Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 07, 2007
Tabula Rasa preview

Tabula Rasa is a new game from NCSoft, with Richard Garriott, of Ultima Online fame as Executive Producer. The expression “tabula rasa” means “clean slate” in Latin, and that is a fitting comment on the gameplay, which isn’t like UO at all. Instead Tabula Rasa plays like a third-person shooter with MMORPG elements, in a science-fiction setting. I was lucky enough to get an invite into the beta, the NDA was lifted today, so here are my impressions. Please keep in mind that this being a beta some features might still change before release.

Let’s start with character creation, which is very simple: There is only one race, humans. And everybody starts as the same class, recruit. At level 5 you then get to choose between soldier and specialist class, and at level 15 each class again splits into two possible choices, and again until you finally have 8 different classes. So character creation mainly consists of choosing your sex, look, and name. You are asked to choose both a first name and a last name, and it is the last name which is more important: All your characters will carry the same last name, and it is the last name which appears in chat. Unless you open up another account, it is impossible to hide your identity, even if you play an alt.

With only one race, and correspondingly only one starting zone, you might not be too excited about playing an alt from level 1 up again. Which is where clones come into play. At any point in the game you can clone your character, which is especially recommended before choosing a class. Your clone will have the same level and abilities as you do, but be basically naked and unarmed. You can equip him via the footlockers, the “bank” of Tabula Rasa, which is accessible to all your alts. You get 16 character slots, so there is enough room for all clones you might want to make before important decisions. The downside of that is that there are some possibilities to abuse the system, like repeatedly cloning a character before doing an easy but very profitable quest (there is a smuggling quest like that) and then transferring all the money to your main character.

Once in the game, a MMORPG player’s first culture shock is the game controls. Tabula Rasa works with mouselook, your mouse controls where you look at, and where you look at is the direction you run when pressing “W”, and the direction in which you shoot. There are no hotkeys for special abilities, instead you can put 5 different weapons on slots for your left mouse button, and 5 different items or special abilities on slots for your right mouse button. “Q” and “E” cycle through the respective 5 slots. “A” and “D” don’t turn you, but do a strafing movement. Mouselook makes for easy targeting of your enemies, but unfortunately causes video game sickness in some players, like me. Zooming out helps a bit with that.

In spite of playing like a shooter, aiming is actually very easy, and you can lock onto a target with the TAB key. And the damage you do depends on your weapon, with higher level players being able to use better weapons, as well as your stance, cover, movement and other factors. So Tabula Rasa is not a pure action game, but plays a lot faster than classic fantasy MMORPGs. The positive aspect of that is that there is very little downtime in this game. There is no penalty for dying, except that you might have to run back from your respawn point to whereever you planned to go. All outposts are connected by a network of teleporters, making travel very fast. And if you kill mobs you don’t even need to pause to loot them, just running over the loot will collect it. On the negative side of all that speed is that battle often feels rather chaotic. I haven’t been able to find out how xp and loot are distributed if several players shoot at the same mob, apparently the mob isn’t “tagged” by the first player to hit it. The hardest quest I ever did was one where I had to kill a named mob roaming some area, and ended up killing him 5 times before getting his head.

While the chaos takes some getting used to, it actually feels quite realistic in terms of a human vs. alien sci-fi shooter. Even if you are the only player around, you can find yourself in the middle of a larger battle between human NPCs and alien mobs. Aliens don’t just spawn, sometimes you can see an alien mothership arriving and beaming troops into battle. In the end the places where to find mobs are still static, but Tabula Rasa manages to give the whole thing a much more dynamic appearance of you being in the middle of an ongoing battle between humankind and the aliens.

Big battles are not only fun, they can also give lots of experience points. Tabula Rasa solves an old MMORPG conundrum, where in classic games having several enemies at the same time gives the same reward as pulling them one by one, in spite of being obviously much harder. In Tabula Rasa, if you kill lots of mobs in a row, you get an increasing experience point multiplier, which goes up from 2x to up to 6x experience. So jumping into a big battle and blasting lots of aliens can rack up huge rewards, even if you end up dead. Some weapons, like shotguns or rocket launchers, are able to hit several mobs at once. Otherwise you have the choice between fast-firing pistols or even chainguns, or slow but more damaging rifles. Faster weapons often do more damage than slower ones, but only at a shorter range, and using a lot more ammunition. As you need to find or buy ammo to fire your guns, chainguns are generally not recommended early in the game, where they can downright ruin your finances. But they *are* great fun. :)

Besides firearms you can also use a kind of spells in Tabula Rasa. Depending on your class you get various abilities in the game which use “power”, a stat that works like mana in other games. But you not only need the ability, you also need to find so-called “logos” symbols, which are hidden all over the map. Fortunately there are quest-givers that ask you to find these logos, and as quest-targets are marked on the map, that makes it a lot easier to find them. Otherwise there are already lots of spoiler lists available, revealing the location of the logos. As the window where the logos go is called your “tabula”, and it starts out empty, that is probably where the name of the game is really coming from.

