Seven Levels of Tabula Rasa

What’s the first thing humanity should be sure to protect in the event of alien invasion? Its brightest minds? Its strongest labourers? Its finest art? A lock of Elvis’ hair? Wrong, wrongity wrong. It’s Dell PCs, of course!

Tabula Rasa’s bloody full of them. Everything else is as alien as can be, but high performance Dell XPS gaming systems are everywhere. The implication is that Dell will save humanity. So I suppose I’d better go and buy one. Otherwise aliens will get me. I don’t object to in-game advertising that strongly so long as it’s subtle, but this is out-and-out ridiculous.

Anyway, Tabula Rasa. What follows is fairly stream of consciousness initial thoughts, so if you’re a Tabula Rasa player and read something in it you think is wrong and stupid, go ahead and say so, but please bear in mind I’m basing this solely on what I’ve actually experienced in the game itself over the last four or five hours.

It’s an MMO I’ve been getting mixed messages about. Most agree it doesn’t live up to all of Richard Garriot’s fancy talk over the last couple of years, but while some proclaim its relative lameness, the more general sense is quite-good-actually. This latter camp includes RPS’ own Kieran Gillian – but he’s a big fan of Guild Wars, a game which I always come away from with the odd sense that someone’s just sucked all the personality right out of me via my eyeballs, so he’s rarely my MMO food-taster of choice.

This is me, with a look I call Porno Mario.

I’ve spent too much of today playing TR, and, oopsie, I’m having fun. Which is exactly what I don’t need, as now I have to agree with Kieron about something, dammit. More significantly, it’s woken up the part of me that’s hungry to spend all its time in a virtual world. It’s been quietly dormant since I finally killed my WoW habit back in Spring, and now it’s bloody ravenous. TR seems like an ideal meal for it, as there’s a frankly ludicrous amount of Obsessive Compulsive itches to scratch in it. All at once, my mind’s thinking about the next gun, the next hat, the next skill, the next logos, the next level, the next colour I’m going to paint my next hat… Ah, short-term personal goals. What a wonderful way to convince myself I’m achieving something. TR seems to have nailed the mystical science that makes following signposts and waiting for numbers to change feel like I’m doing something meaningful.

Immediate thoughts on it, which I suspect will turn out to be waaaay wrong, are that it’s Star Wars: Galaxies, but with the Blizzardian accessibility that so sorely lacked. I mean, of course, original Star Wars Galaxies, not the ill-advised reboot a while back. It’s the same sort of strangely characterless sci-fi – avatars and beasts that don’t seem to have a signature look but just about pull-off an adequate, all-purpose Lasers’n’Aliens’n’Shit aesthetic. If I saw a screenshot of Man With Gun, I wouldn’t think “Ooh, that’s Tabula Rasa”, and I felt the same for most of Galaxies populace, save for the obvious stormtroopers, wookies and suchlike. And it seems to have the branching skill trees – rather than pick a class, you focus your skills in the direction you think you want to head, and at certain points you’re given the option to specialise. At a mere level 7 so far, this has happened to me once as yet – I’m now a Soldier, and I can Rage at things. I can kill monsters with my anger.

Actually, I quite like the friendly aliens. They’re amusingly goon-faced. But blantantly based on fricking elves.

Minor quibble: despite the game having presented me with rather a lot of text by this point, it didn’t bother to tell me anything about what being a Soldier (or the alternative option, Specialist) really involved until after I’d already chosen what to be. This annoyed me. I could have asked someone or looked at a wiki or something, but I shouldn’t have to – I’m barely out of the tutorial by this point, and it felt like it was a pretty important decision. I only chose Soldier in the end because the scant amount of information the game did tell me revealed that I’d then be able to use a big old chaingun I’d picked up a while ago ( and which had, until now, sported a big no-no tooltip). This could all be irrelevant in long-term practice, and there’s something to do with cloning I don’t understand yet, which may prevent me from painting myself into a stinky corner. And it did turn out to be a pretty cool gun.

