Beta Impressions: Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa

Thanks to the generosity of Eurogamer.net, I got in on the closed beta action for ncSoft’s forthcoming SF MMORPG, Tabula Rasa. The setting of the game sounded promising. Avoiding the usual high fantasy guff peddled in competing products such as LOTR Online, World of Warcraft, Lineage, Overlord, Everquest, RuneScape (etcetera ad infinitum), the game billed you as a new recruit in the Allied Free Sentient Forces. The AFSF is a coalition of species (though you can only play as a human) defending themselves from the encroaching war machine of the near-unstoppable Bane. It’s as hackneyed as they come but sometimes a computer game can get away with that sort of backdrop, provided the game itself is entertaining enough to allow you to slip into a comfort zone of immersion and suspension of disbelief.

And the game has promised much. Archlord Richard Garriott, most famous for his landmark Ultima series of CRPGs – not to mention popularising the nascent MMORPG genre with Ultima Online – had spoken of a blend between traditional MMORPG dice-rolling combat mechanics and the immediate vicerality of the FPS genre. Tabula Rasa, we were also promised, would be a dynamic and persistent universe, in which the conflict between the Bane and the AFSF ebbed and flowed, with various bases and map areas falling under the control of different forces. To gain access to the rewards of a certain area, you might have to work together with various other players and AI squads to capture command points and drive out the defending Bane. This sounded promising, particularly when applied to a huge swathe of the game world (or worlds – Tabula Rasa boasts several planets), and was something I’d previously only seen as a recently-introduced high-level game subtype in City of Heroes/Villains, and as a promised feature in 2008’s Warhammer Online.

So this beta is quite significant. Although nominally it’s an attempt to weed out bugs and streamline quests and gameplay in advance of the game’s imminent October 2nd launch date, it was also an opportunity for several thousand fans to have a crack and see what they thought. Speaking as someone who’s had their eye on this title since mid-2006, I was quite eager to give it a try.

Perhaps inevitably, I’ve come away somewhat disappointed.

This is not down to the bugs in the game, or the lack of polish in the presentation, which are to be expected in any beta, and particularly in one for a game as mind-bogglingly complex as an MMO. It’s not simple to have umpteen porky servers calculating the activities of thousands of gamers. So it is completely unfair to point fingers at glitches like the broken swimming animation, the collision detection in some obscure areas that can trap your toon, the sometimes unclear tutorials, the occasionally non-responsive mission hotspots, the decidedly confused situational music, or even the graphics that look seven years out of date on my Radeon 9800 Pro. No, it’s not a cutting-edge card – it’s years old in fact – but if it can make F.E.A.R and Oblivion look astonishing, I at least expect to be be allowed to choose medium quality textures. Hopefully this is just to keep the beta running more smoothly rather than an indication of absurdly high demands in the gold version.

What bothers me are not the minor flaws of the game, which are for the most part tolerable, but rather the failure of the vision that made the game appeal to me. This is the idea of being an active participant in intense large-scale warfare. This isn’t particularly evident from my experiences in the game. Although I’ve not made it very far into the game (the closed beta limits you to play during certain hours on certain days, so my groundpounder is a mere level 9 grunt) the closest moment to this vision came during the tutorial, which requires you to storm a well-defended base, knock out turrets and Bane defenders, and moments later to defend it from a substantial counter-attack brought in by a swarm of Bane dropships. That was pretty good fun.

This same sensation is occasionally hinted at elsewhere; a series of missions has you supporting a few beleaguered squads on one side of a river by striking at a series of targets – hydrogen gas harvesters, snipers, overseers – on the far side. In this instance, the illusion is rather spoiled by having to ‘respawn camp’ in the same location with various other hopefuls. In non-MMO parlance, you’re sat waiting for some enemies to reappear so that you can kill them, because someone performing the exact same mission has already killed your targets. It’s a common issue in MMOs, but usually doesn’t deliver quite as much damage to the atmosphere of the game. It screams “game!”, when what you really want is something that screams “war!”

