Tabula Rasa:
Gameplay Part 1

By Shamus
on Sep 29, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews
Combat

A mobile sign, clearly directing the randomly wandering soldiers towards the front lines.  Only within the context of an MMO can we pretend this makes sense.
A mobile sign, clearly directing the randomly wandering soldiers towards the front lines. Only within the context of an MMO can we pretend this makes sense.
Once I’d done the brief “here is how you move and click on things” tutorial, I was handed a gun and nudged towards some bad guys. From there I was off and running. Suddenly I was playing a fast-paced tactical shooter MMO. Those words are either a magic incantation for you or they aren’t. For me, it was like mixing chocolate, peanut butter and crack cocaine.

Having said that: I can’t imagine the line of thinking that led them to make a game which feels so much like a tactical shooter and then omit any sort of first-person view. It’s third-person only here. The hell? City of Heroes, WoW, and Hellgate all support first-person, yet this is the one game where it really makes sense.

The game feels like a shooter, but it really isn’t. You can’t hope to jump in and pwn the forces of evil with your l33t mouse-aiming / circle-strafing skillz. Instead, you aim in the general direction of an enemy and start shooting. How much damage you dish out depends on the weapon, your skills, enemy cover, and how steady your aim is. You can hold still to improve your aim, and you can crouch to improve it further at the expense of losing your mobility. If you don’t like aiming with the mouse, just wave your crosshair over the enemy and hit “lock”. You’ll track them flawlessly.

Battles are quick. This game shatters the traditional MMO model of standing in place and “farming” a cluster of respawning foes. In Tabula Rasa you plow through a bad guy and keep moving. If you get overwhelmed you can run for it. If you can break line of sight your enemies will (usually) be unable to hit you.

The line-of-sight is a little touchy sometimes, probably due to the lack of update granularity and dodgy client-side prediction. This is not a dig at the game. This sort of thing is really complex. MMO games have never tried fast-paced combat because of this very issue. There is a reason why you can have 1,500 players on a World of Warcraft server and less than 50 in Team Fortress / Unreal Tournament, etc. Placing the burden of checking-line-of-sight onto the server is a hefty job that scales poorly. I’m impressed that it works at all, and failures (when enemies hit you through solid objects) happen rarely, and only when you’re on the move. It’s incredible to be able to use cover in combat in a game on this scale.

Outside of combat your shields, health, and power recover very rapidly. Usually you’ll be back to 100% before you reach your next group of foes, so you won’t waste a lot of time sitting and waiting for your avatar to recover.

It’s definitely not for everyone. For people wanting the slower-paced combat of WoW, Tabula Rasa might feel a little frantic at times. Even with the auto-aim, you do need to be able to scramble for cover and handle foes coming in below, above, and behind you without becoming disoriented.

Foes

Here I am, trying to encourage aliens to leave humanity alone by giving them all my bullets.
Here I am, trying to encourage aliens to leave humanity alone by giving them all my bullets.
One of my major gripes with World of Warcraft was the way that foes silently teleported in, sometimes killing the player. But here is a game where teleporting foes is done right and makes sense. When the game needs to replenish the bad guys, it swoops in with a dropship or beams them down with a Star Trek-style teleporter. In either case, there is a very distinctive sound that precedes them, as well as a bunch of glowing red light. You’ll never be in a situation where a foe just appears out of nowhere and ganks you before you can act. When the bad guys show up, you can see and hear it happening and take action before they start shooting.

As enemies, I don’t really care for the Bane. While the mechanical Bane units like the towering Stalkers are both impressive and fun to fight, the common footsoldiers are uninspired. They occupy the “huge ugly armored bipedal space warrior” archetype we’ve seen before in Unreal, Prey, Quake, Aliens vs. Predator, Resistance: FoM, etc. They’re not awful, but they also don’t really impress, which is bad considering how much time you spend fighting them.

Their biggest problem is the fact that they speak English in combat. They’re supposed to be these bloodthirsty space aliens, and yet when they spot you they say, “Identify yourself!” Which is an odd thing for someone to say on a battlefield, much less using the language of the enemy. Just… goofy.

Still, they’re evil space aliens and they fall over when you shoot them, which is the most important thing I guess.

Control Points

Here I am, just outside our base, which is under new management. I’m assaulting it all alone, because It’s early morning and the servers are mostly empty right now.  In case you’re wondering how things turned out:  <em>I didn’t win.</em>
Here I am, just outside our base, which is under new management. I’m assaulting it all alone, because It’s early morning and the servers are mostly empty right now. In case you’re wondering how things turned out: I didn’t win.
Tabula Rasa’s big selling point is the fight over control points. Most bases in the game – “towns” in MMO parlance – are static places where you can resupply, talk to NPC’s, and walk away from your keyboard for 30 seconds without worrying you’ll be dead by the time you get back. But a few bases are up for grabs. Even if players aren’t around, NPC soldiers from both sides regularly beam in to fight over these locations. When the humans control it, you can visit it and take care of whatever quests you may have with the people inside. When the Bane control it, the force fields and turrets are all on their side, and retaking the place requires a serious effort from players.

