Tabula Rasa Hands-On Impressions--Tactical Sci-Fi Combat, Quests, and Ethical Dilemmas

We get our hands on this sci-fi massively multiplayer online game from the creators of Ultima and Ultima Online.

Most massively multiplayer online games offer high-fantasy adventures where you play as some kind of elf who goes out into a sprawling world with some elf buddies to pummel skeletons in the hopes of picking up some experience points and maybe a few copper coins. Tabula Rasa from NCSoft will go in a very different direction, offering a hardcore sci-fi experience in a universe torn apart by an alien invasion. We recently had a chance to sit down with designers Richard Garriott and Starr Long, whose previous works include the classic Ultima role-playing games and the groundbreaking online game Ultima Online. We also had a chance to strap ourselves into the game to play through several areas and multiple quests.

Tabula Rasa is definitely an unusual game that, Garriott explains, will be different on purpose. Many of the conventions you may have come to expect from this type of game, such as repetitious I-hit-you-then-you-hit-me combat, monsters that constantly reappear in the same place, and a body of quests with a single "right answer" won't appear in this one. Instead, the game will feature a hands-on combat model against dynamically populated fields of monsters (that will literally swoop in from the sky to attack you), and branching quests that may put you at odds with other factions in the game.

Tabula Rasa will be a sci-fi massively multiplayer online game that offers a different experience from what you might be used to in other games.

The story in Tabula Rasa seems simple enough at first; in the game's distant future, planet Earth has been destroyed by the Bane, a megalomaniacal race of aliens bent on taking over every planet they can find. In the game, you'll play as a human aligned with a few other surviving alien races that have formed the Allied Free Sentients army to resist the Bane. You'll interact with these different races, as well as other members of the human military structure, in your adventuring career, which will develop over a branching series of decisions (instead of requiring you to commit to a profession at the very beginning).

You'll be given the choice of being either a soldier or a specialist at first; the soldier can develop into various combat classes, such as the sniper or the commando, while the specialist can opt to become bioengineers and sappers. If you're not completely sure about your next career branch, you can opt to "save" your character at any time by logging out of the game and creating a clone of your character in its current state. Then, if you decide you want to try an alternate path, you can log into the game as your clone and take the other path rather than having to choose a brand-new character to slog through the early part of the game all over again. At launch, the game will take place on a massive planet with three subcontinents, each inhabited by different sentient races, though NCSoft is already building additional worlds to explore in the postlaunch game.

We had a chance to try out both the early game, as well as some late-game questing, during our hands-on time. We definitely noted some real differences between this game and some of the others we've played. Tabula Rasa's interface is minimal; there's a quest log, various maps to help you get to where you're going, as well as a set of shortcuts to select which weapons and abilities you're currently using (including a radial menu you can pull up at any time to access whatever options you need). But most of the screen is uncluttered, spotlighting your character and the world you're exploring.

You'll fire weapons and use special abilities with a few clicks of your mouse.

Garriott suggests that other games of this sort focus strongly on combat. Specifically, in other games, the focus is on pressing different buttons to use different character abilities in the right order to deal the most damage over time. The idea in Tabula Rasa is instead to focus your attention on the action onscreen because your primary attacks will simply be using whichever weapon you have equipped (including a great variety of futuristic guns) by left-clicking your mouse and using whichever special "Logos" powers your character has discovered by right-clicking your mouse. According to the game's lore, Logos is an ancient runic language that consists of characters which, when placed together, form composite meanings that create powerful effects, such as hurling bolts of lightning or summoning stationary gun turrets. Your character can discover new Logos characters out in the wild or while performing quests; well-traveled adventurers will have discovered dozens of letters of this mystical language that can be combined to create many different and powerful effects.

When starting a new game of Tabula Rasa, your character gets dropped right into action in a human military installation with orders to help liberate a nearby captured base. You'll start off with some basic weapons and plunge headlong into battle with computer-controlled allies. These allies attack enemies in unison and use some choice language in battle. In fact, in many of Tabula Rasa's missions and battles, you'll be joined by other computer-controlled forces to help you out. When reaching a new area, you'll also find various major characters who will act as your points of contact, giving you specific quests and guidance on where your character should go next. Additionally, you'll receive "radio missions," which are ambient, localized missions that will appear in your character's quest log as you fight your way into a new area.

A Brave New World

In any case, you'll see plenty of battles in Tabula Rasa using the game's tactical battle system, which adapts the traditional role-playing combat of most MMOGs to a faster-paced system that lets you quickly auto-acquire enemy targets. It also lets you attack with active mouse clicks to use your currently equipped weapon, skills, and Logos powers. You can equip multiple weapons (and such items as healing kits) and swap them out on the fly. You can also take a knee to increase your accuracy and fire from behind cover to increase your defenses.

Taking cover and using the right weapon for battle will be essential to victory.