In a later phase of the beta, more crafting was added to the game. You can now put your training points into making items instead of putting them into other class abilities. So you better specialize on crafting only one sort of thing, because otherwise it’ll eat all your training points. Or you could create crafting clones. Crafting is done at public crafting stations placed in the larger camps, into which you insert a recipe and the materials, easy enough.

I was having a lot of fun in the Tabula Rasa beta. Especially the instances were very enjoyable, as the absence of other players gave me a bit more time for strategic planning. But sometimes wildly shooting everything that moves is fun too. :) I had some minor problems with invisible walls, not always being able to go where I would have thought I could go. But generally the game was working quite well, with only a few bugs that are to be expected in a beta. Nevertheless I’m not going to buy the game. Shooters aren’t my thing, and the motion sickness isn’t helping. And as Michael from MMOG Nation said, the game just doesn’t feel as if you should be paying $15 a month for it. There doesn’t appear to be enough breadth and depth to it to play it for very long. Still, it’s an enjoyable game, and if you are more into shooters you definitely should have a look at it.
Crafting is about to change again i have read, but that might have been an outdated info.

Cloning is limited now. You can only have 1 Clone at the start and i have read somewhere, that you can get "Clone-Credits" for finishing certain Quests.

I only had the chance to play solo for a bit and gave it around 4 hours, but what i saw is nice, but at the moment far from being worth 15 $/month. But as it was the Beta, this might change. Should i get access to more Beta-time, as mine seemed to be limited, i will give it a deeper look.
I was in Beta but never really felt drawn into the game. Perhaps I was expecting too much in terms of innovation and it fell far short. I fear it might go the route of Auto Assault unless they realize that the pricing model may not work and are willing to adapt to a new one.
The controls just seemed too weird for my taste. Nothing in the game seemed worth the time necessary to get use to a strange interface, so I quit and never logged back in.

I suppose six or seven hours of play really isn't enough to give Tabula Rasa a fair chance, but it's the responsibility of the developers to make their game smooth as butter, from the very beginning, and Tabula Rasa is about as smooth as skating down a gravel road.

Why not use a control system that mmorpg players are familiar with?
The game treats you like a soldier in some army. As much as I like Richard Garriot, I just don´t want to be treated like this.
I ordered the Pre-Order for 10$, so i should be able to try it out myself next week too.

I just got really interested in it ,after seeing some gameplay videos lately, which looked interesting to me.

One Question to Tobold:

How about the Non-Combat Area of TR?
Are there any civil Cities or just Outposts as shown in the Video's.

If there are just Outposts where you can do something and have your Battlefields, i can understand ,people not think it's worth 15$ a month.

Then it's actually more a FPS with some RP elements too it.

Nevertheless, it's worth trying i guess.
Innovation! We want innovation, where the hell's the innovation, everything is too similar these days!

Why not use a control system that mmorpg players are familiar with?

What's this weird different thing? I don't like change! Make it work like everything else!
Are there any civil Cities or just Outposts as shown in the Video's.

I played up to level 15 and didn't see anything bigger than an Outpost. No civil cities to be seen anywhere, sorry.

Anonymous said...

Innovation! We want innovation, where the hell's the innovation, everything is too similar these days!

Why not use a control system that mmorpg players are familiar with?

What's this weird different thing? I don't like change! Make it work like everything else!

This must be Richard Garriott's mom )
A lot of those features you're describing do sound familiar, Tobold.

The xp multiplier, combat aiming, looting, handling of death and general chaos of combat make it all sound quite a bit like Auto Assault on foot. Bit worrying to hear there's actual ammunition, bought for cash in TR though.

