Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
November 2007

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 Bane.

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 look silly.

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 option.

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.

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