Today we build on part one of our preview and get a look at some more unique aspects of Tabula Rasa, issues in the game and more comments from Richard Garriott, the man behind this title.
Based on hands-on play, interview with Richard Garriott
Article by Dana Massey
Editor’s Note: This is the second half of a two part preview. The first half is here.
Another unique aspect of Tabula Rasa is its class structure. Instead of picking a class, players take part in a branching system. Every few levels, the players further specialize their characters as they see fit. Yet, at each branch (or any other time) they can also clone their characters. Clones are identical statistical snapshots of characters. They have their own name, face and look, and must gather their own items (although players can share among their characters using a common foot locker), but they give players the ability to try different avenues of content without starting over.
“Each time someone starts at level one is an opportunity to exit [the game],” Garriott explained. Most MMOs (now I’m doing it!) ask players to start from scratch if they don’t like the choice they made with the character. In Tabula Rasa, players can simply retreat to a previous clone (a brother or sister as the game casts them) and pick the opposite branch of the tree. The advantage to the player is that he is never forced to play huge chunks of content over and over just to experience the game in a slightly different way, while the advantage to the developer is that players are more likely to experience the full breadth of content created for the game. As Garriott’s quote alludes to, the sense of investment in the game is maintained. If a player needs to start at level one to try something new, they could just as easily start at level one in a competing game. If he can start at exactly the point where his path diverged in a way he did not enjoy, then he’s more likely to stick with the product.
The team at NCSoft Austin has also been very aware of the minute-to-minute experience in the world. Garriott noted that many Beta testers have noted that they’re simply getting caught up in the experience, not counting their own experience gain. Based on a couple hours of playtime, I can confirm, I often had no idea what level I was. I just kept doing missions and shooting things.
One way they keep the action fresh is by providing experience gain bonuses to those who go on long strings in combat. The more enemies someone kills in a short period of time, the greater the modifier. Garriott explained the reasoning behind this by saying that players enjoy and have far more fun when they’re on the edge and in some danger. This modifier rewards that kind of intense sequence. Plus, they keep the scenery entertaining with signature deaths that randomly finish off enemies, one for each damage type. Without giving them away, think Mortal Kombat here.
Tabula Rasa also turns the artificial walls between players of different levels upside down. Typically, players can only play with and against players in a small level range around their character. Monsters below that level pose no threat and are of no consequence. Monsters above it are impossible mountains that can only be climbed by grinding your way to parity.
In Tabula Rasa, the relative power curve is much flatter. Players can kill enemies many levels higher than themselves, they just need to play smartly. The difference, as Garriott illustrated, is between careful tactical combat and being able to run through like Rambo.
Every MMO needs boundaries though or how else do devs prevent players from going everywhere and seeing everything in a single day? In Tabula Rasa, the boundaries are more about the experiences of the player. Players need to complete missions, quests and puzzles to unlock new areas and go on new missions. In effect, Tabula Rasa is more like a single-player RPG.
In RPGs, players completed one quest to get to the next and just happened to gain XP as they went. Somewhere in the translation to online, things got backwards. In online RPGs, gameplay became about the XP, and the quests were limited by the level. Tabula Rasa sorts that dynamic out and puts it back in the order it was originally intended to be.
Items and equipment are another common boundary in MMOs. Usually, players need to get the best items to compete. Garriott acknowledged that some “min/maxers” will likely go out and figure out the best possible combinations, but claimed the intent is to make items a less pivotal part of the game.
“In Tabula Rasa, there is no single optimal weapon,” he explained.
In fact, it is more about the right equipment for the right situation. For example, one weapon type does no damage to biological enemies, but is invaluable against machines. Where then do players find these items? The game allows for both quest drops and crafting, and Garriott believes it’s important the top tier items come from both, lest either be unfairly made obsolete.
The end-game of Tabula Rasa revolves around the struggle with the Bane. The battlefield maps are collections of bases that the players must try to capture or defend. This is fast paced, real-time back and forth PvE struggle that should not be confused with games like Lineage II or Dark Age of Camelot, where the capture of a “base” is an important event. Instead, bases fall and are taken with regularity and at all times of day and night. Without players, the battle always rages. Players just tip the scales one way or the other through their actions.
This game provides some high level tactical opportunities for aspiring generals, too. A Bane attack is not just a bunch of monsters spawning at the front gates. They gather at their base and they move out. For example, in one case, Garriott told us how a group would walk across a map and attack a Forian town, consistently. The players could just allow the attacks and fight them as they arrive, or they could try and cut them off on advantageous ground. What’s more, if the players intercept these attacks – which typically take sneaky routes to their target – some of them are pre-programmed with alternative routes that they will take if too many of their soldiers are intercepted. This truly is a war.
These changes are all things badly needed in the MMO genre, and represent only a few highlights of many. Yet, it is not a game without flaws. For fans of PvP, Garriott admits that this title does not have as much as other games. Currently, they plan duels, group fights and guild feuds, but nothing more for launch.
The setting is also not really my favorite I’ve ever encountered, although they have done a good job on presentation and little touches, like a base army announcer who gives out comedic little announcements periodically as players stroll by.
Visually, the game is AAA, but not spectacular. They clearly are not going for photorealism, but nor are they by any means comical. It’s that awkward spot most games fall into. That means the color pallet is realistic, but it doesn’t look real. In some ways, it’s what people expect, but in others it’s the downside of both options. There is nothing wrong with the graphics and they take nothing away from the experience. They just lack that special something that makes games like World of Warcraft (on the exaggerated side) and the upcoming Age of Conan (on the more realistic side) shine.
The biggest problem I had with the game was occasionally the camera mode could be disorienting. Locked in constant mouselook means some natural movement, and then to aim, the whole screen moves. It’s like an FPS in that respect, but perhaps it could simply have been playing in a strange environment, but it was a bit unsettling. I have no doubt though that it would easily be adapted to. Once I got past the initial learning curve of handling the game – the refined gameplay changes some basic assumptions – it was easy and almost difficult to go back to more traditional means of control in an MMO.
If you read my GDC Preview, you’ll likely catch that I was less than impressed with what I saw. This time, the presentation was roughly the same, but actually getting to play the game made a world of difference. Tabula Rasa really must be played to be appreciated. The innovations, on paper, may not all sound too important, but the experience is unique to the MMORPG genre. It’s been a few years since Richard Garriott released a game, but when I got locked in that room to get a hands-on with Tabula Rasa, it doesn’t take long to remember how the man earned his legendary reputation.
Now let us know your thoughts.