Tabula Rasa:
First Impressions

By Shamus
on Sep 26, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

I know this post is overlong, but there’s a lot of stuff in here I’ll want to refer to later. Actually, I suspect this entire series is going to be really wordy. Do calibrate your verbosity tolerances and expectations accordingly.

Story

I’ve always thought that once you get to the point where you can build robots, enslaving sentient races has got be be a very inefficient way of getting things done. I’d much rather just program my robots to clean my house than feed and oppress a bunch of rebellious slaves while they clean it for me.  That <em>has</em> to be more hassle than just cleaning it myself.
I’ve always thought that once you get to the point where you can build robots, enslaving sentient races has got be be a very inefficient way of getting things done. I’d much rather just program my robots to clean my house than feed and oppress a bunch of rebellious slaves while they clean it for me. That has to be more hassle than just cleaning it myself.
The opening cinematic explains that a group of very unsporting aliens have invaded modern-day Earth. As it turns out, our AK-47’s vs. their photon torpedoes and robotic death machines doesn’t make for much of a fight. Earth is pulverized. The government shows the uncharacteristic ability to plan ahead, and has some sort of wormhole technology for transporting survivors to other worlds. The last humans must start over – a clean slate – to rebuild the human race and kill the bad guys, who are called Bane. We find out out there are other races out there who have been similarly stomped by the Bane, and so we join up with them. Having our asses kicked to the brink of extinction somehow unlocks the telepathy and telekinetic powers we always wish we had, which makes it possible for us to fight back with awesome mind powers and particle effects.

This might not be the most groundbreaking premise ever devised, but I give the game points simply for not being another draught from the Ye Olde Swords and Wizards template. Still, it would be really nice if the Bane had more motivation for invading the Earth than, “We are intergalactic dicks.”

There’s enough new stuff in here to keep this from feeling like the MMO adaptation of Independence Day. The backstory is pretty good, but like all games they seem to be afraid of scaring users away with things like storytelling and depth. The meat of the story is tucked away in manuals and wikis, and the Cliff Notes version we get in-game is just as thin and patronizing as in other MMOs.

Character Naming

The game allows for users to maintain a generous <em>sixteen</em> characters per server, with the limitation that they all have basically the same name.
The game allows for users to maintain a generous sixteen characters per server, with the limitation that they all have basically the same name.
Your characters have a first name and a last name, but the last name is common to all of your characters on that server. If you name your first character “Coleslaw McGraw”, then all of your characters are going to have to be members of the McGraw family. It seems like this deprives you of a bit of privacy. I know it’s common for some people to create anonymous alts for when they want to log in for a little “me” time, or join a rival guild, which isn’t possible when all of your alts share a common last name. Choosing a name for all of my future characters, forever, is a bigger commitment than I’m ready for in my first minutes with the game.

As with World of Warcraft, you can ask it to suggest a name for you. Also like World of Warcraft, it does so without making sure the name isn’t already taken, which means the “suggest” button is just a useless time-sink for everyone who wasn’t there on launch day.

What the game doesn’t tell you up front is that the first name doesn’t count when coming up with a unique name. What you’re really doing is picking your last name – your real name, the name other people see in chat – and then adding a purely decorative first name. For a while I was trying the same last name with increasingly esoteric and unlikely various first names. The game could have saved me about five minutes of frustration if the stupid dialog had explained what I needed to do or how this worked. Eventually I typed in the equivalent of, “Fhwqzpklm Smith” and the system claimed someone was already using that name, which finally clued me in as to what was going on.

The advantage of a system like this is that you won’t have thousands (or even millions) of names tied up in unused or abandoned alts. Still: One name. Pick well.

Character Options

I know computer graphics are tricky and stuff, but have we invented any pixel shaders that can let us make characters with <strong>black hair</strong>?
I know computer graphics are tricky and stuff, but have we invented any pixel shaders that can let us make characters with black hair?
Character creation is surprisingly limited. Skin, hair styles, face, height. That’s it. You can’t adjust your physique / build / boob size / handedness / select tattoos / etc. Your face and hair are usually hidden under a helmet, which means that height is the only really distinctive trait you have to work with here. The avatars in the world feel very repetitive and samey. It would be really helpful if you could make muscular people, skinny people, and maybe even barrel-chested guys who could stand to lose a few pounds.

(And a gripe about videogames in general: Way too few games handle skin color properly. All too often the nonwhites just look like Europeans who fell asleep in the tanning booth. Tabula Rasa continues this tradition. I gave up trying to create a nonwhite character when I realized it wouldn’t even let me make my hair black. Call me a purist, but I just wasn’t interested in making an African with blue eyes and Auburn hair.)

