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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.