Version tested: PC
Aliens, a fairly sincere voice-over informs us, have invaded Earth and made a right bloody mess. But it's okay, because now we're bringing the fight to them, and kicking their scaly, leathery, vaguely insectoid backsides across exotic plants around the galaxy. Would you like to know more?
Right down to the hints of influence from propaganda film-making in its presentation, Richard Garriott's return to the massively multiplayer genre is a dead ringer for Starship Troopers. It's unapologetically militaristic, ultra-violent and filled with intense action scenes, yet below the surface there's a keen intelligence at work that's easy to miss at the first glance. No naked shower scenes, granted; but yes, we'd like to know more.
Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world
It's been ten years since Garriott released Ultima Online, and Tabula Rasa is proof positive that he hasn't been sitting on his hands in that time. A hell of a lot has changed in the last decade. 3D graphics have matured, the Internet has become faster, multiplayer games have exploded past the boundaries of the early-twenties geek demographic, and user interfaces have been reinvented and refined countless times. In the face of such change, it would be easy for Tabula Rasa to be a big fat anachronism.
It isn't - or rather, if Tabula Rasa is an anachronism, it's because it belongs in part to tomorrow, rather than to yesterday. Which isn't to put our foot down and say that this is, in any definitive way, "the future of massively multiplayer games", but rather that there are certainly moments when it feels quite unlike anything you've ever played before. In the massively multiplayer space, filled as it is with little, picky innovations that never actually scratch the surface of how the genre works, that makes it into a rare gem.
The most blatant, balls-out, dare to be different thing about Tabula Rasa is also the one which is going to raise the hackles of traditional MMO players the most. This is a game where, like an action game, you move around with the keyboard and aim with the mouse. You actually need to target things if you want to hit them (to some extent, at least); then you fire your weapon with the left mouse button, or trigger your selected ability with the right mouse button.
MMO aficionados may have spotted the dilemma already. If all this functionality is on your mouse, how do you move the cursor around? How do you select items, muck around in your inventory, or any of that sort of crucial MMORPG stuff? Simple answer: you don't. Calling up your inventory, your skills page or your quest log activates the mouse cursor (you can also do this with the Control key, which gives you a handy radial menu around the cursor), but deactivates your aiming, and your ability to shoot things, into the bargain. If you want to commit suicide on the battlefield, there's no easier way of doing it.
In itself, that's a hint. Tabula Rasa is fast-paced and furious. A bad situation in a battle - or a slow reaction to a new enemy or powerful attack - will leave you leaking squishy bits out through your tattered armour faster than almost any other MMORPG we've ever played. This isn't a game where you screw with your inventory mid-fight; you stick the stuff you're going to need into your quickslots, make sure all your weapons are reloaded, and then go in all guns blazing. It's a massively multiplayer game for twitchy FPS lead-heads who have developed a thousand yard stare from watching too many clanmates die horribly in Counter-Strike.
Those used to the slower and more considered pace of traditional fantasy MMORPGs should be recoiling in horror right about now, and rightly so. The genre hasn't always been plodding, by any means - anyone who has done high-level raid instances in a game like World of Warcraft can tell you how fast your reactions need to be at times. However, you've always been removed from the combat a little by an interface which was more akin to issuing commands than actually fighting. Tabula Rasa takes away that safety net, and not everyone is going to like it - but plenty of people, we think, are going to love it.
Service Guarantees Citizenship
It would be disingenuous, however, to suggest that Tabula Rasa is taking the RPG out of MMORPG. You may be aiming and firing guns in this game, but every shot you take is still the subject of a dice roll behind the scenes - working out whether you hit, what damage you caused, and so on. The aiming isn't particularly arduous, either, and the game keeps you locked on to targets even when they wander quite a long way out of your crosshairs.
However, there are new values being considered here in the dice roll equation - how far away your target is, whether it's behind cover, whether you're crouching or standing up, how long you've been locked onto it, whether you're facing an exposed or an armoured part. These enhance the strategy of movement, of positioning and of aiming in a way which MMORPGs have previously ignored, for the most part, even if they don't change the fact that underlying the whole thing is the same stat-based digital Top Trumps game which goes on behind the curtain of every MMO world.
Tabula Rasa's creator practically invented the rules of that stat game, and he's still a dab hand at implementing them. The game's character progression system is deceptive in its simplicity, and glorious in its flexibility. Taking its cues from Korean games (a nod, perhaps, to publisher NCsoft's heritage), it starts every player out as a Recruit - an undifferentiated character for whom you choose gender and appearance, but nothing else. As you move through the game, you'll hit branches at certain levels which allow you to choose how you wish to progress; characters divide into two branches at level 5 (Soldier, a general warrior class, and Specialist, a general support class), before subdividing into four and subsequently eight classes further on in the game.
