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Time for a clean slate: Tabula Rasa revealed


Once again burnt out on excessive overplaying of God's gift to MMORPG players looking for something different and fun (City of Heroes) it looks like it's time for me to find something else to do for awhile.

Well, how about Tabula Rasa? The NDA has dropped and I've got a bit of beta experience. If you're interested, what follows is an extremely subjective review about what the deal of Tabula Rasa really is.

Tabula Rasa means "clean slate", and the main question on burnt out MMORPG gamer's minds is "does it deliver?"

Initial impressions will be bad, because Tabula Rasa is a "kill stuff, gain experience for levels, gain loot for equipment" game. Seeing and playing this, most players will immediately come under the realization that they're just playing yet another MMORPG. They'll run around, kill stuff, gain experience for levels, and gain loot for equipment.

This behavior is not entirely Tabula Rasa's fault, really. Players have been conditioned by the MMORPGs they've played in the past to see them that way. The developers might have developed the game to resemble an MMORPG because otherwise it'll scare away players expecting one. Yet, if these players can stick with the game for a week, maybe they'll be able to break their old habits and start playing Tabula Rasa like Tabula Rasa instead.

What will the player notice if they start seeing Tabula Rasa as itself instead of yet another MMORPG? In what ways is it truly a "clean slate"?

Cloning

You only need to create one character. Ever. This is because you have the option of cloning your character at key points in its career. If you get bored, then go log in one of your clones and choose to go left instead of right on the character progression tree. You start as a recruit and branch three times at levels 5, 15, and 25 (or is that 35).

Comparison: The closest I've seen to this is Final Fantasy XI's job system where you level up classes individually on the same character. Then you can combine two jobs as your primary and secondary ones. Tabula Rasa's cloning system is not as advanced, but the focus is actually somewhat different, focused instead on allowing players to "save their progress" and choose different branches of classes to develop. There's less retread of lower levels in Tabula Rasa, which is a boon to the player but a curse to the lower level game's population.

Tactical Combat

Combat is somewhat more interactive than you might be used to. There is no "auto-attack" here, instead you select one of your equipped weapons (you can equip up to 5), put the crosshair over an enemy, and fire away with your left mouse button. On your right mouse button, you can activate an ability or a piece of equipment (of which you can equip several banks of 5).

Depth of varied potent abilities is an important measure in long term longevity for a game, and I initially thought it was quite poor in Tabula Rasa because I could only get about 12 total "abilities" by the time I had branched into my final class. However, I realized that I was overlooking the items: medkits, grenades, healing items, unique types of guns, turrets, mecha-suits, and other devices. When I learned to stop just pulling the trigger and get in the habit of using my abilities regularly, I both saved a lot of ammo and found the game a lot more interesting.

Other aspects of combat further enhancing the depth. Cover is an important consideration, and crouching behind cover can reduce your incoming damage by quite a considerable margin. Offensively, you can never miss so long as your crosshair is on the target, but your accuracy (determined by the enemy's cover, your stance, and your weapon's range capacity) will heavily influence what damage you inflict.

Ultimately, combat only partly feels sort of like a first person shooter but the resulting lack of server coordination issues makes it very massively multiplayer friendly. The approach is ultimately quite beneficial while still feeling much more action-packed for the player.

Comparison: A few games have gone for the quasi-FPS approach, such as Neocron, and they have not been terribly popular. Still, it might just be the next step in MMORPG evolution if it can catch on.

Kill streaks

Defeating enemies rapidly creates kill streaks that increase the amount of experience you make. Last I checked, you can make up to 300% of your standard experience amount. The main difficulty is in finding sufficient foes to take down, and going to the individually instanced zones is probably the answer to that.

Comparison: It's pretty frequent to find bonuses in MMORPGs. Some reward "rested experience" - bonus experience for the time you did not spend playing the game. Many offer "group experience" - bonus experience for being in a group. However, only in Final Fantasy XI did I see bonus experience for defeating several foes in a string, and it's actually considerably harder to do there.

Worldliness

Tabula Rasa is unusually well emphasized in worldliness. There's hordes of NPCs who engage in perpetual war over the landscape, and you're yet another one trying to fit in and help your side win. There's unusual and convincing alien creatures to find and explode. While there are many zones shared by all the players, there are also whole instanced zones where scripted events occur for you (and your party) to participate in.

There is a higher-than-usual amount of open-endedness in Tabula Rasa. While there is a general type of progression as you go from zone to zone, the quests you get in that zone will allow you to go all over this large area in whatever order you like. This ties into the progression system when it comes to recovering Logos, the symbols used to both speak an alien language as well as what powers your abilities.

Comparison: Truly worldly MMORPGs are difficult to find, as most are willing to focus entirely on creating a simple grind and then sit back an let the cash flow in. Worldly games include Final Fantasy XI, Vanguard, and EverQuest 2. However, none of them have a large NPC population that is perpetually fighting side-by-side with players. Tabula Rasa can be said to be truly making some headway here.

Also included in this section was some mention of instanced maps (an individual copy for the player) with heavy scripting to create an immersive scenario. Guild Wars and World of Warcraft are other examples of MMORPGs that do this. However, Tabula Rasa does manage to push the envelope somewhat with scale in this regard.


Capturable Outposts

On many maps, there's a number of outposts that they may have captured. Players can move in and capture these, and then friendly AFS forces come in to occupy them. They might provide missions or other services while they are there. Occasionally, a wave of Thrax will attack the outpost, and if left undefended by players long enough there's a good chance they will take it back.

Comparison: The capturable Outposts are an example of meaningful dynamic content, allowing the game world to change according to the actions of the players. While many of the more innovative games have experimented with dynamic content, Outposts in Tabula Rasa are the furthest I've seen it taken. Other examples of dynamic content include Recluse's Victory in City of Heroes and a large part of Star Wars Galaxies, but none of them have managed to really integrate themselves comfortably into an entertaining and meaningful gameplay solution like this.

Summary

That's pretty much all I have to say about Tabula Rasa. I've expressed core features I've noticed about the game from a few dozen hours into the beta. However, as players get deeper into it, they may discover there's more interesting things yet.

In the end, it's important to recognize that Tabula Rasa is still an MMORPG, and it can generate some of the same kind of tedium. Much of the more interesting features in Tabula Rasa have been done elsewhere. However, there are few type of features that have been done better than usual here. More important, there are a few powerful features that have been done for the first time here. As a result Tabula Rasa at least partly earns the genre-busting hype surrounding the game.

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