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Tabula Rasa Preview: Putting the "Game" Back in "MMORPG"

Scott Clark | 3 Aug 2007 02:32
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Over this past week, NCsoft has "relaxed" the Tabula Rasa NDA for members of the gaming press. I'm able to tell you this, because over this past week, NCsoft has "relaxed" the Tabula Rasa NDA for members of the gaming press (read it again, slowly). This means that any random internet boob, who happens to have a marginally recognized gameblog and beta access, can now get up on his soapbox, spill juicy details about the game, and editorialize his own agendas.

Hey, wait a minute. I'm a random internet boob with a marginally recognized gameblog and beta access!

Introducing this WarCry exclusive Hands-On Editorial Preview, and the first of many features to come that will start bringing Tabula Rasa into the light of day.



Tabula Rasa: Putting the "Game" back in "MMORPG"
Preview based on Beta
Article by Scott Clark

A year or two ago, I had an opportunity to beta test for a high profile MMO being developed in the classic "EQ" style. I didn't last long. At some point my defection earned me a truly "epic" exit survey inquiring as to why I had abandoned testing...evidently, this was a common problem. After four pages of answering the same basic question over and over again, with variations so subtle as to be discernible only by some arcane cabal of marketing analysts, I skipped right to the "additional comments" section. I suggested, helpfully, "[Religious figure reference], even your [expletive] survey is too [expletive] boring to participate in...look, I already have a day job, I don't need to pay you a subscription to work at another one...try making a game next time." That boorish, but well-provoked, lapse in courtesy demonstrates why I should probably be dismissed as some sort of ADD-riddled lowest common denominator without the proper appreciation for comprehensive "feature" checklists and "immersion" via mundane occupational simulation. It also shows why I have been generally delighted as I playtest Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa.

While that previous game didn't end up doing very well, and I don't think it deserved to, it should be known that I am not opposed to the "sandbox" model of MMO design. The idea of a broad-scope, comprehensive world simulation has clear appeal. There's nothing wrong with playing a game where you sit in the same spot making "socks" the entire day...but the act of making those socks should be fun and rewarding in itself, if it's going to be the focus of the player's experience in the game.

Sure, it's fun to play...but did I mention there are also giant robots?
Sure, it's fun to play...but did I mention there are also giant robots?

The "Game Expert Wannabe" hat I get to wear, like any other random internet boob who happens to have a soapbox in the gamer blogosphere, empowers me to say that all successful games utilize a series of simple, yet satisfying, repetitive exercises to achieve larger, more complex goals. Be it Checkers, Baseball, or Pac-Man...it's the satisfying act of jumping an opponent's game piece, the simple yet endlessly complex mini-game of chasing a ball with a bat, and the reward of strangely appealing electronic squelching sounds for running over edible pixels that keeps us enthralled in the game from moment to moment, as we work towards our larger goals.

I don't believe I'm advancing some enlightened notion here that your average grade-schooler wouldn't know instinctively, let alone a professional game designer. I do, however, think that we have been so enamored with the relatively new idea of MMOs, that players and developers alike have allowed themselves to settle for executions of concept over gameplay. We put up with gameplay in MMOs that we wouldn't tolerate in bargain-bin single player games, all in the name of scale and online persistence. It's understandable...MMOs were something new and untapped, ripe with almost limitless potential for development in the years to come. The honeymoon period, however, is over. As the new crop of more distinctive, focused MMORPGs like Tabula Rasa appears, players will see that MMOs can deliver a much better moment to moment experience, and that leniency will all but evaporate, if it hasn't already.

So, is Tabula Rasa a revolutionary game that redefines the genre and completely eliminates every negative aspect of the MMO experience as we've come to understand it? Will it also make thousands upon thousands of Julienne fries? Well...no. It does, however, exhibit the hallmarks of evolution. It's the primitive beast of a genre learning to walk, and even run in places, and one doesn't easily choose to return to crawling after that. It is also pretty fun to play...that's important, right?

Oh yeah...and it has giant robots.

Swing Away

Tabula Rasa is a fast-paced, combat-focused, shootereque, sci-fi MMORPG. I say "shooteresque" because, firstly, I like making up words. Secondly, it's not a "first person shooter", as you shoot from a third person perspective, so the term "FPS" is not applicable and will only inspire a 5 minute long semantical discussion in global chat, should you foolishly choose to apply it there. Thirdly, I use the term because it's possible to nitpick your way into the position that it's not really a true "shooter", in that your shots are not all absolutely traced in real time to physical hit locations, as they could be in a much smaller MP shooter game consisting of 16 players or so. This is something that would clearly be impossible for purely technical reasons in a game consisting of hundreds, or thousands, of players on a server. Instead, TR assembles a clever array of game mechanics and illusion that captures the essence of the shooting experience in the game better than any other MMO I've played. It just sort of works.

