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Tabula Rasa, clean slate; it was supposed to be a new beginning, both for the man behind Ultima, Richard Garriott, and for the Massive Multiplayer Online genre he had, with Ultima Online, helped create. Garriott belived Tabula Rasa was a game that could push the MMO beyond the concepts and mechanisms pioneered in UO and EverQuest. He promised a more dynamic world of rich storylines and real moral choices; a world that would show the same depth of character and attention to detail he had ploughed into Ultima through the years. It's taken him and the team at Destination Games over six years to bring that vision to life. Is it everything we (and he) might have hoped for?
Well, Tabula Rasa certainly isn't your average MMO. The easiest way to describe it is that it's the closest we've come to a massive multiplayer version of Halo, taking as much from offline 3D shooters as it does from online RPGs. As with Halo, it centres on a grand conflict between humanity and a conquering alien force known only as The Bane. At the opening, it's explained that The Bane have wiped out Earth and most of humanity. Luckily, more generous alien powers have been at work for centuries, hiding extra-terrestrial technology and giving humanity the chance to fight back on distant worlds in distant galaxies. The player is a raw recruit in this sci-fi war, but one with an added strength. Thanks to alien tampering generations ago, the player is a receptive - able to find and then wield strange powers through the discovery of alien lore, or logos. Build your fighting capabilities and gather all the logos you can find, and you might just play a decisive role in the ongoing battle for humanity's survival.
And the battle is the thing here, because Tabula Rasa employs a real-time 3D combat system that owes as much to FPS games as it does to the likes of EverQuest. For 90% of the game you'll control your character in third-person using the same keyboard and mouse system you would use in a regular 3D shooter. You can aim at enemies, make some use of cover and target area-affect weapons in the knowledge that you'll hit what you expect to, not what some weird, arbitrary game mechanic decides. Of course, there is a little old-school simulated dice rolling going on in the background - your chances of hitting and the damage you do are affected by your skills, the statistics of the weapon used and various environmental factors - but Tabula Rasa's fighting is a lot more immediate than most MMO combat systems, which still rely on the same recharging abilities, skills and well-timed hotkey presses.
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