Ah yes, the guns. I do enjoy the guns. I’m irrationally irritated by having to go and buy ammo all the time, but the quasi-real-time shooting is a wondrous relief after all that Warcraft, City of Heroes etc number button punching. I haven’t quite worked out the science of mouse-aiming yet (I’m still, essentially, fooling around in TR) – I don’t think it makes much of a difference once you’ve selected a target, but I can’t help but doggedly track the cursor over my foes and perform a little strafing dance. It makes me feel actively involved, rather than aware of the invisible techno-dice being rolled behind the scenes.

I share Yahtzee’s annoyance that the outfit I spent bloody ages carefully colour-coordinating in the character creation tool is rendered academic come your first armour pick-up.

Also, the guns feel meaty. Clearly the low-level stuff I’m using isn’t kicking out much damage in the grand scheme of things, but they look pretty sizeable and they kill giant, hulking aliens in just a few shots. Which is where any comparison to Galaxies breaks. I spent my first few hours in that being murdered by butterflies and hitting mounds of earth with a stick, while epic Star Wars music boomed inappropriately and patronisingly in the background. Here, I’m up against something that’s satisfying to kill right from the off. That said, it’s a mite eyebrow-raising that crappy tree lizard things, which are only neck-high to me, seem to be just as strong as these bear-sized, heavily-armoured alien laserfiends.

The main thing that’s bothering is me is that I don’t, yet, give a hoot about whatever world I’m in. It’s human survivors on a planet full of aliens both friendly and hostile, but I haven’t been shown or told anything to give me much more sense of what’s going on than that. I’m quite sure there’s pages and pages of supporting fiction, in and out of the game, but crucially there hasn’t been anything to make me even want to find out more yet. Have gun, will kill aliens. That’s the only narrative level I’ve even wanted to engage with Tabula Rasa on. It’s fairly characterless, both visually and in its attempted lore, and that’s the factor most likely to ensure I’m not in this for the long-haul. However clever its mechanics might be, I have to specifically want to be in an MMO’s particular world to stay with it for a long time. For now though, I’m quite happy with levelling and the shooting and the collecting.

Familiar but different. That’s what I’ve been looking for from an MMO. Much as I might preach about this generation of online worlds needing to push things forward, players impacting the world meaningfully and that sort of thing, I’m still a sucker for the easy, traditional MMO mechanics when they’re presented with cheer and vigour. It’s a pleasant way of passing time I’d otherwise spend worrying about something, or idly clicking refresh on my RSS feeds. Tabula Rasa’s got happy level’n’collect tradition in spades, but the emphasis on ranged combat (with backup magic) and no fricking elves means I don’t suffer the sense of crushing over-familiarity I did from something like Lord of the Rings Online. I really don’t have the time to play more Tabula Rasa. But I’m sure as hell going to.


  1. terry says:

    So there is no precasting?

  2. Max says:

    Didn’t F.E.A.R.’s first expansion have XPS units in it too?

    And F.E.A.R. itself had Alienware laptops I think. Makes me shudder when they do that kind of crap. :/

  3. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Why the Guild Wars hate? If there’s any game that tried to break out of the MMO rut, it’s that game.

  4. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    Hmmmm – I felt exactly like you (going on one of your articles earlier in the year about going back to WoW) about Warcraft and in fact quit at around the same time, but TR is the first game to get that tingling MMO feeling crawling up my back again, just from the positive criticism KG gave it. This has got me even more tempted to try it out. No chance of me getting all my mates from WoW over though, they’re all still hooked, so I’ll probably get lonely and upset and cry a lot. I think I will definitely give this a go next month.

  5. Kast says:

    At least FEAR is present day (OK, near-future) and so current brands are not too jarring. And as I recall FEAR does not make mention of specific models.

    TR clearly labelling computers with current model names and texturing them with instantly recognisable designs… it simply doesn’t fit in any way with the rest of TR’s world or thematic design respecitively.

  6. Brant says:

    Did the people who made the final decision to put Dell products into TR really think its players would be stupid enough not to find them insulting? Seriously. It just doesn’t work.

