November 15, 2007

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Tabula Rasa, (PC)
NCSoft, October 15
By Glenn "SPAAACE AAAACE" Given production@hippopress.com

NCSoft delivers a few choice morsels of innovation and “hey, neato” design in Tabula Rasa. Unfortunately it requires playing the rest of Tabula Rasa to experience them.

Ultima impresario Richard Garriot, he of the Sputnik-owning, Jedi braid-wearing nerdity, headed development on Tabula Rasa and inserts himself once more into the game, this time as General British. British is one of the leaders of the Allied Free Sentients, a loose coalition of races, including the humans, who have banded together to stop the world swarming Bane. See, the Bane came to Earth and whupped us but good. We fled through not Stargate at all and as we fought a guerrilla battle with this omnipresent evil, wacky mystical powers were awakened in us. You know, futurisitic alien abilities like lightning bolt spells, er, I mean Logos (the game’s term for these superhuman abilities).

Tabula Rasa swaps aliens and rocket launchers for the orcs and battle-axes of some other MMO — but it’s not a total sci-fi crib sheet. Garriot has actually snuck a handful of good ideas into Rasa, namely the inverted pyramid of character development (in which you choose your class as you level rather than locking you into one role from the get-go) and the ability to back up your character at key development junctures. These design choices let the player explore the available playstyles (although they mainly stay in the blow-stuff-up section of the card catalog) without ornerous hoops to jump or penalties for re-specializing. An interesting failure is in the dynamic battlefield system. Each planet in Rasa is controlled by your standard AI mobs and players need to push them back and retake critical points that when occupied open up new questlines and facilities. Unfortunately the new questlines are your standard “Bring me 30 Space Boar Livers” or other such grindery and many times once you’ve completed the slog you return only to find that the enemy mobs have taken back their clubhouse and you can’t turn the quest in.

That.

Is.

Frustrating.

Still the ebb and flow of the firefight has a certain goofy charm to it, especially, I suppose, for tactically oriented guilds to muck about with. The tipping point toward “meh!” inevitably arrives when one first fires a gun at the enemy, though. Rasa emplys that weird, I’m-playing-an-FPS,-but-it’s-an-RPG style of shooting in which dead locks on alien foreheads can often turn into wildly deviating gutter balls. “I’m sure that your average Unreal twitcher will really find a lot to love about MMOs by being exposed to this” Glenn said sarcastically. Dick Garriot, you’re a crazy bastard. Bravo for making me rethink how RPG progression needed to be and huzzah for trying to liquefy the landscape of warfare. It doesn’t click for me, frankly, but in the limited field of sci- fi MMOs, I’m prepared to declare Tabula Rasa a champ. BGlenn Given