Review: TERA

Review: TERA

In a world born over the bodies of two dreaming titans, the age of peace has come to an end as the mysterious and demonic Argons invaded from the north. Their relentless advance has been halted only thanks to the forces of all the seven races, united in the powerful Valkyon Federation.

While other obscure forces gather to wreak havoc, and the Federation is undermined by internal rifts, the Argons seem to be massing for a final attack.

Review: TERA

As the world stands on the brink of collapse, it’s time for new heroes to raise and defend the Valkyon Federation from the many threats that loom over it from outside and from within. Who will face this challenge? MMORPG players looking for a new world to explore and conquer, of course.

If you feel that the introduction I wrote above is a little light on details you’re probably right. En Masse Entertainment wasn’t exactly generous in providing facts on the game’s backstory, that serves mostly as  a stage for TERA‘s true focal points: gameplay and aesthetics.

While the story may be indeed a bit light, the game immediately makes it up with gorgeous graphics that are showcased as soon as we enter the character creation process.

Review: TERA

Seven races are available for us to choose from, going from the classic Humans and High Elves, to more exotic choices like the diminutive Elins, the sexy Castanic and the furry Popori. Those that love to look large and powerful will also have dedicated options with the dragon-blooded Aman and the wise and hulking Baraka.

Eight classes complement the races, ranging from the almost invulnerable Lancers to the nimble Slayers without forgetting the usual range of ranged damage dealers and healers, for a total of one tank class, three melee damage dealers (one of which can double as tank), two ranged damagers and two healers. There’s definitely enough variation to fit everyone’s taste.

Visual customization is quite complete and offers enough options to look unique. There are a few weak points, though, like the inability to change body shapes in any way or the much more serious lack of eye color personalization. Small details like scars and tattoos are also very much scarce, especially in the most classic races, while the exotic ones get a few more perks, like animal features and a pipe (yes, a smoking pipe).

Review: TERA

The strongest area is definitely the hair styles: not only they’re visually beautiful, but there are also many to chose from. Normally I’m very selective with the hair of my characters, and I can’t remember a MMORPG since the very beginning of the history of the genre in which there were more than one or two styles that I liked, while the rest simply didn’t fit my taste at all.

TERA is the very first MMO I played in which I was truly conflicted on which hair style to chose for my main character, there were simply too many good ones to choose from, and it took me a good twenty minutes to finally decide.

The visual fidelity of the characters is absolutely beautiful. Models are detailed and texture resoution is spotless both on their features and on every single piece of equipment. The MMORPG genre is often plagued by blurry (or even muddy) textures and rough models in order  to increase performance on lower end computers, but that’s not the case with TERA. The most impressive feat is that framerate is still definitely fluid even on less than top notch computers.

Review: TERA

The reason for that striking difference with most of the genre is that MMORPG developers often stubbornly use their own proprietary engines for their games. Bluehole Studio went a completely different route and simply licensed the Unreal Engine 3, that not only is more powerful than the usual MMORPG-dedicated counterpart, but due to its popularity and staying power on the market, is also much better optimized on a wider range of machines. The results of this development choice are stunning.

As soon as we set foot in the world of TERA we’re welcomed by an overdose of visual inputs, with wide sights that embrace absolutely beautiful landscapes, immense structures and rich vegetation.

The look of the world paired with that of characters is simply a joy for the eyes. It’s completed perfectly by the masterful and colorful lighting design, that brings environments to life like in a way that has very few rivals in the genre and makes metallic surfaces shine with a wealth of different hues. It will often leave you standing still while you simply observe how different your armor looks as the environmental conditions change.

Review: TERA

Animations are just as advanced as the rest of the graphical assets, showing great variation both in combat and at peace, contributing to bringing the inhabitants of the world to life. The only slightly disturbing element is that some of the gestures are a bit over the top. Their idle animations make characters move around so much that they’ll often look like they’re completely lost and they’re trying to understand what the hell is happening.

The presence of an advanced engine contributes even in the animated interaction between characters and the world. Forget having one feet floating in the air as your character stands on a slope. In Tera he’ll bend his knees naturally and adapt to the terrain. If he sits on the edge of a surface his legs will drop down as they do in real life, instead of just looking like the character is sitting on the ground with his feet suspended on thin air.

Advanced visual technology wouldn’t do much without art direction. I can think of at least one example of MMORPG that used an advanced engine, but the lack of inspiration caused its world to still look boring and hollow. This is not the case with TERA, that pairs technology with a very coherent and impressive design.

