Thursday, September 6, 2007

Tabula Rasa preview

Tabula Rasa is a new game from NCSoft, with Richard Garriott, of Ultima Online fame as Executive Producer. The expression “tabula rasa” means “clean slate” in Latin, and that is a fitting comment on the gameplay, which isn’t like UO at all. Instead Tabula Rasa plays like a third-person shooter with MMORPG elements, in a science-fiction setting. I was lucky enough to get an invite into the beta, the NDA was lifted today, so here are my impressions. Please keep in mind that this being a beta some features might still change before release.

Let’s start with character creation, which is very simple: There is only one race, humans. And everybody starts as the same class, recruit. At level 5 you then get to choose between soldier and specialist class, and at level 15 each class again splits into two possible choices, and again until you finally have 8 different classes. So character creation mainly consists of choosing your sex, look, and name. You are asked to choose both a first name and a last name, and it is the last name which is more important: All your characters will carry the same last name, and it is the last name which appears in chat. Unless you open up another account, it is impossible to hide your identity, even if you play an alt.

With only one race, and correspondingly only one starting zone, you might not be too excited about playing an alt from level 1 up again. Which is where clones come into play. At any point in the game you can clone your character, which is especially recommended before choosing a class. Your clone will have the same level and abilities as you do, but be basically naked and unarmed. You can equip him via the footlockers, the “bank” of Tabula Rasa, which is accessible to all your alts. You get 16 character slots, so there is enough room for all clones you might want to make before important decisions. The downside of that is that there are some possibilities to abuse the system, like repeatedly cloning a character before doing an easy but very profitable quest (there is a smuggling quest like that) and then transferring all the money to your main character.

Once in the game, a MMORPG player’s first culture shock is the game controls. Tabula Rasa works with mouselook, your mouse controls where you look at, and where you look at is the direction you run when pressing “W”, and the direction in which you shoot. There are no hotkeys for special abilities, instead you can put 5 different weapons on slots for your left mouse button, and 5 different items or special abilities on slots for your right mouse button. “Q” and “E” cycle through the respective 5 slots. “A” and “D” don’t turn you, but do a strafing movement. Mouselook makes for easy targeting of your enemies, but unfortunately causes video game sickness in some players, like me. Zooming out helps a bit with that.

In spite of playing like a shooter, aiming is actually very easy, and you can lock onto a target with the TAB key. And the damage you do depends on your weapon, with higher level players being able to use better weapons, as well as your stance, cover, movement and other factors. So Tabula Rasa is not a pure action game, but plays a lot faster than classic fantasy MMORPGs. The positive aspect of that is that there is very little downtime in this game. There is no penalty for dying, except that you might have to run back from your respawn point to whereever you planned to go. All outposts are connected by a network of teleporters, making travel very fast. And if you kill mobs you don’t even need to pause to loot them, just running over the loot will collect it. On the negative side of all that speed is that battle often feels rather chaotic. I haven’t been able to find out how xp and loot are distributed if several players shoot at the same mob, apparently the mob isn’t “tagged” by the first player to hit it. The hardest quest I ever did was one where I had to kill a named mob roaming some area, and ended up killing him 5 times before getting his head.

While the chaos takes some getting used to, it actually feels quite realistic in terms of a human vs. alien sci-fi shooter. Even if you are the only player around, you can find yourself in the middle of a larger battle between human NPCs and alien mobs. Aliens don’t just spawn, sometimes you can see an alien mothership arriving and beaming troops into battle. In the end the places where to find mobs are still static, but Tabula Rasa manages to give the whole thing a much more dynamic appearance of you being in the middle of an ongoing battle between humankind and the aliens.

Big battles are not only fun, they can also give lots of experience points. Tabula Rasa solves an old MMORPG conundrum, where in classic games having several enemies at the same time gives the same reward as pulling them one by one, in spite of being obviously much harder. In Tabula Rasa, if you kill lots of mobs in a row, you get an increasing experience point multiplier, which goes up from 2x to up to 6x experience. So jumping into a big battle and blasting lots of aliens can rack up huge rewards, even if you end up dead. Some weapons, like shotguns or rocket launchers, are able to hit several mobs at once. Otherwise you have the choice between fast-firing pistols or even chainguns, or slow but more damaging rifles. Faster weapons often do more damage than slower ones, but only at a shorter range, and using a lot more ammunition. As you need to find or buy ammo to fire your guns, chainguns are generally not recommended early in the game, where they can downright ruin your finances. But they *are* great fun. :)

Besides firearms you can also use a kind of spells in Tabula Rasa. Depending on your class you get various abilities in the game which use “power”, a stat that works like mana in other games. But you not only need the ability, you also need to find so-called “logos” symbols, which are hidden all over the map. Fortunately there are quest-givers that ask you to find these logos, and as quest-targets are marked on the map, that makes it a lot easier to find them. Otherwise there are already lots of spoiler lists available, revealing the location of the logos. As the window where the logos go is called your “tabula”, and it starts out empty, that is probably where the name of the game is really coming from.

In a later phase of the beta, more crafting was added to the game. You can now put your training points into making items instead of putting them into other class abilities. So you better specialize on crafting only one sort of thing, because otherwise it’ll eat all your training points. Or you could create crafting clones. Crafting is done at public crafting stations placed in the larger camps, into which you insert a recipe and the materials, easy enough.

I was having a lot of fun in the Tabula Rasa beta. Especially the instances were very enjoyable, as the absence of other players gave me a bit more time for strategic planning. But sometimes wildly shooting everything that moves is fun too. :) I had some minor problems with invisible walls, not always being able to go where I would have thought I could go. But generally the game was working quite well, with only a few bugs that are to be expected in a beta. Nevertheless I’m not going to buy the game. Shooters aren’t my thing, and the motion sickness isn’t helping. And as Michael from MMOG Nation said, the game just doesn’t feel as if you should be paying $15 a month for it. There doesn’t appear to be enough breadth and depth to it to play it for very long. Still, it’s an enjoyable game, and if you are more into shooters you definitely should have a look at it.

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