Reviewed: December 14, 2007
Released: November 1, 2007
Every now and then a science fiction series or movie resurrects a worn-out idea and makes it terrifically geek chic. Battlestar Galactica was remade from a cheesy 70s space opera into one of the most popular series on cable television. And of course, Ridley Scott's Alien franchise revitalized the whole "acid-dripping aliens trying to eat you" genre.
Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa is a perfect example of a game that puts a fun new twist on an overdone premise. At face value, Tabula Rasa is about space grunts fighting monstrous aliens in a bid to save the human race, which is also the premise of half the games out this holiday season, from Halo 3 to Universe At War. But there are plenty of fun and surprising twists in this Massively Multiplayer Online Game published by NCsoft, including being given the chance to play both super-soldier and superhero. The reason the monstrous Bane attacked Earth was because they are fighting an endless war with the noble and benevolent Eloh, who want to pass on their incredible abilities to the fledgling human race. As a human with psychic abilities, you'll learn how to use the building blocks of the universe the Logos to combat the Bane and save the galaxy.
It's also interesting to see what Garriott, aka "Lord British," has created in his latest MMOG, considering he practically started the genre with Ultima Online. For one thing he decided to take a risk by setting Tabula Rasa in the future other sci-fi MMOGs have not had that much luck in a genre dominated by World Of Warcraft. Furthermore, the gameplay is a strange hybrid between a traditional RPG and a tactical shooter, where the combat feels more like Gears of War than EverQuest.
On many levels Tabula Rasa does far more than just provide a break from the same old hack-and-slash grind with your Elf ranger. The character advancement system is nicely streamlined and original; AI creatures are intelligent and require a good deal of strategy to beat; and the combat system combines the fast pace of a shooter with the thrill of an RPG. Unfortunately, the game also has a few major misfires there are still technical glitches to work out, and as of this review there really isn't enough content to keep players interested over the long run.
First of all, I should mention that in the past several weeks my gameplay has been a relatively smooth experience. It seems most MMOGs hit rough patches at launch, but the Tabula Rasa servers seem far more stable than other new games I've played. That's not to say there aren't some annoying glitches including disappearing items, crashes at the worst possible time, and storage lockers that suddenly become off-limits to my character.
Character creation is a very simple process. After watching a video explaining how the Bane conquered Earth and how only a small remnant of humans made it through a space portal to continue the fight on a planet called Foreas, I began creating my first recruit. The character customization screen is not the most extensive I've seen, but you do have plenty of choices when it comes to faces, hairstyles, and additional features such as goggles, sunglasses or facial hair. You can also "clone" new characters from existing ones, allowing you to basically keep your level but choose another class, a very nice feature for "altaholics" like me who love to try out every class.
Everyone starts off with the same recruit skills, and a brief tutorial teaches you how to use Tabula Rasa's unique interface. I'll warn WOW veterans right now that the controls take some getting used to. Click control and a radial menu will come up, displaying your character sheet, equipped items, and world map. While in this mode you won't be able to pan the camera or effectively engage in combat. However, return to normal mode and the game's controls completely feel like a shooter. You can look in all directions, crouch, strafe, reload and zero-in on a target.
Weapons and abilities are allocated to hot bars just like many other MMOGs, but you basically can only have one weapon and one ability active at a time. The left mouse button controls your weapon fire, while the right mouse button allows you to use either a skill or a support item like a medical pack. The set-up sounds limiting but after awhile it becomes second nature to fire off some rounds while casting a self- buff or launching a Logos attack.
Combat is frantic and fun, striking the perfect balance between skill-based and twitch systems. This is more like a thinking man's shooter, where crouching and taking cover provide you bonuses. You can bunny hop and blast away with your chain gun to your heart's content but don't expect to kill much. You will need every advantage you can get because the AI mobs do a good job of using cover, flanking you, and not letting you run five feet away to lose aggro. Furthermore, different creatures require different strategies to kill. Mech units are very vulnerable to EMP blasts; the giant armored gorillas called Kaels are best targeted with poison attacks; and the Banes snipers are impervious to energy weapons but die quickly to bullets and melee weapons.
The advancement system is also interesting because in essence you get the chance to play not just one class but three. At level 5, you get to choose between becoming a soldier and a specialist. The soldier professions can dish out more damage and often get better armor, while the specialist professions have more survivability in the form of repair tools and stat boosting abilities. At level 15, you get to branch out into one of four more classes, and finally at level 30 you get to pick your master class.
For example, your soldier can choose to become a rocket launcher-totting commando or a stealthy ranger. If you decide to go commando, then at level 30 you get to choose between being a heavy melee tank (guardian) or a lighter tank with high damage propellant gun attacks (grenadier). Rangers eventually become long-range snipers or sword wielding spies. The differences between top specialist fields is even more pronounced, as you can play an engineer with the ability to build robots, a demolitionist who can blow away any obstacle, or an exo-biologist who can resurrect dead Bane to create a creepy clone army.
Some skills are straightforward, giving you bonuses when using certain weapons and armor. And there are some very cool weapons for sci-fi geeks, from the sniper's torque-shell rifle (think sniper rifle meets rocket-propelled grenade) to the medic's poison injection guns. The coolest skills require you to learn a series of Logos, hieroglyphs that you must learn while visiting Eloh shrines or completing missions.
Each time you discover a Logos glyph, it is recorded in your tablet. Collect the right ones and you can boost your attacks, cause your enemies to decay, or activate a number of other cool super powers. Too bad many low level skills become less useful later in the game. This is especially true of armor skills, which tend to become outdated as soon as you are able to wear the next tier armor. The exception is you will still use basic firearms like rifles and shotguns throughout the game, relying on your specialized weapons to take tough creatures.
