter a name for your character, with the last name being most crucial as it will be used for all your account’s characters. There are then 48 different face types to choose from and a huge variety of skin tones. This game certainly excels at ensuring your character is unique compared to others within the game. Initially there are only 7 different choices for clothing but as the game progresses, you are able to collect new armour and items which personalise your look even further.

After spending many hours (or possibly minutes) creating your online persona, you are thrust into the world of Tabula Rasa, beginning with the ‘newbie’ training zone of Bootcamp. There you are taught the basics of how to play, which if you’ve played pretty much any MMO before, you will know instinctively. The only real difference in the control system is the restrictions placed on your mouse. The mouse in Tabula Rasa is fixed in the centre of the screen and used purely for aiming or firing your weapon, which initially can feel rather odd for the experienced MMO player. All other actions are performed solely through the use of the keyboard. However, give it an hour or so and you’ll be perfectly happy with this arrangement; as well as realise just how well it fits into this more action orientated MMORPG.

Action is certainly what you will come across most of the time within this game and the fast paced combat is indicative of this. Unlike many MMOs, it would be suicide to switch anything around in your inventory during a battle, as your sole source of attack (your mouse) is deactivated along with your ability to shoot things, while you’re looking through your inventory. This makes combat a lot more dangerous at times, as you need to quickly ensure that you are always prepared for any battle that may come your way. As well as this quick reactions are vital in combat, without being able to switch targets quickly, you stand no chance of surviving in what often becomes large scale assaults on your bases. It’s all extremely familiar to any FPS player, yet with a slightly odd (at first) twist on the RPG idea. Even the concept of having bases to protect is just like Capture the Flag modes in games such a Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament.

However, never fear RPG fans, there is still an in-depth story and enough hidden dice rolling to make sure that this is most definitely an MMORPG, not an online FPS. Every single shot you fire is determined by some internal dice throwing to ensure that your stats play an important role within the game, not just your reactions. It does however also take into account whether you’re crouching or not and whether you’re targeting an armoured part of your opponent or an exposed area, adding a significant strategic element to the combat within the game that isn’t really seen elsewhere. We also come to possibly the most innovative feature that Tabula Rasa offers, the cloning system which is linked into the skill tree system often common in MMORPGs. Once you hit level 5 with your first character you are then given a ‘clone token’ meaning that you can create a sibling to your main character who has all the unallocated skill points you would have picked up along the way to level 5. You can then choose entirely different skill sets and classes as your other ‘identical’ character. Essentially this means that once you reach level 5 you can simply recreate yourself a number of times and then develop each character to become a different class. It’s a great system as it allows you to experiment much more easily and then settle on a specific class. Initially at level 5 you can only choose from becoming a Soldier (a general warrior class) or a Specialist (a general support class), it then expands later into a further 4: Commando, Ranger, Sapper and Technician. Then later on at level 30, into 8 classes: Grenadier, Guardian, Sniper, Spy, Demolitionist, Engineer, Medic and Exobiologist. Each of these classes offer a wide range of different abilities and advantages and disadvantages, ensuring that regardless of which class you choose you will have a different experience each time. It’s a great new twist on the concept of MMORPG classes and extremely well designed by NCSoft.

As always, to reach these advanced levels, you need experience, and how do we gain that? Through quests and grinding of course! Yes unfortunately, Tabula Rasa does still offer quests and grinding much like all the other MMOs, and in this case you will be quite often forced to work together rather than be able to solo. This in itself offers considerable benefits and pitfalls, it means the game is a lot more sociable but can make a quick 10 minute play of the game difficult at times. The quests themselves are fairly typical, there are many quests that involve you having to fetch items, kill people, deliver messages, typical MMO fodder. But luckily there is the odd bit of inspiration with some quests giving you a moral choice, whereby you can choose to help one person but not another within the same quest. This doesn’t strictly affect a lot in the game but it is quite nice to be a bad guy for a few minutes and start having NPCs talk about you behind your back. A nice small touch that is often only usually apparent in single player games like Oblivion, rather than MMOs. Tabula Rasa does often try to build a storyline around its persistent world but I can’t help but wonder just how many players will pay attention to the story. For the most part people seem to go to single player games for a storyline, MMOs to interact with real people. Forced events such as the checkpoints (the capture the flag like incidents mentioned earlier) can get irritating after a while when you were just planning on going back to your base for five minutes in between quests.

Tabula Rasa also offers a crafting system but currently it feels a bit tacked on at the end, there’s barely any mention of it within the manual or the tutorial so the only way to find out more is to ask other players. Also the same skill points you use to increase your combat abilities are used to increase your crafting abilities making it a bit silly to concentrate on crafting as you will have very weak combat abilities. Obviously you can create a clone solely for crafting but it’s not quite the same. As well as this, the actual items that can be crafted are not usually of much use so far. Hopefully in the future, a patch or two will be able to cure this and make crafting a lot more relevant to the game, as many players enjoy being able to craft their own items. Linked to this, there is currently no auction house and from what I saw during my time playing, no one was selling items to each other, ruining any chance of a player economy. Again, this is supposedly due to be fixed in a patch soon, which will hopefully create a better community within the game.

There have also been reports that there have been a number of bugs within the game, such as items not spawning for quests, random crashes and very bad lag. However I didn’t see any of this personally, so recent patches may have helped cut down any big problems. I did see some players report of problems with quests being bugged though so that is something to watch out for. There are regular patches, around once a week so this should rectify any serious problems.

Tabula Rasa is far from complete, but no MMORPG ever is when it is first released. As it stands though, it forms a good solid basis for what deserves to become an extremely popular MMORPG. Despite the strong competition of World of Warcraft and Everquest 2, Tabula Rasa manages to add some unique and innovative features to the genre such as the cloning system, and hopefully with a few more patches under its belt (adding extra features); it will be guaranteed a strong player base for many years to come. Although perhaps not a great MMORPG for a newcomer to begin with, due to its slightly sparse tutorial, it is a good example of a MMORPG and deserves to be played by many who fancy something a bit different from the relatively simplistic World of Warcraft. Go out and give it a try.