Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa is an upcoming sci-fi MMO from NCSoft. With a launch date of Oct. 19th, the NDA for beta testers has been lifted. I had the opportunity to beta test the game a bit, so when a friend on a forum expressed his dismay that he wouldn’t be able to play it (he is still on dial-up and the game requires a broadband connection) I was happy to put his concerns at ease.

What follows was originally a forum post, so it’s a bit rough. But it got long enough that I felt it was worth sharing with a potentially wider audience.

Friend says: Minimum specs call for broadband. I knew it would happen someday. I guess I’m not doing this one.

My response:

You aren’t missing out on much, honestly. Well, I’m guessing not. Are you a fan of first person shooters?

It’s a cumbersome melange of FPS and MMO, in my opinion. It has a really awkward interface. And the world and the enemies aren’t very interesting.

Let’s talk about the interface…

So you run around as if you’re playing a shooter. If you want to pick up or use something, you look at it… that is, you place the targeting reticle on it, and press F. This is only slightly annoying, but it does mean you’ll have to ‘look away from the action’ in order to loot or what have you. Targeting an enemy is the same way, you aim at them with the reticle. So if the enemy is running, you need hand-eye coordination to even have a chance at hitting him. Then you fire, and the MMO stats decide if you actually hit or not.

You can ‘lock on’ to an enemy, but only once you’ve got the reticle on him. There’s no “select nearest/next” target or anything like that.

Basically during ‘normal’ play, you don’t have a mouse cursor. You won’t be clicking on things.

You have 4 or 5 slots for guns, and the same for skills. Pressing Q rotates through the gun slots, or you can use number keys 1-4 (or 5, I forget how many you get). So again, just like in a FPS. Though during my time in the beta often the key presses wouldn’t take. Let’s assume they’ll fix that for launch, though. You fire the gun with the left button.

Skills include both items (health packs) and your own personal skills. You slot them in the skill slots. You select a slot by rotating through them with the E key, or by pressing the corresponding number key. Selecting a skill does not use it though. You have to press the right mouse button for that. So popping a health pack means cycling to its slot and then pressing a mouse button. Which sounds easy but for me was really hard to get used to. I’d hit the button for my health pack in the heat of battle and forget I also had to press the right mouse button to actually use the health pack.

Skills, by the way, are what you see in gameplay footage when those little “screens” pop up in front of the player. A lightning bolt skill is one of the first you’ll get. And yes, everyone gets it.

One of the big things that Garriott points out in pimping the game is that you have to ‘use the 3d environment for cover.’ In other words, you need to hide behind trees or hunker down below ridge lines to avoid getting pasted. This would be great…if it weren’t for the lag. So many times I’d be taking fire and try to return fire and be told I had no line of site to my target. This is a fast-paced action-y game, which makes this a huge problem. Maybe they’ll fix that for launch, too. But as it stood the last time I played, the enemy could shoot through the 3D terrain and I couldn’t.

Lastly the enemies… there are a couple of indigent animal species that you have to fight a bit early on, but for the most part you have to fight the Bane. And more Bane. And even more Bane. You’ll fight various classes of them, but they all look pretty much alike. Then finally you get to robots and bane. Maybe later on the enemies get more varied, but in the early game, whew, are they ever dull.

The first time you come to a road intersection and see a Bane jumpship beaming down troops, and the indigents and your NPC brethren joining the battle to help repel them, you’ll be thrilled and jump in to help. By the third time you’ll be puzzled by the Bane command…why do they keep deploying troops in the same spot every 3-4 minutes only to have them mowed down. By the 78th time you’ll just ignore them and move on. You won’t farm them. Why? Because you only get experience if you do the most damage, and the NPCs tend to get to them before you do. Once you’re much higher you can kill ’em fast enough to get exp, but by then they won’t be worth much.

When I was testing, there weren’t many quests, either, so the game was mostly grinding. However when a friend joined the beta during the Fileplanet offer we got into a big argument because he said he had more quests than he could handle. I went back to the newbie area and sure enough, they’d added a lot more. Hopefully they’ve continued to do that.

Now let’s talk about kill-stealing. It happens *constantly.* Because beta testers are jerks? No, because there are a lot of NPCs running around that look just like players (the only way I could tell them apart was by using the radar; an NPC’s ‘blip’ looks different from a PC’s). They’re killing bane, you’re killing bane, other players are killing bane. It’s really easy to think you’re ‘kill stealing’ from an NPC only to find out it was actually a player. Remember everyone is a long range fighter so often you can’t even see the other person shooting at your enemy.

Inventory management is a major chore, much like Auto Assault. You’ll get a lot of junk, and it’ll all look the same. A Mk I Laser Rifle and a Mk II Laser Rifle look the same in inventory, and you have to check their stats to see which is better. And the Mk II Laser Rifle you pick up now and the Mk II Laser Rifle you pick up two minutes later might have very different stats. So you have to check the stats on every thing you pick up. It gets old really fast. Again, maybe they’ve improved that.

Tabula Rasa would make a great single player game, I think. You could get used to the controls eventually. But trying to have a “dynamic battlefield” that offers the same experience to every player just means it gets really repetitive really quickly. Beating back the Bane is no fun when you know they’re just going to respawn in the same place a few minutes later (and often you’ll clear an area and move on only to find yourself getting shot in the back by the next wave). In a single player game you could establish a perimeter and gaining ground could have some meaning, but not here.

In the end, the game just felt pointless to me. Gaining levels didn’t feel that empowering. The enemies I was fighting didn’t feel any more epic as I got ‘older’. The quests weren’t anything special. The tableau is a battleground so there’s no feeling of a strange culture to explore. There’re a few indigent buildings in the first zone but nothing like heading into Bree or Stormwind or Qeynos for the first time (maybe that happens later, I never got past level 15 or so). Most of your non-combat time is spent in one of several military camps.

Now all this is based on beta, and they *were* adding to the game in pretty definite ways while I was playing. So caveat emptor.

But the basic theme is one that a lot of MMO traditionalists won’t take to… the fact that your skill in aiming with the mouse factors into how good a player you are. At the same time, FPS gamers will probably be frustrated that their aim was perfect but their stats said “Miss.”

My prediction is that there’ll be a small segment of gamers who like both FPS and MMOs that’ll become rabid fans of Tabula Rasa. But, and I don’t claim to know you well, I don’t think you (or I) would be in that segment.