Since my last look at Richard Garriot's Tabula Rasa, the Studio Visit and Hands On in June, I've been playing Tabula Rasa and watching the changes as we get closer to release. This Sci-fi MMO by NCSoft displays a ton of innovation, from premise to gameplay - but does it have the "addiction" factor to keep players involved?
Classes and Crafting
In Tabula Rasa, all players start as "recruits." At level 5 you choose whether to follow the Soldier or the Specialist branch - Soldiers are damage dealers and tanks, while Specialists stick to support roles. From there you can further specialize as a Commando, Ranger, Sapper, Biotechnician, and more - see the full list here.
Sticking with my long standing tradition of playing the healer-role, I went with a Specialist class. While I never actually grouped with other players, having healing and armor repair tools at my disposal was priceless - not to mention the use of Cipher Tools, to unlock crates in the field for free loot. In fact, I'd say that the specialist perks far outweigh the soldier in day to day solo play. I could run just about anywhere by spamming myself with the heal tool - unbalanced, much?
That being said, I've seen a lot of positive balance changes made to the game lately. For example, when I started my first character, I was barely able to afford ammo for the first 8 levels or so. After that, the costs became trivial - I paid no attention to how much ammo I used, and I only cared how much I could carry! Recent changes have added more Credit (TR's currency) rewards to earlier missions, allowing lower level players to comfortably (but not excessively) buy ammo. And as you level up and obtain better weapons they require better ammo, which is more expensive. This scales the money sink more appropriately up the levels!
They've also revamped the skill system so that players can't max out Firearms and Lightning right out of the gate - that was just too easy. As I level up, I have to think about what skills I am buying! Luckily though, these decisions are not as locked-in as they are in most MMOs. Every time you reach a class change level, you are allowed to create one "clone" of your character - an exact copy of your current character (minus gear) including flags, missions completed, skills, and levels. Let's say I wanted to try out the Grenadier and the Guardian - instead of leveling up two Commandos, I could clone my Commando before the class change and make a Grenadier and a Guardian at once!
On the non-combat side of things, I also got to check out the TR crafting system. As innovative as combat is, crafting is fairly dull and standard. You obtain recipes either by buying them or getting them as drops off of Bane. Using a crafting station, you combine materials (crafted, bought, or dropped) with a single click, into the item of your choice. There are upgrade recipes that are somewhat interesting, but overall it's not the game's focus.
Back to the positives! One of my favorite things about TR is the fast paced gameplay, and the fact that I actually observe the game. In too many MMOs I feel like I'm bogged down by UIs and hotkeys. In Tabula Rasa I have time to watch the game and the environment. This also works into TR's system of using the environment for gameplay - for example you can crouch behind sandbags or ditches for damage-reducing cover.
TR combat is a sort of mix between traditional MMO and FPS. Players don't exactly have to aim - the targeting reticule is sticky, and can be locked onto a target as long as you keep them in your forward line of sight. There's a lot of fast paced action though: movement, shooting, and killing, and how can that not be fun? I had a lot of fun in TR just going out to a field of Bane and killing them dead. This is actually encouraged, to an effect, by the kill multiplier: the more enemies you kill without stopping to rest, the higher your EXP modifier will go, multiplying your experience gain up to 6x normal!
One of my worries at the start of beta was that this fast pace took me out of the story - I didn't have time to stop and read mission text. Fortunately, one of the newer updates to Tabula Rasa introduced voiceovers to missions, allowing players to progress quickly (and have some idea of what they are doing!).
The text itself is also well worth slowing down for and reading when you have the time. I love fantasy games, but too many MMO titles have the same worn out tone - TR's NPCs bring fresh, funny and realistic dialogue into the MMO scenery. For example, one particularly funny quote I found was Recon. Spec. Ryans' explanation of the Cormans, a common friendly NPC: "Cormans are hippie peacenik types from Earth. Got here long before we did, but don't ask me how. Still haven't figured that out. They won't fight or nothing. Just talk about peace and ***."
On a less satisfied note, not all of the voiceovers are well done. One of the things that has continually irked me are the Logos voices - one of the goals of TR is to travel the world in search of Logos. Logos allow players to access new areas, skills, and more. Each time I collect a new Logos, there's a voiceover that is supposed to "match" the Logos I am collecting. For example, the Attack Logos says, "The Thrax used our powers to attack us." All of these voiceovers are kind of creepy, and completely useless so far as I can tell.
And of course, how can I not talk about control points? One of the fun PvE opportunities in Tabula Rasa are the control points: almost all bases can be taken over either by the AFS (good guys) or the Bane (bad guys). When you arrive at a base you never know if it's safely in AFS control, under heavy Bane siege, or even in Bane control! It's a real pity that they didn't use this for PvP at launch, though it shows a lot of promise for future expansions.
One of my longtime worries with TR was that, while the game is fun while I'm playing it, there's nothing that makes me really want to log on. For lack of a better term, there's no "addiction" factor - it's a lot like a flash puzzle game that you play once or twice, but don't make a daily habit of visiting. One recent addition that gives some incentive are the Target of Opportunity quests. For each area, there's an overarching quest that tracks your progress in that particular zone. For example, my Wilderness Targets of Opportunity quest required I obtain all waypoints in Wilderness, complete all storyline quests, kill 200 Thrax Soldiers, kill all 6 of the unique Thrax Officers in the area, etc. I am not sure what the rewards are to finishing these quests, since I didn't complete one, but the curiosity is eating me alive and inviting me to play some more TR!
The downside to the Targets of Opportunity quests is what I'm affectionately calling the Quest Lag Bug: every time I obtain, complete, or progress a quest, I get a moment of lag. Since every Thrax I kill progresses one, maybe two quests, this adds up into quite a lot of frustration.
Overall, I would say that TR is a fun game - fun, innovative, but not very immersive. If you're looking for a Sci-Fi title I'd say it's worth the purchase; if you're happily settled in a different virtual world, it might not be worth moving over - yet.