Anyone out there who has played both, and can tell me I'm barking up the wrong tree? AA wasn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but definitely wasn't that popular, and what with the whole Garriot thing, I was sort expecting something a bit more visionary, to be honest.
"So jumping into a big battle and blasting lots of aliens can rack up huge rewards, even if you end up dead"
This reminds me of when I played HALO with my nephew. While I was trying very hard not to die at all, he would simply charge into the nearest bunch of baddies, and blast away until he died. He would then respawn and charge into combat again. Maybe this game would suit him better than me!
My opinion is a bit split on Tabula Rasa. It has some really nice features. The shared last name between alts is a nice thing (Although it might be an annoyance if some want to play anonymous alts). The cloning is a great thing, but isn't it a bit limited with one cloning credit at each tier change? I don't know how hard or how common the extra cloning credit quests are so I'm not sure there. Oh, and don't waste the first credit you get at 5. Going through the tutorial and getting to level 5 takes just 50 minutes or something, so that's just a waste of a free credit.

I'm a little bit annoyed with the cost of ammunition. Yes you get 1000 cartridge rounds from the start, but as soon as you've used them it becomes expensive. Apparently the devs had promised a changed cost for ammunition which was interpreted by most people as a lowered cost. However when the change was applied they just introduced different tiers of ammunition, which means that the starter ammo is just as expensive as before and gets more expensive at higher tiers.

I haven't seen anything yet about the gameplay which is really great. It's regular 3rd person (Probably possible to switch to first person) shooter action with MMO rules behind it.

I suspect that it will be easy to "gimp" characters. On your way to the level cap you pass through different classes (You specialize along the way) and each class has skills tied to it. Many of the lower level skills might become obsolete when you get to a higher level. For example you get better armour on the way, and I doubt that spending skill points in different ones is a good thing.

Well, I'm not really sure what to do with this game. I might buy it and try the first free month and see how it is. I really doubt I'll be playing it for long though.

Van Hemlock: I've played both. There are some similarities definitely. Both are a bit more action oriented than their regular counterparts, although AA might have been even more so than TR. I'm not sure how that affects it's popularity. I liked AA, but it didn't manage to capture my interest for very long.
TR has potential but is being released way to early and is shallow for a fps and shallow for a rpg.
As for the controls, now you can change them to more traditional MMO controls, but it seems to lose some of its uniqueness that way.

I actually enjoyed the FPS controls, what I didn't like was that it seemed to not blend well with the auto-aiming feature. It has mouselook and PRETENDS to have aiming, but ultimately it's just highlight and hold down click until the target dies. Not altogether unlike Dungeon Runners, really.

My distinct feeling, and more to come in my own impressions later, is that it's a good game I wouldn't mind having... if I didn't have to pay 15 bucks a month to play it. NCsoft needs to start offering different payment options. I'd gladly buy chunks of time to play TR, but I'd never play it enough to get my 15 bucks a month out of it.
Why not use a control system that mmorpg players are familiar with?

Because they are using a control system that fps players are familiar with, since their game is essentially an fps.

Because they are using a control system that fps players are familiar with, since their game is essentially an fps.

Are they marketing to fps players instead of mmorpg players? Expecting fps fans to pay 15 bucks a month is a recipe for disaster.

Well shall see soon enough.

Bildo said...

As for the controls, now you can change them to more traditional MMO controls, but it seems to lose some of its uniqueness that way.

If that was recently patched in, it was a smart move.
There are 2 possible ways to look at TR:

1. they are trying to take a shooter and make it into an MMO


2. they are adding shooter elements to an MMO

I think the difference may be subtle, but really gets at what the game is at it's core. I don't know, I haven't played it. But it sounds like, in its most basic form, a shooting game, with an MMO built around it, and if that's the case then using shooting game controls is a perfectly reasonable thing to expect. And there is little reason at this point to say what will and won't be a disaster when someone is trying something relatively new. Again, gross-overstatements don't add anything to these comments and they are sooooo tiresome to read on every single post.

Tobold, what can you add about grouping and group content? You mentioned what sounded like single player instances, are there group instances?
I would like to add one more thought though. When I dabble in console games, I always think of how those IP's could function in an MMO environ, whether a style or genre of game could pull of an MMO. Auto Assault was one such attempt and from all accounts it was a good game, even if it ended up being a niche game.

But millions more people play MMO's now than when AA came out. There is nothing at all that indicates that a crossover genre of game could not succeed (by whatever measures we want to call success).

The pricing structure of these types of games may very well have to be tweaked based on the depth of content they provide. These types of games may be where we start to see new pricing structures that Tobold has said before he would like to see.
It could be that they are trying to ease FPS players, who are used to a monthly fee of $0/month on their PC or whatever Xbox Live charges on the Xbox, to a more lucrative payment model.

All these FPS players out there, and they're getting too much for nothing! Can't have that.