You equip a gun; you fire a gun at will, up in the air, or 5 feet in front of you on the ground. You point and fire a weapon at the explosive crate 20 feet away; you hit it and it blows up. You point a gun at an enemy; your target reticle becomes semi-"sticky" on that target. If multiple targets are stacked in a small area you can Tab between them, though the basic aim mechanic works well enough I rarely ever find myself doing this. From that point on, if you aim in the "ballpark" of that target, that is where your fire will be directed. If you deviate your aim significantly enough to another target, your target will "re-sticky" to that enemy. The target can be "locked" to a specific enemy, if you so choose.

So wait, that's just "auto-aiming", right...I don't really need to aim? No...you don't need to aim...unless you want to not suck and buy yourself a quick ticket to the med-center. There is both a player aim and a stat-based component to inflicting damage. Each target has a "bullseye". The more "on target" you are, the longer you hold that target, the more damage you inflict, and the difference is significant. Firing "off target" on an enemy is considered "firing wildly" and will vastly decrease your damage from inflicting only "glancing blows". Bane soldiers will even frequently "dodge" lazy fire, jumping from side to side, much like the Elites in Halo, which is pretty cool in its own right. Other factors like range, enemy facing, whether a player is moving or firing from a crouch, and character skill with the equipped weapon all affect damage as well, but the basic aim and shoot mechanics are intuitive enough, you never really notice the more "stat-based" mechanics. The idea is well communicated...aim and shoot, the better your aim, the faster you kill things.

The game also features a "cover" mechanic. Chances are, if you see a structure in the game that looks like it might provide some cover, it probably does. Run up and crouch behind the structure, and you'll receive a cover bonus that significantly decreases the damage you take from incoming fire. Crouching also has the added bonus of making you more deadly, as it increases the speed in which you "zero in" on targets, and therefore do more damage. I've heard it observed from some players that it's completely unnecessary to make use of cover in the game, and so it is. However, these are often the same players who complain about the frequency of trips they're making to the med center. I learned early on that if I made a B-line for an entrenched position in the face of being heavily outnumbered, with a long range weapon like a rifle, I could withstand the otherwise withering fire, and thin out the enemy numbers to manageable levels before they reached me.

Another very impressive aspect about the game that is easy to take for granted, until you consider how few other MMOs have managed it, is how responsive it is. I mentioned above, the simple experience of firing at a crate and having it explode. Enemies react immediately and convincingly to your fire and, in large part, independently of any kind of server lag. You shoot them; they flinch. Blast them with a shotgun at close range; they are knocked back or onto the ground if your skill is high enough with the weapon. If they close to melee with you, they will knock you down. Sometimes enemies will "swoon" right before death, allowing you to run up and administer a quick "finishing move" for extra XP that can result in "gooey" torso explosions, or immolations in a pillar of flame leaving only a silhouette of ash...but the cause and effect is immediate. Lag can affect other aspects of the game, but the combat animations stay fast and responsive. There is seldom any sense of "delayed reaction", or being "out of sync" with the mobs. This is taken for granted in single player games, but it's rare to feel that connected with the action in a MMO because of the syncing issues involved. Perhaps it's done with clever smoke and mirrors on the client side in order to preserve the illusion of real time combat in a format where it's technically impossible, but that sort of stuff is over my head. All I know is I like shooting Bane soldiers in the face with my sonic shotgun, and watching them instantly get knocked on their alien equivalent of an ass.

Bane reinforcements swoop down in dropships.
Bane reinforcements swoop down in dropships.

Each basic weapon type is a "minigame" in itself. Long range rifles lend themselves to careful "crouch and snipe" gameplay. Shotguns excel at "run and gun" close combat, being particularly effective if the player learns how to strafe around and maneuver multiple enemies into its cone of fire. Rocket and grenade launchers make powerful AoE attacks, but require calculation to keep from blowing yourself up too.

