Tabula Rasa review
Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games still don’t tick everyone’s boxes. Some of us tire too quickly of all those “Hack six boars to pieces and bring back their hearts” quests, while others find the combat – click to target, click to slash, press 3 to throw out a fireball – unrewarding. They’re in need of a rethink.
Wiping the slate clean is what Tabula Rasa (TR) is all about. Designed by Richard Garriott, the man who practically invented the modern computer role-playing-game with Ultima, it swaps World of Warcraft’s dwarves and goblins for a tale of sci-fi conflict, pitching the last remnants of humanity against hostile alien forces. But the key thing TR brings to the genre is real-time combat. Rather than targeting the enemy and using some artificial shotgun burst command, you use the same keyboard and mouse controls you might use in Half-Life 2. Blasting away instantly gives the game a more immediate feel. Meanwhile, the fact your foes – the Bane – arrive from hovering dropships or can be found occupying sensible defensive positions makes the world feel more like a constantly changing battlefield and less like a beastie-battering safari park.
The trappings of a traditional RPG haven’t been abandoned entirely. The right mouse button allows you to use your currently selected ability, which may be a practical skill or a logos power – the game’s equivalent of magic. Shooting and damage are still affected by behind-the-scenes statistics, and character development, weapon and armour upgrades remain the driving motivation. However, where possible, TR tries to make you forget you’re playing an RPG. Instanced quests, where you and a few acquaintances leave the larger world behind and team up to tackle a particular enemy or objective, are preceded by cinematic cut-scenes, while some of the missions cover the same sort of ground you might see in a regular 3D shooter. Why take package X from A to B when you can take out four Bane mortars or infiltrate a sinister research facility?
Other factors separate TR from the WoW wannabe crowd. First, the game features missions where you have a moral choice – do you make money transporting black-market pharmaceuticals from a military base, or do you hand the culprits in to the commander? Second, it has periodic control-point assaults, where Bane forces attack a human base (or vice versa) and any players in the area can join in the fray and earn base defence or offence tokens. Gaining or losing a control point has a real impact on the game, affecting how easily you can teleport around the map and where you can find important characters.
All of this is great, but does TR go far enough? Sadly not. Despite all the talk of moral choices and player-centred narratives, the structure is fairly conservative, and a lot of the missions still boil down to killing and collecting. The combat makes it feel different to WoW, but you’re still doing the same basic stuff. Arguably, other MMOs like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes or Lord of the Rings Online have done more to make players feel part of the story, add variety to the quests and reward players in the early stages. What’s more, TR isn’t the most visually impressive title in the genre and, if you’re used to today’s action games, the flat-looking textures and dated lighting are going to come as a shock.
That said, this is a robust, enjoyable and very accessible MMO, particularly to those who are put off by talk of dungeons and dragons or who want a more action-orientated experience. Maybe TR isn’t a big leap forward for the genre, but it’s a small step in the right direction.