NCSoft should definitely get some sort of one fee for all games thing going. I might pay $15/month for Dungeon Runners, City of Heroes, and Tabula Rasa together (I might not, but it would definitely be more persuasive).

Given that most people already have a WoW subscription and maybe even a Station Pass for the SOE games going... it can really pile up.
Nice review Tobold.

I'm frightened to hear that there is little in terms of actual cities or anything larger than an outpost. Where will players tend to congregate then?

RG touted a lot about the creative instances in one of the recent videos. Did you happen to get a chance to see how some of these were? There was one he did show of a reactor or something that had to be blown up and it involved some interesting game play.
Make no buts about it, an FPS TR is not. It's very much an MMORPG, just with a control method FPS gamers would be familiar with.

There's no real "aiming". The FPS controls are just an illusion. I actually think, even as a sucky FPS player, that the game would have been better with more traditional FPS controls.

There's a game whose Alpha I'm in, it uses fps style controls but is in the 3rd person perspective, and even for melee combat it works well. Even in an early stage, it's far more engaging than TR.
After playing the beta for around 40 hours total, i honestly can not come up with a simple "good" or "bad". The general census just seems to be, it's not worth a monthly fee. TR would be a perfect match for 360 and PS3, but it's misplaced within the PC market. It's neither casual nor deep enough to capture and hold a solid core audience, with numbers we would consider serious.

I guess it will sell a lot of boxes if they advertise it well. Screenshots and movies look quite intense. If you play it in long sessions though it gets shallow soon. It's very hack'n'slashy-ish with akward camera work. My characters never felt quite right. It lacks the dynamic of a true FPS, but it gets too shacky for an MMO.

The interface works for me. It's not WoW's wich many now consider a holy grail, but i rank TRs strict UI limits very high. Gameplaywise from what i have seen, the game lacks true early and visible goals to achieve, something WoW executed very well. The game isn't a simple WoW clone though. I would consider it a modern polished online-remake of the old Gauntlet series, if you know Phantasy Star Online, you pretty much can expect a more advanced version of it with TR. If you look for anything more than this, you'll be disapointed. If that's your thing, you probably will like it, maybe even enough to pay a monthly fee. I would really play it if it would be free, just because it's different in many aspects.
Tobold, what can you add about grouping and group content? You mentioned what sounded like single player instances, are there group instances?

Actually that instance was probably meant to be a group instance. Only there are no respawns, at least not in the time I played it. And the challenges involve mostly large numbers of enemies, not one very big enemy. Thus if you don't want to group, you can simply zerg the instance. Charge madly forward, kill what you can kill, get killed, and come back to a now diminished group of enemies. I can't say much about grouping, because I never felt the need to, and thus never did.

And yes, the gameplay in the instances I was in was creative, and fun. Not just simple alien killing.

There's a game whose Alpha I'm in, it uses fps style controls but is in the 3rd person perspective, and even for melee combat it works well. Even in an early stage, it's far more engaging than TR.

Hellgate London?
To the comment of is this a shooter with an MMOPRG built around it or an MMORPG with shooting elements I have to say it is an MMORPG with shooting elements.

It is not a shooter at all as far as I see it. With sticky targeting and dice rolls to hit and damage it is not a shooter.

Honestly I feel this game fails on almost all levels. Before I express my feelings on its failings I would like to hold up a couple things I feel are worth mentioning. First, the break away from fantasy is commendable. The incorporation of FPS elements is wonderful (but falls short in my view) and the clone system is something all MMORPG’s should incorporate.

While I can praise the break from fantasy I have to be honest that the setting is uninspired. The world is too clean and unmolested to be at the center of an interstellar war with aliens that run around the universe pimp slapping everyone in their path. The level of destruction seems off.

My issues with the world and story are closely tied so I they will overlap quite a bit. While it is hard to go wrong with the story of mankind on the run, fighting against a vastly superior enemy made up of a desperate rag tag group of survivors I think the execution is weak. When I think of this setting I think of the future dream sequences of Terminator, not Starship Troopers.

While I can appreciate the art design to some extent it also seems uninspired. It does have that old Heavy Metal magazine vibe as MOG pointed out but it pales in comparison. It does not have any edge or ‘cool factor’.

To be honest the world and story do not feel like a deep complex interconnected world where things make sense in the context of the story. They feel like a world created by a PnP DM who thinks they are far more imaginative than they really are (come on you all know the type and have played with them before). The creation of a language while interesting is weak – Logos? Could they not come up with an actual name for another language? It is stick person hieroglyphics for heaven sake. Now I do not expect the level of language creation in LotR (the books) or anything but a little more creativity would be nice. Speaking of creativity – the Bane as the name of the enemy?

