Developer: Destination Games
Release Date: Fall 2007
Richard Garriott was, after a fashion, hiding out during this year's Game Developer Conference, tucked away in a difficult-to-find room on the top floor of the Sony Metreon. This is because he was there to, essentially, call out the rest of the MMORPG developers in the business. It was one of those speeches where, if his competitors had been there, he could've saved a lot of time by dropping a gauntlet on the floor.
He was one of the first developers I heard this weekend refer to "traditional" MMO combat as "whack-a-mole," a charmless and graceless series of exchanged blows. Gariott's new project — Tabula Rasa, one of the games that NCSoft has trotted out at E3 like clockwork for the last couple of years, complete with its mascot/story hook/in-game PC Lisa Morrison — is an attempt to address that problem, as well as several others, including the lack of interactive storytelling that tends to accompany the modern MMO. Garriott calls it a "step forward in the state of the art" for MMOs in general.
Tabula Rasa has been in development for several years. Its title began as a placeholder, then came to symbolize Garriott's team's ambitions with the project; they "wanted to invent from scratch" their new MMO, instead of going back into the realm of fantasy.
At the same time, the humans in Tabula Rasa's game world are also starting from scratch. The Earth is under attack by an alien race called the Bane, which attacks from orbit with chunks of the last planet they conquered, as well as an assortment of cyborgs and mechs. The last few surviving humans, aided by burgeoning psionic powers and a race of friendly aliens, unify as the Allied Free Sentients and mount a desperate counterattack against the Bane.
Tabula Rasa begins each character as a raw Recruit, a human with psionic potential who's joined the fight against the Bane. A few levels later, you can choose from a variety of starter classes, such as soldier and infiltrator, and then choose again a few levels later, customizing your character as you progress along a class tree.
If you decide you didn't like your choices and want to go back a few steps, Tabula Rasa gives you the ability to clone your character, essentially saving a backup of him or her to disc so you can revert back to an earlier version. This allows you to change your character's classes, or even his or her name and gender.
However, to prevent griefers from abusing this feature (the example Garriott gave was someone tormenting another player, then logging back on as a clone and acting like they didn't know what was going on), all the characters on a given account will be from the same "family," sharing a common first name and a communal set of footlockers. You can easily swap items back and forth among your characters, but at the same time, everyone will know it's still you unless you sign up for a brand-new account.
The action in Tabula Rasa is pure science fiction. A battle ramps up quickly, moving from a quick exchange of gunfire to something that looks and sounds like a major wartime skirmish. Imagine a third-person shooter that used MMO mechanics, and you'll get close to how Tabula Rasa plays out; while the damage resolution and other combat systems are all pure MMO, you can obtain bonuses and attack targets the way you would in an FPS.
For example, if you fire at an enemy from behind cover, they'll take a major hit to their accuracy while you gain a bonus to it. If you're like me (and Lord knows I am), and have tried on multiple occasions in WoW to hide from an incoming spell or arrow even though you know it won't actually work, this will be a breath of fresh air.
Tabula Rasa controls a bit more simply than other MMOs do, with only two icons on the bottom of the screen. The left controls the player's current weapon, while the right corresponds to the player's currently selected ability. You can choose to equip a new weapon or ability rapidly by tapping a key on the keyboard. This, combined with a more FPS-style control system, makes Tabula Rasa look and feel like a high-impact shooter rather than an actual MMO.
Garriott also intends Tabula Rasa to be a step forward in the realm of interactive storytelling, which he views as having taken a big step back in the era of the MMO. Tabula Rasa has a strong overall storyline, which is largely told through instances. Thus, while many characters will do the same quests, they won't all be there at the same time. (Here, Garriott told a story about players queuing up to kill a monster at the bottom of a high-level Ultima Online dungeon, and how he wished to avoid similar situations developing here.) The idea is for the player to be able to pretend that he's the main character in a developing space opera, forging through this unique storyline with his friends at his back.
All the NPCs in the game will also have unique goals and patterns, with certain tactics they favor and the ability to accomplish things without the PC's involvement. It's entirely possible for NPCs to take or lose contested territory without any player having anything to do with the situation.
Tabula Rasa is, in short, ambitious, particularly in an inherently repetitive genre such as this one. Garriott has promised a great deal; now we get to see whether or not he can back it up.
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