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E3 2006: 'Tabula Rasa' - Impressions

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I really wanted to title this, "What the MMO World needs now is a really kick ass shooter." I walked into the Tabula Rasa demo at E3 dubious at best. I live in Austin, and TR comes up often, as you might expect out of a game that has been in development for years. I cheered the notion of TR in its first incarnation, when it sounded like the ulimtate choose your own adventure novel. But then it seemed to have married Starship Troopers, and it turned a corner so fast and hard, I really didn't know what to expect.

Well, I should have expected fast and hard. TR was described to me as "similar to WoW or Guild Wars." Well, yeah, if you add the pacing the best first person shooters and the adrenaline of a Rob Zombie concert. The demo looked strong with visuals inspired by science fiction art and a wonderful use of color. The mobs looked incredible - gigantic flea insect ships and nice beefy attackers.

But the devil is in the details, and TR is paying attention:

  • The environment itself is hostile and shakes with the force of the trauma around it. This gives TR a very immersive quality; if something near you is getting bombarded, you are going to feel it. Although I didn't get to experience any truly multiplayer sessions, it seems likely that this is going to provide very serious incentive for groups to take care of local business as they are trying to exterminate the bugs.
  • The hostility of the environment is paired with a real sense of bug/extermination strategy. This is another aspect that I didn't get to play, but they described an element of timing (if you blow something up, expect damaging shrapnel to come after a slight delay). They are trying to push groups into thinking of the effects of various attacks, rather than just plowing though.
  • It sounded good and utterly immersive. Even with noise reducing earphones, that's really saying something on the E3 floor. They were competing with their own fire throwing, sword dancing divas.
  • The TR team looks the part too. Every single one of them was incredibly helpful and attentive. If you looked like you wanted to play, they made sure you did. If you looked lost, they'd hustle in to help with the reassurance of an elementary school librarian. They sure don't look like librarians. In their fatigues and combat boots these guys looked like the resistance army. You could see and feel how much they love this game.
  • Game play was serious a rush. It felt like the FPS games where you can go-go-go for hours at a time with your heart beating just a bit faster than usual. Except it's NOT an FPS. There's a real community out there fighting these space bugs. Even in the demo I could feel a sense that you really needed to accomplish things collaboratively, and, man, that's fun.

Richard Garriott told us that he didn't want the game to be a level grind. The MMO mindset (Target, Fireball [hit 1], DoT [hit 2], Instant [hit3]) forces you to think in terms of your taskbars, rather than focusing on the actual goal. I didn't have enough time to play and see that through, but I think Garriott's on to something. The player machanics in most games do contribute to the sense of grinding (you couldn't pay me to start tailoring again, thanks anyway.)

Which leads nicely into Garriott's other observation, current MMOs have a very linear sense of charcter progression. I choose my race and class before I've ever played, and the grind ensues. If I am unsatisfied by level 20, I start again. Once I've gotten someone to level 60, I'm welcome to go back through the beginning to try something else. He brought up a great business point: the commitment required to get to a high level opens up an option once you hit the highest levels to go try another game. Why stay with World of Warcraft post-level 60, when you can go play another game entirely and start from the beginning because, well, you are beginning. Maybe WoW is a bad example, because they just didn't provide incentives to move forward after 60, but it felt damn good to hear Garriott say that. The game company should be looking to retain me, rather than make it seem like a chore to stay on. And, I want to stay usually. Unless I'm bored silly or wanting those hours of my life back, I'd much rather have the game give me appropriate incentives to stick around.

So how are they going to do that? Well, for one thing you don't start committing to classes until you are at level 10, which isn't that innovative but a start. The new nugget is a notion of branching, which allows me to say, 'ya know, at level 40 I sure would have liked to try this instead.' Back you go, with a branch of your character to pick up and run with. Nice idea.

NCSoft also seems to have reached the limit of their patience for in game travel. Mounts, be they horses or birds, still take away from your game time to simply get where you want to go. Travel in TR is meant to be instant, which is a good good thing. Related tangent: I was at the Minna Mingle and got into a discussion of the need for a casual MMO. The following day I drove to the airport with a collegaue who hasn't played MMOs because his gaming time is scarce, and he just wants to get in and go. If TR pulls off a "log in, suit up and go" style MMO, they may have a lot of folks that wouldn't touch WoW but long for a good PC game.

Look for a fall beta of TR and a big bang at next year's E3.

This game will fail without

This game will fail without player vs player combat it's as simple as that.

I'm worried about two things

I'm worried about two things --

1) It's going to be SO much like an FPS that people like me who don't have the fast-twitch responses for it won't like it, and also it might be TOO constantly go-go-go(!) for our tastes.

2) The level grind may be gone (yay!) but it will still be basically two-dimensional (at best)in play: 1) Kill things 2) get stuff from killing things (points, salvage, etc). I'd really like to see an MMO where doing something else has some real interest and value, or at least where missions might have truly different objectives and depend on different powers/talents, etc. Sure, you might not be able to finish a mission unless you had the right sort of character on your team, but as long as you knew that before accepting/going on the mission...

ANYway... any impressions along these lines from your experience/knowledge of Tabula Rasa?

Thanks for the outstanding

Thanks for the outstanding 'personal' review of Tabula Rasa! I so envy you getting to play the game. I would have paid my weight in chocolate in order to do the same!

I started following this game shortly after their 'big switch' from Fantasy-based to SciFi-based MMO. At first, I thought that the current version was just going to be another frag-fest game. But then people playing early versions started noticing that you DO have to use stragety and power-ups don't just start appearing. Map memorization won't help either because the enemy could be coming from any direction at any time.

One thing I did notice in most of the videos of the game play...people still run forward with blinders on. If the action isn't in a 180º field of view, then it doesn't exist. It looks like you will have to be constantly scanning the areas around you...for enemies, projectiles, terrian cover, etc...which will be great!

Gamermom, when you were fighting in the game, were you in a group? If so, how did the group react to the enviroment? Will the average gamer have to change their style of play for Tabula Rasa? From what you saw, would you say that the game represents a semi-gloss finish (rather than high-gloss) or does it still have some rough parts that need more attention? If you were on the dev team, what would you like to see changed or added?

I know, asking a lot of questions...sorry. I was born curious and I never grew out of it! -)


Dolnor Numbwit
Eternal Newbie