Defending and assaulting control points is fun and sometimes feels a lot like Counter Strike / Team Fortress / Unreal Tournament. On top of all this leveling and questing is the assault game, which makes the battlefield a little bit dynamic and transforms level-grinding from chore to challenge.

As far as I can tell, the NPC’s are balanced so that the Humans are outmatched. If left alone, the NPC Humans will endlessly and fruitlessly assault the fortified Bane positions. Players must join the fray to tip the scales in favor of the Humans. I’m sure this is dynamite on paper, but in practice the experience is marred by the low population of players. At peak times you might find ten or so players manning the defenses and holding the base. During off times, there isn’t anyone around and the Bane control the place uncontested. (Unless you’re like me, and you assault the place alone because you don’t feel like walking all the way to the nearest friendly base, and also because it’s an amusing way to die.)

So the base changes hands more or less depending on how many people are currently online. It feels like a shift change. This means that you can only acquire and complete the local quests during certain timeslots, which can be frustrating if you want to play during off-hours.

(For me, the control point gameplay is also hampered by terrible performance. The game runs nice and smooth on medium settings, and is still playable even with the graphics turned up to high most of the time. But in the gigantic battle that takes place around control points, the game dips to a couple of frames a second even with everything turned down to minimum. Which kind of spoils some of the fun for me. )

Base defense is a deafening roar of gunfire, explosions, and Bane howling. The lower-level players stand on the wall, while higher level players, tanks, and suicidal idiots work at ground level. Once the Bane are repelled, everyone jumps down off the wall and runs around among the corpses, picking up whatever loot was dropped by their particular kills. Then everyone dashes over to the nearest shopkeeper NPC to unload the loot, repair their gear, and restock on ammunition. Then they hop around and chat until the next wave comes.

It’s fun, it’s frantic, and it would be a lot better if there were more players around to take part in it.

Despite the fun the game has to offer, the population is low for a reason, and it’s not because NCSoft forgot to advertise. I’ll get into that in a later post.

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201434 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. July says:

    Maybe the base control element is why people are so angry about the lack of players?

  2. Terran says:

    By-the-by, signs directing one to the front lines aren’t as far-fetched as you might believe. There are myriad photos from WWII that include signs with messages like, “Now entering front lines, keep interval.” and so on. They were particularly common in British controlled sectors. Bill Mauldin even referenced these in one of his “Willie and Joe” comics. Just ‘sayin.

  3. Rebate says:

    One of the aspects I’m enjoying most about Tabula Rasa is the well designed sense that, as you progress through the game world, there is a real conflict happening around you.

    In a lot of other games you quickly determine that ‘this is where monster X spawns’ or ‘I have to be careful here because the mobs are this big or that size’.

    In TR all the same level based balancing mechanics are still in place but as I run through the digital landscape I see AFS or indigenous npc’s fighting bane npcs. I see local fauna turn and attack other local denizens. The feeling that there is a real and ongoing conflict evolving around me is construted in a much more convincing fashion in Tabula Rasa than in any other game I’ve played.

    I remember way back when UO first came out, they tried to program some degree of functioning ecology in the npcs. Mr. Gariott has improved on past performance.

  4. TehShrike says:

    What server are you playing on, Shamus? You don’t have to give me your screen name, but if I’m going to bolster some server’s population, I’d rather do it to yours.

  5. Ferrous Buller says:

    MMO games have never tried fast-paced combat because of this very issue.

    *cough*

  6. Kizer says:

    One of my best friends just got the Warhammer MMORPG. This game’s central theme is a war between two opposing sides, all within the Warhammer universe. I actually watched my friend spend two hours defending a base during a siege. The Mechanics of this siege sound VERY similar to the system in TR, only this one is sword & sorcery flavored and doesn’t have the shooting focus. That being said, it seems that one of the more interesting aspects of this game was adopted by a different mmo and improved.

  7. Ozzie says:

    What’s the story with the death and resurection mechanic?

  8. mos says:

    I was a real big fan of Planetside for awhile. Its gameplay is pretty much as you describe, but wholly player-based. (Also, it was a true FPS, and had none of this stat-based auto-damage garbage that turns me off. –Ironically, I do love RPGs with lovely state-based damage systems.)

    I still remember when me and the rest of my out-numbered group attempted to defend a base, and then retreated to a tower after that failed. We then held that tower for a good ten minutes or so, and just as I was thinking we’d win the day for sure, a whole mess of the enemy crested the hill. It was demoralizing, but didn’t diminish the fun I’d had that day.

