E3 06: Tabula Rasa Hands-On

Producer Starr Long gave us a good look at Tabula Rasa, the next online role-playing game from the creator of Ultima. We also played it on the show floor, and it's clearly come a long way.


LOS ANGELES--Tabula Rasa means "clean slate" in Latin, and it always felt like an appropriate name for this ambitious sci-fi-themed online action role-playing game from Richard Garriott, the creator of the legendary Ultima series, including the influential Ultima Online. Since it was first announced years ago, Tabula Rasa has undergone a number of fresh starts, but now it's finally coming together, and producer Starr Long gave us a glimpse at what's new. Later, we couldn't resist the opportunity to get some quality hands-on time with the game on the E3 show floor, and were pleased to find it to be so good-looking and fast paced.

The game is a blend of shooter action (you can switch between third-person and first-person perspectives, depending on your playing style) and online role-playing. Don't worry if you lack lightning reflexes, though, because the game is designed to appeal to those who don't necessarily like twitch gameplay, thanks to certain features such as auto-aiming, which makes locking onto a target easier. Meanwhile, the game will have role-playing calculations in the combat. If you put the reticle over a target and hit it, you'll pretty much be guaranteed a hit, but the game will calculate how much damage you did. There are going to be dozens and dozens of weapons--including energy, incendiary, poison, and more--and enemies will be vulnerable to particular types of damage, so you'll need to make constant tactical decisions about what to use in battle. We got to play as a heavy-duty soldier type, armed with multiple rocket launchers as well as various magic-style special abilities, such as a particularly nasty chain lightning ability. The way in which the game combines both science fiction and fantasy conventions isn't entirely unfamiliar but seems unique all the same.

Character creation and development will unfold as you play, rather than being front-loaded at the beginning. Often when they're front-loaded, you make decisions early in the game that you don't understand the ramifications of, so you wind up finding that you have to restart a game to create the character you really want to play. In Tabula Rasa, everyone starts as a recruit and has to work their way to level 10 before they can choose a class or specialty, such as soldier or medic.

The game will feature a mix of instanced missions that are created just for you and your group of up to six players, and shared, open worlds, where everyone can interact. The instanced missions will offer multiple paths, puzzles to solve, and characters to interact with, so they're not the simple go-in-and-kill-everything style of instanced missions. For example, we were shown an assault on an alien facility, and the idea is that you'll have to work your way toward the ultimate goal via a lot of side quests. Trying to assault a heavily defended hill may be difficult, but if you pursue certain side missions, you may unlock extra landing zones and bring in reinforcements that make the job easier.

One of the areas that's playable on the E3 show floor is basically a gigantic science fiction WWII-style warzone, complete with trenches and everything, dropships sending in reinforcements, huge buglike creatures suddenly bursting out of the ground, and more. Fond memories of Starship Troopers quickly came to mind as we fought our way through this area, alongside computer-controlled comrades, only to meet our demise at the "hands" of a gigantic enemy mech. A variety of great-looking enemies was present in this sequence, suggestive of the game's distinct sci-fi setting. Switching weapons was a simple process, and we can imagine that the battle might have been considerably more complex in a group setting. Still, it felt like a solidly action-packed experience; online RPGs are typically laborious and time-consuming, so it was refreshing to get a quick fix of action like this from Tabula Rasa. Richard Garriott always intended for it to be the sort of game that people could play for short bursts at a time if they wanted to.

Tabula Rasa has fully integrated voice chat, which means that the moment you team up with someone, you have real-time voice capability to talk to one another. Players can group together into clans, and there is player-versus-player and clan-versus-clan gameplay on open, shared battlefields. One of the neat new things about these battlefields is that they won't just be empty arenas for the two clans to battle in; they'll be big battlefields where bots (artificially intelligent characters) battle for objectives. If your side seizes an objective, you gain benefits from that point, such as having a new respawn area or being able to access services that the other side can't access.

Tabula Rasa looks very promising, and the good news is that the project is finally showing signs of fruition. As to when we can expect the game to ship, well, that's a mystery for now. Starr says that the game will be done "when it's done." As consolation, lead designer Paul Sage admitted it should be a matter of months, not years.

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