Tabula Rasa:
Gameplay Part 2

By Shamus
on Oct 2, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Once again I bring you a misleading list of gameplay aspects. I just want to caution you that while I have nothing bad to say about the game, which should not be construed as some sort of malformed praise. While what we have here is indeed fairly well done, you should not take my lack of hostility as a recommendation. The shortcomings of Tabula Rasa aren’t in what we’re given, but in what’s missing. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Transport

Every base has a waypoint marker, which lets you instantly teleport to any other waypoint marker you’ve visited. (The game is even nice enough to excuse this limitation with some technobabble about imprinting your DNA onto the waypoint and such.)

This is not a game bogged down by miles of dull travel. Like Diablo II, you’re never more than a waypoint jump away from whatever level of action you’re in the mood for.

Death

Tabula Rasa has the most forgiving death system I’ve experienced in an MMO. There is no item loss, no XP debt, and no direct loss of cash. When you fall, you are given the option of being transported to the hospital or waiting for an ally to revive you. All of your equipment is damaged by 10%. (The cost to repair this is very minor, and even into my mid-teens the post-death repair bill feels like chump change.) When you revive, you’ll also be affected by the “Resuscitation Recovery” condition, which just means you can’t be healed for 30 seconds.

Going to the hospital also inflicts “Resuscitation Trauma”, which is a 20% reduction in attributes for a mere 5 minutes. That’s pretty reasonable in my book. It’s a mild penalty that discourages death without punishing you by making you stop playing. In World of Warcraft, the post-death effects were so strong as to make you helpless. But here you can actually jump back into the fray as long as you’re careful. The quick transport system lets you get back to the action without a bunch of dull hiking. Tabula Rasa is a game designed to deliver a steady supply of action.

Class Selection

The way class selection is handled is simply brilliant. You don’t make any long-term gameplay decisions at character creation. Instead, everyone starts off the game as a recruit. Once you hit level five, you choose one of two branches of specialization. You can become a Soldier or a Specialist. At level ten, you will again branch out. If you chose Soldier before, you can now choose between Commando and Ranger. By the endgame there are eight unique character classes.

The beauty of this system is that you aren’t asked to make any long-term commitments until you have some idea of what you’re doing.

In WoW, most characters are pretty much the same at the beginning, and you have to go for about ten levels before you get a feel for what your class is really like. If you find it unsatisfying for whatever reason, you’ve got to start another character and crank through those early levels again.

By level five you have an idea of how the game feels and what activities you enjoy, which gives you a clue as to which way you might want to specialize. This reduces the number of decisions new players have to make in ignorance. As a bonus, the system makes a lot of sense.

Clones

Not content with letting you make long-term character decisions after you’ve learned about the game world, Tabula Rasa also lets you explore the various branches of character development without having to level up a new character. When you come to one of the various forks in the road of character development, you can create a clone. This acts as a sort of save point. The clone can look like whatever you want (it can even be a different gender) but it will retain all of the leveling and skill selections you’ve made. If you find you don’t like being a Ranger, you can switch to an earlier clone and choose the Commando path instead. The game is really generous with character space, letting you have up to 16 per server.

Cloning can also serve as a crude rename / appearance change, as you can make a clone with the name and look you want and then abandon the original. You earn clone tokens just before you make key class decisions, so you should be able to explore all of the classes without repeating unnecessary levels. If you make a lot of different characters (like me) then this will cut way down on the number of times you should have to replay the newbie areas. In fact, once you make your level five clone, there is no reason you should have to replay the first four levels again.

Like the system of class development, cloning is an elegant system that makes the game fun and integrates nicely with the setting.

So we’ve had three posts now where I’ve praised the game. Tabula Rasa is indeed very good at what it does, which is to provide a huge outdoor world where you knock down endless waves of enemies and engage in a little lightweight leveling. Having said that, I think I’m about done with it. While I give the game points for delivering a polished and focused experience, there just isn’t that much to do here besides shoot stuff. Playing Tabula Rasa is like playing an FPS where the plot never moves forward. It’s fun, like ice cream. Also like ice cream, there is only so much you can take in a sitting.

