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Hellgate London / Tabula Rasa / Crysis

The holiday season for 2007 is heating up with a surprising number of quality titles out there. For the most part, I'm glad I heeded some advice and picked up Gamefly. By having an ungodly ever-ready supply of all but the most extremely hard-to-find games available, it's pretty much legally eliminated the need for me to ever buy another console game. The PC, however, is another story.

Tabula Rasa and Hellgate: London came out on pretty much simultaneously, and caused much great gnashing of teeth amongst players about which to buy. However, there's really no comparison between the two.

Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa means, "Clean Slate", but first impressions would seem to indicate otherwise. There's still experience bars and levels. There's still quests and killing critters. There's still loot and trade skills. Basically, Tabula Rasa is a MMORPG, a genre focused on a virtual world and your persona's painstaking acquisition of virtual power within it. Its execution is meant to please players of MMORPGs.

Sci-Fi and MMORPGs. Rarely together. Rarely this fun. (Source)

At the same time, however, Tabula Rasa is not the MMORPG you might be expecting. Despite the presence of experience bars and levels, it's not yet another EverQuest/World of Warcraft clone. Despite the fact that it was made under the executive direction of Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British) this is not an Ultima Online clone. There's a good chance that, despite the similarities which make Tabula Rasa a MMORPG, this game does not play like any MMORPG you've ever played.

Tabula Rasa differs from most MMORPGs in that it is unusually actiony and visceral. There is no "auto-attack" here, and instead you equip up to five weapons that you switch between, put your crosshair over an enemy, and left-click to blaze away. There's sort of a quasi-FPS thing going on here, and you'll occasionally need to reload your weapon. Despite the visceral feeling, don't expect "Auto Assault" simplicity: Each type of weapon has a unique application, thus the need for 5 weapon slots to rapidly switch between. There also a variety of support items and abilities that are activated with the right mouse button from a series of 5 slot banks.

The depth of the combat comes mostly from how damage is resolved. If you have higher "accuracy" (by stopping, crouching and/or being in optimal range with your weapon) you'll do more damage. If you use cover against your enemy (for example by crouching behind a barricade) you'll much take less damage. The difference between using tactics or just firing away is the difference of whether you find the combat shallow or not.

At its best, you'll find yourself facing off against absolute hordes of Bane soldiers and their genetically modified creations, sometimes many levels above you. That you can get away with this is a pretty good indication that here is a game where player skill matters more than the time you've spent grinding away on getting levels. This kind of battle is most often encountered at control points. These are outposts that can either be held by the players or the Bane. While they're held by players they're staffed by friendly NPCs that often offer missions and services. It's quite an experience to witness the massive assaults against control points, and I think everybody should try that at least once.

Tabula Rasa has some other cool features such as cloning (saving your character as a separate character so you can come back and try a different thing later or respec your skills), kill streaks (up to 250% bonus experience for killing several foes in a row), and overall emphasis on worldliness in Tabula Rasa. This is quite the game and, while it may not be a completely "blank slate", it innovates enough to partly earn that title.

Despite this praise, Tabula Rasa isn't perfect. The game itself runs runs quite stably and, for the most part gameplay, feels bug-free. However, the deeper you get into the game, the more problems you will find: Some capture points (like in The Divide zone) aren't set up to be attacked by enough Bane, a few skills (like Crab Mines) do not operate as they should, and there's some general housekeeping issues like redundant waypoints steering players to the wrong place to recover a Logos icon. The higher you level, the more lack of polish you'll encounter, with Wilderness (levels 1-10) seeming like where the game should be and the Palisads (levels 20-30) seeming like the game was a month ago. At the time of this writing, some instanced dungeons are simply unable to be completed due to bugs.

In the end, I can only recommend this game for players who are patient. I'm still subscribed and planning on staying subscribed because I believe the problems with Tabula Rasa will eventually be fixed by the developers. If you want to wait 6 months first, without paying for it as I am, then that may not be a bad idea. Tabula Rasa could potentially be something great but, thanks primarily to the lack of polish in the mid-to-late game, it's not all the way there yet.

Hellgate London

Hellgate: London was not only developed by many of the minds behind Blizzard's popular Diablo series, but they have deliberately worked to emulate Diablo and take it to the next level. Diablo was a game of randomly generated dungeons tied to slick, meticulously balanced gameplay mechanics. At the basic level, the main difference between the games is that Diablo was a two-dimensional, isometric perspective and Hellgate: London is fully three-dimensional, over-the-shoulder third-person or first-person perspective game.

