Friday, September 7, 2007

My Thoughts on Tabula Rasa

If you want a really great overview of the game, head to the IGNs, or even Tobold's site. What I'm going to write is my basic impressions and sort of a casual review of what Tabula Rasa is to me, as a person who's been in the beta since it was friends and family Alpha (thanks to the lovely Nomad and Pann for referring me to Cuppajo as a Tester).

As time goes on and more blogging preview sprout up, and more in-depth write ups are written, you're going to see TR get a lot of flack. I tell you this, because even I'm going to give it some. But, above all, realize that this game does do a lot of things new and strives very hard to be different in the gameplay department.

In the end, I'm not sure it warrants a monthly subscription, and I feel it could certainly used another 3-6 months of development time. But with Warhammer, another WoW expansion, Conan, Pirates, Gods & Heroes, Spellborn, and even Hellgate: London all coming out in the next half a year... I can see why both Destination Games and NCsoft want to get this puppy on the radar. I just hope releasing too early doesn't signal another Auto Assault for them. That is my greatest fear for a game that's really something nice to see on the scene, the same way AA was.

So with that said, let's get into my likes and dislikes, and the conclusion at the heart of it all.


- The Upside of Combat -

Because combat is pretty much all TR's about, I'm going to spend a lot of time on that. This is where it's main marvels and problems emerge.

As part game, part experiment, Tabula Rasa tries to blend the FPS controls many twitch gamers are used to with the mechanics and systems of an MMO. On some levels it works marvellously, on others it fails. We'll get to the failures later. Its successes lie in its accessibility. Really, right from the very 1st minutes of gameplay, you're thrust into this war setting. There's no real tangible PvP outside of Guild versus Guild, because the Bane are all computer AI controlled, but there's a ton of them, and they're all over the place, it almost feels like there's no quarter for you and your people. And that, to me, is awesome. Add in the fact that "spawning" is handled by animated ships dropping the Bane down on the planet, and you've got one atmospheric setting

The game's go, go, go, from the start with very easy pick-up controls that anyone who's played a first-person shooter should understand. Mouse movement looks around. W and S are forward and back. A and D are left and right strafe. Left click fires the gun, and right click uses a special ability. It's simple, it's pretty intuitive, and it lends itself to the experiment of blending genres Garriott and crew are trying to accomplish.

- The Downside of Combat -

It's repetitive. Enough said. Most FPS or 3PS games last from about 10 to 20 hours long in terms of their offline story component, some even shorter. By the time the game ends, you're not relying on combat to give you the thrills, but the harrowing fights with the enemies and bosses. So then imagine playing an FPS game, without the excitement of player controlled enemies, that lasts for hundreds of hours. If the typical combat of WoW/EQ2/etc is repetitive to some, than TR's combat will be worse tenfold.

You do get some skills, but in an effort to keep the modus operandi simple, you never have the wealth of options a game like WoW, CoH, EQ2, or any of the more traditional combat systems offer. Instead, it's point, click, hold, mob dead... repeat. For 50 levels.

Added onto this, is something that I'm sure will be debated. The movement and targeting of TR is based on the controls of an FPS, but the actual damage calculations and hit/miss ratios are by the book MMORPG. What I mean is, you don't really aim, like the controls imply. You roll over a target, and it's sticky-targeted. No matter from then on where the mouse goes you won't have to worry about aiming. The hitting and missing then are entirely up to the dicerolls going on behind the shiny graphics.

I understand the goal is to help usher MMORPG players into an FPS type game, and vice versa, but it ends up feeling unwieldy in the end. I'm not a fan of FPS games, but I can't get over the feeling that I'd like TR more if it's combat was more traditional FPS and less traditional MMORPG. It just doesn't feel right after a little while playing it. It's shallow. It tries to be strategic as well by letting you hide behind opbects or crouch down behind a box to get cover, bot often this is busted up by the fact that the enemies' weapons seem capable of firing through anything to reach you. So ultimately, you end up either running around crazily until the target dies, or standing still and hoping you outlast what's targeted.

