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.
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.
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.
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.
Here I am, trying to encourage aliens to leave humanity alone by giving them all my bullets.
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.
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.
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.
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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