Review: TERA

The theme behind TERA’s art direction is definitely beauty. It shows in the characters, that are definitely some of the most undressed in the market (with the exclusion of a few races and classes), showing enormous amounts of skin that might actually put off those that like to play their games at work and that prefer more demure (and realistic) fashion trends. Some went as far as defining the game sexist, considering that the female form is showcased very generously, but I don’t think I can agree with that notion. In TERA you’re going to see a whole lot of male skin as well.

The concept of beauty in the game’s art direction literally explodes in its environments, that show a degree of variation and inspiration in their design that really does justice to the advanced engine, going from immense cities filled with titanic structures, to magical and colorful forests and wild ranges of mountains.

Review: TERA

The world itself is semi-seamless, and each of the two continents can be explored without loading screens, even if the transition between different areas can be a bit abrupt due to the radical change in lighting conditions. The only thing that’s lacking is a cycle between night and day. Considering the presence of a powerful lighting engine, I can easily see this as a rather sizable missed opportunity to make the world even more varied and stunning in its looks.

Despite this flaw, I can easily say that TERA is one of the most visually enticing MMORPGs on the market, if not the most beautiful overall. The typically Asian-inspired character design, art direction, environmental design and lighting design truly shine thanks to the Unreal Engine 3, and make me think that there’s really no excuse anymore for MMO developers to use antiquated engines for their games. It’s time for them to strive to be on par with the rest of the industry like Bluehole Studio did with TERA.

If you want to see more about the graphics of TERA than what this article can include, you can check out my flickr gallery here. More than 200 screenshots should be enough to give you a good idea of what I’m talking about.

Review: TERA

The game’s audio is a bit more hit and miss than its graphics. The musical score definitely shows a good level of quality and variation, with tunes that range from the epic fanfares in Velica to more subdued and ethnic sounds in  the smaller villages and to suspense-filled music in dungeons, but voice acting is often so badly executed that ot sounds almost amateurish, which is surprising considering that there are some rather well known names in the cast.

The only possibility that comes to mind is that something went really wrong during the process of westernization of the script, transitioning between the original Korean version and the North American one.

One of the most crucial aspects of voice acting is lip sync, and scriptwriters need to carefully act every line themselves while watching the video in order to make sure that they fit the movement of the lips. En Masse’s scriptwriters didn’t do that too well (in fact lip sync is way off in most occasions), and that tends to throw even veteran voice actors off balance, as they struggle to synchronize their acting with the characters on screen, forcing them to speak very slowly or too fast and to stretch vocals that shouldn’t be stretched. The result is that some characters literally sound a little drunk, and that definitely doesn’t sound epic.

Review: TERA

Of course graphics and (a little shaky) audio by themselves don’t make a game, but gameplay isn’t an aspect in which TERA lacks. On the contrary, it’s the aspect that makes the game shine the most among its peers. Many MMORPG developers brag about innovating the genre before their game is released, but most of those claims are often proven to be smoke and mirrors by the harsh reality of a rather fossilized genre. In the worst cases innovations prove way worse than classic solutions and cause whole games to crash and burn.

An easy example is the removal of the “holy trinity”  of tanks, damage dealers and healers, promised by many and achieved basically by none, simply because it’s most of the times the most efficient way to fight, so no matter how much freedom in character customization is given, players always fall back on their tanks and healers, because it works and because group-based dynamics encourage it.

Review: TERA

As mentioned above, Bluehole Studio didn’t innovate there. TERA has its tanks, its dedicated damage dealers and its healers, and their roles are very defined (with the exception of Warriors that can be tanks with some effort, or can deal damage proficiently).

Further customization is provided by an extensive Glyph system that allows characters to specialize their abilities further, but there’s really nothing too new to see here. The eight classes are all very effective in their roles, and there’s really no red headed step child that I can think of, which is already quite an achievement for any MMORPG near its launch.

Questing also follows the classic tropes of MMORPGs very closely: kill ten bears, kill ten boars, kill ten demons, fetch this package to my friend on the other side of the city…we’ve seen it all over and over for a decade. There are several story-based questlines that provide a bit of a change (and most of the experience), but even during those you’ll mostly find yourself killing a large amount of sentient (or not) creatures.

Review: TERA

After reading the last few lines you’re probably asking yourself what could TERA have besides its graphics (and the generous exposure of skin) to hold your interest past the first few days. The answer is simple and complex at the same time: killing those ten bears is actually a whole lot of fun.

