I r back! And what a weekend it’s been. As if the grueling 23-hour intercontinental flight and a 12-hour time difference were not enough to get my system all wacked, my gaming buddies roped me into a weekend-long Tabula Rasa marathon as soon as I unpacked my bags. Which is not such a bad thing, since I found the experience surprisingly enjoyable and it provided me with fodder for my blog today.
For the unaware, Tabula Rasa (Latin literal translation: “clean slate”) is a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) developed by Destination Games and published by NCSoft, the South Korean based computer game company which also produced other popular titles like Lineage II, Guild Wars and City of Heroes. But I suppose more than anything else, the name that makes the title worthy of note is Richard Garriott, the game’s designer who is a legend in the business, having created the popular Ultima computer games (including Ultima Online). When it was first announced in May 2001, the name “tabula rasa” was meant to be a working title and the game was supposed to be the be-all and end-all of MMOs. When the game launches next month, is the MMO community going to hail it as such? While I cannot even hope to speculate on how everyone else is going to react to TR, I can certainly offer you my first impressions of the game.
I got into the Tabula Rasa beta test over a month ago through Fileplanet, which offered beta keys to its Founders’ Club members. Unfortunately, my gaming time was at a premium the whole month of August so I only managed to play it sporadically. My initial impression was that it was primarily a “shooter” (ie. a game where your main objective was to well, shoot things). But the game had an engaging storyline and because I’m a sucker for stories, it got me hooked enough so I’d find myself playing it on my “non-gaming” nights (ie. those nights when my gaming buddies weren’t around).
The game setting is sci-fi, a welcome change from the popular medieval fantasy settings today. The story is that earth was invaded by a cruel race of beings called Bane who are bent on destroying the human race. The players are the survivors of the invasion, humans who have the ability to wield the power of Logos, an alien mystical knowledge that allows them to manipulate matter, energy and force. They are transported to an alien world where they learn how to use these powers one by one by discovering tablets left behind by the Eloh, another powerful but benevolent race. This is just the gist of it but the whole back story can be found on the Tabula Rasa official website and is quite an interesting read.
Gameplay starts with a tutorial that familiarizes you with the controls and introduces you to the world. Then you are plunged into a chaotic world where every step into the wilderness is a chance encounter with a Bane invading team. This is the reason why it feels like a shooter to me, but the battle is not the main focus. Rather, it’s an obstacle that must be hurdled in order to reach your destination and while it heightens the danger of travel on foot, it makes it more enjoyable – I suppose for those of us who enjoy killing the bad guys .
Missions are obtained from field commanders and other NPCs in and around the base camps. I was a little disappointed to see the familiar “kill” and “collect” missions, where you are told to kill a certain number of mobs, or to collect a number of body parts (in this case, cell samples). But because you need to fight the Bane and aggressive wildlife to get to your other goals anyway, that makes it less painful. One interesting thing about missions is that some of them require you to make a choice. In one mission, I was asked by a leader of a friendly tribe to take a young boy into custody but another leader explained that the boy isn’t a criminal and asked me to let him go. So I was faced with a choice: fulfill my duty or use my own personal judgment. Shades of Ultima “alignment” choices but I have yet to see what effect it will have on my character’s development if any.
The main enemy is the Bane. At times it becomes necessary to kill the planet’s aggressive wildlife but killing boars and rats (or their equivalent) is at a minimum. For the most part, your main goal is to discover all the Logos tablets and get the knowledge transcribed onto your own blank tablet (tabula rasa). The secondary missions have to do with helping the alliance forces fight the invaders.
The User Interface (UI) is different from the usual MMORPG, so much so that I had to repeat the tutorial every time I took a break from the game for more than a week. Of course after my weekend marathon, I think I have it down pat now. Movement is controlled by the traditional WASD directional keys/mouse combination. W moves you forward, S moves you back, A and D strafe left and right, and you use the mouse to turn in any direction. But the familiarity ends there. There are two action bars – one for weapons, and the other for special skills and items. You fire your weapons with the left mouse button and use your skills or items with the right mouse button. Selecting a weapon is done by pressing the Q key until the weapon you want is highlighted; selecting a skill/item is handled the same way with the E key.
There is crafting in the game, although I haven’t tried it out nor investigated how it works. It seems to me that you have to spend skill points towards crafting, from the same pool which goes into combat skills. In other words, it looks like if you choose to advance your crafting, you will have to sacrifice certain combat skills.
At this stage, it’s hard to make any kind of prediction on the future of Tabula Rasa. All I know is, it’s a fun game to play and its sci-fi setting is a refreshing alternative. All I’ve seen so far is the first 10 levels of gameplay and the game’s starting area. But if that level of excitement and immersion can be sustained throughout, I’d say it’s a game I’ll be playing for many months to come.