Over the course of writing the first draft of this feature, we discovered something fairly pertinent - there's a fine line between a re-review and an autopsy. Eurogamer's recent re-appraisal of World of Warcraft (conclusion: still stealing our lives) was a re-review: the subject is most certainly still alive and well.
Today's piece, sadly, feels more like an autopsy. Tabula Rasa isn't cold on the slab, but it's certainly heading that way. Much as it pains us - this is a young game, full of potential, and seemingly struck down before it had a chance to blossom - this article is going to end up being about piecing together the final hours, establishing the suspects and motives, and making those cruel incisions to examine the damage to the internal organs. CSI: Internet.
Ringing in the Changes
Of course, there will be those who decry the suggestion that TR is a dying game - and we wish we could count ourselves among them, we really do. We began our last article on TR by saying that there's a lot to love about the game, and we still firmly believe that in spite of a mis-managed launch and some shockingly poor design decisions, TR still essentially has the best combat, and some of the most interesting missions and zones, of any MMO we've played.
There are many, many moments on the trek up through the levels which remind you that Richard Garriott and his team are uniquely experienced and superbly talented at making online videogames. The combined arms weapon class system makes you think carefully about things like range, stance, cover and enemy type on the fly, turning each encounter into a fast-paced and rapidly changing scenario. The clones, which carry over your XP and talent points to freshly created alternative characters, not to the mention XP multipliers which reward you for pushing your character close to the edge in combat, almost entirely eliminate dull grinding from the game - an ethos which carries over to transport, with teleports available from the outset to eliminate long runs.
That's even before you consider the vast impact of the decision to make each zone into a true battleground, rather than simply a static area full of infinitely respawning local wildlife that needs killing. Tabula Rasa creates genuine hot zones - areas where you dodge and run through battles for supremacy, roads and pathways that suddenly become battlegrounds when enemy troops beam down en masse from dropships.
This finds its ultimate expression in the constant, ongoing sieges of bases and control points - waves and waves of enemies which genuinely threaten to overrun the base, rendering it unusable by players until a concerted effort wins it back. These aspects of Tabula Rasa are excellent. They create a game which is faster, more exciting and more dynamic than anything else in the MMORPG genre.
Yet it's also, by many accounts, a commercial disaster. Server populations are low, there was talk of guilds defecting from the game within months of launch, and despite a strong denial from publishers NCsoft, a Korean newspaper piece slamming the game as an expensive failure for the firm elicited a nod-and-wink "no smoke without fire" response from many quarters.
In public, NCsoft remains completely supportive of Tabula Rasa - dedicated to a programme of ongoing improvement and upgrades, and even to an expansion pack down the line. Privately, however, the company must be asking itself where it all went wrong.
The Disappointing End
Many players would point their fingers instantly at one glaring oversight - the crippling lack of endgame content. In simple terms, at its launch (and ever since, in fact) there has been essentially nothing to do in Tabula Rasa once you hit level 50. You could, of course, create a clone and play with the other class options available to you. Since a recent patch, you could also create an alien-human hybrid clone - which is less interesting than it sounds, sadly, as it doesn't change your relationship with the alien races, open up new quest lines, or really do much to alter the game experience.
This lack of a real endgame seems like a vast oversight. All there is to do at the end of the ladder in Tabula Rasa is fairly limited player-versus-player combat, the uninspired nature of which is all the more disappointing given how well the active combat system should scale to PVP play. To their credit, the developers do appear to be working on this - in the near future we'll see new arenas appearing in the game for mano-a-mano combat, along with the ability for guilds to take over control points.
For many players, however, this is too little, too late. Where are the raids, the endgame encounters, the open-world PVP options? Although this complaint started out being relevant only to a small, hugely vocal but largely unrepresentative minority of gamers - the power-gamers who rush through the content in the race to hit the level cap as quickly as possible - their dissatisfaction with the game has spilled over into forums, comment threads, blogs and simple word of mouth. Even if you're not a power-gamer, and are more like the average MMO player who takes a few months (at least) to reach the endgame, chances are you've still heard that TR shipped with nothing to do for level 50 players - and wonder why you'd bother playing it, then.
