Nov 12, 2007
History lesson time: "Tabula rasa" is a Latin phrase popularized by John Locke in the 17th century. Translated to English it reads as "clean slate" and describes Locke's notion of human nature. In terms of Richard Garriott's new MMORPG, intellectually titled Tabula Rasa, the concept works on several levels. In the game's story, it refers to humanity starting over on a new planet after an alien invasion. For gameplay it hints at the cloning system that allows you to take a single leveled character down multiple paths at one time. And most importantly, for the genre at large, Tabula Rasa is Richard Garriott and crews' attempt to begin again with something new.
Garriott obviously looked at the success of World of Warcraft and came to the important conclusion that other big MMO releases of 2007 (Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online) missed: the traditional MMO can no longer thrive. While Tabula Rasa certainly maintains some seeming necessities of the genre - a vast, open world, tons of quests requiring the ritual slaying of the same baddies over and over again, etc. - the core gameplay mechanics are recognizably different from anything that has come before.
Gunplay is just as vital as treasure hunting in the various colorful worlds begging to be explored in Tabula Rasa. While the user interface for the game might be familiar to MMO players, the controls are much more in line with shooters. Moving the mouse aims, clicking the left mouse button shoots your gun, and clicking the right mouse button unleashes a special power or item. For the easily intimidated RPG nuts, a simple lock-on feature allows you to blast away at enemies without having to worry about your questionable targeting skills.
Once you master the FPS style in the well-scripted tutorial zone, the game gels into the regular kill-gain experience and weapon/armor upgrades-level up-kill more cycle. While some might see this as a failure of what the game set out to do - wiping the slate clean and all - it feels genuinely different due to the fast pace of gameplay. Even the smallest details build towards a more action-oriented feel for the game; no more looting enemies in clunky windows, just run over their dead bodies and move on to the next encounter.
The evil alien hordes in Tabula Rasa don't just sit and wait for you to come hunt them down, either. Certain bases on each game map (called capture points) will periodically fall under assault from the Bane. If no player characters are around to defend them, the capture points will inevitably be taken over by the aliens, and then player characters must launch a counter-attack to get the base back. It's a fun and immersive tug-of-war that ends up being just as at home here as it would be in Quake Wars.
The cloning system continues the quick movement in Tabula Rasa. Rather than start over at level 1 for every new character you want to create, you can quest for cloning credits that allow you to make an exact duplicate of your character at any level. This is especially key since every beginning character starts as the exact same "Recruit" with new class branches offered at level 5, 15, and 30. The new character grind would be significantly worse than in other MMOs, since there are no new classes to experience at the early levels, so the cloning is a brilliant dodge on the part of the developers.
There's so much more to say about this game - the action-packed group-centric instances, the beautiful alien art design, the LOTRO-aped title system - but it all leads to a rather simple outcome. If you're at all a fan of MMORPGs, you owe it to yourself to give Tabula Rasa a chance. If this genre has intimidated you in the past, Tabula Rasa is the perfect entry point with its user-friendliness and swift tempo. Calling it a clean slate may be a bit of a stretch, but Richard Garriott has certainly provided gamers with something unique. Besides, couldn't we all use a fresh start?