A Solid Product, Which is Better Than a Liquid, if Less Than a Plasma, and Totally Better than Gas.
Massively multiplayer online games are, for the most part, stuck in a genre rut, namely being set in pseudo-medieval fantasy Europe. We’re at the stage where only a hardcore gamer can even count the MMOs that fit that description.
On the other hand, science-fiction MMOs are few and far between. There’s E.V.E. Online, probably the best of the lot, although your character doesn’t do a lot of monster bashing, being more about flying through space. There’s Star Wars: Galaxies, which has evolved to being unrecognizable from the original release — not a bad thing, since the original was horribly flawed (it’s still messed up, with many rumors of a new SW MMO on the distant horizon). City of Heroes/Villains is arguably science-fiction, or at least has many of the elements. Now, I’m scrambling to think of another, although there have been a few that went bust quickly.
The main reason sci-fi (with the exception of E.V.E.) doesn’t do as well as fantasy in the MMO market, in my opinion, is credibility. A player generally needs to bash a lot of bad guys in this type of game, and therein lies the rub: orcs/demons/whatever can be magically summoned in from somewhere else, and a fantasy player will politely overlook the conveniently vanishing corpses. It’s a fantasy world, after all, and once you accept “magic,” such issues pale in comparison.
In science fiction, however, players would like enemies to really come from somewhere, and there still needs to be some explanation for from whence they come and why there are so many of them.
Thus we come to Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, a science fiction-themed MMO from one of the oldest respected names in gaming. With Garriott at the helm, one can expect there to be a credible story powering the game, and that there is.
The basic storyline has Earth overrun by alien bad guys (the Bane). A few survivors escape on teleporters, provided by good guys (the Eloh). These refugees are recruited to fight the Bane on alien worlds, while also learning about the magical power of Logos (a rune system which players learn about one rune at a time). Along the way, players will meet new friends and other enemies, but, for the most part, battle will be with Bane, which are brought in on space ships before the player’s eyes, for instant battle wherever he or she goes.
And thus the “where do they all come from” issue is settled, while simultaneously dealing with the “groups of monsters hanging around the world to be avoided or picked off at will” issue in many MMOs. It’s aesthetically pleasing and creates a nice, if simple, backdrop for the game.
MMOs also need character development, and here things get a bit iffy. As you gain levels, you get ability and skill points, allowing you to increase such things incrementally. All characters start out as recruits; after 5 levels, you can specialize into either soldier or specialist, so called “tier 2” classes, although the differences between the two aren’t so much, at least initially. After more levels, you can go to “tier 3” (level 15), further specializing into two choices, and then to “tier 4” (level 30), where the really cool powers come into play, like tactical nukes, wormholes, or resurrecting all dead enemies as temporary allies. Each class/tier has special armor and special weapons, although admittedly the end result — protection and blasting enemies — is the same. There’s really no way to mess up character development, and all the classes are viable (even solo) at least for the first couple dozen levels. There’s also a cloning option, where you can create a copy of character of the same level and logos knowledge, but without any classes or skill/ability points spent. You only get a handful of cloning opportunities (every time you hit a tier level), but it’s enough for a careful player to experience all classes, as the clones get clones, too.
Combat is another issue, and another problem in sci-fi as opposed to fantasy gaming. While thumping each other with pointy bits of metal is common in fantasy games, sci-fi weapon selection favors ranged combat. For the most part, fights are at fairly short range, even rifles might be only effective to 60 meters (that’s well under 200 feet, folks). It’s a moot point, since one shot kills are as unlikely here as in any other MMO — no matter the range, the bad guys close to within melee long before you can shoot them down. Aliens tend to shuttle in at much closer range anyway, and you’ll find yourself rushing up close just out of habit (player movement doesn’t affect accuracy). Some weapons, like the shotguns, tend to be much better at close range. At the lower levels, weapons conform to the guns everyone’s familiar with (chainguns get a special nod for sheer fun factor), and ammo is plentiful. Weapons degrade with use, although repairs are easily made in town, or by a character with the relevant skill. Ammo is usually a more serious consideration.
Questing is about the only place where Richard Garriot truly shows his hand. There is the usual gamut of errand-boy and limited genocide quests, of course, but there are also many quests where a player must make a moral choice. Should a conscientious objector be forced to fight, or allowed to flee? Should the military food rations go to the military, or to the starving locals? These are tough choices, and the player is at least free to finish some quests on his own terms.
|"Questing is about the only place where Richard Garriot truly shows his hand."|
The magic system is interesting and is fun to investigate. As your character locates runes, he can string them together to generate new effects and abilities. The runes, say, for “fire,” “power,” and “range” might let you cast a fireball, and there are many, many such runes in the game. Until the inevitable website goes up posting all the known rune combinations, resourceful players can have a distinct and well-earned advantage using these runes, although a player can have a good game experience skipping them altogether (although there’s little point in this).
The graphics are an order of magnitude better than in Guild Wars (another NC game), but still derivative of it. The sound has a curious rock beat to it… and it works. The voice acting, and there’s a goodly bit of it, is good, although often the text is surprising in its foul language and current references. Never before have I seen the word “effing” (sic) used in a serious game, and I’m not sure it really adds to the experience.
Altogether, Tabula Rasa is a surprisingly solid product, and gamers that have waited long for a decent sci-fi MMO should check it out. If you’re already into another MMO, however, I don’t see this pulling you away from it unless you’re a big Garriott fan (Ultima fans will find nothing here of interest). On the other hand, there is no harm in spending at least a month or two in the world of Tabula Rasa because this game will likely influence others for years to come.