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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.