Only killing things? How is this any different from World of Warcraft?

I’ll answer that one in my next post.

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20424 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Jeremiah says:

    The beauty of this system is that you aren’t asked to make any long-term commitments until

    Looks like you missed the end of that sentence.

    Oh, also:

    The game is really generous with character space, letting you have up to
    per server.

  2. SimeSublime says:

    Sorry to pick, but two more typos in consecutive sentences.
    “If you find you don’t like being a Ranger, you can switch to an earlier clone and choose the ranger path instead. The game is really generous with character space, letting you have up to”

  3. Shamus says:

    Thanks for letting me know about the typos. Fixed.

    The shameful thing is I read through this earlier today and still didn’t notice those issues. It’s sort of shocking how addled your brain get get when you’re down a few hours of sleep.

  4. Mm. As long as we’re noting typos,
    (Never mind. Pointed out the Ranger one which I notice someone else already mentioned)

  5. lowlymarine says:

    Pretty interesting series, I’m really considering giving this one a spin. Looking forward to the next part!

  6. Jeremiah says:

    For shame, Shamus! All those errors! But seriously, considering that the lack of sleep only caused a few typos, it could’ve been worse. At least everything still made sense.

    Also, if I were the sort to play MMO’s, I’d probably give this game a shot. I can see how it’d be a lot of fun, and I really like the cloning bit. Thanks for posting about it!

  7. Kevin says:

    I’m so skeepy. (Yawn!) Excude me, I’m going to go take a map and get back to this taters.

  8. Duffy says:

    I’m curious about something. You mentioned WoW has a “punishing” death mechanic, and I will agree spirit rezzing does result in a punishing debuff comparatively. But how often did you actually use a spirit rez instead of running back to your corpse? Just curious. (Personally I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve use it in 4 years of playing.)

    That aside I do find Tabula Rasa’s method to be a much better death solution than the traditional options of taking things away from the player in the form of xp/items/money/etc…

  9. Cybron says:

    I like their death penalty system, and several aspects of the game overall. But I’m gonna have to wait for the other shoe to drop before I think about buying it.

  10. Adalore says:

    Eh, Maybe some time I will try this MMO.

    Right now I am playing EQ2, with my character in some zones people have a tendency of dieing… a lot…

    In one named fight. (Big o’ dragon of painful death) I died three times IN THE BATTLE, got battle raised by one of the 2 healers in the group…

    Note, no matter what level, monsters do not like me when my Assassinate line critical… (THWAKA 11451 damage… Oh OW! AGRO! OW OW OW!)
    -Level 65 Assassin – Yuurei – Crushbone – soon to be 66.

  11. Shamus says:

    Duffy: You can spirit-rez and then stand in a corner for five minutes waiting until your punishment is done, or you can spend five minutes hiking back to your body, recovering it, and retreating from whatever killed you in the first place. This can get really hairy if you were in a dungeon and all of the monsters have respawned in behind you.

    Repair bill aside, it works out to about the same cost in time once you get out into the wilderness or deep into a dungeon. I chose one or the other based on how close I was to the graveyard and how dense the foes were likely to be around my body.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    About the FPS/icecream comment,I think youll agree with me that when done right,FPS can be such an imersive thing that makes you never want to stop.Original UT,for example.I still like to play it with some friends from time to time.Also,countercrap is still very big here and is being played by some people.

  13. Vao Ki says:

    “Tabula Rasa has the most forgiving death system I’ve experienced in an MMO.”

    I just found one that’s even more forgiving: Pirates Online.

    When you die (get knocked out) you wind up in jail, and have an effect called groggy (which only starts once you reach level 10). Groggy causes your maximum health and Voodoo (mana) to be reduced for a small time by about 10%.