Like I said, fun and novel at 1st, annoying and shallow after a few hours in. Maybe it can be changed so that sticky-targetting is not on, but the dice rolls would still be there. You could still be aiming directly at the target, see the bullets pass through him... and it'd miss. Not cool, and not designed well, in my book.

- Miscellaneous Things -

This is getting long, so let me toss in a few more likes and dislikes before wrapping it up.

The cloning system, where you can save a character at a certain level before choosing skills or a new class-path is a nice idea. It'll help alt-a-holics from having to do too much grinding to start a new class. Because the classes are tiered like an Asian MMO (start off as plain recruit, then pick either "caster" or "figther", and then even later pick another class, and so on), the cloning system lets you skip earlier levels with an alt and go down that other path.

The thing is, the need for this system could be erased simply by letting players choose their final class from the start. EQ2 tried this system, and ultimately changed it because the playerbase hated the tier class system. It's an unnecessary feature and one that should be gotten rid of before release, but probably won't.

Another cool aspect with another downside is the fact that you have all these different kinds of damage and weapons, and armors, with resistances, etc, and so forth. It's great for a strategist, because you'll want to know what's useful and when, but the downside is... it's not really explained very well to you through the game, and on top of it, with all the different weapon types you have to buy all these different kinds of ammo and keep them stocked, which even after all this beta time, still isn't balanced and ends up far too expensive. Leaving you gimped in combat.

The same can be said of skillpoints. With the tiered class system, skills you have available may become useless later on, so without careful planning you can end up gimping your character, and as far as I can tell there's no respecs in the game, your only option then would be to go back as a clone and try it over.

And lastly, I said the combat is the main feature of the game. It's shallow for the reasons I listed above. Making matters worse is that there's little else to do. Crafting is in, but seems relatively useless, though I understand an overhaul is coming soon to this feature. Also as a game full of ships and vehicles and machines... you're left running around on foot and taking quick teleporters the whole game, even at level 50 when you're the elite of the elite. Vehicles and vehiclular combat can and would add so much more to the dull combat, but who knows if that'll be added ever.

The instances Garriott touts as so revolutionary are cool, and well scripted. But that alone doesn't make me want to pay to play. Which segues into my conclusion...


Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Tabula Rasa is a decent game. I'd even say it's fun, in shorter spurts. But nothing about it feels like it deserves a 15 dollar a month fee. It's all too shallow, and missing the polish that is necessary in the post-WoW days. There are annoyances that would drive me up a wall if I was paying, like the ammo concerns, the tier class-system, and the boring combat. These are things that we as beta tester have been telling the boards for months, but not much has changed in that time, not for the better anyway.

CuppaJo is great and relaying info, and the other NCsoft crew is always polite and on there helping us with problems, but even they can only do so much. What is needed in the beta, and something we haven't had from the start, even in Alpha, has been developer feedback from the folks at Destination Games. Sure Garriott has come on the game and chatted a bit. Recently he even took the time to address some concerns, one of which was that they weren't pushing a release too soon. Then a couple weeks later we have this October 19th date. So now, on top of starting to think Lord Brittish has lost his touch, I'm also starting to think he's a bit full of shite, really.

These are all just opinions, I'm not a professional writer, or a critic. But I simply cannot see myself paying 15 bucks for this game per month. End of story. I'd pay 50 for the box, and then gladly play it like Guild Wars for free when I wanted. Heck, I think I'd even say I'd go so far as to pay for chunks of game time, like 5 bucks for 30 hours or something like that. But it's not the kind of game that draws you in and says to you, "You can't stop playing me until you've done everything you can." In part because after a couple of hours with TR, you feel like you've already seen and done it all. Chalk this one up as being released too early and hope that it doesn't go the way of AA. Because it does have unrealized potential... but then, what game doesn't?


The Lone Egg said...

That sticky targeting is a big turn off. I was watching some small videos and it looked like you had to aim which would have made the game a lot cooler. I wonder if they will take in the criticism and "patch" the game along the way to change it up.

Bildo said...

To put it mildly, LE... they haven't yet. :)

brackishwater said...

