I usually shy away from delving too deeply into massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I’ve read the news stories about divorces caused by an addiction to “World of Warcraft” or “Everquest.” My wife is more accommodating than most, so an hour or two an evening is what I allot for gaming.
That’s why “Tabula Rasa” sounded so appealing. It’s billed as a new breed of online game: more action and less time required to progress through the game. But while “Tabula Rasa” is better suited to short bouts of gameplay than most MMORPGs, there are simply not enough compelling reasons to keep me coming back.
“Tabula Rasa” is the brainchild of game designer Richard Garriott, best known for “Ultima Online.” “Tabula Rasa,” which was in development for years, eschews the RPG genre’s usual sword and sorcery fantasy elements to some degree. In this game, players pack chain guns rather than swords. Instead of guzzling magical potions, you’ll wield a mystical alien power called “Logos.”
The sci-fi back story is a refreshing change of pace from the medieval fantasy that pervades the genre. “Tabula Rasa” opens with the humans engaged in an intergalactic war with an alien collective called the Bane. Thousands of years prior, a race of egghead aliens called Eloh had learned the secrets to manipulating matter and energy. Being nice guys, they set out to share their secrets with everyone in the galaxy who they deemed sufficiently advanced.
The primitive dummies on Earth weren't up to speed when the Eloh dropped by, but they did leave some clues behind. Another race, the nasty, xenophobic Thrax accepted the Eloh's knowledge — then promptly started a war with them. The Eloh won that war but then splintered into two groups, one of which aligned with the nasty Thrax. Collectively, the bad guys are known as the Bane.
The Bane travel around the galaxy raping and pillaging; the Earth date on their tour was short and sweet (for them). Following the decimation of our fair planet, the survivors joined forces with other folks in the same situation to form the Allied Army of the Free Sentients.
The game begins on a positive note. Instead of being forced to decide on a character class from the get-go, “Tabula Rasa” gives the player some in-game time to decide what skills they want to hone and grow. That’s a nice change, since I never know if I want to be a brute force warrior or shadowy reconnaissance specialist before getting a feel for the game. All you have to do to enter the fray is choose from a fairly broad range of physical characteristics and clothing options to create a human character.
The unique appeal of MMORPGs is a persistent world populated by a mix of player's avatars and A.I.-controlled characters. Things are happening in the world whether you're playing or not, so the experience is a dynamic one. “Tabula Rasa” does a good job presenting an active, evolving environment. Bases change hands, a Bane drop-ship spews out reinforcements during a firefight, and fellow players scurry about on their errands.
Where MMORPGs lose the less committed players — and make no mistake, playing an online RPGs is like a part-time job — is in the “grinding,” where players must complete one menial chore after another just to get your stats up. I quickly tire of going to see some guy and then being tasked with killing 15 creatures only to be told to go see another guy somewhere else. Apart from the killing, it's too much like real life.
“Tabula Rasa” avoids the grinding to some extent. While running some seemingly pointless task you can engage in a little gun-play. The third-person perspective shooting definitely lends a dimension of excitement to “Tabula Rasa.” I just wish it was executed better. Your character's animations are rather stiff and aiming weapons feels clumsy and inaccurate.
The game’s strongest suit and main differentiator — are the real-time battles. Compared to the traditional, passive battles in MMORPGs where the outcome is determined by each opponent's statistics (yawn), the action is “Tabula Rasa” is more immediate and engaging.
On a high-end PC the graphics are good, though inconsistent. Surface textures were dull and repetitive but the skies could look kaleidoscopically colorful and lushly detailed.
Underneath the sci-fi window dressing, “Tabula Rasa” feels more than a little like the sword and sorcery games it strives to separate itself from. It's revealed in the game that your character is a “receptive” which means you can tap into the mystical Logos powers left behind by the Elohs. It still sounds like magical potions to me.