    Add in the fact that you can teleport back to your crew (group) once you kick down the door to your cell, and you are back in the action very quickly.

  14. Perhaps Shamus will discuss this in the next post. Or perhaps much of it has been fixed. But when my husband and I played Tabula Rasa, we became very weary of all of the BUGS!

    At around level 30, there was one particular map section that was so bug-riddled that the in-game support techs actually had macro-ed their answers. “To fix this error, please do x, then y and then z. Thank you for playing Tabula Rasa.”

    The bugs were particularly troublesome in the instanced areas. My husband and I had a running joke that Tabula Rasa was the TRUE Army of One because the quest bugs suggested that the developers never expected anyone to play together in a group. Quest objectives would disappear after the first person completed them, never to return. Bugged NPCs would mysteriously run off, never to give the follow-up portion of a quest. Etc., etc., etc.

    We finally got so tired of petitioning a GM to help us complete a quest, or doing online research to determine where the quest became broken, that we finally just gave up on the game.

    Leslee

  15. Heph says:

    “I just want to caution you that while I have nothing bad to say about the game, which should not be construed as some sort of malformed praise.

    – that sentences needs slight rewording…Either change the “which” to “this”, or drop the “while”. As long as we’re being nitpicky and all :-P

    Anyway, does TR have a free demo somewhere? I’m absolutely not an MMO fan, but this sounds like something I might enjoy myself with for a while, without feeling it need become too time-consuming.

  16. Tom H. says:

    Hmm, EQII did that same class selection thing for years, and then abandoned it. Anybody who had alts got really tired of playing e.g. mage levels 1-10 all over again in order to explore the final class choice that started at level 20. Cloning gives you a route around that as long as you have a single character, and don’t have people playing around with alternate races.

  17. Mr_Wizard says:

    I bought an extra month, and to be honest you are giving me a better appreciation for what it did right. The lack of game depth was another reason I left the game before. It seems the owning company is highly aware of how poorly it is doing and development has slowed down to a crawl. Way back at the release they announced the PAU Mechs(A.K.I.W.O.W.A “Mounts”*) and it was postulated that they would be released within a month. I left after a month of play before it was supposed to be done.

    So the first thing I did when returning was ask in their native grammar “Hay guys, were are the mounts.*” After many eyetwitches I was informed that they are not done, and in fact the only thing they have done concerning it it finish a generic mech that is meant for general use, that was added to the test server only days ago. I left in January, so after 10 months is it beginning to show up. This says to me that after it became apparent that Tabula Rasa wasn’t going to be a runaway success, they scaled back their post-release team. So I believe the game is being maintained by a skeleton crew.
    And that’s terrible.

    Also I tried out the new tutorial level because that seemed to be one of the only new things in the game. Its basically the same tutorial instance that I went, except now you start at the base, and work your way to that landing pad. Before, you started at a wrecked landing pad, you were given a gun and told to start shooting the enemy. Then that downed airship blocked your path to the base, so you use a detpack to blow it away. Then you fight your way to the logos to get lightning ability. Afterward, you are then taken to the main game world. It doesnt really feel like an improvement, except that the giant hologram is more impressive than dirt and fire.

    The other change,which I take is the response to Yatzhee’s review, is that new characters cannot pick custom armor at character generation. While it wasnt very functional armor, it was a set of armor that was exactly the color you wanted it (It used a similar pallete system to hair color selection but with all colors, it even had a light gray-dark gray slider) and was useful as your “civvie” outfit in lower leveled areas.

    Now though, wearing weaker armor in lower leveld areas is a bad idea, since it seems that like they lowered the speed in which older areas become cakewalks. I remember being able to do a frontal assault on the wilderness cp bases at level 21. Now after playing for a little bit I am at level 24, and tried to use the same non-tactic, and was quickly overwhelmed. Which I like, it encourages teamwork now.