Instead of trying to hammer the wheel into a square and calling it “rolling implement” to make it sound innovative, Bluehole worked hard to innovate the genre where there was the most need for evolution, and the most room: combat.

One of the most used keys in MMORPG is Tab, as it’s commonly used to target your enemy only to watch as your character happily rips into him like a fire and forget missile that requires very little guidance besides a key press here and there to fire some special abilities.

Review: TERA

Success and failure are determined mostly by statistics, equipment and randomly generated numbers. With the exclusion of area of effect attacks, where you stand or how you move has very little bearing on the possibility to be hit or missed, and the action is mostly limited to following a rotation of abilities as precisely as possible.

That kind of combat, at least for me, was fun when the genre was young, but at the moment it has grown a little stale, forcing me to focus my appreciation of the many valid entries in the MMORPG market on other aspects, like story, social interaction and raiding mechanics. Killing ten bears is never really fun, or at least it wasn’t until I put my hands on TERA.

TERA has no targeting. There’s a crosshair in the middle of the screen that shows you where your hits will land, and if your enemy is under that crosshair, great, otherwise you’re in trouble. There’s no electronic dice rolls that decide if blows land or miss. If you are in the path of incoming weapons you better have good reflexes or a good healer,  because either you’re going to avoid the strikes with your own skills or you’re going to start bleeding.

Review: TERA

Positioning is everything in TERA‘s combat. You have to constantly move to be in the perfect position to strike and then  to get out of harm’s way. If you can’t run you have to rely on timing and reflexes in order to dodge, or, if you’re a Lancer, to manually block with your shield. Tanking is especially satisfying. Mess your timing and the blow will pass through, block too much and you won’t deal enough damage to hold the enemy, you will be overrun by multiple enemies or you will simply run out of mana (blocking consumes mana, while basic attacks build it).

If you’re a caster or a healer, forget simply targeting your enemies or companions and see your spells home into them like Sidewinders. You will have to aim most of them and predict where your enemies and allies will stand at the moment of impact, or your mighty powers will fizzle much to your dismay.

Review: TERA

This means that the game is much less of a rush to get the best equipment in order to influence that random number generator to lean in your favor and much more of a test of skill, timing, group coordination and even resistance. In most MMORPGs, if you beat an enemy much higher than your level or that is supposed to be faced by a group, it’s mostly because of your stats or equipment. In TERA your stats and equipment can help some, but most of the times it’s simply because you’re good, and that’s massively refreshing.

Since an example is better than a thousand words, I’ll provide one that happened two days ago. I was playing my Lancer on the Celestial Hills server and running a dungeon called Akasha’s Hideout with some friends. None of us was overleveled or exceptionally equipped.

Suddenly, right in the middle of a rather challenging boss fight, two of my companions had a black out (they live together). Given that one of them was our healer, such a situation would have meant almost immediate death for any group in any MMORPG.

Review: TERA

During the ten minutes it took my friends to regain their electricity and come back online, we continued to fight, stubbornly blocking blows and dodging away, stinging at the enormous monster to keep building mana while seemingly infinite seconds passed.

Ten minutes later our healer finally came back online thinking that she’d have to collect our bleached bones, but she still found me standing, alternating blocks to strikes to stay alive, using the few moments in which I could move to get out of the way of the most devastating attacks, bloodied but unbowed, with my (real) neck hurting because of the tension. A couple wrong moves and I would have died, but I didn’t. We continued the battle and we won.

Try to imagine any other MMORPG in which something like that could happen. You can’t? I thought so. In challenging group-based encounters when your healer is out of the fight, either you withdraw (if you can) or you die, no questions asked. Ten minutes without a healer are a matter of science fiction no matter how good you are. In TERA you can still rely on your skills and refuse to fall.

Review: TERA

To complete the evening, given that one of our damage dealers decided to give up and leave during the long and forced offline break of my friends, we still managed to down the two remaining bosses of the dungeon without replacing him. In other MMORPGs completing that kind of challenge with less people requires exceptional equipment or higher levels. In TERA it doesn’t. You just have to play better, and that’s awesome.

In the above anecdote I mentioned dungeons and bosses, that are the two pivotal elements of TERA‘s Player vs. Environment experience. While normal quests tend to rely a lot on the “kill ten bears” trope, the routine can be broken by fighting bosses (that En Masse calls BAMs: “Big Ass Monsters”). BAMs are advanced and enormous enemies whose power doesn’t just depend on their higher stats, but also on the fact that they use several different attacks with different effects in order to keep players on their toes and offer a very real challenge.

