Tabula Rasa:
Activities

By Shamus
on Oct 3, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

I’ve said in the past that the addictive nature of World of Warcraft comes from the vast number of connected activities and player-driven goals. It’s a buffet of things to do, and you can focus on the parts you enjoy the most. Combat, looting, leveling, questing, auctioning, crafting, fishing, cooking, harvesting, exploring, raiding and PvP-ing. Each is a fun activity, and each one enhances your ability to advance and enjoy the others. Auctioning lets you get loot which lets you level up easier which lets you push into new areas where you can gather new materials you can use to craft items which you then put up for auction, etc. It is a game where there is no good time to quit, and another reward is always around the next corner.

The major problem with Tabula Rasa is the small number of activities, several of which are unfortunately hamstrung in some way.

Exploration

A hallway-styled canyon.  A world of fantastic spectacle this is not. If you are unfortunate enough to make the long pointless slog through this canyon, you’ll find it ends – I kid you not – in a dead-end waterfall.  Turn around and walk all the way back.
A hallway-styled canyon. A world of fantastic spectacle this is not. If you are unfortunate enough to make the long pointless slog through this canyon, you’ll find it ends – I kid you not – in a dead-end waterfall. Turn around and walk all the way back.
If any game should have the freedom to make mysterious and fantastical worlds, this should be it. These are distant uncharted places, and their terrain is about as thrilling and mysterious as the English countryside. I’m a short drive from scenery more bizarre and alien than anything I saw on these supposedly far-flung planets. Compared to the vast and diverse scenery found in World of Warcraft, the places feel bland and samey.

The terrain is often walled off with absurd cliffs that have you running a Guild Wars-style rat maze. (Although thankfully you can jump in this game, which at least saves you time when your goal is below you. Still, all too often I found myself needing to go Northwest if I wanted to reach some point south of me.)

Variety is the spice of life , so this canyon is a slightly different shape compared to the previous one. It has a big blue thing in it, which will help you remember which particular canyon you’re in when you log back in later.
Variety is the spice of life , so this canyon is a slightly different shape compared to the previous one. It has a big blue thing in it, which will help you remember which particular canyon you’re in when you log back in later.
A lot of what makes a vista compelling is the ability to see the horizon, which you can’t do here because there’s always a ridiculous sheer cliff staring you in the face. Getting to a new area usually means the same stuff, but with a different color of fog. And to move from one area of the world to another you have to crawl through loading-screen caves. Boo.

George Lucas takes a lot of (well deserved) abuse these days, but the guy had a knack for making fantastic worlds that are rich in culture and visual spectacle. This game could have used a good dose of that sort of imagination.

Questing

The walkie-talkie icon over her head means she has a quest for me.  I think I’m supposed to report to her so that she can demonstrate the weapon she’s holding.  Unlike our primitive shotguns and EMP rifles, these aliens have weapons beyond our understanding.  Their people call this one a “Bow and arrow”.  Wild.
The walkie-talkie icon over her head means she has a quest for me. I think I’m supposed to report to her so that she can demonstrate the weapon she’s holding. Unlike our primitive shotguns and EMP rifles, these aliens have weapons beyond our understanding. Their people call this one a “Bow and arrow”. Wild.
If someone sends you out to get ten spider jibblies, then every spider you kill will drop a jibbly.

This seems unrealistic to me. Shouldn’t some of them get destroyed in combat? It would be better if only one in ten spiders actually had the item you want. It would make the game much more exciting, wondering if the next one you kill will be a winner!

I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Naturally, the fact that ten spider jibblies = kill ten spiders is most welcome and removes a lot of the annoying nonsense we find in other games.

On the other hand , the quests themselves feel very generic and have almost no continuity. As is my custom, I started the game with reading each quest and dialog presented to me, but most of them were just too mechanical to care about. Eventually I just started clicking “Accept Mission” without reading the filler.

A few quests offer interesting moral choices, like being asked to deliver stolen medical supplies or turn them in to the authorities. These choices spice up the game a bit, but I was never invested enough into the setting to care. I didn’t agonize over good or evil, I just turned in the quest with whoever happened to be closer. I wasn’t really connected to the setting enough to worry about the “war effort”.