    Now these capture point bases also contain “Prestige Merchants” which will sell you respec tokens. So not only can you get clone credits, but if you don’t like the way your skills or attributes are divided you don’t even need to get a clone. You just need to get 600 prestige, which is relatively easy to get, I manage to get about 40 per session without really trying, and if you do base defenses or assaults you can get upwards of a 100.

    So, I guess what I am saying is that the game is sort of a vaccuum packed and preserved version of the game I played in December of last year. Almost as if its been in perpetual “just released growing pains” this entire time.

    *eyetwitch.

  18. K says:

    Sounds like I actually might enjoy the game for a month or so, until WOTLK hits the stores… Assuming its problems are mostly “has not much to offer afterwards”. Now I only need to check specs, since my 3 Ghz single-core will probably no run it decently. Stupid Nvidia sponsoring.

  19. Mr_Wizard says:

    I am running it on a 2 gigahertz machine, with 1 gig of ram and an old 128mb ATI graphics card. For my settings I usually switch everything to off/low. It still looks fine to me, though I am usually not hot and bothered for graphics anyway.

    I have to set everything to low, even if it still runs fine, because I prefer to play as a sniper. You need your draw distance to be high if your going to be aiming at those distant foes. ;)

  20. Kallahim says:

    One of the reasons why the newbie areas are so barren is BECAUSE of the clone system. Because basically there is no reason to level up alts, because you can always go back to the clone, most people have leveled a character to the point they need it at and use a clone for that. On the other hand, when Richard himself came upon the world at the end of the beta as world boss to test the servers, that was all sorts of fun…my framerates even on a reasonable rig though was CRAAAWLING. But the GM were basically dropping in walkers en masse to test the different zones out. I enjoyed the beta, but it wasn’t exactly what i wanted in an mmo so i never bought retail.

  21. Chris says:

    For anyone on the fence about trying this game, keep in mind that you can get it DIRT CHEAP. No really. It’s currently for $4.99 on amazon. That’s a month worth of MMO for practically no money. It’s worth that much if only to absorb some truly interesting innovations on the MMO genre. The charm doesn’t last as well as I’d like, but it sure as hell is worth $5 for your first month.

    The nice parts you’ve listed here are spot on. The whole lack of decision up front should be the norm. I don’t know how players are expected to make so many unchangeable decisions in their first few seconds of play in other MMOs.

    I’m curious to see what your disappointments are. For what it’s worth my thoughts are posted here. The game held my interest for 4 months, and all this talk of it is tempting me to go back. But it’s painfully obvious that the dev team has been reduced to a skeleton crew.

  22. Bearmug says:

    I found the game very fun to relax from the standard ‘click mob-click autoattack-spam 1’ games. Weapons are varied enough, and any class has multiple builds that are viable, for example Grenadier with Motor Assist armour (weakest armour in game, but improves running speed) even if he can wear Graviton (heaviest).

    And ‘ethical’ quests that have consequences: like giving the food to a starving prisoner or to his jailor (the one that is starving him), or delivering small packages to 3 people around the map, or giving it to base Military Police that is looking for drugs stolen from the medical supplies. Each choice has different followup missions and consequences.

    And as a change from other (more popular) games, devs are active on forums.

    Edit: Also, forgot, instance (operation area) difficulty scales with number of people entering, but not with their level.

  23. Greg says:

    Hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but I read on G4’s the Feed that NCSoft may be shutting down the servers to Tabula Rasa. Maybe you’ve created enough hype that get enough people interested in the game to keep it alive. Nothing like having the fate of a game you love in the hands of someone else, huh.

  24. […] Leslee Beldotti mentioned the bugs, and I can’t add much to what she’s already said. The game should be in better shape than this so long after launch. […]

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  1. […] Leslee Beldotti mentioned the bugs, and I can’t add much to what she’s already said. The game should be in better shape than this so long after launch. […]

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