  7. Alec Meer says:

    Broken – I have the greatest respect for what GW does, I just personally don’t get on with how it does it.

  8. lowmagnet says:

    Actually, the date of Tabula Rasa is “tomorrow” as in aliens attack now and it’s only by the grace of the Elohim technology that we survive and leave Earth.

    Still doesn’t explain how the Cormans, who left Earth 15 years earlier or so have the same Dell XPS systems.

    I liked the beta, and I’m waiting about two months before starting on the retail version. I want them to get a few more patches so my usually god-like system won’t be so dog slow.

  9. Roger says:

    I rather like the Dell branding, myself. Consider, there’re no more manufacturers of computers, the Earth’s been taken over. What’s an organisation to do? Scoop up all the most powerful computers they can easily lay their hands on, of course! Granted, XPS systems aren’t the be-all and end-all of high-end computing systems, but they are relatively plentiful.

    That’s just MO though, YMMV.

  10. Kitty says:

    In some of the mission dialogs, the Cormans complain about still having the Apple ][s they left earth with them. Which is pretty funny.

    New patch tormorrow (29th) which looks to be a good one.

  11. Chris R says:

    Back to Terry’s question…… Pre-casting… Yes, No?

    PS. I hate pre-casting!!!

  12. Allen Varney says:

    Is it some ironic in-joke or running gag that you misspelled Kieron Gillan’s names?

  13. Kieron Gillen says:

    Half right. It’s ironic, but “joke” is stretching it.

    The gag is that everyone always spells my name wrong.


  14. Andrew Doull says:

    idly clicking refresh on my RSS feeds

    Start using Google Reader. Fixed that problem for me.

  15. Hump says:

    yup, FEAR had them on nearly every desk. Alienware laptops as well.

  16. Alec Meer says:

    (Plus Gillen often calls me Alex, despite knowing me for seven years)

  17. Richard says:

    Actually, the date of Tabula Rasa is “tomorrow” as in aliens attack now and it’s only by the grace of the Elohim technology that we survive and leave Earth.

    In theory, but the tech as it appears in the game is way too high-level and developed for that. As I said when I wrote up my experiences, it’s a bit too familiar to be alien, too alien to be familiar. I’d rather have seen Stargate SG-1 style tech than rocket-launchers and cloak suits, at least initially. It’s plain bizarre how everyone’s so well kitted out, despite the average base looking like a sci-fi version of MASH*.

    (* Hell, they’ve got Radar…)

    Stargate had shameless Dell XPS product placement too. Sam Carter, with spaceships and crystal computers and interplanetary alliances and all the power of the galaxy… still lugged around an incredibly expensive, breakable gaming system wherever she went.

    Still doesn’t explain how the Cormans, who left Earth 15 years earlier or so have the same Dell XPS systems.

    Clearly, they upgraded.

  18. Ging says:

    My dabble in the TR beta left me wanting more – but I just can’t bring myself to actually go back and lose myself in it (as I fear I will), I struggle enough to pay rent and buy food as it is… Introducing something where I could spend hours doing mindless tasks that are coated in a thin veneer of entertainment might actually cause me to become homeless and die of starvation…

    That would, I think, be bad.

  19. po says:

    F.E.A.R. should have HL2:EP2 like achievements for destroying every Dell in the game.

  20. Cruz says:

    Alec stream-of-conciousness writings ftw.

    Regarding the lore in the game, at the moment I’m dabbling in Guild Wars, despite not being particularly fond of the game mechanics, simply because of the lore. Sure, Ruric is a nub Leeroy type, but I do wish to find out how near death he’ll get to next. You are totally right about the TR story (if you could call it that). I have no sense of place, and not a glimmer of expectation of what lies beyond the first area or planet.

  21. Piratepete says:

    I think there is an undercurrent developing in every set of comments in this blog I have read regarding MMO’s. There are those who embrace a new MMO, but equally, there seems to be a number of people who either say;

    “Well I would like to play but I don’t have the time due to work/wife/commitments etc”


    “I don’t want to play it because I would lose myself in it like Wow/EVE etc”

    or a combination of both.

