When it comes to MMOs, it's always good to see a title released that doesn't contain dwarves, gold, sorcery and other things that can be lifted from Tolkien and World of Warcraft. Forever the company that stays on roads less-travelled, NCsoft have delivered us what's probably their most different genre piece yet.
Tabula Rasa is an MMO that places you in the centre of an intergalactic conflict between us plucky humans and the evil, ruthless etc alliance of aliens called the Bane, which laid waste to our beloved Earth.
The actual premise of Tabula Rasa is much like your average MMO, setting you up in a starting area where you learn the rules of the road and how to navigate, before moving onto pick up quests or do some random adventuring and wandering. The big difference is that it plays more like a third-person shooter, breaking the mould of melee combat and making the combat a great deal more frantic than you'd usually expect.
You can augment the damage you inflict not just by moving back and forth but also by crouching; while different guns have their own idiosyncrasies, like being able to hit multiple enemies. This adds a degree of tactical weaponry above and beyond having standard gear sets for particular abilities, making arming up for a big battle great fun.
Tabula Rasa also has some of the best NPC interaction in MMOs I've played.
While in EverQuest and WOW going into battle alongside the computer was a rare occasion, this game constantly throws fellow NPC soldiers into the mix. This really gives the feel of being in an army, rather than the usual haunting sensation that you're the sod that does all the work.
The missions send you all over creation, and are merciful with any quests involving the collection of flora or fauna forcing you to go into foreign territory and kick arse.
To break this up are random attacks by the forces of the Bane - so out of nowhere, dropships can make things harder by bringing extra troops to the battle. This means you'll be near a fight, planned or not most of the time.
At levels five, 15 and 30, you'll get the chance to choose new classes and clone your character (if you've got enough clone points). This copies your avatar and your level, while resetting everything else so you can pick a new class and re-assign skill points. While this stops you having to replay the entire game when you want a new character, it leaves the clone with no gear.
However, it's not all fun and games. While NCsoft claim they've eliminated grind in Tabula Rasa, it's still there. You will find yourself killing lots of things to make your way to the next level, to get more abilities so you can kill more things, and so on.
To make matters worse the UI system is the single worst I've ever seen in an MMO. To equip a gun, you'll have to hold CTRL, go over the character pane, find the tiny bit that says "equipment", click it, and then drag the gun over to your main window to equip it. And that's only if you want to find your guns or ammo - recipes are in another window.
Combat is terrible in laggy areas, with gaps between when you fire and the hits registering ruining the experience. And as of going to press there's only one EU server, making the starting areas annoying to unplayable for new players.
Tabula Rasa is an excellent prospect though. It has a fantastic atmosphere, a good backstory, and a combat system that, when stable, is more fun than other MMOs'. It fails to break the MMO quest/mission structure though, and there are few words to accurately show how terrible the UI is.
With a little work it could be a top-flight MMO; for the moment, it's definitely one of the better contenders. If you're looking for some thing more hands-on than WOW, more dramatic than EverQuest, and just plain better than Anarchy Online, then Tabula Rasa is your game.