Of course, even the best combat and character systems can grow boring in an MMOG if there's not much else going on. I unfortunately have to report that Tabula Rasa is a mixed bag when it comes to providing players plenty to do. The good news is the game introduces some fun elements such as base assault: on any mission map there are several key areas that will be periodically attacked by the Bane. You and every other player in the area must guard the objective, or re-capture it if the Bane overwhelms the defenders.
There were several great gaming moments as I anxiously waited in a foxhole for the Bane to arrive, or found myself assaulting the main gate under heavy mortar fire. Furthermore, there are instances that are isolated missions for you and your squad, similar to WOW's raid dungeons. To give you a taste of Tabula Rasa's instances, at the Crater Lake research facility you are sent in to discover the disappearance of a group of scientists. In a series of sub-missions, you must repair a communications tower to get new instructions from HQ, then blow up a generator to drop the Bane base shields, then burst in and rescue the scientists.
Unfortunately, the "ethical" quests aren't really that much fun. Throughout the game you're given moral dilemmas. For example, the humans are trying to gain the trust of local aliens called the Foreans. Do you turn in a fugitive young Forean whose chief wants punished as a coward, or do you listen to the shaman who claims the boy must be saved for his special powers? Sometimes you're just tempted with straightforward moral choices do you help a fellow recruit smuggle drugs for cash or play informant?
This is all fascinating stuff, except your choices don't seem to have any lasting effects. Smuggle the drugs and you won't face any consequences, nor will you be approached for further criminal missions. Turn the runaway in or not it won't really change how the Foreans treat you. These story arcs may become interesting down the road, but right now they just feel gimmicky.
A bigger problem for hardcore MMOG fans is the lack of gameplay hooks to keep them playing months and years from now. The crafting system is overly complicated and rarely rewards players with gear they can't just loot. For that matter, there's no auction house to create a robust player economy, or player housing of any kind.
There's a dueling system and a ranked ladder for PVP lovers, but I think Garriott missed the boat in not letting players create Bane characters to duke it out with the humans. Clans can go to war with each other, but right now it's mainly for bragging rights. Some players may feel cheated that the rest of the game lacks the depth of the combat or character system.
While I would recommend a decent computer for running the game, you won't need the latest video card to enjoy the graphics. The water effects, explosions, and rag doll physics are all solid; just don't expect advanced DX10 effects like you'll find in games like Crysis.
Both Bane and human characters possess just the right amount of detail. I especially appreciate the amount of individual detail you can give your character's face, as well as how you can use dyes to further customize your look. Most of the high end armor sets and weaponry are down right hot, although there are a few pieces that are either too bulky or seem to be inspired by cheesy anime series from the early 1980s. The enemies you will fight appear both bizarre and menacing, which is a bonus in a genre where too many creatures look one-dimensional. I certainly felt a twinge of anticipation the first time I engaged a predator drone or shambling undead cyborgs.
What I loved the most was how the graphical style evoked a true sense of exploring strange new worlds. Traveling around Forea, I was engrossed by the strange looking woods, the waterfalls, and the glowing caverns filled with strange rock formations. The Bane structures were ominous, covered in spikes and organic ooze as well as pulsating outcroppings.
I would have given graphics a 9, except for a few drawbacks. Both the human and Forean towns are frankly boring, consisting of either military buildings or stereotypical primitive tree houses. I also hated some of the Logos special effects, especially the powers that constantly blinked and almost sent me into a seizure.
I neither hated nor loved the background musical score, which consists of techno-rock interspersed with "Ewok" tribal music. What I did love was the sound effects, especially the atmospheric sounds. You may hear the calls of strange alien creatures walking through a deserted wilderness, or the pounding of heavy artillery shells near the front lines.
I'd also say the voice acting is well done, especially the raspy voices of Bane soldiers or NPCs who speak in a multitude of believable accents. I especially loved the humor of the loudspeaker announcer back at base, who dryly warns recruits that "getting stuck in the teleporter will not get you out of KP duty."
This is always a hard category to judge in a MMOG, and even harder to judge for Tabula Rasa. The gameplay is addictively fun, and you'll definitely get your money's worth buying the box alone. One thing I especially appreciate is the game makes it worth your while to group to guard objectives or do instances, but allows you to just as easily play solo. The game also doesn't force you to play for hours on end, as many missions can be completed in a half-hour or less.
But after the first free month, the continuing $15.95 monthly fee seems steep for a game that lacks important features that MMOG players have come to expect. Currently there are only two planets to explore, and no spaceships or futuristic vehicles to control. The crafting system is broken, PVP is currently limited, and there is no way players can build their own cities or establish interstellar syndicates.
The most successful sci-fi MMOG EVE Online is popular precisely because it allows characters to create their own content and leave their mark on the world. I also couldn't shake the feeling that Tabula Rasa strings gameplay out for the sake of calling itself a MMOG. Why spend hours leveling up your soldier's rocket launcher skill when you can simply fire up Halo 3 and immediately blast away at aliens?
That being said, the game is worth a look for science fiction lovers, MMOG veterans looking for something new besides orcs and elves, or tactical shooter fans who also enjoy RPGs.
As someone who's worked in the gaming industry, it's always frustrating to play a good-enough game that could be terrific. Tabula Rasa offers a compelling background story and the chance to explore the galaxy, meet ferocious aliens, and kill them with high tech weaponry. Yet currently the game lacks enough depth to give it lasting appeal over months and years. The game also risks being lost in the background during a holiday season when so many other great sci-fi action titles are on the shelves.
Yet hope for new patches springs eternal, and Garriott's crew promise to release player housing, new planets to explore, vehicles, and a more robust PVP system in the near future. How the developers capitalize on those promises will determine whether Tabula Rasa becomes a true sensation, or just a cult classic.