Most of the rest of the time I’ve found myself hunting down stupid animals and enemy soldiers in various forests scattered here and there. Ahh yes, Tabula Rasa boasts the classic MMORPG filler-quests “collect x of y”. The doctor of the starting settlement needs samples from some animals that roam a few dozen metres away from his hut. Later on there’s a doctor who can only speak in rhyme (Tabula Rasa, please stop the pain, your hackneyed dialogue is killing my brain) who wants you to collect blood from enemy soldiers. You know, the mindless cannon-fodder who are slaughtered in tens of thousands every day. Its the sort of task that requires the intervention of the AFSF’s finest.

There are also some fabulous mystical powers that no one really understands. These are retrieved from little shrines which are mostly quite accessible, and every human player can use them.Two and two makes… can we get back to you on that?

That’s not all. New recruits, having proved themselves in a trial by fire, are told to run patrols in which the spawn points consist of dropships plonking a few Bane grunts in front of AI turrets and AI soldiers. There’s an incisive military mind at work, here, because only a true genius would fritter materiel away piecemeal like this. It’s an indication of a greater plan.

No, that’s not it at all. The result of this, and everything else I’ve touched upon, is a feeling that nothing larger is going on at all. This is not the grand invasion of the Bane. I was hoping for something which would remake the increasingly tired MMORPG formula, but instead I received more of the same-old with some tweaks.

I may give a later trial a go, as a game cannot be fairly judged when it’s evidently unfinished, but on the strengths of the design exhibited in this beta it’s obvious that Tabula Rasa is no clean slate. Rather than trying to break the mold and deliver an MMORPG that revels in the new and the groundbreaking, developer Destination Games is pandering to players who are content merely to play the same games they already know – albeit this time with guns. It’s orcs in spaaaace, ladies and gentlemen.

Linkage:
There’s a lush introduction to the game concept in the form of this intro movie (complete with skiffy gibberish!)
The official Tabula Rasa website

Comments
6 Responses to “Beta Impressions: Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa”
  1. kn0ck says:

    Ok,

    I was super excited about this MMOFPSRPG to be released, but after reading the reviewers article it saddens me a bit.

    Now im personally taking these certain criteria into account:

    1. Is the article writer a true gamer? (In my opinon you will play many games with many subscribtions fees at once. I currently pay for 3 MMO subscribtions with some of them having multiple account’s)

    2. He said he only played it for a week, that is not much time in my honest opinon. (He never seen 75% of the content, skills, class’s, items…

    3. What makes this guy an expert on videogames, is there some sort of degree? What about his personal biases?

    4. Last but least what is his biggest accomplishment’s in his most successful MMO glory days? In WoW has he raided Black Temple, I know I currently am. In DAoC is his guild one of the leaders in PVP? I know mine is.

    The list goes on for myself and I plan on playing this game regardless the trival dollars. I have seen all the gameplay footage I need and I beleive RG has built a wonderful foundation and now all he has to do is add story’s and content over time. I will take all my toons to max level in this game before making any comments of like or dislike.

    I don’t feel anyone can play a character for a week and even experience a game in any depth. The one thing I laughed the most at was the fact you complained about bullets and pricing…you obviously haven’t played MMO’s to any degree. They all have money sinks. Currently it cost me 100-200G in WoW to even play my character or raid for the evening.

    Just some food for thought.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Hi kn0ck,

    Thanks for your comments – it’s good to know that people are reading. :)

    In response to the points you raised:

    1. My gaming ‘credentials’ are fairly varied. I’ve been gaming for over 15 years, since the NES and Master System and early PC games. I’m a multi-platform gamer and play on all of the currently existant systems, with the exception of the PS3 and PSP. I also worked in an outsourced games test house for over two years, and in that time worked on over 60 different titles. As far as MMOs are concerned I’m not a hardcore player – I’m more of a casual dip-in, dip-out MMO gamer (I spread my time quite widely between lots of different hobbies, genres and platforms). I have, however, put a lot of time into City of Heroes and Guild Wars, and have also played EVE Online, World of WarCraft, RuneScape, and various other trials.

