The gameplay works wonderfully - it's action-packed and fast-paced, like a shooter, and the co-operative nature of the game is a joy
Richard Garriot has promised the world with Tabula Rasa. Specifically, he's promised a vastly different experience to that of traditional MMORPG's, and has set the daddy of the genre – the hugely popular World of Warcraft – in his sights, arguing that Blizzard's game is far too focused on numbers, inventory, levels, grinding and the relentless pursuit of these goals to be genuine long-term entertainment. The time to promotion is now over – and the hugely ambitious game has now been unleashed upon an eager public.
Red sky at night, Thrax's delight
Battles are where the game's co-operative nature really comes to the fore
First things first: you need to know what kind of world you're diving into with Tabula Rasa, and here's a clue: it's not Earth. Our humble home planet was destroyed by the merciless Bane – a race of people who use huge shards of planets as weapons to attack other worlds – who are, themselves, a collection of aliens who use mysterious powers known as Logos to control and decimate what they see as 'lesser races'. Like ourselves. Despite the unstoppable attack, some humans managed to survive by escaping through wormholes left behind by the Eloh and, using the power of Logos, flee to other planets throughout the galaxy that are also under attack from the evil Bane. The various planets allied to form the Army of the Allied Free Sentients – and it's as a new recruit that you're pitched, head-first, into the battle.
It's an epic story on a grand scale, and your first interaction with the world comes as you craft your character. To give Tabula Rasa a sense of humanity and, briefly, a shred of normality, your avatar demands first and last names – so you won't be finding any 'SuperKnight1986' or 'ElvenStud2k7' of other online games here. There's also physical attributes to customise, so you can look, pretty much, how you want. You're then given a brief crash-course in survival that concludes with a fight against the first Thrax (they're a tribe of enemy, overseen by the Bane) trainee soldiers that land near your training outpost, and you're then deposited in the wilderness of a planet called Foreas, in a town called Alia Das.
And then it hits you. Strolling off the landing craft, you're confronted with a town that's part Ewok and part AWOL, as charming, nature-tinged Forean buildings mingle with military tents and gruff generals. Trees rise up with walkways twisting through them, leaves fall to the ground, and water laps on the shore of a nearby pond as the local flora and fauna make themselves at home. And this is just the start.
The rest of this particular continent is part idyllic, natural wilderness – waterfalls, mountains, trees, peaceful wildlife – and part war zone, where the quiet countryside has been cratered and scarred by the Thrax onslaught. And that's not all: there are plenty of other environments to explore across both Foreas and Arieki, the second vast planet included in the game. Across the worlds you'll find yourself in towns and villages, factories and facilities, sandy deserts, dystopian cities and military installations. It's a varied and exciting world which is immeasurably enhanced by the gorgeous graphics that are possibly the finest seen in any MMORPG. Visual flair extends beyond the world, too, with characters looking sprightly and unique, and the various powers you can initiate through finding Logos – they're scattered across the world of Tabula Rasa in symbolic spots – are powerful and explosive. It's a gorgeous world to lay your eyes on.
Initially, too, the gameplay is impressive – and it gets better the more time you invest in Garriot's creation. Compared to other games in the genre, the systems which run Tabula Rasa – levelling up, acquiring skills, equipping weapons and armour, crafting to make new items – seem similar to other games in the genre. But dig a little deeper and you'll find a world that's superbly fluid and tremendously dynamic, and one that doesn't rely on grinding through numbers and the clinical mathematics that define other titles. It's a fantastic mix: traditional RPG elements, like questing and levelling up, have been given a breath of fresh air and a new lease of life from the man who first popularised the genre with Ultima Online. Crafting is one minor problem point – it seems to have stalled and not really improved with the ferocity that other features have done in Tabula Rasa, unfortunately, with complicated recipes proving more frustrating than revelatory as you search for ingredients that you'll never use in a meaningful way.