There are a meager four races in the game. Worse, only the human is available at the start. The game is coy about what you need to do in-game to gain access to the other three. It just says you’ll have to “complete certain quests”, without saying how far into the game those quests are or what you’ll have to do.

You don’t pick a class up front. (Which – as I’ll get into later – is actually a really good idea, but the player doesn’t know that at this point in the process.) So at the start of the game there basically aren’t any interesting choices to make. Male or female. Mid twenties. Pick a haircut and log in. Given the degree to which people will obsess over expressing their individuality in these games, this lack of visual diversity is appalling.

(Interesting note: The voice for the female is clearly the same voice that played 1/3 of all the women in Oblivion. I heard that voice a lot, so it was kind of hard to miss. I also suspect the voice for the male is the voice of the generic male citizens in Half-Life 2, but I can’t be sure with just the couple of samples available.)

Once you probe the naming system in search of a winner and get over the innate blandness of your appearance, the worst is over. The game had been annoying me since the moment I popped in the disc, but once my character was actually standing in the starting area the game began making up for that awkward first impression.

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20626 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Wait… characters with the same last name… and four other races.

    Eww.

  2. Factoid says:

    Like most MMO games…this sounds like it would have been an interesting single player story…too bad I won’t get to experience it.

  3. K says:

    Yeah, WoW spent a big budget on voices, and that’s very audible. Few games do.

  4. Gary says:

    That’s right Shamus, thanks to the fact that you are doing this series, I went and signed up for the seven day trial. (As I usually do when you discuss a game)

    I didn’t have any problems with the last name because I have a character whose last name I made up and have used in almost every game I’ve played in the last 5 years. :)

    As for the looks. I was very disappointed that they didn’t have a “make helmet invisible” option like WoW and GuildWars. So I took the AC hit and just left off the helmet. I’d prefer to be able to tell that I’m playing a human, than to have the extra boost of helmet protection. But then again, aesthetics are very important to me. :)

    I must say, I VERY much like what I’ve seen so far in this game. I played it for about 4 hours yesterday but had no real desire to stop.

    This game so far is the ONLY MMO which has tempted me to break down and actually pay the monthly fee to play the game. WoW was nice but not tempting enough. This one has me by the throat and is demanding I pay up.

    I too would like a bit more in the way of character design options and armor options. I haven’t gotten that far, so perhaps there are more armor options later on.

    This game has proven to be quite solo-able (at least so far) though there have been a few times in which I’ve had to make an expedient retreat.

    I can’t wait for your verbose series on this title.

  5. Illiterate says:

    I quite like the idea of the “last name” system.

    Firstly, you can be “Sephiroth” (A)if you want to be really unoriginal and (B) without substituting numbers for several letters and adding a few ampersands to the name.

    Secondly, it makes a higher barrier for those who wish to engage in guild espianoge through an alt. Granted, you could purchase a second account and connect with your *other* neighbor’s “Linksys” router (remember to log in with username admin, password blank and change the SSID, it prevents jumping (the illiterate does not advocate or condone this behavior, and has only ever logged into the routers of others for poops and giggles or to diagnose connectivity problems))

    Thirdly, it makes it harder for someone to defraud others by saying “Yeah, I’m Barnacle Shamus’s alt, give me all the lewt we agreed to earlier”.. Still wouldn’t prevent “Barnacle 5hamus” from pulling a move like this.

  6. Deoxy says:

    If that’s the worst of it,
    a) I can see why there are few players – the first few minutes (especially in a demo) are the classic “first impression” that’s so important
    b) the “lack of diversity” in appearance makes PERFECT sense in a military setting, especially one with advanced (read “fully encasing”) armor. There’s a reason Ye Olde Knights used crests to tell each other apart in battle!

    So actually, I would suggest some kind of “crest” system (that auto-transfers to whatever armor you are wearing), and simply not bother too much with customizability of the unarmored figure.

    The whole “not picking a class” to start with is not new to them – Maple story does it, for instance (the first class is called, creatively enough, “Beginner”), and I suspect that it’s a fairly common thing in the “free Korean MMO” area (didn’t I hear something about this game being influenced by the Korean MMOs?).

    Edit: forgot to mention that also approve and await the increased verbosity. Yay!

  7. Illiterate says:

    Shamus, consider this.

