Back in May 2001, designer Richard Garriott announced his plans for an MMO set in a futuristic world. Since then, the game has undergone several changes and its current form was demoed back at E3 2005. Now in closed beta, Tabula Rasa is nearing completion and scheduled to release at the end of 2007.
The world is in turmoil, one being attacked by the Bane; a sinister alien race bent on destroying all humanity. Also within this world are the mystical Eloh, a now-extinct alien race who used the power of Logos. This power allowed the conversion between matter and energy and was shared freely with other races. Unfortunately, one of these races, the Thrax, used this power against the Eloh. This turn of events caused a rift in the Eloh, with one half, the Neph, wishing to keep the Logos for themselves and others they deemed fit, while the others wanting to continue to share their knowledge. The Neph, not seeing any other way, left the Eloh to seek other allies in their strife. This was the beginning of the Bane, which are now attacking a futuristic Earth. Lucky for us, the Eloh left behind their technology, allowing the humans to flee their dying world and find another species who are fighting the Bane.
As with any MMO, your first step is character creation. The only race/species/being available to you is human and you, of course, can pick your gender. Hair, skin, and armor colour have a great range to choose from and there are also quite a few different faces and hairstyles. Finally, you can pick the look of your armor. There are several different "sets" that you can don either as a complete set or mix and match.
And then there is the tutorial. Tabula Rasa makes great use of instanced areas and this is the first example. The tutorial is excellent at preparing the player for the world they are about to be thrown into. You're shown all about your UI as well as combat as Bane start raining down and it's up to you (with the help of some NPCs) to take 'em down!
Each character begins as a Recruit. Tabula Rasa has created an inverted tree class system. As you progress, you may branch out to either a Soldier or a Specialist and so on. The game also allows you to "clone" yourself at each branch. So, if you find yourself really not enjoying your roll, you can recall your cloned copy and not have to "level" again through the beginning stages.
Tabula Rasa is, let's say, a TPS- a third-person shooter. But, even that isn't entirely accurate. Unlike the traditional FPS, your shots aren't exact but instead are calculated using a number of different stats and positions. The game has a feature that has come to be known as "sticky" targeting. Once you target over an enemy, your aim is "stickied" to it. Seems pretty easy then, doesn't it? Well, not quite. Your damage is calculated also by your character stats and how you hit your target. As you aim at an enemy, your cursor becomes target with a bull's eye. The closer to the bull's eye you hit, the more damage you do. If you begin to fire wildly, you'll not only do less damage, but the enemy NPCs will be dodging most of your shots. Find yourself facing multiple targets? You can tab between them or just begin firing at another enemy, forcing your stickied target to switch.
Another factor into your damage is cover. You'll find there are rocks, crates, walls, all sorts of things that you can crouch down behind and fire at the incoming enemy. As you are seeking cover, the damage you are dishing out increases and the damage you're taking significantly decreases. Other aspects that influence damage include range, weapon and ammo types and movement.
What's different and a great immersion tactic is the "alive" feeling of the world. As players navigate around, you find yourself not stumbling upon the Bane, but instead watching them beam down from ships overhead. Then it's up to you (and help from NPC good-guys) to kill those pesky Bane invaders! Tabula Rasa has done well in involving the player in the ongoing war. No matter what you are doing in the game, the war still wages. Bane are ported in and NPCs and players (hopefully) wipe them out.
Missions are key in involving the player. While you will find yourself getting many of the standard "kill X number of these" or "collect Y number of these", I also found myself being told to seek out a new Logos or going on patrols with NPC soldiers. Another style of mission gives the player an option of what to do and the choice can impact how the NPC views your character. However, these sorts of missions are rare. Some missions will make use of the instances, enabling a more colourful and rich storytelling experience.
Experience is gained, as with other MMOs, by killing things and returning missions. What is currently being toyed with is that XP is given on the field to the biggest damage dealer to that target. So, if you and five other players are out there and someone begins firing away at your target, it could so happen that you do not gain any XP for that kill. The developers are of course, evaluating this as it may breed a sense of "kill stealing" within the game.
Tabula Rasa is offering a world uncommon in today's popular MMO category. While there is still the use of magic, the fun of the world is running around with a shotgun and blasting away incoming aliens. There is definitely room for expansion, as with any game, especially concerning the current "consent-only" style of PvP. My only complaint was that of all the great features, few were being demonstrated at the lower levels. I guess that's one way to keep people playing, but you can only destroy so many aliens before getting tired of it. Well, maybe not.
And, as for a little feature that I couldn't fit anywhere else, something I find neat, was collecting "paint" off critters I had blasted and re-colouring my armor. Okay, okay... not everyone out there cares about what their character looks like, but I do. Scheduled to ship later this year, Tabula Rasa is shaping up to be a very interesting MMO, and we're looking forward to checking it out further upon its official release.