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Tabula Rasa

Filling in the blanks

So then the Earth was destroyed. Space invaders, inevitably, going by the name of the Bane. What chance did humanity have? We can barely get into orbit. The Bane cross galaxies just to burn worlds.

A few of us managed to escape through the uncovered technology of the Bane's estranged brother-alien race, the Eloh. We found other races willing to resist the Bane and bound together into a force that called itself the Allied Free Sentients. And a lucky few - including you - discovered they were 'Logos sensitive' and able to unlock the mysterious powers of the Eloh. What can we do now? Maybe nothing. Maybe anything. Maybe everything. Wiped clean, humanity's Tabula Rasa awaits your mark.

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Appropriately enough, that's the situation Richard 'Lord British' Garriott found himself in after leaving Origin, the company he founded, in the clutches of Electronic Arts. He was able to recruit the key personnel who had created Ultima Online, the first genuinely successful commercial MMO, for a new project, which has been six tempestuous years in the making now. Finally, we're invited to their Austin headquarters to pore over the marks Garriott and his team have chosen to make.

It's an interesting game. Starr Long, original Project Director of Ultima Online, talks about their desire to go back to first principles, imagining what an MMO could be like without the detritus of influences. No fantasy setting. No taking turns to bash monsters. At it's heart, Tabula Rasa is a third-person shooter, like Gears of War. It is, as one of the beta-testers said on the open chat channel when we were playing, "a breath of fresh air."

The biggest difference in approach is combat. Based around your character's abilities rather than your own ability to point a cursor over someone's head, Tabula Rasa's combat is more about situations than bare number-crunching.

Cover counts. Half-conceal yourself behind a tree and you'll get a defensive bonus. Crouch to hide even more of yourself and you'll get more, as well as a bonus to hit. If someone manages to outflank you, on the other hand, you'll be at a considerable disadvantage.

This leads to a fluid jockeying for position for both players and AI, rather than simply standing nose-to-nose and cycling through your most powerful attacks.

Positioning is especially important for fighting larger enemies. The Bane's floating gunships possess front-mounted shields, and the majority of their weapons point forwards too. In a head-on conflict, they're going to tear you to pieces. However, if you can strike from the rear - perhaps using the terrain to conceal yourself until it passes - you get to bypass its defences and its weaponry.

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Starr stresses that the team has tried to work strategic approaches like this into every battle. Abstractly, players ten levels below a monster should still be able to deal with it - if they use very careful tactics.

Character development departs from the norm as well. Your avatar changes radically as you advance. You start as a recruit, introduced to combat and support skills. At level five, you have a choice between becoming a specialist or a soldier. Later, soldiers get to weigh up the pros and cons of being a heavy hitter commando or the more stealth-centred ranger, and specialists get the sciences of the biotechnician or the more mechanically minded sapper.

These each open up into two more career options (for example, ranger into sniper or spy). The system enables you to actually experience the game before making the all-important decision of what you want to be. It's giving you an educated choice rather than one you might regret. Equally, you're able to 'clone' a character, effectively saving your progress and enabling you to try out other career options without having to return to the beginning of the game and retread old ground.

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