It's a brilliant system, giving players plenty of time to experiment with different play styles before choosing their path - and it's made even better by Tabula Rasa's Cloning mechanism, which awards you credits with which to make clones of your existing character. You pick a new name and appearance, and a character is created at the same level as your existing character, but with no skill points allocated - allowing you to try new configurations, or to go off down a different class pathway without having to play through early content again. By making a clone before you make every major decision in the class tree, you effectively give yourself a chance to try each profession without grinding through the same levels all over again - a brave, innovative and wonderful piece of design.
Some other MMO features, however, die hard. The quest system includes some well-written and fairly interesting quests, with lots of instanced dungeons to fight through in each of the game's vast, extensive battlefield areas, but few of the quests are markedly different from those you'll already have seen in every RPG ever. Fetch-quests, kill-quests and messenger boy runs between bases are common - although a convenient teleport system at least means that travel around the world is utterly painless.
One type of quest which is a notable departure is the morality quest - a type of quest where you'll be asked to make a decision about what to do. An early example is an allied base where medical supplies have been going missing; later, you'll be asked by a soldier to do a drug delivery run for him. Agree, and he'll reward you with a stack of credits; report him to the base commander, and you get far less cash, and some people on the base start calling you a dirty snitch. The material impact of these choices is smaller than you might hope; for the most part, it just changes some NPC dialogue, but there are more pronounced effects in some missions, and the whole system definitely spices up Tabula Rasa's quests.
They're doing their part. Are you?
Tabula Rasa spent a long time in development, and some of the fruits of that labour are clear to see. The game sports two very visually distinct worlds to explore in its initial release, each with several incredibly vast battlefields which will take many hours to go through. Each battlefield is a living, breathing environment, where AI-controlled allies go at it hammer and tongs with nasty aliens and crucial bases change hands thanks to large-scale assaults. When the bad guys control them, that means no quest-givers, vendors, hospitals or teleport points until you take the base back.
Other parts of the game are less polished, though. The crafting system is incredibly hit and miss at this early stage - it's obvious that the team is aiming for something more complex than World of Warcraft's over-simplified crafting, but it falls short of the mark to a large degree, leaving players with dozens of crafting recipes that most of them will probably never use. One key reason for this is that the same skill points you use to boost your combat abilities need to be allocated to crafting abilities if you want to get good at it - a trade-off it seems ridiculous to ask for. We suspect that many players will end up creating a clone just for crafting purposes, which seems like odd behaviour to encourage.
The lack of an auction house - apparently a high priority for a patch at some point - is also confusing and annoying, since it basically means that there's no player economy in the game. Not only does that render crafting doubly useless, it also means that gear in the game is purely a commodity; if you can't use it, you chuck it, no matter how great it might be for another player. It's not exactly the kind of community gaming we look for in an MMORPG, and we're glad Destination Games is on the case to fix this.
Some aspects of the gameplay simply don't reach the level we'd expected, either. We were definitely disappointed with the fact that TR's enemies don't have the level of AI needed to take advantage of the game's strategic approach. For the most part, they exhibit Doom-level behaviour and just run straight for you (or worse, totally ignore you sniping them from afar), which isn't what you'd expect in a game so determined to rewrite the rulebook on MMO combat. We also felt a little let down by the density of quests in some areas. Perhaps we've been spoiled by WoW and its ilk, but having to go off and fight random monsters for a while just to level up enough to progress to the next zone felt backwards to us. Even if the process of killing random monsters has never been quite so much fun.
It would be remiss not to mention that we also experienced shocking technical problems with Tabula Rasa at first - horrible lag, random crashes and regular pauses in the gameplay, many of which ended up with us staring at our corpse when the game unfroze. A new patch released this week seems to have cleared up most of the problems, however, and we've not seen a crash since then - so for new players, at least, Tabula Rasa gets a relatively clean bill of health on the technical front. We'd strongly suggest a fairly powerful PC for the game, though; a system which runs World of Warcraft at high detail and full resolution may choke badly on Tabula Rasa. It's a memory hog, especially, and any system with less than 2GB will suffer from slow-down and stuttering.
After dozens of hours with the game, though, it's hard not to forgive most of Tabula Rasa's flaws - technical or otherwise. The weak crafting and occasional moments of dullness in its quests are lifted by a great combat system, and the moment when things "click" for you and you start to understand the utility of the different weapon types is one of those great gaming moments when a vista of opportunity opens in front of you. (Actually, there's another minor criticism; the game really needs to educate players properly about the weapons they're using, rather than expecting you to visit the website in order to find out about their differences.)
Massively multiplayer games are all evolving things, and we're very, very keen to watch Tabula Rasa's evolution. The initial launch is incredibly promising, more than anything else. Right now, it's imperfect - but it's great fun to play, and we don't regret investing dozens of hours into the game - which is fairly high praise, given how many great games are sitting half-played on top of our various consoles. It's not necessarily the future of MMORPGs, no; but it's got polish to rival WoW in many key places, it's got great ideas, it eliminates much of the hated grind, and it's got a combat system that's fast, fun and unique. So as for those filthy bugs... We're going to do our part. Are you?
8 / 10