Digits & Dragons
A Massive Blank Slate
Daring to Differentiate
If I was thinking about a genre to make a profitable game for, the massively multiplayer online game genre
would not be the one I would pick. With the 800-pound World of Warcraft gorilla looming over the MMO
scene, many online games have come and gone without making much of a dent in the market. If there is
one man that can carve a slice in the WoW pie, though, it is Richard "Lord British" Garriott, the man
behind Ultima, one of the most popular and prolific RPG video game series ever made.
Garriott was the vision and driving force behind the plethora of single player Ultima games whose releases
spanned nearly twenty years. While these games varied in quality they did succeed in creating a rich
tapestry of culture and myth that tied the series together. Not being content to restrict these adventures to
solo players, Garriott and his company Origin Systems created Ultima Online, the first large-scale,
persistent online fantasy game. Ultima Online was a huge success for its time and continues to be played
today, albeit with only a shadow of its former glory. Although the size of the player base of other games
today dwarves UO, it acted as a pioneer to the MMORPG realm.
Now, with WoW providing all the elves and dwarves people can handle, a new MMO game has got to do
something to differentiate itself. Some games, like Lord of the Rings online, bring an already established
world and fan base to the ring. Others, like Eve Online, ditch convention altogether and use spaceships
and the stars instead of orcs and humans. Guild Wars has been very successful by following a different
kind of pricing model - instead of paying a monthly subscription you only pay the upfront cost of the game.
Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa differentiates itself not only by its setting, a futuristic battlefield set on
another planet, but also by feeling more like a shooter and less like a turn-taking sword-swinging affair.
Whether or not this is enough to keep it a consistently profitable player in the MMO scene is a question
only time will answer.
Guns, Words and Steel
Tabula Rasa, isn't the first futuristic MMO; both Eve Online and Anarchy Online are set in futuristic sci-fi
universes. As a big fan of all things sci-fi, this should be great for me, but although I tried, neither of these
games really clicked with me. Tabula Rasa, however, has enough action to catch my interest and a rich
enough world to keep me very interested.
Players begin the game with limited character customization options and then are thrown right into the
battlefield, where they get immediate hands-on experience with items, quests, and lots and lots of battles.
Tabula Rasa is a setting of constant battle - a world where many species are battling for conquest or
survival. The Bane, an alliance of evil species, came to Earth and wiped out about every human thing
alive. Everything, that is, but a small and selectively chosen group of survivors who were transported out
with top-secret wormhole technology. These survivors, allying with others who opposed the Bane, came
together as the Allied Free Sentients.
In addition to finding alien allies, humanity also found another source of power, older and more innate. The
Eloh, a race from many thousands of years ago, developed Logos - a powerful science that "unified all
known theories of physics." Though the Eloh are mostly out of the picture at this point, their knowledge
has been left throughout the universe and they seem to be quietly helping humanity as they can. Through
the power of Logos (and a good amount of old-fashioned firepower), humanity is fighting back against the
Logos are key to advancing your skills
What this actually means for you as a character is that as you advance and explore, not only can you gain
better weapons and armor but you can gain new, "alien" abilities such as the capability to shoot lightning,
heal, or any number of other cool powers. If you are thinking this "future humanity is oppressed by aliens,
humanity allies with other aliens, humanity gains new powers to become super human and fights back for
freedom" plot sounds a little like Advent Rising, you are right, it does. I was struck by how similar a lot of
the premise and feel was between these games, but I like the vibe and I think Tabula Rasa is a nice
merging of tech with mysticism.
The gameplay, as I mentioned before, feels more like a first-person shooter than a traditional MMORPG.
You can fight with melee weapons and use the array of Logos powers, but battle is primarily done with
guns drawn. While you won't do extra damage by aiming for vulnerable body parts, your aim, range, and
shooting position (crouched or not) all matter in whether or not you hit and how much damage you do.
The demanding precision and trigger reflexes required by first-person shooters are not needed here but
you do have to use the right weapon and strategy for each fight. The whole experience feels much more
"real" and involving than just watching your character swing his flaming battle axe.
Blasting up Bane is a big part of being an AFS soldier
Along with gathering weapons and equipment there are all of the pieces of a traditional RPG. As you gain
experience from slaying fiends or completing missions you get new levels which open up new capabilities
and Logos skills. At three different points in your character's progression, you will have to choose a path
to specialize in, creating a tree of 8 different final professions. These final specializations are the ones
you would come to expect: a heavy soldier, a sniper, an engineer, a medic, etc.
While this kind of specialization is cool and a pretty standard part of RPG fare, Tabula Rasa takes it a step
further and allows players to clone their characters and take their experience with them to try a new
character type. This feature definitely takes away a lot of painful level-grinding if you are interested in
trying more than one play style.
Battle is Better with Friends
As a soldier in the Allied Free Sentients army, you will spend a lot of your early time doing small missions
to investigate places, collect animal corpses, and so on.. (Hey, it wouldn't be an rpg without tasks like
this!) These missions can be shared with others, which is fun, but it is once you get a little more
experience and venture further from home base that it really starts getting interesting.
In each environment there are dozens of quests and points of interest
One of the efforts the developers made was to give the game the atmosphere of a world at war, with battle
lines constantly being redrawn. As you head out into the wild you will often hear the sound of an incoming
dropship and see enemy Bane set down and begin attacking any AFS they see. Again, like so much of
Tabula Rasa, it isn't the concept that's new (enemies spawning happens in about every RPG around), but
the execution is done in a fresh and innovative way. Watching the enemy come in to deliver
reinforcements makes all those times you watched skeletons materialize from nothing in other games just
While the quick dropship encounters are cool, it goes much further than this. Spread around the maps
are outposts where you resupply and get missions; they are also starting points for your adventures.
These outposts are far from invincible, though, and Bane assault troops can take over the base, leaving it
inaccessible to you or your AFS friends. This happens even when players aren't directly involved, but
working with players to defend an outpost or retake one from the enemy is a ton of fun.
Beyond the base assaults and defenses are the plethora of missions that can easily be done in groups.
The squad system implemented here is very easy to use and very intuitive. Experience and mission
rewards are shared, and when a group enters a quest "instance," they have that environment all to
themselves, free from the few bumbling morons that seem to be in any game.
Speaking of morons, I've probably just been lucky so far but I haven't encountered many of the idiots who
can spoil great gaming moments. Even though Tabula Rasa has a large-scale chatroom that can be part
of your heads-up display, it is generally used for information or mission discussion and stays pretty much
on-topic. Of course, if you want to turn it off to completely immerse yourself alone, that is always an
The first weeks of Tabula Rasa have been great for me. I haven't experienced any mission bugs (though
others certainly have) and my experience has been almost completely lag free. With updates and fixes
flowing in, the experience keeps getting better. The real question, though, is whether or not the new
content will justify the $15/month subscription fee. World of Warcraft players are used to it but many are
still hesitant about signing up for something that will eat not only their time but also their money each
month. I don't know if I'm a recruit for the long haul, but Tabula Rasa deserves a look for anyone thinking
of starting clean in a new MMO world.