Review: TERA

Facing BAMs means having to rely on visual cues and animations in order to hit when and where you can and then avoid taking massive and deadly special attacks to the face. They also move quite realistically, often switching targets and requiring squishy characters, that in other MMORPGs would be relatively safe, to be ready to quickly get out of harm’s way.

This advanced behavior isn’t limited to BAM’s, but it also rubs off on smaller enemies, that often execute less deadly but still challenging special attacks and dance their way away from your blows, getting as near to human opponents as I’ve ever seen in a MMORPG.

This level of constant challenge is refreshing. That’s why my advice is, while leveling up, to simply ignore quests under your level. There are a lot more than the number required to hit the cap, and constantly facing enemies that would require one, two or even three levels higher than yours keeps things very exciting and hones your skills in preparation to the hardest encounters.

Review: TERA

Besides hunting down BAMs out in the open, dungeons are the place in which they thrive the most, and one of the major sources of fun in the game. They are a strictly group-oriented activity, so you’ll need four valiant companions in order to challenge their depths. A fully featured cross-server instance matching menu will make the process easy for you, even if I personally prefer to create my groups the old fashioned way whenever possible.

Most of the times dungeons tie in with the main storyline of the game, so you’ll have to do most of them at least once in order to progress. This may actually feel inconvenient for some radically solo-oriented players, but to be honest they are so fun and well designed that you’ll be hard pressed to find a reason not to want to challenge them.

Completing a dungeon requires defeating an average of four or five bosses (most of which will be BAMs) in order to be completed, and that’s where your skills and the ability of the party to coordinate will shine the most, turning the whole experience into a constantly tense but extremely pleasing  and refreshing outing.

Review: TERA

PvP is, at the moment, quite light in features, especially considering that arenas aren’t in the game yet. That said, the action-based combat shines even when fighting other players in duels or out in the world in PvP servers. It’s purely a match of skills against skills, and while there are still some balance issues to be ironed out, the fact that there are no dice rolls determining who hits and who misses, and that player ability and timing play such a big role, created some of the tightest and most closely fought matches I ever had a chance to play.

Crafting is probably the most underdeveloped element of the game at the moment. You can create a lot of different items, from equipment to consumables like potions and scrolls, but the materials needed to create most products are often excessively rare and require too much farming to be really viable. Having to kill tens of BAMs in order to create a single piece of armor simply doesn’t get even near to be balanced, and the developer will probably have to make radical changes in the future patches.

Review: TERA

The saving grace of crafting skills is the remodeling system. Every crafted item can be used as a base template to remodel your equipment and customize your appearance. If you have a piece of armor with great stats plastered over an absolutely unsightly look, all you have to do is to find a crafter to make the piece that has your favorite visuals and use it to remodel yours. You can also buy templates from a vendor together with a range of dyes, but resorting to crafters is more convenient and drives the economy, taking two birds with one stone.

As a further element of distinction from the rest of the market, TERA features a democratic political system. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to personally review its effects, considering that candidacy is just opening up at the time of this writing, but the whole concept is very interesting on paper.

Guild leaders are able to run for the role of Vanarch of one of the many provinces in which the continents are split. Those that gain the most votes through any method (from coaxing to coercion) will enter office and will stay in power for three weeks, gaining a special mount for their whole guild and the ability to influence most economical details within their province.

Review: TERA

Of course with great power comes great responsibility, and elected Vanarchs will have to lead their guilds to complete very challenging quests in order to earn Policy Points that can be spent in activating services in their province, keeping voters happy in the process. How much that will allow players to influence the world with their actions remains to be seen, but it’s definitely a fresh concept that brings forth quite a lot of potential for social interaction and deep roleplay. The effort of putting it in the game is definitely deserving of praise.

While TERA doesn’t reinvent the wheels of questing and of the holy trinity, it innovates where it really counts, redesigning the chassis of combat from scratch and coming out with a fresh and extremely enjoyable battle system that has a lot to teach to the rest of the MMORPG market. Shifting the weight from statistics to player skill, the game creates an experience unlike any other, bringing back tension and thrill in a genre that has grown to rely too much on cold planning and stale formulas.

While it doesn’t achieve perfection due to playing it a bit too safe in other areas (mainly questing), TERA‘s action combat is a very real innovation in a playfield that got gamers used to see evolution promised prodigally but almost never achieved. Top it off with absolutely gorgeous graphics, and you have an outstanding game that can do battle on even ground with the greatest.