The battlefields in Tabula Rasa are alive. Bane reinforcements don't simply "reappear". Dropships swoop in and "beam" them down onto the field in a swirling vortex of orange light. Sometimes they are protected by mobile shield drone bubbles that reflect damage back at the player unless he runs inside the bubble, or disrupts it with electro magnetic weapons fire. "Unkillable" cyborg zombies resurrect themselves right where they had fallen moments earlier, like the Necrons in 40k, if you fail to remove their control chips by running over the spot where they lay. Easy enough, unless you get sloppy, and then you've got trouble. Enemies can decide you're punishing them too badly, and beat a hasty retreat to heal and fight again when you're not ready for them (frying a fleeing Thrax soldier in the back with a bolt of psychic lightning is one of the game's guilty pleasures). Bane flying machines sneak up on you from above, and moments later you wonder who's responsible for the smoking crater you're lying in. If you shoot them from the sky, they can crash next to you and kill you in a powerful secondary explosion. Enemy artillery rain down support fire on you from entrenched positions. Some battlefields crawl with giant spider-like creatures, reminiscent of a scene from Starship Troopers. Monstrous 3 legged walking machines erupt from the ground and tower over the battle, capable of dishing out extreme punishment if you attract their notice.

If there's any complaint to be made here, it's simply that the game takes too long to show the player the best kind of action it has to offer. The first zone(roughly levels 1-12) is notably tame compared to the more exciting areas later in the game. The best battlefields are so good you wish they were a more common experience.

Evolution, Not Revolution

As mentioned, despite efforts made to avoid them, the game does not entirely escape some common MMO shortcomings. It is worth noting, however, how much more tolerable these sorts of things can be when the core game itself is pretty fun.

Many MMO players complain about having to "grind" to gain levels with characters. While you can get pretty far just by completing the available missions, there do currently seem to be some gaps in the mission progression requiring players to do some volume Bane disposal to level up. In fact, since the game encourages fast action by awarding players up to a 6X experience bonus by chaining together kills in rapid succession, it's sometimes simply more efficient to progress this way in one of the game's denser action areas. If I had to grind, though, this would be the game I would do it in. Since the combat is lively and engaging, it's much less punishing than the traditional "stand and auto-attack" MMO fare.

The battlefields are alive with activity.
The battlefields are alive with activity.

The game boasts a large number of truly great scripted instances, with complex goals and events comparable to what you'd find in a single player game. One typically exciting instance had me make tactical strikes on a couple installations that controlled the anti-air capabilities of the zone, that in turn allowed a bunch of those giant AFS Mechs to be dropped in that fought alongside me as we made our way into the heart of the zone, through hordes of soldiers and those giant Bane Walkers, all in one unbroken string of action. However, there's no real ground broken with the simpler missions in the shared areas. While there are some rare missions with some interesting "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style choices to make, there are many more of the same "kill x amount of mob y and collect z toenails" hunting missions that many players lament in other games. Although, the case could be made that this is simply the game directing you to go out and experience its strongest point...the action.

A recent change to the game's XP system instituted by the developers for "evaluation", introduced the concept of kill stealing to the game. Before, all players in the vicinity, grouped or not, received XP from a downed enemy, which made for a nice hassle-free feeling of players fighting together against a common foe. The new system awards XP to the majority damage dealer, which adds issues of etiquette to a game that really moves too fast to have to worry about such things, as well as class competition for spawns, as some character classes will inevitably be more efficient at wholesale slaughter than others. It should go without saying that things like this are always in flux during pre-launch testing.

All these issues are prime candidates for attention during the ongoing Beta process. One could expect them to improve markedly with the inevitable addition of more content, XP payout reshuffling, and general tweaking.

Thousands upon Thousands of Julienne Fries

Can a game that launches with outstanding PvE combat action, Crafting, a blend of large scripted instances and shared persistent areas, dynamic battlefields where players can work together to take over (and lose) bases and control points, PvP, and giant robots, succeed in a market populated by a number of decidedly less fun games with comparable feature sets? I don't know. This is for people smarter than myself to debate, while I am happily subscribing to the game and shooting Bane soldiers in the face with my sonic shotgun.

I do know that no MMO launches with as much content as players might wish for, or as many features as they can imagine, and TR will be no different. I can imagine Halo-style vehicles, SST-style Jetpacks, and giant robot pets. I can also imagine an expansion to the game's (currently) rather trite PvP implementation that adds more structured, goal oriented gameplay, dedicated PvP instances, and the Bane as playable entities. However, I also know that you can add as much content and as many supplemental features as you want on top of solid core game, but you can't patch fun into a core MMO that's a dog. Whatever else Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa ends up being, I am happy that the developers first decided to make it a game.



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