Richard Garriott's newest online creation has its problems, but it's still a good amount of fun.
- Open-ended profession system lets you choose your class as you play
- Shooter-like combat keeps you engaged
- Exciting random attacks on control points and in explorable areas.
- Visually unappealing
- Lots of gameplay annoyances and an assortment of bugs
- Convoluted crafting and lack of an auction house make the player economy stagnant.
Aliens aren't new to the massively multiplayer online gaming arena, but they're certainly not as prevalent as elves and gnomes. Tabula Rasa helps balance things out even further, with its universe of secret extraterrestrial artifacts, chainguns, and hulking space creatures. But it isn't just the setting that makes the game interesting: An action-oriented combat system and a unique Battlefield-esque system of control points add some flair to the proceedings. That isn't to say you should expect anything groundbreaking, nor should you expect a world conceived as well as Anarchy Online's Rubi-Ka. Yet even with its flaws, Tabula Rasa is an entertaining game that deserves a look for anyone looking for a little more oomph from their online explorations.
One of Tabula Rasa's most interesting facets comes to light the moment you create your character. As you would expect from an online role-playing game, you choose some physical characteristics for your character--but what you don't select is a profession. There are professions to be sure, but you start as a generic AFS (Allied Free Sentient) recruit, which gives you the chance to taste a variety of weapons and skills before committing later on. You are, in essence, the "blank slate" referred to in the title. Eventually, you can specialize in one of eight classes, roughly separated into combat and support types, though you'll have to wait until level 30 before you can choose your final profession. Worried you won't like the profession you choose? No worries: The game lets you clone your character with its level and experience intact, so you can go back and try other options without having to start a new toon from the ground up.
There's more to choosing a profession than gaining levels, though. Artifacts called logos elements are scattered across the game's two planets. Within Tabula Rasa lore, these are snippets of an ancient language that divulge secrets of universal power. From a gameplay standpoint, you need to collect them to access specific abilities in your skill tree. So just leveling up is enough to gain access to your desired profession, but if you want to use all the weapons and skills available to that profession, you need to go logos hunting. Most of the logos are attached to missions, however, so even if you don't need a particular logos, there's still impetus to find as many as possible, since there is experience to be gained.
Right off the bat, you'll notice how different combat is from the standard massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Tabula Rasa controls much like a third-person shooter. You use the mouse to freely look about, and the mouse buttons to fire your weapon and perform special abilities. There are two hotbars, but rather than click on an ability or weapon to use it, the chosen weapon or skill is assigned to the corresponding mouse button. Thankfully, it's easy to cycle through them using the Q and E keys on your keyboard, so if you want to switch weapons on the fly, you can do it quickly. This is especially important in Tabula Rasa, because many enemies are weak to certain attacks while invulnerable to others. Regardless of which profession you choose, you'll want to keep a few different types of firearms on you. Of course, this is still an RPG, so you won't need an enormous amount of twitch skill to succeed. The targeting reticle is extremely forgiving, and the damage you are doing, as in most similar games, is tied to a series of under-the-hood calculations.
But even with these typical MMORPG trappings, Tabula Rasa does a good job of keeping you engaged in its shooter-inspired combat. You'll fight off all sorts of indigenous critters, from tree lurkers (which look sort of like arachnids made of tree bark) to giant amoebas, but the crux of your fighting is against the evil Bane--a group of races fighting the remnants of the humans they drove from Earth. As you roam about the planets of Foreas and Arieki, dropships will release groups of soldiers, which keeps you on your toes, since it could happen at any time. In fact, the game's greatest asset is the element of surprise, a quality not many similar games offer to this extent.
This factor is most prevalent in the Bane attacks on the various control points scattered across the planets. In a Battlefield-inspired stroke, these bases swap hands based on exciting surprise attacks from Bane forces. One moment, you may be purchasing new supplies or turning in quests; the next, the entire base may be under fire from swarming Thrax warriors. These moments are the game's best, because they play directly to its biggest strength: fun combat. One of the drawbacks of the system, though, is that there is no looming reason to control bases, aside from gaining access to those missions (and, of course, being able to turn them in). You do gain tokens for kills during these assaults, and it's fun to group with friends and take back a captured base. But in the overall scope of gameplay, there isn't as much of a sense of urgency to retain control of these bases as you would expect. Thankfully, these battles are fun and rewarding to participate in, even if you won't always feel pressed to stick around for them.