    I expect there are plenty of articles out there on Tabula Rasa by people who play MMOs very intensively – I’m not one of them, and perhaps should have been clearer about this to start with.

    2. Unfortunately I didn’t have much choice about how long I could play the game for! It was a limited closed beta that ran for two weeks, and players could only connect on specific days of the week at specific times. I have no idea how big the game is overall, but I would only have seen a tiny fraction of what it had to offer. I could, however, get a good grasp of the game’s mechanics and design, which are evident from the very beginning.

    3. I don’t have a degree in gaming, but I don’t feel that qualifications are required to have an opinion. I doubt many games journalists have any qualifications beyond being able to write and playing a lot of games.

    4. As I said above, I’m a casual MMO player, so I expect my glory moments aren’t particularly impressive. Probably one of the Respec missions in City of Heroes with my SuperGroup (a very small group, as I was playing with friends from the test house I used to work at).

    I’m glad that you’re prepared to give Tabula Rasa a go. As I said, I do think that it is a good game, albeit one with some problems at the current beta stage. Come release, I expect most of these will have been resolved or at least diminished.

    My intention is not to offer an objective opinion or review of the game, but rather to comment upon the lack of imagination in the fundamental design of the game. I feel that the design exhibited in the beta indicates a close adherence to traditional MMO design that we’ve seen in many other games already, which is a great disappointment given that the premise of the game, and some of the hype we’ve seen about it, promised much more. I’m also saddened that the narrative behind the game – the AFSF/Bane conflict – has not received more work. Further, much of the in-game dialogue is merely passable. I always hope for high-quality writing in videogames, as good dialogue and backstory is a great way to make people feel more involved.

    The game is good fun, though, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I may well play it again as well. I just think it’s sad that the game has not made more effort to push the boundaries of its genre. It does have some interesting innovations but these fall short of what I had been hoping for.

    I’m not sure where you think I complained about bullets and pricing – I don’t think that this was an issue at all. On the contrary, I think the beta was very generous with these – probably to help players get further through the game in the limited time available (the beta was switched off yesterday).

    I agree that I do not have a really deep understanding of the game and it would have been nice if I could have played for longer. However, I do think that the time I did put in (I think around 15-20 hours overall) is a reasonable amount of time to get a grasp of the early stages of an MMO, and is fairly representative of the time people will play an MMO for before they decide whether or not to continue.

    Anyway, thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, and I will join you in waiting to see what becomes of Tabula Rasa in the leadup to its release.

    -Shaun

  3. TigerRenko says:

    I agree with Shaun. TR was promising much. I was so eager to try out Garriott’s new game. I am game journalist (15-odd gaming years under my belt) and I’ve played them all from early MUD’s to the latest MMO’s. TR sure looks nice, content is 100% same tried and tested stuff, interface is fairily simple and easy to grasp (though, navigation and mission tracker could’ve been better), but it’s just not top notch, next-gen, new stuff, it’s same old, same old. The only new feature I noticed is the terrain that is truly 3D and geologically plausible, but if I have to give in to the sin of MMO gaming, I’d rather play LOTRO.

    my 2c
    Renko

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Hi Renko, thanks for commenting! It’s good to know I’m not alone in this, as none of my gaming friends have played the Tabula Rasa beta.

    I agree about the mission/objective tracker. Something as simple as being able to select an active mission, or allocating colours to missions, so that radar blips could be differentiated from one another, would’ve been very useful.

  5. Spam Patrol says:

    Shaun, Knock’s comment is either astro-turf or just plain spam; he’s printed the exact same comment on a few other webpages, including this one here;

    http://www.mmognation.com/2007/07/30/tabula-rasa-beta-journal-first-impressions/

  6. Shaun CG says:

    Oh – that’s a bit sad. It explains the remarks that didn’t relate to anything I’d written, of course.

    Thanks for the warning. I’ll have to be extra vigilant for cross-posted comments in the future. :)