    The game may be low population, but maybe you’re just not playing with the kids who turned off because they couldn’t adjust the bridge of their character’s nose.

  8. Robyrt says:

    My brother is a big Guild Wars devotee, and he voluntarily uses the “last name standard” system. This way, he can switch in and out of his many alts without getting the guild mates confused. Yes, anonymity is lost – but notoriety is gained.

  9. Rebate says:

    Finally, found an up to date blog on TR!

    I started this game 3 days ago and with about 14 hours of play time I’m fully invested. I’ve subscribed and am enjoying the experience alot.

    Having done all the MMOs from UO to EVE to Pirates of the Burning,blahblah; I must agree with you that TR is an enjoyable change of pace.

    I look forward to reading more of your insights.

  10. Kevin says:

    Hmm… not feeling the love here.

  11. Tizzy says:

    Kel’Thuzad: I am glad to see I’m not the only one who made the connection. It sure kills a lot of the suspense about the type of quest necessary to unlock the other races!

  12. Chris says:

    I actually ended up liking the sharing of last name across your characters. It helps link together all your alts under one identity. In other MMOs there’s often a lot of struggle to transfer stuff between characters, even though they’re all, you know, YOU.

    If I’m not mistaken the last name only has to be shared for that line of clones, not for every character on the account. So if you did want some anonymity then you could start a fresh line.

    But yes, the intimidation of picking that name did paralyze me for quite a few minutes immediately after starting up the game for the first time. I love the aspect of not making your class choice up front. Too many choices out of the box makes my head explode.

  13. Vao Ki says:

    Lack of class choice up front: Good
    Lack of customization in today’s MMOs: Bad

    As for the last name thing? Well, if it is indeed mandatory per account then I wouldn’t bother playing this game. I like to diversify my alts, in a big way. You should’ve seen my CoH/CoV characters…

    If linking characters by last name is a switch that may have been missed somewhere and could be turned off for some alts then I could see that system working.

    All of that said, this doesn’t sound like the MMO for me so far.

  14. Carra says:

    Having our asses kicked to the brink of extinction somehow unlocks the telepathy and telekinetic powers we always wish we had, which makes it possible for us to fight back with awesome mind powers and particle effects.

    Thanks for the laugh :)

  15. Blurr says:

    As with World of Warcraft, you can ask it to suggest a name for you. Also like World of Warcraft, it does so without making sure the name isn’t already taken, which means the “suggest” button is just a useless time-sink for everyone who wasn’t there on launch day.

    I’ve always seen the “suggest” button as something to give you ideas for a name, rather than actually picking a name for you. It is called a suggest button for a reason, after all. ;)

  16. William says:

    Ironically, the one thing about TR i really approved of was how characters looked largely the same. It is the first and only MMO i know where, when you’re serving in the army, it actually looks like you’re a soldier!

    And the armor makes logical sense! Holy crap!

    Unfortunately, i hated the gameplay, you win some, you lose some.

  17. Ave says:

    For those claiming that the head will be under the helmet for most of the time, there actually is an option to hide the helmet in settings. I also very much wonder why is it so bad thing that you don’t have millions of fancy fantasy races in a game which storyline concentrates on the future of mankind.

  18. Alex says:

    Is it just me, or does that screen of the black guy with auburn hair look like Wolverine in black-face?

  19. Psychoceramics says:

    You seem really irritated by something that makes up less than 1% of the game.

    I usually want to get to the actual game. Unless the game has a full-featured character generator, I just pick something pleasing and get on with the game. I’m not here to design faces, I’m here to shoot aliens.

  20. General Karthos says:

    Let’s note that Shamus also qualifies his “first impressions” post with “…once my character was actually standing in the starting area the game began making up for that awkward first impression.”

    Let’s wait for some later impressions before we start criticizing him, huh?

  21. illiterate says:

    @GK

    Wait patiently for the resolution of a cliffhanger like that without making a lot of assumptions and acting irrationally based on those assumptions?

    What kind of internet do you think this is?

  22. Target says:

    More importantly, don’t we read this blog to find out which 1% of the game irritates Shamus the most?

  23. Deoxy says:

    iilerate wins the thread. Heh. snicker.

  24. Bearmug says:

    Well, you learn more of the background story as you play, for example how did the psionics stuff come and why do Bane enslave/destroy everithing.

    Last name thing is strange, but for anonimity it is about as bad as CoX global name. Anyone that has you in friends will know when you get online and which char.

    Also, it helps to know the local idiot without needing to know all his alt names :)

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