Drugs are good. Probably. Or maybe they're not. Richard Garriott just can't help making you think about this stuff.
His fame was founded on the moral dilemmas of the Ultimas, the games that established the very framework of what we consider the modern PC RPG. You can draw a line from his early work, via Baldur's Gate, to today's greats such as Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights 2. But Garriott no longer makes singleplayer RPGs.
For getting on for seven years, Garriott and his team at NCsoft Austin have been working on bringing the single-player dilemmas of the modern RPG to the massively multiplayer world. Hence the drugs.
Aliens have invaded. They're called the Bane, and they have horrific abilities. One: they have the technology to warp matter and energy, and make really big guns with it. Two: they can resurrect the dead, and send them back onto the battlefield, carrying really big guns. Three: they're evil. Fighting that threat are the heroic players of the Allied Free Sentient Forces (you), and an assortment of stim-snorting AI friendlies.
Tabula Rasa is built on two ideas. The first is to provide a context and reason for your fighting. Garriott, when questioned, appears to take almost personal offence to the 'grind' MMOs suffer from.
"When you play a single-player game, you're the hero, the central character in a story. When you play an MMO game, the average player, it turns out, is pretty darned average." The battlefields of Tabula Rasa address this directly. Rather than offering fields of monsters randomly stalking the plains, waiting for you to bash them over the head, each sector is under constant threat of invasion. To reach quest-givers and vendors, and to accrue experience, players have to drive the Bane back.
But whenever they gain ground in one sector, the Bane will strike back in another. The battle is never-ending.
The second idea? To do away with what Garriott calls the "whack-a-mole" combat of the modern MMO. Rather than two characters walking up to each other and taking turns to hit, players in Tabula Rasa are forced to take into account position, cover, and accuracy. Its plays as a third-person shooter, similar to the Xbox 360's Gears of War. Weapons must be aimed and fired, grenades lobbed, and magical abilities super-charged. Firefights are a fizzing science- fiction firework display.
Using cover is key. Underneath the light-show, the same MMO dice-rolls and saving throws take place, but they also take into consideration the lay of the land. Pop out and shoot from behind a balustrade and you'll receive stat increases. Charge straight in, and you'll receive scorchmarks.
It's back at base, as players recuperate from their combat, that Garriott's singleplayer heritage shines through. In one quest-line, players are asked to root out thieves in camp who've been stealing from the medical tent. Sure enough, before long, the dealers offer up their stolen loot for a price. It opens up a significant moral choice. The med officers need the drugs to soothe the sick.
But the soldiers are working 28-hour shifts, and the stolen stim-packs are their only way to keep on fighting. Shopping the dealer might appear to be the correct choice, but this is like 'Nam, baby. His clients, and your squadmates, are going to accuse you of being out of touch with the realities of this war all the way through the rest of the game.
That's not an accusation you can level at Garriott. Tabula Rasa might have been a long time coming, but it's attempting to address major flaws in MMO gaming. We'll have more, soon, when we've had more time to play with the private beta.