The actions of the enemy within the game once again to not feel appropriate in the context of the overall war that is occurring. There is no sense of purpose other than to be killed for xp by the players.

I feel that the combat is little more exciting than a classic MMPRPG. I love shooters and this has none of the good things about shooters. The guns (even the big ones) feel like toys. I want to ‘feel’ the impact and recoil a bit more. I don’t like the cover system. Only having certain things in the environment impact your ability to not get hit is a poor choice. Even things that provide cover only modify the dice rolls – they do not act as true cover.

All in all I feel the game is shallow and made many poor choices.
@ Tobold:

Not sure I can say, friend. ;)
So they want FPS players to pay $15/month to play an FPS-based MMORPG, which is what Tabula Rasa sounds like?

Hmmm, let me see. I can pay $15 to play a fake FPS, or play Q3:Arena, UT, CS, or any other real FPS online game for free.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
The combat system is like a much more polished version of NGE SWG. It's too bad SOE couldn't get their game coded properly.

The biggest complaint seems to be that there's not much to do. They have spent alot of time polishing the basics. I believe that's the best course of action since many games (eg SWG and Vanguard) try to include everything but the kitchen sink at release and end up turning off alot of potential subscribers. They will add more to the game with expansions. I do think this is a quality game and hope enough people stick with it. It will be better when they expand it, I just hope it doesn't have the same fate as Auto Assault.
That so much mention is being made of Auto Assault ought to be scaring the publisher to death. I've watched the sales of TR on Amazon, and expected to see a big jump in the numbers when the preorder offered a beta key. After all, wouldn't the most enthusiastic anticipators of this game jump at the opportunity to take part in the beta? The sales went up somewhat, but not nearly what I'd expect.

Not only that, but there's so little buzz anywhere on the net about this game. I expected blogging to explode after the nda lifted.

Auto Assault was a $14Million writeoff, and it took just a couple of years to produce. TR has been in production since 2000 (supposedly RG started work on it after he got his marching orders from EA)--I read one account in a Korean newspaper that NcSoft has spent 80 billion won on getting NcSoft NA started and this game out in October. Isn't that roughly $80 million dollars? It's getting close to eight years now. Ten million dollars a year!

You can probably tell--I'm more interested in the MMORPG business model than anything else...and this is shaping up to be a disaster.
Okay, I also got my access, and played a few Hours at the Weekend.

First: It is definitely fun to play.
Second: It just doesn't give you the MMORPG feel, that everyone was hoping for.

Most people just run around and shoot all things on sight, it's very chaotic and since you go from place to place, it's rather unfriendly to groups and guild etc.

I have to agree that the Ammo is too expensive, at the end i nearly could'nt pay for having enough ammo to carry around...that shouldn't happen..

I like the control, the graphic is fine, the sound is okay.

For me it's definitely worth playing, at least as an alternative from a "real" Moorpg like WoW.

People interesting in grouping or RP elements, will be hardly dissapointed.

People, who just like to run around , kill some mobs, have some rewards ,and go on...will maybe like it.

I was expecting more, but it isn't as bad, as it could be.

At least it seems to run well, and provide you some fun for some hours.

The Game propably will never give some serious MMORPG feeling ,just for the way it is build up (you advance from zone to zone, you never have a spot to stick with friends or a common "world" where you run into them from time to time).

In the end, it looks all that WoW-Killer talk in the last months about the Upcoming talk is a bit of "wishful thinking"... I really can't see a single upcoming game, that comes nearly to the WoW Experience (at least to my taste)
I want to clear one thing up: everyone who says that the aiming is an illusion is wrong... kinda.

Yes, there's a soft-lock system that allows you to lock onto the enemy, but doing so puts a target indicator on that enemy. If you run around and shoot like mad, you WILL hit the enemy, but if you take the time to aim for the center of the target (or better yet, find some cover and crouch for more accuracy) you will do much more damage. It also seems to boost your critical rating, but I'm unable to confirm that.

If everyone is just running and gunning, no wonder there's so many complaints about the cost of ammo... you're WASTING it.

Using rifles and pistols primarily, I found that the ammo cost was eating most of my cash at the beginning of the game, but I was still making a profit. This was only at the beginning, though, and by level 10 I now have as much ammo as I need and plenty of cash leftover.
it's a gilded turd, shallow, incomplete, and terribly unfinished. It MIGHT be good 6 months from now, but as it stands?

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