""It tries to be strategic as well by letting you hide behind opbects or crouch down behind a box to get cover, bot often this is busted up by the fact that the enemies' weapons seem capable of firing through anything to reach you.""

That sounds like it is definately not working "as intended". This is one of the mechanics that draws me to this game. Damn.

Nice review overall Bildo. As with Tobold though, I wanted to hear a bit more about the instances and if they did make it any better of a game to play. It sounds like they are, but not enough for you to continue playing. That really stinks that the devs aren't really replying to the testers. When you said that you were playing one game last week where this was the case, I was praying it wasn't pirates. But then I didn't think it would have been TR either.

Bildo said...

Yeah, Brack.

It's odd really. I've been in well, in more betas than I can count on my 2 hands, and this was the 1st I can remember where the devs aren't on the boards giving feedback to the players constantly.

All the other betas, they're there, telling us what's going on, what they're doing and what's coming. Telling us what suggestions seem feasible, what don't, what bugs are known, which aren't, what they'd like us to test. Over all, the betas I'm in now are running great in terms of community interaction... except for TR.

There's almost an animosity fueled tone on the boards, players at each other's throats, people complaining about things over and over, asking for clarification but not receiving it, etc.

The NC Community Staff can only do so much with these issues, it's time like those where devs need to step in and they're not. They haven't really, all along. It's always been pretty much just the NCsoft people, with barely a peep from Destination Games.

Bildo said...

Oh, and as an example of a development studio that gets involved and keeps the community informed, look no further than Flying Lab who're making PotBS.

That dev tracker will show you just how often they're out on the boards posting along with jokes and informing the community, and as I understand it, the beta boards are just as full of their chatter.

That's what an MMO company needs to do. They need to be a PART of their community.

Pixie Styx said...

I agree with Bildo on all counts, as well as the community relationship and the devs.

I took a different tact over at strangelands ... and just looked at the innovation with in the game. Which there are a lot ...

Anonymous said...

--They haven't really, all along. It's always been pretty much just the NCsoft people, with barely a peep from Destination Games--

TR was about a way for RG to finance his ride into space. Getting into a Russian space shuttle is his obsession--not making games.

I'd like to know how much this game cost NcSoft to produce..

Gaff said...

I appreciate your candor and the breadth of the review--this is a title I have been watching with some anticipation. Kinda bummed out it won't make it onto my machine unless they do some major detailing.

James said...

A couple of months ago I was ready to declare TR my new mmo, then I actually played it. Sure it was only a beta I played but I think they are releasing about 6 months too soon.

Anonymous said...

I believe that if you do not want to sticky target you do not have to. You can continue to aim and shoot without locking the target. The target sticky lock feature is just for those who need it. In very large engagements, where the bane are everywhere, it can be somewhat helpful to stay on one target instead of 4 or 5.

Anonymous said...

After playing beta, I'm starting to see this game more like an arcade MMO - something like the old "Gauntlet' but moved into 3D space. Run through the traps, blast the aliens, explore and find the prize, blast more aliens, rinse and repeat.

The whole purpose of TR seems to be to 1) take control points to be able to 2) unlock quest areas to be able to 3) obtain logos to be able to 4) use all of your powers (and perhaps others based on logos finds).

It is quiet fast paced and fun, but does seem repetitive with a limited skill set compared to the fantasy MMO genre.

The logos features are pretty cool. I like the sense of exploration and the feeling of discoverying a lost technology build into a space marines game. Its very cool.

The game is pretty good looking, particular interiors like caves.

I agree with the OP blog that a guild wars pricing model might make more sense. But consider the flip side, monthly revenue means that they will ideally continue to develop new planets to war on, potentially even somewhere we can play the bane (ala LOTRO monster play for example) and more.

UO was far from perfect when it launched as an experiment. TR isnt perfect either, but it seems to be the most innovating MMO out there at the moment, and it seems to be a solid foundation to build from. I for one think I will stay tuned into it to see what they build from here. I suspect it will get very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe Richard Garriot and his team consumed several years of development time and resources and Tabula Rasa has no auction system, no ingame mail/mailing of items and no LFG tools.

Seriously a blank slate...