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Tabula Rasa – Beta Impressions September 12, 2007

Posted by Wilz in Gaming.
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I kinda got into the hype for this game after I read what Richard Garriot (a.k.a. Lord British) had to say about MMORPGs some years ago in some interview he gave during E3. He said that games these days are too focused on “playing the interface” rather than actually playing the game. Sounds like a cool thing to say. One of the main reasons I enjoy WoW was due to the programmable interface. I have a lot of fun downloading and tweaking addons to fit my needs. Addons in WoW actually increased the replay value of the game for me immensely. But I do admit that these things may perhaps make up too much of the game.

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Traditionally FPSes have more ‘game’ than ‘interface’ since that the skill involved is more of pointing your crosshair in a 3D environment. The reason why this isn’t possible in MMORPGs is obvious – latency. Being a Blizzard fanboi I was skeptical that he can do much better. Being not-an-idiot I kept an open mind. In fact, being a Star Trek fanboi I was quite excited about the idea of a new sci-fi MMORPG being made by the Ultima Online guy himself. (I even kinda encouraged William to pre-order lulz. Sorry man.)

So here’s my impressions of the game, from Beta. I only have maybe 30-odd hours played, and have only been in one zone, so I won’t be covering too many things.

I was a little disappointed at the lack of choices for character creation. You get one class (recruit) and one race. You branch out into specialized classes in a tier system later, but I get ahead of myself. My first impression upon entering the world of Tabula Rasa was, ‘cool shit’. The bare basics is given to you in popups, and more advanced information is presented by NPCs. The graphics are lackluster at lower settings, but ramps up a lot at higher settings. There are quest givers and stuff, and a bunch of quests. Nothing new, nothing different so far.

Play the Game, not the Interface?
The first thing that I looked at was the interface. One, I immediately hated the look (graphics) of the interface. Two, There wasn’t that little interface after all. There’s a small weapons bar and a small abilities/items bar. There’s a chat box. There’s a minimap. An experience bar. A buff bar. A notifications bar. Quite basic fare for an MMORPG. Three, I eventually grew to hate the controls. It was cool at first – you’re by default perpetually in mouselook mode ala FPS. There was the initial ‘this is different’ coolness feel to it. Then it started to fade.

What’s different here is that your target’s hp and body armor bar comes up when you crosshairover it with your crosshairs. Note that it’s not mouseover. It’s crosshairover. You select targets by crosshairovering it, then pressing Tab to ‘lock’ the target to establish your autoaim target. Then you crouch (to increase your damage) and you start shooting. You hold down left-click and fire around maybe 10-20 shots to kill an enemy.

Your weapons and abilities bars have an ‘active weapon’ and ‘active ability’. Left click fires your active gun, right click fires your active ability. You press a button to cycle through these two bars to activate the ability you want, then you click the mouse appropriately. Effectively, if I want to use a potion and currently have ‘lightning’ ready, I have to press the cycle button multiple times to get to the potion, before right-clicking. To change back to the ‘lightning’ power, I’d have to cycle my ability bar again.

Sure – I’m not clicking interface buttons, but is this any better? I already don’t click interface buttons in wow. I use shortcut keys. But in Tabula Rasa, I have to do double the work to pick a target, and sometimes triple the work to cast a spell. Not to mention that you lose your locked target if you look away. If you want to duck behind a rock and accidentally mouselook too far to the left, you have to re-crosshairover your target. And crosshairovering targets is terribly messy when there’s four in a tight bunch in front of you, and one of them is a shield drone that shields everything else from damage, that must be destroyed first. I end up swishing my crosshair around like an idiot until the shield drone came up, hurriedly pressing tab to lock on to it.

If there was a deep added dimension to gameplay, then this would be fine. However there is little. You usually fire your gun repeatedly till the enemy dies. Either that, or you can cast one spell (yes one) to bring the enemy to around 1/5-1/10 of it’s hit points. And finish up with the gun. The ‘logos’ powered lightning (default first level spell that gains damage with your level) is that powerful. Playing the interface may seem like a lower level of gameplay but at least it feels like you’re doing more.

If this is the ‘fun’ part of the game, I’m not getting it.

A simplified interface is a noble idea. However, it needs to be considered that perhaps players want to play the interface after all. Until today, “retooled interface” and “simplified interface” are still the marketed selling points for this game. Ironically, a recent build of the beta created a new control scheme called the ‘MMORPG’ scheme so that 1-5 is bound to powers 1-5 so that you can press one button to use an ability you want.

Classes and Abilities

I think there is a good reason why Everquest II abandoned their tiered class system, and most EQ II players seem to agree to this. Tabula Rasa still has a tiered system that starts with a single class. I thought they remedied this quite ingeniously with the ‘cloning’ system. When you reach a level where you can pick a specialization you get to clone your character in case you want to explore the other class branch. Cloning works well to avoid players from having to play through the same boring starting levels again as their initial class.

However the way they implement skills in relation to the classes leaves a lot to be desired. This is what I call the “Diablo II pitfall” – you can (and will) mess up your choices of attributes and abilities. You get to set both attribute points (body, mind and spirit) as well as choose your abilities, and you will likely make irrecoverable mistakes as you level. Skill points spent into abilities might be resettable through cloning (and is more painful than the ‘respec’ model since clones start without equipment), but attribute points cannot be changed even through cloning.

Perhaps in reflection of the fact there are only 5 spots on the abilities bar, the number of abilities in this game are quite few too. Sure – different levels of abilities offer sometimes very different effects (level 5 lightning is an AOE with sonic damage and leaves a cloud, whereas level 1 is just direct damage), but as with the Diablo II system, you can only spend so many skill points into getting these abilities, meaning you’ll miss out on most others. Some points would have to be spent to improve your ability with like three different types of armor and three different types of weapons which you will have access to by the time you’ve specialized in a tier 4 class. Instead of having a large pool of abilities, and having options to specialize to be good in some of them, you have to pick a few. I thought most MMOs have done away with this limitation by now, considering it makes your character very one dimensional and boring to play.

The World

Now comes the part of the game that keeps me playing after game mechanics becomes routine – the story and the world. The game is good at immediately throwing you into what feels like a warzone. You can sense the war going on immediately – dropships dropping aliens all around the place, bunkers, trenches, and cannons. The quests add to the atmosphere – checking on medical supplies, establishing alliances with the local aliens (hearts and minds lulz).

However, you have no sense of your place in world whatsoever. I feel like I’m on some random planet with some random alien, running past a bunch of random bases with random NPCs with zero personality telling me to do various things. And your gameplay will be in a single warzone all the way into level 12, with meaningless bases that look generally the same, serving only as a stopover to access vendors and teleporters.

You also end up spending a lot of time camping mobs. A quest needs you to collect 6 animal body parts. You go to a spot where they spawn, and there’s only five that spawn there. And there’s four other players…

Mob tagging is also based on who does the most damage to a creature, not who hits the creature first. Since Logos does a lot more damage than weapons, most of the time, to ensure that you get credit for a kill, you quickly blast the creature with lightning. Chances are, you won’t have to do anything else because another player will do the same after you, hoping to ‘blast first’. Then, you collect loot.

As for story – what story? We left earth through a wormhole. We’re in an endless war. Happy playing.

Other Stuff

I don’t want to comment too much about stability or latency handling since the game is still in beta. But my impressions on these two things is not good. You can keenly feel it when latency rises to moderately high, and in most cases it becomes unplayable. And it’s a month before launch.

Like what a lot of bloggers (Tobold) (Darren) (Bildo) have said, the game have a lot of potential. But you can’t play potential.

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