In WoW, some quests were part of a series, where you would re-visit a particular NPC many times and learn more about (and sometimes solve) whatever problems were affecting the given location. Other quests are simple one-shot “go kill or fetch X for a reward” deals. Tabula Rasa is made mostly of the latter sort, and I think a few solid anchor characters with multi-stage plotlines would do a lot to enrich the setting.

Character Building

While having all the armor look pretty much the same is indeed realistic (although if we were going for realism then they should be issuing you armor instead of selling the stuff) it negates the appearance-building aspect of the game. I know I’m not the only one to see some max-level hero in World of Warcraft, clad in glittering majestic armor and wreathed in particle effects. Someday, I’m gonna look like that guy. That’s not relevant or possible here. I have to mouse over characters and look at the tooltips if I want to tell the newbies from the demi-gods.

Four races. (Three of which are locked at the start.) One starting area. One name per server. Homogeneous looking avatars and armor. There aren’t that many ways to spend your two-skill-points-per-level that make sense. Most of it you’ll be putting into whatever armor and weapon type you’ve chosen. All of the weapons of a given type look the same and sound the same, regardless of level. There just isn’t much to experience here. In other games, people will play numerous characters and classes and races and genders in varying locations with different weapons and divergent skill point builds.

This could have been a fun activity, but the lack of variety leaves you with few meaningful choices.

Logos

Here I am, getting a dose of forbidden knowledge from a logos shrine.  To bad coming here is mandatory, and not a lucky find.
Here I am, getting a dose of forbidden knowledge from a logos shrine. To bad coming here is mandatory, and not a lucky find.
Spread around the gameworld are these Logos shrines, alien devices which will bestow a “Logos” on you. This could have been a cool little mini-game, in a “find the hidden packages” sort of way. But you need various logos to be able to use your class skills, and other ones are marked on your map. What could have been an interesting reward for exploration is turned into a mandatory fetch quest. This could have been another activity, but it’s really just part of the leveling system.

Crafting

The Tabula Rasa crafting system is an interesting start, but it didn’t excite me and it doesn’t really add any real depth to the game. You find recipes and find gear. You tear the gear apart into components. If you find the right recipe and the right components and you’re the right character class and you’ve dumped enough skill points into the right crafting skills, then there is a chance you might be able to craft something 6.3% more effective than the stuff you got from enemy drops.

I really tried to use the crafting system, but it was never remotely worth the time and effort required. Since you can only build items for which you have a recipe (and recipes are consumed when you use them) you don’t have much choice over what you can actually make.

What could have been another activity boils down to a very convoluted system of random drops. It’s like a trick-or-treat where some houses give candy directly (random drops) and some give coupons which you can use to buy candy at the store. (The crafting system.) It’s still just random candy, it’s just additional expense and trouble.

Questing, leveling, and fighting over control points. That’s not a bad start to a game, and for a single-player game it would be just fine. But if you want people to play your MMO for months on end and rake in great big piles of money then you need to keep them busy to the point of near obsession. Tabula Rasa is a playground where you can amuse yourself for a couple of weeks, by which point you’ll have seen it all.

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.

The most common thing said about this game is that FPS and RPG don’t mix. While I disagree, I don’t blame people for coming to this conclusion because Tabula Rasa doesn’t really sell the FPS/RPG hybrid concept all that well. This, coupled with the failure of Hellgate, probably spells the death of the sci-fi shooter MMO. This is a shame, since I love the idea and I really think the addition of FPS style gunplay helped these two games far more than it hurt them. FPS MMO is a good idea that will likely die not because of any inherent flaws, but because of lackluster implementation. Twice. Alas.

If you look at it as a single-player game, Tabula Rasa offered up more than enough gameplay to justify the purchase. Most big-budget games are clocking in at under ten hours these days, and Tabula Rasa can certainly top that. I think that if the game had some depth, more variety, and fewer bugs, could have been a serious contender against the other big MMO titles. I’m talking about the game in the past tense not because the title is doomed, but because the developers seem to have given up on it. Development has slowed to a trickle of minor updates, and nobody is prepared to expend the resources required to make this into the game it could have been.