However, your enemies will also adapt different tactics, charging you if you're hiding behind cover, using special abilities to mitigate damage, and also using group tactics. For instance, we fought a squad's aliens protected by flying drone robots that generated energy shields to deflect weapon fire. To vanquish them, we had to plow through the shield, suffering additional damage to blast the drone and render the other enemies vulnerable. Though we weren't able to perform this for ourselves, we also saw in a demonstration that many weapons in the game have a chance of dealing a critical damage attack on a severely injured enemy. If you're fast enough, you can rush forward and perform a finishing attack on a critically damaged enemy. This attack is complete with a separate finishing attack animation that instantly destroys your foe and gains bonus experience for your character.

We had an opportunity to test out some higher-level characters at about level 20. Our character was a bioengineer, a high-level medic specialist with the ability to heal our allies and attack our enemies with biotoxin weapons (along with combat shotguns, rocket launchers, and Logos powers to inflict confusion and fear on our enemies). Our higher-level character ran together with a group to perform some higher-level missions, which included collecting food packages for captured prisoners.

These missions were a good example of what Garriott refers to as "ethical parables" (a reference to the morality-based quest the designer created for Ultima IV). Specifically, the motivations of the different factions in the game, which give you your quests, will often be at odds with each other. We had the choice of giving the food packages to the captors to feed the prisoners or handing them off to a seditious officer who would smuggle away the food to keep the prisoners starving and unhappy. While you'll often have more than one way to solve any given quest, there won't be any "right" way to solve a quest in Tabula Rasa. For instance, you may find multiple givers and receivers for the same quest standing near each other. However, depending on which choices you make, your character will get different reactions from other characters later on in the game and may have access to different quests.

In addition to morally ambiguous quests, Tabula Rasa will also offer challenging content for more-experienced players, including dynamic base conquests and instanced multipart quests. We watched a demonstration of a high-level instanced quest that required a character to infiltrate a Bane installation and sabotage its power core, rescuing members of a previous raid along the way. This was a fairly involved instance that would probably require several high-level characters working together and committing at least an hour or so to hacking through each leg of the quest, which was introduced along the way with an individual, brief in-engine cutscene sequence (these can be skipped). We watched a high-level character hack through the instance, first severing fuel lines to depower the base, and then disabling security systems. Finally, this character detonated the reactor core, a gigantic glowing orb that eventually imploded, taking the base with it.

Unfortunately, the aliens aren't giving up without a fight.

In addition to instances, high-level players will also be able to participate in base conquest. There will be numerous bases on each of the three main continents that can be captured by Bane forces, which will attack in waves. First, they will attack with reconnaissance, then with raiders specifically designed to counter the early resistance, then with heavy artillery to mow down the opposition. Because the Bane are a persistent group, these attacks will happen regularly and relentlessly. If the aliens successfully capture a base, all its amenities (including stores, quest-givers, and the hospital, where fallen characters can restart the game) will be deactivated. You'll need to head in with your friends to fight off the aliens and eventually drive them out. Fortunately, you will also receive computer-controlled reinforcements from the Allied Free Sentients, who will send in dropships with additional troops to help out. Once you recapture the base, you'll gain access to its amenities and may also gain other rewards that haven't been disclosed at this time. But you'll have to remain vigilant because these forward bases are always being contested.

From what we've seen, Tabula Rasa will clearly offer something different from the usual MMOG experience, and its full-on sci-fi universe will definitely offer something different from the usual high fantasy you tend to see in similar types of games. Thanks to the game's tactical combat system, Logos powers, as well as its overarching story and unusual quest system, the game will definitely offer something new. Look for Tabula Rasa to launch sometime later this year.

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26 comments
funkytaco44
funkytaco44

Poor chris metzel, now I know why wrath of the lich king is coming out so soon.

bressan2
bressan2

I was getting tired of medieval MMORGPs... This game will rule!

gate131966
gate131966

i dont think so that will suprise me this game

SilverPhoneix
SilverPhoneix

Looks really good. Hopefully the AI is strong since the game involves alot of AI fighting and interaction.

xepherys
xepherys

I'm pleased to see something new and different coming to the realm of MMOs. I'm a fan of the "high fantasy" elf and dragon-type games, but I always am eager for something new. City of Heroes was a great step in that direction. Eve Online is a prime example of how enjoyable a sci-fi or future-based game can be. With Richard Garriott in the group, it's sure to be something great!

ChocoKat
ChocoKat

This game looks very interesting. I hope it lives up to all the hype.

DDaegon
DDaegon

Word on the street is that if they make sure that teaming with others and class diversification is ironed out before release, the game will be nothing short of amazing.

grim22x7
grim22x7

City of Heroes was amazing and i like that you'll be able to nix the early levels in a sense but i can see that causing problems with new players not having anyone to play with because everyone is skipping the early levels. I'm kinda stuck now because i don't know if i'll play TR or huxley. if they are near even i might have to go with TR because i like NC's COH and webzen has been everything short of a good player focused developer.

