In an effort to break the stranglehold that World of Warcraft -- 9 million paying subscribers and rising -- has on the massively multiplayer online game market, MMO pioneer NCsoft is going for broke with new sci-fi title Tabula Rasa.
In a recent speech, NCsoft's Richard Garriott said, "Tabula Rasa means Blank Slate. It was actually meant to be the working title, because we were starting from scratch to innovate in as many areas of game design as possible." Crave checked out the game's closed beta last night and was seriously impressed.
The obvious implications of a military sci-fi setting aside -- guns rather than swords, aliens rather than orcs -- this is a very different approach to the genre. Most significantly, there are no classes as such. As you level up, you choose a path. Each branch has two choices, so from Recruit you can choose Soldier or Specialist, from Soldier you can choose Ranger or Commando and so on. At each branch, you can 'clone' your character, so -- wonderfully -- you can go back and make a different choice later instead of creating a new character and starting all over again.
Quests too are sharply different from those in existing MMOs. Tabula Rasa has an ethical dimension. For instance, a shady chap offered us the chance to deliver drugs to various people in the vicinity with a significant cash reward. We could have turned him in to the local military commander, which would have started a new quest, but we needed the money. It's not hurting anyone, right? If you've played BioWare's masterful Knights of the Old Republic, you'll recognise the mechanic.
Tabula Rasa is set on a single planet -- others will become available as expansions and updates -- in the middle of an intergalactic war. Humans (that's you) have teamed up with the local people to fight the Bane, a race of warlike insectoids. Wandering around the map, Bane dropships plant baddies -- avoiding contrived respawns -- which can attempt to take over human bases. If they succeed, that base stops functioning -- shops close, quest-givers and hospitals disappear -- until it's retaken. This is a vital part of TR's approach to co-operative multiplayer and reveals a complex enemy AI.
Tabula Rasa is shaping up to be very impressive indeed. It's possible, of course, that some of this innovation is for the sake of being different and may eventually detract from the fun of playing online, but we have to say it's currently showing a great deal of potential. CNET.co.uk's sister site GameSpot has more detailed previews here, and you can sign up for the beta at the official site. It's set for full release in October. -Nick Hide