Tabula Rasa has been something of a mystery over the past couple of years. First it wasn't going to come out on PC. Then it went through a major overhaul and vanished. Now it has resurfaced, Ultima creator Richard Garriott, the game's executive producer, explains that the main reason behind the sudden change wasn't because of nefarious secret meetings, publisher machinations or even interference from extraterrestrials, but because of fashion. Yes, you read that right.
Visually, the game has had a very radical image revamp, although its spirit and soul is still the same," explains Garriott. We initially wanted to separate the visuals of clothing from armour value so avatars could look more diverse. We ended up with loads and loads of great costumes. But it's very difficult to create clothing for men that's not designed to be functional, and although people liked playing the female avatars no one really liked playing the male ones all that much. So we decided to rethink the fundamentals of character attire, and this has had a trickle-down effect on other aspects of the game."
There's certainly a touch of Halo and Phantasy Star Online about the look and feel of Tabula Rasa. This is partly due to the setting - Earth has been overrun by an alien race called the Bane, and the last human survivors have been rescued and given weapons and powers by mystenous friendly' alien creatures.
The action-orientated interface shows that, on the surface at least, Tabula Rasa has lots of third-person shooter influences. Garriott explains the thinking behind this: We really wanted players to look through the screen at the activity going on in the game. In most MMOs, once you acquire a target you start looking down at your shortcut keys. We wanted to change that and make the action faster paced.
Destination Games has endeavoured to make the game world very dynamic, so it feels like the war between the humans and the Bane is constantly ongoing. Both sides have their own battlefield strategies, and the Al carries on regardless of whether the players are actively involved. But by joining in with NPCs or evoking NPC activity the state of the battlefield can be altered quite significantly.
Richard Garriott has what he describes as a Tolkien-esque approach to creating role-playing games - meaning that he likes to have thorough knowledge about the world he's creating, from the politics that govern it to the currency, language and preferred beverages. The fact that Ultima Online is still being played today is a testament to the strength of such an approach. However, Garriott and his team are gunning for a different audience this time around, so we'll be watching them closely to see if they can conjure up the same magic again.
Download Tabula Rasa
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Rare Exceptions aside, game development troubles are kept quieter than a case of royal herpes. Guess that qualifies Tabula Rasa as a 'rare' title. Earlier this year the team suffered a fairly public meltdown. Originally announced for winter 2004/05, the game ran into trouble with 'modifications and refinements'. That intentionally vague statement bodes ill, but more telling were the actions of executive producer Richard 'Lord Bloody British' Garriott, who installed himself as lead designer in the wake of departures by former designer Carty Staehlin and other team members.
Where Are They Now?
Pressed on the current state of development, Garriott was succinct: "We are in the long push for sufficient content quantity. MMOs need a large amount of content, so that's our focus now." Sounds suspiciously like a total teardown, but Garriott wouldn't be drawn on anything more specific. "While the subject, back story, and missions have remained largely the same, we have made some structural adjustments to how these missions are accessed and how the players perceive the results. These changes are linked to large battlefield spaces, which I'll discuss more at a later date." Based on other isolated comments made by Garriott and the TR team, we project that those "battlefield spaces" will be more constant, changing the background conflict into a foreground issue.
With key minds in design, programming and art out the door, expect to see some obvious differences from what we last viewed at E3. "The biggest change has come in the area of player costume. We felt the previous costume direction did not create an 'aspirational fantasy' that players would want to embody. So, we have done some major rework in that area."
Does that mean more hardcore? Tinfoil trousers? Good questions all, but apparently the idea is that players begin with fairly everyday gear and abilities before powering up via the influence of the Benefactors, the interstellar race who have bestowed technology and power upon the player's race. Costume changes seem superficial, but these seem to point to greater shifts in the underlying design -the better to convey a sense of interqalactic war.
Garriott was most pointed when discussing the game's role in the MMO market. "Most MMOs still target the core of devoted players who can spend 40-plus hours a month, and scare off players • who can only afford half that or less. These are avid gamers who are looking for the advantages of playing with others in a persistent space, while also looking to achieve in ways previously found only in solo player games." Hardcore it is, then. No EverQuest II pussyfooting around here. But beta is still a speck on the horizon, leaving a hard and fast release date a ever dream, at best. When pressed for a date, Garriott proves he's learned well from the lessons of Gabe Newell. "When Tabula Rasa is done!"
When It Comes to MMOs, it's always good to see a title released that doesn't contain dwarves, gold, sorcery and other things that can be lifted from Tolkien and World of Warcraft. Forever the company that stays on roads less-travelled, NCsoft have delivered us what's probably their most different genre piece yet.
Tabula Rasa is an MMO that places you in the centre of an intergalactic conflict between us plucky humans and the evil, ruthless etc alliance of aliens called the Bane, which laid waste to our beloved Earth.
The actual premise of Tabula Rasa is much I like your average MMO, setting you up in a starting area where you learn the rules of the road and how to navigate, before moving onto pick up quests or do some random adventuring and wandering. The big difference is that it plays more like a third-person shooter, breaking the mould of melee combat and making the combat a great deal more frantic than you'd usually expect.
You can augment the damage you inflict not just by moving back and forth but also by crouching; while different guns have their own idiosyncrasies, like being able to hit multiple enemies. This adds a degree of tactical weaponry above and beyond having standard gear sets for particular abilities, making arming up for a big battle great fun.
Tabula Rasa also has some of the best NPC interaction in MMOs I've played. While in Everquest and World of Warcraft going into battle alongside the computer was a rare occasion, this game constantly throws fellow NPC soldiers into the mix. This really gives the feel of being in an army, rather than the usual haunting sensation that you're the sod that does all the work. The missions send you all over creation, and are merciful with any quests involving the collection of flora or fauna forcing you to go into foreign territory and kick arse. To break this up are random attacks by the forces of the Bane - so out of nowhere dropships can make things harder by bringing extra troops to the battle. This means you'll be near a fight planned or not most of the time.
At levels five, 15 and 30, you'll get the chance to choose new classes and clone your character (if you've got enough clone points). This copies your avatar and your level, while resetting everything else so you can pick a new class and re-assign skill points. While this stops you having to replay the entire game when you want a new character, it leaves the clone with no gear. However, it's not all fun and games. While NCsoft claim they've eliminated grind in Tabula Rasa, it's still there. You will find yourself killing lots of things to make your way to the next level, to get more abilities so you can kill more things, and so on. To make matters worse the UI system is the single worst I've ever seen in an MMO. To equip a gun, you'll have to hold CTRL go over the character pane, find the tiny bit that says "equipment", click it, and then drag the gun over to your main window to equip it. And that's only if you want to find your guns or ammo - recipes are in another window.
Combat is terrible in laggy areas, with gaps between when you fire and the hits registering ruining the experience. And as of going to press there's only one EU server, making the starting areas annoying to unplayable for new players.
Tabula Rasa is an excellent prospect though. It has a fantastic atmosphere, a good backstory, and a combat system that when stable, is more fun than other MMOs'. It fails to break the MMO quest/mission structure though, and there are few words to accurately show how terrible the UI is.
With a little work it could be a top-flight MMO; for the moment, it's definitely one of the better contenders. If you're looking for some thing more hands-on than WOW, more dramatic than EverQuest, and just plain better than Anarchy Online, then Tabula Rasa is your game.