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20525 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Hmm… I’ll consider it.

    Is there a free trial?

    Can you review Star Wars Galaxies next?

    They tried to have an FPS MMO game. And failed miserably. I eagerly await your decision.

  2. Veylon says:

    There is a free trial, I don’t know for how long. I’ve been playing this too. I rather like it, for it’s single player aspects.

  3. PlanetSide is a good example of what was truly supposed to be an FPS MMO that played out like a traditional FPS. It worked pretty well, too…at least at first.

    Unfortunately, the rich, squad-based game that was delivered eventually gave way to a bland shooter thanks to the developers changing the game to the point that there was absolutely no reason to form squads or specialize in anything other than “durrr shoot big gunz.”

    I’m still kind of bitter towards whoever put these changes in motion. It completely ruined the game.

  4. lebkin says:

    I believe there is a 14-day trial.

    Also, the game itself (and a free-month subscription) is only 4.99 at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Richard-Garriotts-Tabula-Rasa-Pc/dp/B000SAV6RS/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=videogames&qid=1223051865&sr=8-1

  5. Dev Null says:

    This seems unrealistic to me. Shouldn’t some of them get destroyed in combat? It would be better if only one in ten spiders actually had the item you want. It would make the game much more exciting, wondering if the next one you kill will be a winner!

    I don’t know why I’m so gullible this morning, but you so had me going there! If this was on paper, I was turning it over to see if I’d accidentally opened the National Enquirer instead.

  6. MPR says:

    Leslee’s husband unit here.
    I did enjoy Tabula Rasa immensely, running around shooting things with wild abandon. The instances were especially well-thought-out and engaging, until they were just overwhelmed by bugs (not the kind you can shoot) at higher levels.

    I loved the humor. If you have not made it to Foreas Base, at least play that far, just to listen to the deadpan MASH-style announcements.
    Spoilers here: http://tabularasa.wikia.com/wiki/Foreas_Base#Announcer_Notifications

    Honestly, the camel-back-breaking straw for me: I know they were cash-strapped, and ended up pushing this thing out the door way before it was ready as it was, but there is no excuse for all the conspicuously-labeled “Dell XPS” computers littering the computer labs. That’s right: product placements. Yeah, that’s the future of space-faring humanity right there. Way to completely kill immersion, guys.

  7. Deoxy says:

    If someone sends you out to get ten spider jibblies, then every spider you kill will drop a jibbly.

    This seems unrealistic to me….

    PERFECT send-up of yourself – wonderfully done! Very enjoyable. Keep it up, and all that.

    A very wordy review, but also enjoyable and informative – thanks.

  8. LintMan says:

    “This, coupled with the failure of Hellgate, probably spells the death of the sci-fi shooter MMO.”

    Yes, please! Death to *all* MMOs!

    OK, I don’t really want that. It’s just really frustrating that for developers, the lure of a subscription-based model with a steady revenue stream, locked-in customers, and minimal piracy has siphoned off so much development mindshare. It seems to me that Hellgate London and this game could both have become pretty good “regular games”, ie: a normal single/multi(non-MMO) player game if that didn’t try to go after the MMO market.

    My wierd (but apt) analogy:
    The MMO market is like the hot blonde babe or two at the bar that all the guys (developers/publishers) chase after while ignoring the other perfectly fine women (other gaming markets) there. The guys fail to realize that there’s twenty guys and only one or two are going to “get lucky”, while the rest go home empty-handed.

  9. krellen says:

    So, you’re moving on to City of Heroes now, yes?

    Or maybe Bloodlines. I really want to hear your take on the haunted house.

  10. Flying Dutchman says:

    I think the FPS/RPG-hybrid concept will be proven to work nicely in Fallout 3, which I will be receiving in a few days.

    And I think the FPS/RPG/MMO-thingamajig would require a dedicated development team, with plenty of resources, an established fanbase, experience in the field, and good advertising. I’m thinking Blizzard/World of Starcraft…

  11. Sashas says:

    3 times, at least. Another example of a Sci-Fi MMO/FPS is Neocron. If I’m reading your review of Tabula Rasa accurately, your take on Neocron would boil down to “Better Skill System”, “More Variety”, “More Bugs”. By all means take a look, though. It might just appeal to you.

