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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa

Posted by UnSub Monday March 10 2008 at 12:19AM
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In all reality, I hadn't planned until playing RG's Tabula Rasa until much further down the track - there were other MMOs I was going to try before coming back to one that had only a 3 day trial available for it. But then more information crept out about TR, the availability of the trial accounts became limited to friend invites only and I thought I should probably give it a go now... just in case the situation changes.

Not that I think NCsoft is going to cancel TR within the next twelve months. They won't, because they've invested too much money into what is (to date) the biggest flop in the history of the MMO genre. To recap: an all-star gaming development team, led by gaming industry legend Richard Garriott, takes a lot of money (given that Robert Garriott was head of NCsoft in North America, it probably wasn't hard getting those cheques signed), restarts development at least once in the life of the project, promises involving gameplay where player decisions are important and positions itself as a next generation MMO.

What launches as TR fails to attract player attention, causes Richard Garriott to plan an escape route into outer space, leaves the awesomely-named Starr Long promising the world that Yes Virginia, There IS a future for Tabula Rasa!, allegedly cost at least the same amount as World of Warcraft (i.e. in the US $50 m to US $60 m range, but definitely less than US $100 mi) and has resulted in NCsoft apparently quietly cancelling its involvement in a number of other MMO projects (e.g. Spacetime Studios' Blackstar was likely a more public example of this cost trimming in action). Was what launched really so bad?

Having trialed TR in a limited capacity for 3 days, I can say that no, as a game it hits all the genre notes for a MMO. It actually does some things very well - the 'living world', where plants regrow and animals / enemies move about, is an excellent step forwards - but at the end of the day, there is nothing that makes me want to go back to play TR. TR suffers from a lack of 'stickiness' that would keep me playing. But I'm ahead of myself a bit.

My actual play experience was a touch limited in that I lost an entire third of it to downloading, patching and then fixing a corrupted file. I'd tried to provide myself enough time to download the TR client and play in the same session, but the extra patching and an extra hour (at least) required to download another 750 MB due to some file corrupting or not being installed correctly cost me any gaming time I would have had that night.

When I actually started playing, I found TR to hav a pretty ordinary character creation system - none of the body models grabbed me at all and I found the colour system to be a bit user-unfriendly. Ultimately I made a character who was "good enough" and launched. Graphics and visuals in TR were nice and the voice acting was fine (if somewhat limited to only the first paragraph of those statements that have voice acting, which was a little weird to have at all if that was the case). Once I got the hang of the map, UI and radar, things were relatively easy. A really nice touch was the animation for using certain access points - the 'blue lines swinging around' (best way I can describe it) looked very good. Another feature I liked a lot was the bonus XP signals for when you were on a rampage of slaughter.

However, even from the first few seconds of logging in, it felt like a game I'd played before. This isn't a good thing. TR was every third-person action adventure game I'd ever played, just more limited and bringing nothing new that I could see. Run along, shoot the monsters, run along, shoot the monsters... yeah, I've done this before. Getting quests off characters with yellow mobile phones over their heads was slightly different for a third person action adventure, but I noted with irony that it didn't appear that I could call them on the phone and have them courier my rewards out to me - every time I had to run back to see them.

Other things raised question marks. Getting schematics I had no idea what to do with just confused me. The drops that were meant to serve as crafting resources had me spending time looking at them, trying to wonder how they worked. I'm sure a quick read somewhere could have informed me, but since I didn't see it appear in the tutorial, I didn't go looking for it. The information about the items carried in your backpack was quite limited, even in the mouseover text.

When I found the first store in the tutorial zone, it also took me some time to work out what each item did and what ammo I needed to buy... and here's where I rant:

What kind of Objectivist, Ayn Rand-inspired universe forces soldiers to BUY the weapons and ammo that they take into battle? Did Andrew Ryan's dream survive from Rapture and now we are seeing where humanity went to from there? Sure, you could make a "US soldier in Iraq" joke about having to buy your own armour, but at least the US Army provided the basics, like ammunition. In the TR universe, they apparently expect soliders who risk their lives defending the slim remainder of humanity against an alien opposition who wants us extinct to also pay for every bullet they use. The hell? It's ridiculous for TR to even try to have an in-game, working economy that relies on currency. I could accept a barter economy - the armourers require resources with which to make armour and soldiers provide those resources - but a cash economy is an internal inconsistency that I couldn't get my head around.

/end rant

My trial period was spent running around, doing quests and exploring. TR looks good and it's instancing was seamless, but it all felt pretty hollow to me. As I said before, there was nothing to grab me.

What went wrong? In many respects, I think the control scheme works against the atmosphere of TR. For the way it handles, I feel that TR should actually be a much faster paced game. Maybe not high level FPS fast, but faster than it moves now. I understand that earlier versions of TR let you kill aliens more quickly, which probably would have made things a bit more exciting. As it stands, being a slower version of an FPS combat system (even with to-hit rolls done quietly on the server) means that combat can feel quite flat and gets repetitive quickly.

I admire what TR tried to do and it feels like its almost there. But at the same time, there's a lack of substance to it, a lack of synergy that would make the game feel fun and involving. Given that I would like to see NCsoft keep moving forward and supporting MMO development in new areas, I hope that TR finds its feet and starts to move forward. However, since TR is apparently lacking the nebulous 'It' factor that separates games from being just okay and being great, I don't know how they are going to do it.