Tabula Rasa E3 2005 Impressions

Tabula Rasa is Latin for "blank slate." From the looks of things, the development team has wiped the slate clean and taken this game into a whole new direction.

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If you've been following the development of Tabula Rasa, the upcoming massively multiplayer game from NCSoft's Austin studio, you'll know that the team has been taking an experimental approach to its development, to say the least. Unlike most standard massively multiplayer games that usually put you in the role of some sort of elf wizard who repeatedly kills rats and skeletons until you race through all the game's experience levels, last year's E3 demonstration featured some genuinely wild stuff, like techno-bard characters that attacked their enemies with swirling verses of poetry. That kind of thing is gone now, though the new Tabula Rasa retains some of the innovative features that were shown last year.

The new game is a full-on futuristic sci-fi game in which you'll play as an armored soldier who totes laser cannons into battle against alien foes, though you may also gain paranormal powers from an angelic race of aliens allied with the humans. You'll be able to equip yourself with a wide array of conventional and futuristic weapons with varied strengths and weaknesses, like flamethrowers that deal grievous damage up close (and deal residual damage over time) but have extremely poor range.

Apparently, the planet you inhabit has come under attack by the Bane, a race of gigantic crablike creatures that have conquered the galaxy and invaded your planet's atmosphere with orbital stations that continuously launch dropships with more aliens down to the surface. This setup justifies the fact that you'll roam the planet and encounter enemies that will reappear after defeated (dropped from space, of course, rather than appearing out of the ether as monsters have in previous games). Project lead Starr Long explained that the planet will also be littered with control points--strategic areas that confer bonuses to any players who control them. These bonuses may include fields that inhibit Bane dropships from arriving with great frequency, but the aliens themselves will also seek to seize these points and may actually attack with greater ferocity and numbers if they're successful in capturing them.

You'll fight your enemies using real-time combat that resembles a first-person shooter, but governed by the rules of a role-playing game. Specifically, similar to NetDevil's Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa will let you acquire and aim at targets manually as you would with an action shooter (your crosshairs will snap to a nearby foe), and moving while firing may compromise your aim, but once you pull the trigger, whether or not you hit your opponents, and for how much damage, will be determined by your character's abilities and skill levels, rather than how good your aim is with your mouse and keyboard.

Over the course of the game, you'll receive many different quests from many different sources. Though the E3 demonstration's quests focused mainly on tasks given by other characters, you may just as soon receive communiques broadcast from friendly satellites calling for your help. One quest we watched required us to infiltrate an enemy control center guarded by security towers that pelted us with lightning bolts as we ran past. By completing the quest, we were able to deactivate the towers, at least temporarily, to let other players pass through the area unharmed.

Thankfully, in order to help you carry out these quests, the game will retain at least a few of the features shown in last year's demonstration, such as instantaneous travel to hotspots on the map and the "save-and-revert" character system. While your characters will learn new skills and abilities over time that will cause them to become highly specialized, you'll be able to create "save files" of your character at specific points in the game if you wish to experiment with certain skill sets, and if you don't like the ones you've tried, you can reload your last saved character without those specializations and choose different options the next time around.

Tabula Rasa remains an intriguing game that has taken an all-new form. We'll keep an eye on the game to see how it turns out before it's released next year.

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