    PS: I think you are missing a tag somewhere. The main view isn’t hiding the majority of the post, as it usually does with your longer posts.

  12. sporksmith says:

    Hey, I was just at McConnell’s mill for the first time a few weeks ago. It was quite nice. Helped that we managed to do it on an ideal day weather-wise: sunny, but comfortably cool.

    I’ve enjoyed your series of Tabula Rasa posts btw. Funny how I rarely have time to play video games these days, but I apparently do have time to read about someone else playing video games :)

  13. Chris says:

    For what it’s worth the scenery does get better once you get off planet, but not a lot better. There are some inspired moments, but in general it does look like boring boring boring.

    It also bugged me that characters all end up looking the same (and playing the same, within class choice). Very disappointing. But I give props to the devs for including an armor painting system. No crazy mismatched armor here. You can definitely make your character look cool, but not in a cool way that’s any different from anyone else.

    There are areas you can only get into if you collect certain Logos. But these are rare. In general there aren’t enough reasons to collect Logos. I definitely agree that this was a missed opportunity.

    I bent over backwards trying to make the crafting system worth it. It isn’t. It’s totally a waste of time. They’re rewriting it, but it’s too late now :(

    With regards to krellen’s question: “So, you’re moving on to City of Heroes now, yes?”
    Yes please! That’s exactly where I moved to after my couple months with Tabula Rasa. It definitely doesn’t have that fast action of TR, but it’s substantially different from WoW and well worth playing around with.

    I’m actually becoming a huge fan of MMO hopping. They’re always the most satisfying for the first 20 levels. After that it thins out and just becomes one big Skinner Box. But if you wait for the initial MMO purchase to get cheap, you can swap MMOs every couple months and fixate on the best parts.

  14. I did some hiking at McConnells Mill State Park in my youth. I believe we spent most of the time not on the path, as we were climbing giant boulders and exploring the waterfalls.

  15. Nixorbo says:

    Re: the second picture:

    Is that a perpendicular stargate on a stick?

  16. The Odd Fielding says:

    Speaking of the MMOFPS, I recalled reading about a game called “Huxley” a number of years ago – and nothing more since. Apparently, the project’s still active…or at least, I couldn’t find anything overtly stating otherwise, though I didn’t dig very deep. It might be something to keep on the radar.

  17. July says:

    Huxley is primarily a Korean project, I think… I’ve seen commercials for it while watching the OSL.

  18. Mr_Wizard says:

    @Nixorbo

    Basicaly. It connects seperate worlds, where flying transports connect different area’s of the same world and mobile teleporters connect individual bases.

  19. Jeff says:

    The Bloodlines haunted house scared the crap out of me.

    And that was with max Auspex or Clarity or whatever that let me see through walls.

    Anyone remember a MMO calld Neocron? That was a FPS/MMO that I was one week too late to get a demo of…

  20. Matt K says:

    Not to go off topic, but:

    @Jeff, I actually found the house not that scary, the DMP part was another story.

  21. Alexis says:

    FPS+RPG = expensive

  22. K says:

    By the way: You messed up your site with this post, as it shows up in full length on the title page, unless any other post. Still, I like this more as it allows me to read it without having to click the specific link. On the other hand, I do use RSS anyway…

  23. Tesh says:

    I’m with LintMan; the monetary mindset of MMOs really is stagnating the industry. It’s not a huge effect, but it’s there. As for MMO hopping like Chris mentions, I agree that it’s a good way to get the most out of the games, especially if you can wing it on the free trials. Still… that doesn’t speak well of the industry or of the core game design of most MMOs.

    I’m somewhat surprised nobody has mentioned Stargate Worlds yet. That one looks like it would be good.

  24. I know someone who is employed by an SF MMORG in development, so maybe the lessons of Hellsgate and Tabulu Rasa will be learned.

    Both had broken sub systems and did not offer enough environmental diversity. I think that is an important takeaway point. Wonder how Star Wars Galaxies compared in that regard (it is still around, isn’t it?).

  25. sebcw1204 says:

    fps mmo; planetside.

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