The lovely chaps over at C&VG have placed my Gamer review of Tabula Rasa on an info-podium for the assembled hordes of the electric internet to gawk at. Join them! In it, I find myself surprised to find myself saying things like...
Open betas are awesome things; you get to play a game for free. Open betas are terrible things; the game you get to play may not be awesome, at least yet. When I played the Tabula Rasa beta, I found myself charmed by some of it, but with a mass of worries. Now it's released, it's probably my favourite persistent-world MMO since City of Heroes.
Loads more about Betas, MMOs in 2007 and Tabula Rasa beneath the cut.
As I note in the piece, it's my favourite MMO of the year. Which, of course, isn't saying much. As the seasonal-round-ups creep towards us, the topic "is this the best year ever for games?" has turned up an impressive amount of times, but that general surfeit of excellence doesn't mean that all tastes are equally catered for. The two obvious exceptions are the MMO and the Western RPG, neither who have managed a game which reaches beyond their heartland.
(I liked Lord of the Rings Online, but found it a little uninspired and terribly cynical. While my review isn't online, that people always end up talking about is the music system where you can actually play says a lot. And the trad RPG has managed The Witcher and a decent add-on for NWN2, neither of which are genuine break-out must-haves. Which may be a pity, for fans especially, but doesn't really change that it's true.)
But Tabula Rasa, I like. When I first talked to Garriott about it, I was aware that it certainly had the potential to be interesting. When I played the Beta, like many others, I was worried it was going to be this year's Daikatana (i.e. A game which reduces a once legendary figure reduced to laughing stock, and fuck how important the work they once did was. Us gamers are short-memoried fucks sometimes, y'know.). Worried, but not quite convinced - while nowhere near as revolutionary as it was hyped (I mean, what is?) where it was trying to push was the areas in the MMO which annoy me most.
Mainly, any lack of an attempt to do something with atmosphere. In most MMOs I feel less like a warrior than a literal farmer, cutting down vaguely ambulatory wheat to turn into XP-bread or whatever. Previous favourite City of Heroes, just by having more imaginative idle animations - muggers robbing, villains scheming, whatever - created a sense of place which I love and still love (City of Heroes remains the MMO where I have most fun just moving around). Tabula tried to make a warzone, having friendly and hostile AI at each others throats constantly. Rather than simply spawning, a drop-ship bringing in fresh troops makes it all a little sexier, makes it hold together...
Well, abstractly, anyway. It didn't work in the Beta, and word of mouth was bad. I merely thought it bland, and expected a mark in that 60%y range.
Except, come release, it's actually good. I stopped playing in mid-Beta, but talking to people on Qt3 who were in it even in late Beta are noting how more fun it seems. Bar an increase of polish, the main change is a simple one - they turned the dial way to the right in terms of opponents and rewards. While loot isn't the game's strong point, you get a lot more cash to spend than when I played it. Similarly, there's just many, many more opponents to shoot - and you can deal with them. While most MMOs thing you versus a couple of people sounds about right, in Tabula, you're dealing with mobs single-handedly. Since there seems to be more people you're dealing with, the skill factor ups, and your positioning is essential and so on and so forth. Along with the atmosphere, it actively reminded me of the early days of City of Heroes, when it was more than a little unbalanced - but unbalanced in an amusing way where you could BE a bit of a hero.
I like the PvE. I like the worlds, and how they kind of feel like one if you squint and how you seem to be fighting for something other than just those experience points. I like how the exploration, no matter how artificially set up, works. I think the ethical parables don't really do anything, but I like to see them trying. I like the fact that to shoot a non-automatic weapon, you have to press the mouse button rather than hold it down (Hellgate felt like hoses of death +3, by comparison). I even like dying my armour hot pink.
So I write a positive review. I say I like it.
Who the fuck's going to believe me?
By having an Open Beta, anyone who cares about MMOs will have already played it. And when they compare their experience to a reviewer, they tap the side of the head knowingly. Because they've played it, and it was a bit nob. Look at the comments thread for Eurogamer's positive review for some evidence.
And I don't blame them at all.
They have played it and to overrule their own experiences due to what some English bloke with an ill-advised beard says would be insane. Now, while every developer says that Betas aren't the finished product and shouldn't be judged as such, they've increasingly found themselves used primarily as a marketing tool. And normally, that's fine. Good games get a bit of extra hype. Ones which are in clear trouble have word of mouth give people the nod and everyone backs away, murmuring.
(As an aside, worth noting that it isn't to say that anyone who hates Tabula Rasa is doing so just because the Beta's underwhelming nature. Games rub people up the wrong way. I just mean that there'd be far less of them.)
But Tabula Rasa turned out pretty neat and now it's got a large number of people who've played the game who'll roll their eyes at its existence if mentioned. There's a battle there for the developers (and their marketing bods) and I sincerely hope they manage to pull it off. In a best case scenario, there'll be a proper free-trial in the relatively near future, and people who were turned away from the Beta will notice there's a surprising number of people like yours truly claiming that - hey! - it's cute, and decide to give it a second shot. But the worst case? A decent game just fails, primarily due to an ill-chosen Beta test.
In which case, Tabula Rasa becomes a cautionary tale, but not for the reason people were expecting.