Hell has never seemed so appealing. The graphics are both relatively gorgeous and have less technical overhead to display them than Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Tabula Rasa. The interlocking play of the randomly generated tilesets are so seamless that only the occasional repeated area tips you off that these were not hand-crafted interiors you're walking through. The enemies are brutal in-your-face creations, and your character's armor and weapons are lovingly created and able to be dyed other colors.

Hellgate:London demonstrates that the apocalypse is more fun than we've been lead to believe. (Source)

The important part to consider about Hellgate: London is that the core gameplay is tried-and-tested, hack-and-slash fun. The majority of the game is spent hewing down hordes of different kinds of foes, often with different behaviors, sometimes different properties and difficulties. The loot system is both complicated and balanced enough to satisfy the finest of virtual treasure collectors. Here is a game that, rather than becoming repetitive and boring in time, has the potential to become even more satisfying the deeper you get into it.

The longevity of the game is also quite good. The three factions emphasize three fundamentally different ways to play (Melee, Ranged, Magic) with two flavors of each for a total of 6 classes. Thus, even after you've taken your favorite class between all five acts in all three game modes, you've the potential to play the game five other ways. Finally, if you're willing to pay a monthly subscription fee, you'll be able to download all sorts of new content and enhancements as they come available.

So it is that we've reached the counterbalancing side of the review. For all of Hellgate's lavish attention to advancing the state of the game, there's also a plethora of bugs and other problems that have undermined this endeavor.

In my opinion, the worst of the bugs is a poor memory manager that inevitably results in a crash to desktop (or possibly complete lockup). Others have been quick to blame the inability to complete Nightmare mode without excessive regrinding old areas (or at all). The very class balance feels a tad rushed, with many unnecessary or poorly placed skills on some classes' skill trees disrupting the flow of the game. This is to say nothing for server issues encountered by European or Asian players.

There's also the little matter of Hellgate lacking in the multiplayer department. Despite there being no real reason to create a Single Player mode character (other than limitation of character slots) it's highly unlikely you'll ever get into a group. The chat channels are split into hundreds of fractions, likely with many players well outside of your level, and the congregation areas are equally shortsightedly distributed. Regardless that loot is split in such a way that there's no danger of other players shorting you, the challenges given by the game are not so great that they really encourage you to find a second player to help. Currently, this is only a game you'll play with people you know, as strangers usually won't see any reason to invite you along.

In the end, if you're content with a game that is fun but buggy now, you don't mind soloing, and you like hack-and-slash RPGs then you can't go wrong with Hellgate: London. Otherwise, you might want to hold off for a few months first, wait for the developers to iron out the many bugs and add some content players may actually want to team up on.

Comparing the two.

When you get right down to it, putting Hellgate: London next to Tabula Rasa is like setting down Diablo next to EverQuest. The choice is easy: Do you want to play a fun hack-and-slash game or do you want to accumulate artificial power in a virtual world? This analogy of Diablo versus EverQuest breaks down only in that Tabula Rasa plays considerably different from EverQuest - it's almost Planetside in its focus on firing cones, cover, and technological gadgetry.

Personally, I'm playing both Hellgate and Tabula Rasa, and I've found minimal conflicts between the two. I play Hellgate when I just want to have some fun, then i switch over to Tabula Rasa when I want to be part of something that's a bit more epic (and currently crashes much less). I'm looking forward to Crysis because, as a dedicated first person shooter, it has little to do with either.

Crysis Preview

I've played the demo, the game itself comes out this upcoming Friday. I've already rattled on long enough, so I'll give the short review: Far Cry, but better. What follows are the unnecessary details.

The main appeal of Crysis is the wide-open maps that allow you to approach a problem in many different ways with unparalleled realism: The story may progress linearly, but the way you tackle problems is very nearly as open-ended as it would be if you were there yourself deciding what to do. In this respect, it really is no different from Far Cry.

However, Crysis enhances on Far Cry in two fundamental ways.

First, sheer technological advantage. The world is a tad more interactive: trees can be knocked down, some buildings can be blown up, ect. It supports the latest DirectX 10 magic while still looking good on a Windows XP computer. The enemies are more interesting and intelligent than the faceless mercenaries and mutants in Far Cry (especially as you get deeper into the game and uncover the face of your true enemy).

Crysis is a pretty, pretty game. DX9 shot. (Source)

Second, the suit. In Crysis, you wear a suit that is capable of granting you super speed, super strength and stealth. (It's also has a mode capable of blunting bullets, but what else is new in suits of armor in FPS?) These modes make the otherwise typical (albeit well balanced) first person shooter combat all the more interesting.

Really, they had me at "Far Cry, but better." Far Cry was (and still is) a good game, I'd happily pay $50 for an enhanced version of more of that. The Multiplayer mode (which I do not recall Far Cry having) may be fun, too.
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