  9. Nick says:

    mos: I have to agree. When you’re with a good group, Planetside was a blast. I actually played that one with my girlfriend at the time, and we’d become a 2-person fireteam if we were infantry: she would play sniper, and I would play point with assault rifles/shotgun. I’d flush enemy infantry from cover, soften them up a bit, and my girlfriend would snipe them in one shot (since at full health, it would take two shots from teh sniper rifle normally) when they take cover from me to heal. Once, she had a string 4-5 straight kills from her rifle as I would engage enemies as fast as she can cycle her rifle. That got comments from the group of “Damn, don’t get her mad!” Good times.

    What really sold me the game in Beta, which it lost when the game went live, was the open-field battles. The points for simply capturing bases wasn’t as important then, and large pitched battles would happen in choke points far between bases instead. Nothing like watching a battle in a valley between two sides fielding more than a hundred troops each, with explosions and tracers everywhere. Was a sight to see and something that was really awesome to be a part of.

  10. Alex says:

    Their biggest problem is the fact that they speak English in combat. They’re supposed to be these bloodthirsty space aliens, and yet when they spot you they say, “Identify yourself!” Which is an odd thing for someone to say on a battlefield, much less using the language of the enemy. Just… goofy.”

    That has always bugged me in the Halo series as well. I wasn’t aware it was something evident in other areas of science fiction as well, although I probably should’ve known better.

    It’d be nice if they at least had one line in the script to account for why aliens who hate humans would use the same words and pronunciations as them. Not to mention how humans understand a species with a completely different set of vocal chords to their own(for example, a “universal translator” or something). Or they could have just used subtitles over an alien language, which would make later scenes where some of the aliens have to work with the humans more interesting.

    ALIEN 1: “Hey, you know that species that we’re trying to wipe out because we detest everything about them, their history and their culture? To the point where even their continued existence is seen as a blight against a fair and reasonable universe?

    ALIEN 2: “Rings a bell.

    ALIEN 1: “Yeah, LET’S SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE AS THEM FOR NO REASON WE WILL EVER DEFINE OR ELABORATE ON!

    ALIEN 2: “That oughta fix their little red wagon!

  11. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Could you maybe do… Star Wars Galaxies?

    I imagine the hilarity would leave me laughing for quite a while.

  12. Old Geek says:

    American soldiers during both world wars learned several key german phrases by rote. Intelligence officers were often fluent in it. Why wouldn’t aliens learn our language before they conquer our planet? Even if they planned on eventually slaughtering every man, woman and child, that would take time. It might help to engage in faux diplomacy or recruit people to betray their species by convinving them you wouldn’t eat them, or at least eat them last.

  13. Justin says:

    The nice thing about future settings is that you can explain away the aliens speaking English with a language translator. Or the Babelfish. That said, the Covenant in the Halo universe had their own language until Halo 2. The time between the first and second games could coincide with either the aliens picking up English while intercepting transmissions, or the humans working out a language translator.

    The short version of my post is this: if you let the utilities in the setting do their work, the language thing doesn’t have to break immersion for the most part.

  14. Hawk says:

    Yet Another Shooter Without First Poerson Mode (YASWFPM)? Argh … I really hate that. I want to be the hero, not look over his shoulder.

    (Mass Effect, I’m looking at you, too.)

  15. Psychoceramics says:

    @Ozzie:

    2 minute stacking debuff, up to 6 minutes. Debuff reduces your combat effectiveness, although I don’t remember how much. I don’t recall any permanent effect, esp. when I died several times over a short period trying to solo an Operation (instance).

    Two minutes is a pretty short time in MMO terms. It was usually gone by the time I had gotten back to where I was.

  16. Sitte says:

    Old Geek @13:

    Indeed. I think that the enemy SHOULD learn our language.

    The critical question is whether they speak English to each other when they don’t see any humans around. THAT would be dumb.

  17. Chris says:

    I highly recommend Rock Paper Shotgun’s words on the subject of Tabula Rasa. That’s what convinced me to try out the game and surprisingly stick with it for four months.

    Your post here definitely gets to the meat of where Tabula Rasa is most successful. It’s not for everyone, but I really enjoyed the MMO-FPS blend. It strikes this nice mood where a shooter would be too frantic but a standard MMO would be too slow and boring. My perfect saturday morning gaming option.

    In the combat I very much enjoyed how your character blasts through enemies quickly. The strategy comes from handling multiple foes, not just one ridiculously risilient boar. Given how simplistic MMO abilities generally are I really enjoyed the game being more about lots of AoE than drawn out one-on-one conflicts.

  18. wallie79r says:

    I’ve always just assumed, for all these games, that the player’s character is using some sort of translator device. Why assume that the aliens are speaking our language when techno-wizardry is so readily available?