Docthebutcher
Docthebutcher

Being thats it is NCSOFT and anyone who has played Lineage 2 or any other NCSOFT game I wonder just how packed it will be with farmers? In lineage 2 80% of the population are farmers and NCSOFT does nothing. Infact NCSOFT has been busted for supporting the farmers via getting kick backs. I know from 2 year sin Lineage 2 that they do nothing about any in game problems . Petitions are all automated. Email responses are all automated, trying callign them its a joke. I been looking forward to this game big time, but not to the NCSOFT farmers swarming all over. And bet your ass that this game will be on the farmer sites BEFORE it launches. Just like RFONLINE was already with money sales BEFORE the game launched, I caught it few others did lol. And unlike in Lineage 2 where I never botted which left me at a huge disadvantage, I will be damn sure running bot trains. Seems what one must do in a NCSOFT game to make money or buy it from thier farmer sites. Wonder what the bot program will be call TRwalker? L2walker same program work? DOC

FlaminDeath
FlaminDeath

oh yea this game will be awesome I just hope they price the monthly fee low, or have none, i know they'll make u pay but i can dream

delateur
delateur

I've played it, and because of NDA I can't say much, but I can definitely say that it's a far cry different from what most people are used to in MMOGs, and pretty much in a good way. It didn't grab me the way some past games have, like City of Heroes, Anarchy Online, and Everquest, but you have to admire a game that does so many things differently to a genre like MMOGs, and does it pretty darned well, to boot. I haven't decided if I'm going to buy it when it's released, but I'm certainly considering it.

Boomer_basic
Boomer_basic

Finally, a novel MMOG without the standard fantasy trappings. I'm ready for some Sci-Fi online action, and this looks to fill the bill. Earth and Beyond is the last Sci-Fi online game I've played and enjoyed. With Garriott, Long, and the rest of the Ultima gang aboard, this should be fun. Morally ambiguous storylines, with player actions impacting the world...now that's someone to talk about.

captainslick911
captainslick911

He made it sound kind of lame and it didnt look that good. Tthe hole save character thing and go back is a bummer because you main guy wont really stand out because someone could catch up to you with there other character who saved 10 levels before. Not sure what im saying but does anyone get me. But i do trust the guy so all is good.

Mastergamist
Mastergamist

Game looks good and reminds me of RYL2 with what I'm reading. Only this seems to have better AI and just altogether better gameplay. Can't wait to give this a shot.

Legir
Legir

NCsoft is really coming up in the world with the Likes of Guild Wars and such. I hope this turns out well. Sci-fi stuff is my favorite setting.

Mortal_Medic
Mortal_Medic

This has to be one of my most anticipated games. It breaks the WoW mold (as has been stated) of I attack, you attack, repeat. I also love how there is an actual choice in this game about quests. The future of video games is in giving people the freedom to choose and live out the consquences. The fact that quests actually (the majority anyway) assist to the war effort is also amazing. How many "collect 20 boar heads and give them to the farmer to make a soup" quests can one actually take? I hope this becomes popular, even if it isn't, I will play it anyway.

shadowhunter0
shadowhunter0

now this is the type of mmo i have been waiting 4 im tired or mmos like wow both in fantasy base and combat because those r getting boring i really hope this game rocks

ax_prime_basic
ax_prime_basic

Thank heavens for someone making a mmo that isn't freaking elves and dragons. Or EVE. Ever since Anarchy Online, I've been waiting for a sci-fi themed online rpg that doesn't involve hours of mind numbing space flight and asteroid harvesting. I like the visual style this game seems to be putting forth, and with more focus on action and freedom of choice, it seems to be headed in the right direction. Hopefully it'll allow more opportunities for you to affect the way you experience the story (which is something many mmo's falsely claim to let players do). Between this and Conan, the mmo scene looks like it could be interesting again.

bliss0000
bliss0000

Looks interesting. I've been waiting for another good Sci-Fi MMOG since leaving Neocron.

AlphaTwoZero
AlphaTwoZero

should be good, finnaly be able to play an MMO again (i hate that fantasy crap of WoW) since SOE arent making planetside 2 anytime soon (note: SOE make planetside 2!!!!!!)

impossible349
impossible349

looks awesome, it shows that you can make a great mmo without cloning WOW

apsalar
apsalar

looks good :)....just shows how inventive NCSoft can be :)

Peltz999
Peltz999

I hope they let another group of people in the beta soon. And ofcourse me in it :D

mismajor99
mismajor99

Yeah, this games looks very promising, this might very well be my first MMO that I decide to pay for after the trial, as I've been itching for a decent sci-fi themed mmo. I'm hoping to get myself a beta invite... 2007 is a great year for PC Gaming....

1valiantknight
1valiantknight

This could become the great science fiction MMORPG. Or maybe not, but none of the other Sci-fi MMO's have really impressed me so I'm hoping this one will. It's not the game I'm looking most forward to but I think it would be silly not to keep an eye on it. It seems to have grown a lot sense I viewed it at least years E3.