The Bane, a hostile alien race, has arrived on Earth and scattered humans across the galaxy in an ongoing fight for survival. That's the premise behind Tabula Rasa, a new sci-fi MMORPG from Destination Games, a company founded by Richard Garriott and Starr Long, famous for their work on titles in the Ultima franchise. It isn't simply the lack of elves that makes this game different, they've rethought RPG combat mechanics from the ground up.
Part Shooter, Mostly Roleplaying Game
Tabula Rasa is definitely an RPG, but the interface borrows a great deal from first-person shooters. While targets are selected with sticky crosshairs, the outcome of an exchange is determined by a mysterious combination of odds, statistics, movement, cover, and aim. You don't need really high accuracy, but it can help. Auto-attack is out and firing with the mouse buttons is in. You have a primary and a secondary attack, each of which can be switched quickly with shortcut keys. In some ways it resembles the hybrid system used by Star Wars Galaxies in its current incarnation.
Targetting with crosshairs does get your attention back on the action and it's easy to adjust to. I'd like to have a way to zoom completely into a first-person perspective, preferably with the mouse wheel, rather than always having the camera floating over the shoulder of my character. It's cool that they included a crouch function, but you stand up as soon as you move, which just doesn't feel right. Of course, these are small things that may change at any time.
Running and gunning is a big part of the fun in Tabula Rasa. Although there are skills that require you to stand still, combat is fast and furious compared to what the bulk of MMORPGs offer. Arming a shotgun and getting in close to a group of Bane, knocking them back with the force of your blasts, is a lot more intense than I expected. I'm not sure what they have planned, but I could see something like player-controlled vehicles pushing it over the top. For a mix of RPG and FPS, it's the most well thought-out effort I've seen yet, even at the beta stage.
A Living World?
Tabula Rasa is trying to make their AI more dynamic than the norm by giving it some territorial control. NPCs on both sides of the war are constantly fighting all around you. There are bases on the map which players are able to take back from the Bane, giving them new spawn points and vendors, as well as opening up quests.
There's still work being done on this, but it looks quite promising. It's not hard to imagine groups and raids of players forming just to force the Bane out of certain outposts, which adds a lot to the sense that the world can be changed. I like the way player-controlled bases are frequently attacked by the Bane, giving you a fight even when you're not looking for one. You'll also notice enemies that are delivered by aircraft, or drop out of trees, rather than simply spawning out of nowhere.
Naturally, Tabula Rasa has plenty of missions of the standard varieties to help you gain experience and get geared up, a lot of which are soloable. There are instances to explore as well, and some of them are nicely tied into the ongoing battle with the Bane.
Wargames and Clan Wars
PvP fans will find a couple of options available to them when they want to test their skills against other players. Wargames include duels and team battles in specially designated areas that may have objectives, such as capture-the-flag. Clan Wars are accessed by joining a PvP clan, which makes you open season for other PvP clans.
Clones and Logos
Ever find yourself creating multiple characters just to find out which class you prefer, only to have to repeat early levels that you're thoroughly bored with? Tabula Rasa has an elegant solution to this; a "clone" function that allows you to create a copy of your character at any point where you might like to pursue a alternative path. Unlike most RPGs, your class isn't decided at character creation. Instead you choose from various specializations as you progress through the game, making clones a bit like saved games in the single-player world.
Logos is a cryptic language that is revealed as you explore Foreas, the planet that serves as a setting for Tabula Rasa. Players collect these symbols and use them to unlock and enhance certain skills. A pane in your character window shows you which Logos symbols you've discovered, marking your progress toward learning the ancient secrets that caused the war you're fighting in.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot to be said for Tabula Rasa, and it's always refreshing to see a game take the MMORPG formula in a somewhat different direction. I'd be lying if I didn't say I have mixed feelings about the hybrid FPS/RPG combat systems we're starting to see in some of these games. 3D shooters are very refined these days, and borrowing from them without going all the way sort of leaves you with a weak shooter. On the other hand, there are a lot of RPG fans who clearly don't like "twitching," but desire something more engaging than auto-attack. I'm just not convinced that hybrids can effectively capture the best qualities of the two genres without ultimately becoming shooters. That said, Tabula Rasa has a good chance of making it work, and does its fair share of innovating in other areas as well. If you'd like to jack up the action a notch or two and help save humanity from the Bane, this is one to watch for this Fall.