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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.

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About the Author
Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.