SAN FRANCISCO--Amid the hustle and bustle of the 2007 Game Developers Conference in sunny San Francisco, game studios carve out niches for themselves as meeting rooms and demo areas to meet the press and occasionally show games. We had a chance to visit with publisher NCsoft to take an updated look at Tabula Rasa, the sci-fi massively multiplayer game in development by the likes of veteran designers Starr Long and Lord British himself, Richard Garriott.
Garriott walked us through a demonstration of the beta version of the game, which has apparently been up and running in a tightly knit "family & friends" testing group since December of last year. The game previously went through radical changes some years ago to become a futuristic sci-fi adventure that pits players against a race of invading aliens known as the Bane. The aliens have apparently gone on a large-scale campaign of conquest, attacking planets by pelting them with meteorites that infest the planets with alien growth and pave the way for invading forces. According to the game's story, you'll play as part of an alliance of surviving races that have escaped enslavement and are now fighting to push the aliens back.
We watched a hands-off demonstration of a character starting an adventure in a peaceful, pastoral village to assemble with a team of other players to storm an alien base where the Bane apparently reanimate the corpses of fallen allied foes and turn them into a zombie army. We watched the character coordinate with other teammates using Tabula Rasa's fully integrated voice chat, which is being built directly into the game without requiring any kind of third-party application. Moving out from the village, we watched the party of adventurers venture out into a rocky valley that became less and less pleasant as they approached the enemy installation. Along the way, the party was ambushed several times by hostile aliens that either lay in wait or swooped in from the sky in a dropship.
These skirmishes gave us a chance to see the game's tactical combat system up close. This will very much be a role-playing game that doesn't require you to quickly aim, point, and shoot at your enemies; instead, you'll be able to lock onto your enemies with a "sticky" targeting reticule. However, instead of choosing from a giant row of hotkeyed special abilities to use in battle as in most other online games, in Tabula Rasa, you'll simply have two attacks available at any given time--the left mouse button to use your equipped weapon and the right mouse button to trigger your character's supernatural powers derived from the game's mysterious alien language, Logos. You will be able to quickly cycle through different types of weapons and powers in battle, but combat won't be about repeatedly mashing out the same damaging abilities in sequence; it will be much more tactical and will actually factor in the use of cover, as well as your character's position. If you hide behind cover, your enemies will have less of a chance of hitting you, and if you fire while crouching, you'll receive an accuracy bonus to your own weapons. However, crouching behind cover may prompt enemies to come after you, either by circling around cover to get a better shot or simply getting in close enough to engage you in hand-to-hand combat--and in close-quarters, crouching on the ground while clutching a rifle is one of the most vulnerable positions you can be in. In an effort to make the game's combat as interesting and full of tactical possibilities as it can be, the team is also designing numerous different kinds of enemies, such as floating "shield drone" robots that broadcast an energy shield that protects nearby enemies from small-arms fire until a player character sacrifices him- or herself to dive through the shield and disable it.
Garriott went on to discuss the way the game will try to incorporate some of the best elements of single-player games, such as being able to play a meaningful role in a larger story, as well as to experiment with different characters. Tabula Rasa will feature a cloning system that will let you save your characters at certain points in their careers, similar to the way you might save your progress in a single-player game. Because the game lets you develop your characters along branching paths at certain character levels, such as choosing a basic profession at level 5 and a more advanced one at level 15, you'll be able to save your character just before you make your choice and go back to that character later and make a different choice to pursue a different career path, if you care to. Garriott suggests that this system will encourage players to replay the game multiple times, rather than playing a single character all the way to the highest levels and then consider starting a new character class, but abandon the idea when faced with the prospect of playing the game from the very beginning all over again.
Garriott also suggested that the game will make smart use of instanced content and branching story-driven quests to help players feel like they're more involved in the game's story. This is also to offer a more mature overall story that offers moral ambiguity and shades of gray, as opposed to the conventional structure of most online games, which require players to complete linear quests that always have the same result. One quest in development that the designer cited involved thefts of a battle stimulant from a military base--a stimulant that was needed at a forward hospital. Your character will be given the option to go after the thieves and will then learn shortly thereafter that the substance is being pilfered by soldiers who need it on the battlefield. You'll have the choice to either turn in the thieves, which will arouse the ire of your fellow soldiers who will accuse you of being out of touch, or to aid in the thefts, which will help the soldiers but cause serious problems at the hospital.
The game sounds and looks intriguing--the game itself seems to run quite well and uses colorful graphics to show the game's various alien worlds and monstrous enemies. If Garriott and company can accomplish what they've set out to do, Tabula Rasa will offer a highly distinctive sci-fi massively multiplayer experience when it launches later this year.