When Richard Garriott (now called "General British") and his cohorts at Destination Games started Tabula Rasa, they probably never anticipated wiping the slate clean on their own game more than once in order to get it right. Although the release of this epic MMO is a few years later than expected, they indeed got it right.
Tabula Rasa takes place after a surprise attack on Earth by the Bane—a race of brutal xenophobic aliens—that annihilates most of the planet's population. At Earth's darkest hour, an alien technology was discovered, allowing many to escape through wormholes to a handful of alien planets—worlds filled with other beings willing to fight back. Thus, the Army of the Allied Free Sentients (AFS) was formed. But it was more than luck that saved humanity. For centuries, an altruistic race of aliens called the Eloh had visited Earth (among other planets), leaving behind gifts for the inhabitants to uncover. One such gift was the wormhole technology; another was Logos—a mystical power capable of manipulating matter and energy. The Logos language, created entirely from scratch by Garriott, has a profound role in the game.
In Tabula Rasa, players become a Logos empowered soldier in the AFS. Creating a character involves going through the standard procedures of choosing the initial look (gender, face, etc.), but don't worry about it too much, as collected equipment and armor quickly change your appearance.
Recruits at Tier 1, the grunts, possess non-specific combat functions. Players gain experience by completing missions available from non-player characters scattered across the various worlds. Missions are subject to the ever-changing tide of battle. Some may have multiple means of completion, while others present players with ethical and moral dilemmas. Choices made will create a reputation and affect how certain NPCs and factions treat a player's character. Player's gain experience, level up and earn points to allocate between their attributes (Body, Mind Spirit) and chosen military skills (Shrapnel, Machine Gun, Reflective Armor, Tools, Decay, etc.). A unique Character Cloning System lets players clone their character at any time (as long as they have a clone credit earned during play). This is extremely handy for those who want to explore different classes without leveling up a new character every time.
At Tier 2, players pick their career path. Soldiers (Combat Arms) are the primary damage dealers, while Specialists (Combat Support) use radius-based skills to help teammates. Every class has its own specific Logos powers suited to a specific role. Tier 3 allows players to become more focused. Sappers (requires being a Specialist) are experts at robotic engineering and hacking computers. Biotechs (Specialist) use their knowledge of Logos and manipulating biology to heal teammates, poison enemies or create psychic phenomena. A Commando (requires being a Soldier) dishes out the most firepower and absorbs the most damage, while Rangers (Soldier) focus on stealth and long-range fighting. Tier 4 selections allow for even greater specializations (Demolitionists, Engineer, Exobiologist, Grenadier, Guardian, Medic, Sniper and Spy). Since each role does something completely different ,TR offers a great deal of replay-ability.
As you explore the vast game world you'll encounter creatures fighting each other because they are natural enemies. TR's constant state of flux, attention to detail, and dynamic combat creates a living, breathing world. Exploring goes hand in hand with hunting for Logos symbols (a few thousand currently exist, with more on the way). Some symbols can be found in the open, others deep inside caves, while some reside within enemy bases. Logos powers can be general (i.e., lighting or sprint) or class specific (call up reinforcements, degrade armor or cast a variety of poisons). Often a player must possess a combination of symbols in order to unlock doors (called Logos Gates) or special abilities (i.e., using "Reinforcement" requires the symbols for "Summon," "Friend" and "Here"). Teammates can even combine abilities. For example, one player can use "Rage" to deal double damage while another lowers an attacker's armor, creating four times the normal damage. Symbols appear on a player's tablet (blank slate) and gamers can view them any time. Why? TR's history has been ingeniously etched into the very environment itself. As players collect the symbols a pictographic language forms that they can use to decipher these hieroglyphics.
Combat occurs in real time and mixes aspects of first person shooters with role-playing elements. Fortunately, TR features a sticky targeting reticule that doesn't require pinpoint accuracy. Behind the scenes "dice rolling" determines damage based on real-time factors like the type of weapon, ammo, stance, cover and movement. No other MMO does this. Furthermore, extended bouts of combat grant XP bonuses and boosts experience as much as six times. But it won't be as easy. The enemy artificial intelligence takes full advantage of the terrain, attempts to outflank and outmaneuver you, and use its superior numbers to its advantage.
A weapon is a soldier's best friend, and always being locked and loaded is Rule #1. There are hundreds of different weapons to fit all styles of play, ranging from melee staffs and blades to EMP (electromagnetic pulse) guns, lasers, net projectors, propellant guns (flamethrower, cryogenic and virulent), polarity guns and leech guns (which damages a target's health while simultaneously restoring your health). Each one takes a specific type of ammunition, which isn't cheap—so use it sparingly.
One "small" thing: every item degrades with use over time. Use a shotgun too much and it can overheat or jam. Get into a protracted firefight without taking cover and your armor will become damaged. Each item has its own attributes, strengths and weaknesses (some armor regenerates at a faster rate or resists physical attacks better then others). Fortunately, gamers can repair items and upgrade them (for a fee) by visiting the shops located within AFS bases (which are always buzzing with activity and come with some hilarious loudspeaker announcements).
Each enemy killed drops salvage used in crafting items. Some pieces may be worthless while others can be combined (or are required in a recipe) to build upgrades, enhancements and other goodies. If you can't find an ingredient it can be bought from a Supply Sergeant at the crafting stations. Additionally, some of the most powerful in-game items have a Logos requirement. While the Logos won't be built-in, gamers will need it to complete the recipe.
Battlefield control points are always being fought over. You may log in and find one manned by AFS forces, granting full access to a respawn hospital, teleporter, shops, base defenses and mission-dolling NPCs. The next time you log in that very same CP may be in the hands of the Bane and completely inaccessible. Players can assist NPC troops in defending and taking back these bases. All combined, it really feels as though gamers take part in an intergalactic fight for survival.
Two modes of Player versus Player (PvP) exist. "Wargames" are consensual on-the-spot battles between individuals or squads that last until someone is victorious – or someone gives up. A "Clan War" must also be agreed upon, but this mode lasts a full seven days and includes every member of a clan (aka guild). In order for players to activate this mode, a clan must declare war and the Clan Leader must accept the challenge. A clan can be at war with multiple clans as well. Soldiers who participate (and win) earn bragging rights and get listed on the ladder boards at RGTR.com. The game comes with an integrated voice chat system that only works if you're on a team, and is very useful for these larger scale battles.
TR's visuals look breathtaking. Spot on audio both in terms of sound effects and voice over acting enhances the experience. When players enter a new region they view an excellent cut scene telling them about the area. The various worlds have unique terrain to traverse, which at times affects how a mission plays out. Overall, the game world feels very alive.
But not everything is spit polished as a pair of soldier's boots at inspection. Some missions never tell you where to go to claim your reward, so it sits in your queue taking up space (only 20 missions can be taken at one time) until you accidentally stumble on the NPC who gave it to you, or you abandon it. The world map displays everything a solider needs, but it doesn't include a self-marking waypoint feature. Mission arcs are great fun, but some are too vague. For instance, one mission tasked us with hunting down a traitor. Good stuff, but the only clue is: "Find the wandering traitor between Base X and Base Y." Vague, but not impossible. That is until you discover at least five other traitors that match the description, but aren't your guy. We gave up and never found our Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the end, this is a remarkably deep MMO that isn't overly complicated. Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa is fun to play, has stunning graphics and doesn't take place in yet another tiresome fantasy fairyland. What's more, we've been privy to some of the things they're working on post-launch, and they're not resting on their laurels. It may have taken a while to complete, but as the old proverb goes: "Good things come to those who wait."