That red glow means that it's about to kick off
The various environments are hugely atmospheric
You still level up, but the grind has been conquered and the system of progression through the game's character classes has been redefined. Experience is, instead, gained through the multitude of varied, exciting and impressive tasks that are given to you by the huge cast of NPC characters, although the promises of genuine moral choices do slightly lack – as they're often no more than choosing between two opposing paths rather than world-altering decisions of massive significance. That doesn't stop them being hugely involving and enjoyable, though. Much of the tedium has been removed from Tabula Rasa thanks to the levelling system and cloning. At certain levels you can choose to take your avatar down a career path: initially, you choose at level 5 between becoming a 'soldier' or a 'specialist', and at level 15 you develop further, becoming a 'Commando' or 'Ranger' – if you're a soldier – or a 'Sapper' or 'Biotechnician' if you chose the other route through the game. There's a further tier, still, at which to specialise, which unlocks roles like 'Grenadier', 'Demolitionist' or 'Exobiologist'. Each level comes with it's own special skills, weapons, armour, crafting options and items, as well as a signature ability.
This system is brilliant in itself – giving each player a defined role as opposed to 'elf' or 'dwarf' as seen in World of Warcraft or, at the most basic level, 'Good' or 'Bad' – as seen in NCGames' own City of Heroes and Villains series. Each player is given a genuine chance to fight for their freedom, and the heroic defenders really do need every single role to be properly filled in order to fight off the invading threat. You feel involved, you feel special, and you feel valued and, as you often fight alongside other players who will have other skills, feel unique: they'll congratulate you if your specialist skill is what defeats the oncoming Thrax, and you'll want to commend them for doing the same if it's their explosions, healing properties or shields that's saved your bacon. It's a proper team effort, and this co-operation improves the experience tenfold.
And that's not all. In other MMORPG's, if you get bored with your character then you have to start the game again, from the beginning, in order to try out a different character class. Tabula Rasa does away with all this wasted time by cloning. Every time you advance a tier – from the initial level 5 'Soldier' training to proper specialisation at level 30 to, say, becoming an 'Engineer', you're given the chance to clone your character before you upgrade. Fancy a change? Just go back to your last clone and do exactly that. It's another way that the tedious grind is eliminated and launches you back into the battle much quicker than other games will.
As you play through Tabula Rasa, there's no real notion that you're acting independently from every other player dancing around the map beside you – instead, you get the hugely impressive and powerful feeling that there's a war on, and you have to help. Say, for example, a quest has called for you to help a local biologist by collecting samples from some wild creatures. You may be sprinting toward their habitat, but are interrupted by the evil glow of Thrax invaders being beamed down from a transport ship. You decide to stay and fight – it is, after all, more experience points – but so have five other players. Immediately banded together by a shared higher objective, the Thrax are quickly eliminated by your combined might, and you each go your separate ways after furiously flinging lightning and bullets at your foes. This isn't a boring grind at all, and it's not the endless chasing of levels and numbers that other games will give you – it's a kinetic, lively, dangerous and interactive war that you're stuck in the middle of.
He doesn't look very happy, and that gun is pointed right at you
Is there something behind me?
This is a game that's worth immersing yourself in. There may be a few bugs now, but they'll inevitably be fixed in a patch soon, and there's more than enough here to keep you coming back for more Thrax-spanking action. It's a gorgeous, huge, detailed and varied world that you could sink into. The gameplay is stunning: the best parts of the genre have been kept and improved – look at how you can develop through the character tree, clone your avatar, and experience everything the game has to offer – with the most annoying aspects, like grinding your way through reams of numbers just to beat the next quest – banished to the bargain bin. The gameplay works wonderfully – it's action-packed and fast-paced, like a shooter, and the co-operative nature of the game is a joy. The MMORPG has been revolutionised and refined, and what has emerged is a potential rival to World of Warcraft, even though it's vastly different in style, setting, mechanics or method. Richard Garriot promised the world – and he's delivered.
Top Game Moment:
TOP GAME MOMENT
Fighting off the evil alien scum with a group of eager defenders and feeling the full force of co-operative play like never before – and then going back and doing it again as a different character to see how the other half live. In one of the best-looking, most absorbing and wonderfully designed worlds out there.