  19. Mr_Wizard says:

    Hurm, you’re reminding me of the bits I liked and making me regret leaving it behind. :P

    Hopefully the promise at the end of this posting means that I will be reminded of why I left in the follow up. It’s been long enough that my reasons have slipped my mind. The only one I can recall is that the game didnt embrace its scifi theme to its full potential.

  20. ehlijen says:

    Whether the aliens speak enlgish or not does not change the ridiculousness of addressing unknown contacts on a field of battle *solely* in the lnaguage of the known enemy.

  21. Old Geek says:

    ehlijen:

    You address unknowns in the language of the enemy, and if it appears that they understand you, you kill them. Makes friend or foe sign/countersign codes obsolete.

  22. =Dan says:

    I played the Tabula Rasa Open beta and quickly got bored. I enjoy FPS and RPG so this seemed like the perfect combo…Unfortunately three things killed my interest:
    1) Third Person Perspective. Aiming was difficult unless I just locked on to the opponent.
    2) Everything looked the same: the enemies, the weapons, the players. There wasn’t much in the way of variation.
    3) The lack of players, even if I could get past the first two issues the fact there weren’t any players around was a disappointment. It is amusing to assault the base by yourself every once in awhile, it loses its amusement when it becomes the norm.

    I would like to see your take on Lord of the Rings Online.

    =Dan

  23. Mrs. Peel says:

    Shamus, sorry to go OT, but I was reading some of your old game review posts, and I wanted to ask: are you guys still doing Chore Wars? Do the kids still think it’s fun?

  24. Joel D says:

    I gotta say, the base-defence sounds pretty fun. I’m still gonna stay away, though, just because I get addicted to MMOs way too easily, and I kinda want to keep passing my classes…

  25. Chris says:

    The way the aliens spawn in reminds me of Rikti invasions in City of Heroes. There, you also have an alien force sending drop-ships to various areas not usually under military attack, as well as carpet-bombing the place, teleporting time bombs along with troops, and so on.

    Here’s an excellent fan-made trailer showcasing the invasions:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNGcWznDr4k

    Here’s the official trailer, showing in detail an area which IS a perpetual Rikti war zone, with UT-like objectives:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgbthFBfaDw

    The aliens in the occasional invasions are rigged to be just as tough no matter what level you are, so anyone can join the fight against them. A level 1 or a level 50 (maximum level) will both be able to hold their own against a suitable challenge.

    Usually, these invasions are triggered by a group of players completing a series of challenging themed quests (a particular ‘task force’). Once in a while they’ll be triggered with high frequency and rotating locations, just for fun.

  26. Cybron says:

    I’ll put in another request to hear about the death/resurrection mechanic. It’s something that can really make or break a game, for me at least.

  27. Deoxy says:

    Psychoceramics said:

    2 minute stacking debuff, up to 6 minutes. Debuff reduces your combat effectiveness, although I don’t remember how much. I don’t recall any permanent effect, esp. when I died several times over a short period trying to solo an Operation (instance).

    I believe that was in reference to the question about “death/resurrection mechanic”.

  28. DKellis says:

    I’m looking forward to the hypothetical point when the MMO review rotation heads to City of Heroes.

  29. Illiterate says:

    Is it my imagination or has Shamus slowed down in his posting a bit while playing TR?

  30. MintSkittle says:

    Shamus is certainly behind in his posting, seeing as how he failed to mention the new Stolen Pixels comic.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/stolen-pixels/5298-Stolen-Pixels-25-Awesome-d-Episode-4

  31. “1) Third Person Perspective. Aiming was difficult unless I just locked on to the opponent.”

    I think the promotional period for the game did it a bit of disservice for hyping its similarity to FPS gameplay, because it’s primarily a similarity of pacing and not in actual gameplay elements.

    The short version is: You’re supposed to lock-on.

    The game is a tactical shooter. It’s about positioning, weapon selection, and coordination with your team. Your ability to slide your mouse over the target is, in fact, almost entirely irrelevant and if you try to play like that you’re missing most of the interesting gameplay.

    (IMO.)

  32. Bearmug says:

    Death penalty is also removable by trauma kits which can be bought at the medical store. After death you can choose which hospital you will pop in to (out of those you visited already) or you can wait for someone to rez you.

    If you are careful and time your attacks with NPCs, you can actually solo retake the base. Take out the turrets, take out the patrols, AFS NPCs come and nuke the shield…. and let them run in first before you start for the control thingy or whole base will focus on you.

  33. theonlymegumegu says:

    “Having said that: I can’t imagine the line of thinking that led them to make a game which feels so much like a tactical shooter and then omit any sort of first-person view. It’s third-person only here. The hell? City of Heroes, WoW, and Hellgate all support first-person, yet this is the one game where it really makes sense.”

    http://kotaku.com/5074918/tabula-rasa-going-all-fps-on-us

    There ya go!

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