“MMOs are all the same,” they said.”Everyone keeps copying WoW,” they said.”Why doesn’t anyone try anything new?” they said.Well now someone has. That person is Richard Garriot who, more than anyone else, is the father of the modern MMO. Richard Garriot is an innovator; he brought us Ultima Online, and he gave us the MMO as we know it today. To one degree or another, everyone has been copying Garriot’s work in UO. Now he’s bringing us Tabula Rasa, and it’s something different.But different doesn’t necessarily mean good. And that is the big question: Is TR any good?I must confess that, truly, I don’t yet know. My characters are all low-level toons. I only know what the game is like for the first few levels. The endgame is what makes or breaks an MMO, and I don’t know what TR is like in the endgame. Thus this is only a preview. Take this for what it’s worth.I will say that TR is definitely a new and innovative game. It does not play like any other MMO I’ve ever played. The control scheme is the first thing to strike you; the game plays more like a first person shooter (FPS) than an MMO. Mouselook is a ubiquitous part of the control scheme. You aim, look around, and turn by moving the mouse just like you do when you play Doom, Quake, or Unreal Tournament. The WASD keys control strafing and moving forward/back. The first mouse button controls your primary weapon, while the second mouse button controls a second attack. The game is fast. The shooting is fast and furious. If you’ve primarily only played MMOs, and never played a shooter before, this control scheme will throw you off. It took my wife about 20 minutes to get the hang of it, but after that, it flowed.It’s funny. Everyone screams for innovation, but this innovative control scheme has caused a substantial amount of whining. “Why can’t they make it more like WoW?” and “Why did they have to make it so different?” and such are the complaints I’ve heard. The irony of these questions is rich indeed: imitate other MMOs and people complain, innovate and they complain. I guess there is just no pleasing some people. Another thing that struck me when I entered the game was that the entire vibe of the game is different from any other MMO I’ve played. The science fiction universe of TR is very credible and visceral. The technology all blends together, and the whole thing seems a bit familiar. In fact, the universe is a pleasing mashup of Aliens, War of the Worlds, Dune, Star Wars, Starship Troopers….heck, I could go on and on. It’s a recognizable sci-fi universe. This is actually a strong point for TR. They haven’t tried to reinvent sci-fi to the point of being ridiculous, or to do it just for the sake of doing so. The story is conventional, interesting, and at the same time familiar enough that you understand the game the moment you log on.More on the vibe. The ambient music isn’t all melodic elven harp-playing, nor familiar dwarven marches. The background music is hard rock, and it lends a lot to the feel of the game. The hardware – the guns, the ships, the body armor – all feels real. The missions are all military, too. Blow this up, kick the Bane out of an area, etc. This lends the whole game a sense of realism.If there were no magic-like powers in the game, TR would simply be a clone of Battlefield 2142 or Quake. Everyone would simply be a futuristic soldier, and that doesn’t make for a good MMO. Thus there is magic in the game, but since this is a science fiction universe, it cannot be called magic. It’s sci-fi, it’s technological. It’s also so nicely executed, so smooth, that you never actually think of it as magic. The idea is that players are able to use an ancient power, called “logos”, that give the players special abilities. The first Logos that every player learns is a ‘lighting bolt’ kind of attack. There are numerous others that attack enemies, defend against attacks, heal, buff, etc. The logos powers, when used, have a high-tech graphic or effect to each one that makes the power feel very futuristic.There are other sci-fi MMOs on the market. Is TR merely a clone of Star Wars: Galaxies or EVE Online? In a word, no. First off, SWG isn’t a very good game. There is no content to speak of and, bottom line, there’s almost nothing to do. It was clearly made by people that don’t understand MMOs. Second, EVE is an MMO in which 99% of your time is spent piloting space ships of ever-increasing capability. You spend your time flying around, mining asteroids, and nuking the heck out of anyone within range of your particle cannon. You never get out of your ship and explore the planets. TR is a game in which the player plays an individual warrior, campaigning against the Bane. It’s very different from any other sci-fi MMO on the market.Aside from the above, TR is actually a reasonably conventional MMO. This is a good thing. Your character grows and levels up with experience. You learn new skills, get loot drops, and complete quests to get new gear. Do you go out and kill ten werebunnies or skeletons or (dare I even say it?) wandering goblins at the behest of some NPC? Well, sort of. You don’t kill fantasy creatures, but the quests are pretty conventional.So is the game fun to play? The answer is a definitive yes. I found TR to be intriguing and captivating as I played it. More telling, when I logged off, I found that I was thinking about TR. I wanted to get back at it, and ignored other games in favor of TR. That is a very good sign, friends.The only downside to TR is in the area of character creation. For reasons I simply cannot figure out, virtually every game published by NCSoft allows only humans to be player characters. You cannot play as an alien, you can’t play as a hulking monstrous cyborg, you can’t play some sort of space-elf or cutesy Yoda-gnome. I think that this unnecessarily limits an MMO. If the idea is to role-play an interesting character, why gimp a player’s ability to do that? Why limit them to only playing an ordinary human?What’s equally bothersome is that the variations you are given as at character creation aren’t all that different. You’re human can be a little larger or smaller than others, and you can change his pants and shirt and hair around, but that’s pretty much it. You can’t build an outrageous or exaggerated character, which is what many people really enjoy. Want to build a seven-foot tall woman with bride-of-Frankenstein hair? Not an option. How about a super-muscular 4-foot tall dude with tattoos on his face? Sorry, no can do. Your females will be between 5’3″ and 5’7″ tall, with cute punkish haircuts. You’re males will be between 5’7″ and 6’3″ tall with military-futuristic hair. The bottom line is that you’ll be playing out your life in TR as a human, and a pretty ordinary human at that. Oh well.The classes available to the players are, thankfully, diverse. There are ranged classes (this is a shooter, after all), but there are also healers, pet classes, and a tanking class. I don’t get the impression that these classes all behave very conventionally, as that wouldn’t fit well with the sci-fi theme. This innovation in the character classes – making them different than classes in ordinary fantasy MMOs – is also a welcome change to the genre. What’s more important, however, is that it allows enough diversity in classes to keep the game interesting.Will TR be a successful MMO? Truth be told, that is impossible for me to predict yet. The things that killed some other MMOs – bugginess or boring/repetitive gameplay – certainly don’t appear to be a problem. What about high-end content? This is the primary determinant to the long-term success of any MMO, and my beta-toons aren’t high enough level to explore this yet. Every successful MMO offers some content at the beginning and middle levels, and then a huge volume of content at the level cap. This will be a very big factor in determining whether TR is a success, but I’m confident that Garriot knows that this is critical. He is the father of the whole MMO genre, after all.A bigger question is whether or not people will actually respond positively to the innovation that TR brings to the genre. A shooter/MMO hybrid is something no one’s really seen yet. Further, the majority of current MMO players have historically only responded strongly to fantasy-based MMOs with conventional control schemes. Their also a picky, cranky, complaining bunch. How will they respond to TR?Tapping into my psychic powers (ok, so I’m really just making my best guess), I’m predicting that TR will be a success. The control scheme isn’t hard to learn, it’s just different for an MMO. It’s also a fun, fast-playing game. While it engages in some unconventional game-play, this is actually a strength, and will appeal to many. Beyond that, the game is addictive and fun. That’s a very big factor.In short, TR is shaping up nicely. We’ll be picking the game up at release on October 19th in my household, diving right into the sci-fi, MMO action. And while I can’t yet predict what the endgame will look like, what I’ve seen so far is looking very, very good.