Tabula Rasa Impressions

At E3 2004, we were treated to an extensive demo of Destination Games' unusual sci-fi-themed online role-playing game. Find out what we learned.

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As the massively multiplayer online role-playing genre evolves, we're noticing that a lot of newer games are reacting to the trends set forth by the previous generation of such games. This sort of "cultural borrowing" and appropriation and re-appropriation of features and design elements seems like it's going to lead to some decidedly different types of gaming experiences in the future--Tabula Rasa looks like it's slated to be one of these. Between the game's unique science fiction theme and its emphasis on streamlined, fun-filled gameplay and character building, this first product from Ultima and Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott's new development studio has us very interested indeed. Following our first look at the game going into E3, we're here with our latest impressions.

The game's science fiction premise seems to draw heavily upon Eastern philosophy. Every character in the game will be rated based on three types of attributes--body, mind, and spirit--and they will have different skills, strengths, and weaknesses based on these attributes. Player characters will be able to specialize in one of these three types of attributes, resulting in particular areas of strength and concentration when it comes to doing battle against Tabula Rasa's sinister-looking villains, the Thrax, or against other player characters in the game's player-versus-player-styled military exercises.

As you might expect, characters particularly strong in body will be the ones who can dish out physical damage most readily, using a variety of recognizable but still unusual weapons. But all characters will be able to dish out the pain in some way. Much like in the classic sci-fi novel, Snowcrash, information can be used as a weapon in Tabula Rasa. We saw a character extracting strange symbols from a tome and firing them, like magical projectiles, toward her enemies as an example of a mind-based attack. Spirit-based attacks are reminiscent--the same character brandished a strange harplike instrument, which when strummed, sent powerful energy blasts surging at foes. Incidentally, we watched as the same character used and mixed up attacks from all three ability groups. Tabula Rasa will encourage you to do so, because by taking advantage of a variety of skills in battle, you'll be able to charge up your chi meter more quickly to deliver an especially powerful attack.

The combat itself looked interesting and fast paced, and it will take place in missions in instanced combat spaces and battlefields designed for individual players or player groups which are more conventional player zones in which large numbers of players can take on computer-controlled foes. As mentioned, player-versus-player areas will also be in the game, and they will take the form of competitive training exercises rather than full-on, to-the-death battles as in some other online RPGs.

Basically, Tabula Rasa is being designed to alleviate most all of the frustrating qualities found in other online RPGs, leaving behind just the elements that players find enjoyable, exciting, and addictive. For example, the sci-fi premise gives the designers license to allow players of any experience level to instantly teleport to each other for whenever they wish to join forces. As well, death will be merely an inconvenience in the game--during missions, dying might cause you to earn an experience penalty for the remainder of that mission; you'll never actually lose progress, and you may just as well decide to abort the mission and try again later. Character creation will also be very simple--just pick a name and a gender for your character, and later you can shop for different outfits and customize your character in other ways. The skill-based combat system will naturally allow you to find your inclination, rather than have you make a critical gameplay decision about your character class before you even start playing.

The game's missions will be structured to be about 30 minutes long so that players can very easily find a group and get into some action, then go for another mission, or call it a day. Each player will begin with a sizable estate--we were quite impressed with the apparent luxury of the most basic player housing in Tabula Rasa--and they will then be able to customize and furnish that lot at their discretion.

One of the most exciting features about Tabula Rasa is that it will natively support voice-based communication between players, freeing them from having to type to each other while also managing their combat skills. The overall look of the game, though it's built on an original 3D engine expressly designed for Tabula Rasa, can be considered comparable to the latest online RPGs, such as publisher NCsoft's own, recently released City of Heroes. Loading times between areas seemed minimal, judging from the demo version we saw, and combat animations and various monsters (who sported menacing-sounding names like Destroyer, Malice, and Diabolist) all looked quite good.

We're excited about Tabula Rasa, if not because it comes from some of the most venerable designers of role-playing games in the industry, then because it boasts a unique look and what seems like an interesting, streamlined design. Of course, the online role-playing genre is highly competitive, so Tabula Rasa has a lot to prove before it can compete with the likes of the already-established heavy hitters in the genre. Still, we'll be very much looking forward to seeing how it develops and learning much more about the game. We will be anticipating Tabula Rasa's release sometime this coming winter.

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