So there's the first cause for TR's failure. This is a game which was aimed squarely at less hardcore players - at people who like action games and FPS titles, who would appreciate the run-and-gun mechanics of the combat and the science fiction aesthetic of the world.
Yet it failed to reach those players. It was sold as a massively multiplayer game (by the guy who made Ultima! Roll up, roll up, hardcore RPG fans!) to an audience of massively multiplayer gamers, and seems to have made remarkably little impact with the sci fi shooter audience who could have loved it. Instead, it's filled with refugees from other MMORPGs, recovering World of Warcraft addicts, and disgruntled WOW refuseniks. Unsurprisingly, that includes an audience of power-gamers and high-level raiding fanatics to whom the game simply doesn't cater. To them, it's a huge disappointment - and the developers should have seen that coming.
The Final Cut
The end-game content isn't the only thing that's broken or absent in Tabula Rasa. The player economy, too, is something that feels like an ill-considered afterthought - indeed, while the crafting aspects have been present (and rubbish) since day one, the auction house only appeared in a patch.
These don't feel like integral parts of the game in any way. Crafting, bizarrely, requires that you allocate skill points from the same pool that provides your combat abilities - essentially meaning that if your character can craft well, it can't fight well, and vice versa. The presence of crafting and player economy elements in Tabula Rasa feels somewhat forced - as though this wasn't part of the original design, but was added because of a sense of obligation to the genre defaults.
In a sense, this is another example of the disconnect between Tabula Rasa's ideal audience and its actual audience. Action gamers probably wouldn't care about having no crafting system at all - but the MMO gamers who have actually formed the bulk of players for TR do care, and once again they have been disappointed.
One thing we can praise TR for in the weeks and months since launch is the pace of improvement. The speed at which the team at Destination Games works was already well-established by launch, when the polish and quality of the game compared to its messy, ill-considered beta took many players (and writers) by surprise.
The pace at which updates have rolled out since then is equally impressive. While end-game content has been slow in arriving, in the months since launch we've seen a vast overhaul of the technical performance of the game, the introduction of the hybrid races and the auction house, tons of new content - and, indeed, what amounts to almost a complete rebuilding of the whole Specialist class tree (50 per cent of the game's classes) from top to bottom.
This has not been an entirely smooth process, however. Perhaps due to the low player population of the game, Destination seems to have had trouble with fully testing patches before they are rolled out - resulting in numerous bugs, crashes and in-game problems with several of the major patches.
Time of Death
But then, that's Tabula Rasa in a nutshell - full of good stuff, but always with enough caveats to seriously annoy an appreciable number of players. Everything seems to come with a "but". There is PVP, but... There is crafting, but... The biggest "but" of all is that this is a game clearly designed with the dream of luring action gamers to a persistent world - but instead it was marketed and sold to MMO gamers, and has ended up disappointing them severely.
Power-gamers who have hit level 50 and found nothing to do are leaving the game, and making their discontent known. While we're not exactly enamoured of the "rush to the level cap" style of play, we can't blame those players for their decision - these people exist, they're influential, and Destination Games should have realised and allowed for that. Crafters, raiders and PVP players - TR falls short of all their expectations. It provides new experiences that no MMO has even attempted before, but in the absence of the familiar depth of other games, that just isn't enough for the established MMO audience.
So there you have it; cooling on the slab, one of the most innovative games in the MMO space in years, and also one of the most mis-handled. Cause of death? We'd argue that it lay in the misplaced belief that TR could attract action, sci fi gamers, and that its failure to satisfy traditional MMO gamers wouldn't matter.
This being a re-review, we're called upon to provide a score - a tricky proposition, since we really like Tabula Rasa as a game, but now find it extremely hard to recommend that anyone actually pick it up and play it. The improvements since launch certainly bump up the game somewhat, but the drop in player population is a massive negative. In the end, we're scoring this as we now perceive its quality. But we can't honestly suggest that you play Tabula Rasa at this point, except as a curiosity.
7 / 10