Richard Garriott was at E3 2007 dressed in full military garb. It's just about the only thing he doesn't choose to explain during his energetic talk about Tabula Rasa, the first massively multiplayer role-playing game he's developed for NCSoft. The game is set for release before the end of the year and it's already going through its beta stages, meaning that there's not much left to do other than iron out the bugs and polish the game up a bit. Despite the huge number of MMORPGs in development right now, Garriott clearly has a great deal of faith in his team to deliver. Judging from the impressive demo that we saw at this year's convention, it looks like his confidence is well placed.
The E3 demo of Tabula Rasa served to highlight just how different the game is from most other online RPGs. The interface is slick and lacking the huge amount of buttons and icons that can be found on the majority of the genre's GUIs. Secondly, there's much more of a focus on providing a compelling combat engine, mainly thanks to convincing enemy artificial intelligence and a duck-and-cover system that can be used both to your and the enemy's advantage. In one section, the human character that was being controlled by a member of the team was able to duck behind some sandbags. The enemy robot looked around for alternative positions as soon as possible, but because the human had the tactical advantage, he was able to pop up and land plenty of shots before the robot could move. By the same token, we're also promised enemies that will perform melee attacks once they get close to you, plus a tactical attack system that rewards you for offensive strikes on the back and sides of your opponents.
It's clear from speaking to Garriott that Tabula Rasa has a strong moral element. The story basically concerns an end-of-the-world scenario that could happen tomorrow, leaving only the characters in the game as survivors. One example of the moralistic choices you'll have to make is in the power plant that we see during our demonstration. It looks beautiful, drawing power and routing it through a huge building, but it transpires that the source of this power comes from a human sacrifice, and one that has to be chosen by you. You'll have to select from people that you've met or who may have helped you in-game to be sacrificed for the greater good, and the team says it's just one of many situations that will test the character of its players.
Still, this depth doesn't seem to have detracted from the combat and the general explosive nature of the game. Like many console titles, Tabula Rasa utilises an auto-aiming system that makes it easy to lock onto enemies and pound them with futuristic weapons such as lightning fists and energy guns. The focus has been on creating a science fiction-based title that has a clear and distinct balance between both action and role-playing game elements. Perhaps the most impressive nature of the combat is how the action occurs all around you. Even on the closed servers that were being used to show the game, the action buzzed with NPCs who were fighting alongside the person playing the demo.
As for the character system, it works so that when you hit level 5, you can choose to either be a specialist skilled character or a soldier. Not all is finalised once you choose to enter one specific skill set, though, as you can clone your player at any stage and then use footlockers around the world to store and swap equipment between them. Perhaps one of the nicest touches that we saw during the demo was the symbol translation system, which has been fully imagined and realised by Garriott himself. Basically, you will see a number of different alien symbols around the world--some easy to find and some difficult--which can then be deciphered to use as skills in the game. The person playing the game had access to all such skills, and showed us how he'd combined the words 'summon,' 'friend,' and 'here' to bring allies into the game mid-fight.
Tabula Rasa is currently in the closed beta stage, and it's apparently proving useful for the team as they head toward their October 2007 release date. It's clear that the game is one of the most ambitious MMOs coming to market, and with such a talented team behind it there's every chance that it could live up to expectations. The developer undoubtedly has more up its sleeve, though, so keep an eye on GameSpot for more information on Tabula Rasa as we get it.