    Do you think that due to the way MMO’s are constructed that if you lose yourself in one you realise how addictive they are, and in my case potentially damaging to real life, and that turns you off joining another one. Or would you gladly lose yourself in them given the time/resources/divorce required? Or is it purely that most gamers want to be the best at something and have now realised that to do that in a MMO and get the achievements first does not actually require skill but purely time commitment, and the right players arund you?

    Would you agree that there may be an MMO backlash at some point amongst gamers?

  22. Mr Pink says:

    I think that’s a really good point Pete. As a recovered WoW addict I read about new MMOs and often feel drawn to try them out. I’ve also managed to get offers places on a couple of betas recently, which I applied for whilst still in the grips of the MMO obsession, but have had to resist the lure. The thing is, I know that if I start playing I will really enjoy it, and that will mean I am drawn to play it a lot. But the crucial difference between an MMO, and say something like TF2 (my current addiction) is that the time demands aren’t the same. When I leave a game of TF2 I don’t feel like I’m missing anything, like the world is getting on without me. And if I don’t play TF2 for a few days I don’t worry about how far ahead of me my friends are.

    Basically, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play another MMO because the time demands would have severe repercussions on the rest of my life. Whether this is something that other gamers feel, I don’t know.

  23. Leo says:


    The more you move as you shoot, the less damage you do!

    That is only true of guns where you need to aim, and not guns like the shotgun. And possibly the chaingun, I dunno – I went specialist. Because mummy always told me I was special.

  24. Kieron Gillen says:

    Pete: I agree, in short. I thought it was happening this year, but I suspect it may just be the leading edge.


  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    Leo: Kneel when you’re in the right position, clearly, gut with a shotgun, getting as close as possible is the best way to do damage.


  26. Piratepete says:

    TO expand slightly on my point, at the position I am in now I wouldn’t recommend anyone take up Wow heavily, and if my daughter wants to get into MMO’s when shes older then I would definitely think twice about letting her do that. However what I would really like to know is if Blizzard built that level of addiction (or the mechanics to create that level of addition) into their game, or if it has taken them by surprise. Would I be cynical if I said I thought it was designed in in purpose.

    I should also state that I played a feral Druid, making the time to get any decent kit exponentially longer than all other classes (up to BC)

  27. Zell says:

    There’s a fine line between ‘addicting’ and ‘bloody fun’ and I don’t think it’s Blizzard’s responsibility to walk it. Even if it were, I think they come down on the right side; people play WoW because they want to impress their friends, not because the world’s designed in an especially addictive way.

    Now, remember the old DIKU text MUDs? There, you had to pay a maintenance fee to just keep your gear persistently, so if you didn’t log in for a while you lost your stuff. THAT’s addicting.

  28. Guido says:

    Nice post :) Just two things…

    * Strafe-dancing: Yep, the more stationary you are, the more damage you do – your targeting reticle has those three dot-like things around it, those move in when you stand still (or crouch), the further in they are the more damage you do, and you get a bonus for crouching. Nevertheless, positioning is important, as both you and the aliens can take cover and will take less damage then.

    * Addiction (a thing that came up in the comments) – I was addicted to WoW, and spent way too much time there, but TR (at least so far) feels entirely different. Remember how WoW was while you levelled? It’s quite similar, only there’s no rush at all to get to the endgame simply because there isn’t very much “endgame” yet anyway. So you can easily take your time, and log in and out whenever you want. And friends getting ahead of you might happen, so far our guild’s coherence really wasn’t hurt by that yet though.

    Just random thoughts :)

  29. Guido says:

    Oh, and something I want to mention that TR really doesn’t advertise, an awesome feature really: Instances scale. So while it might pose some challenge to a full group of 6 people one level, when you go in 1-2 levels later on your own you’ll meet way less monsters and be able to solo the instance. That of course (together with the fact that there’s no special loot tables for bosses, and thus instances aren’t a means of grinding gear but actual story elements mainly) adds to the flexibility.

    And groups of 3-4 are way more fun for instances anyway.

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