Combat in MMOs sucks. Really, it does. You run over to the general vicinity of the creature you wish to smite with your Axe of Righteousness, Raging Fireball or Hammer of Doom, hit the tab key, and then proceed to methodically tap other keys, oftentimes while barely engaged in the on-screen action. Did your spouse walk in and start talking to you in the middle of the fight? No worries: just hit that tab key and keep cycling through your offensive abilities while chatting away. Cat jump on the keyboard? Perfect! He/she probably just did you a favor and launched a longer-cooldown attack which you always forget to use when engaged in the drudgery of slaying your 5000th dragonkin. It’s this unique MMO deficiency that Korean developer Bluehole Studios has attempted to address with TERA, the newest MMO to hit western markets in 2012.
True. Action. Combat. This is the tagline used by TERA’s marketing gurus to try and separate the game from the rest of the MMO crowd, and the words are definitely more than just smoke and mirrors. TERA is an MMO that forces you to be intensely aware during combat, as failure to do so will inevitably result in a quick and unceremonious death. This is especially true during skirmishes with the game’s multitude of BAMs (literally: Big Ass Monsters, as dubbed by the game’s creators) – lumbering, five-story tall creatures that pounce, charge, burrow and steamroll around the battlefield in erratic ways that can wipe out an inattentive party in seconds. The combat here is more Monster Hunter than World of Warcraft, and every engagement with an enemy is a rousing dance of near-misses, timely blocks and precision strikes that keeps the blood pumping and mind focused. It’s probably safe to call the combat in TERA a game-changer for MMOs in general, and developers looking to tackle the genre should take a long hard look at what Bluehole has managed to accomplish here.
That said, combat is only one facet of an MMO experience (albeit a very large one), and TERA stumbles a bit in other important areas such as questing, lore and the end game experience. None of these areas are out-and-out awful; they are just noticeably uninspired, especially when compared to other MMORPGs on the market. Leveling in the game, for example, consists of following a string of quests that lead you by the nose from area to area, killing X numbers of creatures that are threatening X town for X reason. Paired with these kill quests are collection quests that have you picking up random items near the creatures you are battling. It’s all so trite and boring that by the time the player reaches level 40 or so – when xp gain slows down considerably – the whole thing just becomes a giant slog. Yes, the combat is fun, but with little to no variation in quest design, each new quest hub feels like the last.
“…every engagement with an enemy is a rousing dance of near-misses, timely blocks and precision strikes that keeps the blood pumping and mind focused.”The lack of a strong narrative also hurts the leveling process. Despite some well-written and witty quest text (that most people will promptly skip), TERA’s plot just isn’t presented well. There is definitely some depth to the story and an interesting twist or two, but it’s laid out before the player in such a slapdash and uninspiring way that it’s unlikely most players will find themselves immersed, lore-wise, in the world that Bluehole has created. NPCs stand rooted in towns and outposts complaining about encroaching monsters that are less than twenty feet away, despite the fact that they often appear more than adequately equipped to handle said beasties themselves. Where is the organic NPC activity and dynamic events that would keep the game world feeling alive and bustling? World of Warcraft-style phasing is nowhere to be found, and for all Star Wars: The Old Republic does wrong, its fully voice-acted, lore-ladden quests blow TERA’s straight out of the water.
Bluehole’s MMO also has trouble establishing what its big end game draw will be. Traditionally, the end game of an MMO features content like large scale raids, reputation grinds and a lot of extra “fluff” to keep that carrot dangling in front of the player alluring enough to chase. With TERA, end game consists of high level dungeons (which must be cleared and re-cleared ad nauseam to supply the game’s demanding enchanting system), as well as the newly-implemented Nexus events. Max level dungeons are fun due to the fantastic combat system and inspired boss designs, but after the first few clears, these instances start to take on a “grindy” feel that even the game’s stellar combat has trouble masking.
Optimistic members of TERA’s official forum community heralded the Nexus patch as the perfect answer for the game’s empty end game, but now that folks have experienced it, there’s a feeling that it just isn’t enough to fill the void. The Nexus events are fine for what they are – scripted, mass- PVE battles which occur at specific times during the week, but players are looking for more things to do in general, such as fishing, messing around during seasonal events, and instanced PVP. En Masse (the company handling game updates in North America) has promised that WoW-like battlegrounds are coming sometime this summer, but with no date set in stone, the community is forced to hold out faith that the developer team will deliver sooner rather than later.
Another potential addition to TERA’s end game is a unique political system that allows guild leaders to campaign for the position of Vanarch (i.e ruler) of one of the game’s many provinces. Once elected, the Vanarch can make decisions that affect all who enter the zone, such as whether or not specialty vendors will be located there or how low/high taxes will be. It’s certainly a unique system and one with a lot of promise, but the rapidly cyclical nature of Vanarch ruling (three weeks) means guilds will be forced to do a lot of “busy work” just to maintain control of a province (you have to farm kill quests to earn the tokens required to rule). There’s also the following question: so what if you rule a province? If there’s no incentive to drive high level people to lower level areas (which there currently isn’t), then Vanarchs will find themselves “ruling” a smattering of low level bypassers, and the community could quickly wan interest.
Cry me a River
Digital River, the e-commerce provider En Masse contracted to handle online orders, subscription payments and premium purchases, has been laughably inept since TERA’s launch in May. Many players have found themselves billed multiple times for a single subscription, charged correctly but not allowed to access the game, or subjected to a long list of other blunders. Thankfully, En Masse has been quick to correct the wrongs as they have come up, but the ongoing fiasco has likely scared off a good number of potential subscribers.
So TERA stumbles a bit in the aforementioned areas, but it certainly stands tall as a triumph in graphical excellence when compared to any other MMO on the market. From the moment players step forth onto the Island of Dawn, the game unleashes a barrage of eye candy that continues its onslaught through every one of the game’s numerous areas. Vast expanses of swaying grass, windswept oceans of shimmering sand and cavernous underground pirate dens are just a few of the environments players will find themselves trekking through on their way to 60 (TERA’s current max level). Despite the repetitive and bland nature of the game’s quests, the visual impact of stepping into a brand new area is quite often the spark needed to keep the player pushing on towards that next level.
And it must be noted – Bluehole’s environmental artists were matched step-for-step by the artists behind the game’s character, enemy and armor designs. Wolves aren’t just wolves in TERA – they are hulking, grisly beasts with multi-colored fur and feral-yet-alien faces. BAMs, too, are impressive in both design and animation, whether they be lumbering sumo wrestler-like giants, scimitar-wielding demons or skittering arachnid behemoths with a penchant for tucking in their legs and rolling over unwary players. Elves, Humans and other playable races are also exquisitely modeled to the point where they are not only the best looking player-characters in any MMO to date, but also some of the best in any videogame so far. Some may be turned off (or on) by the skimpy nature of the game’s armor, especially for females of the game’s succubus-like Castanic race, but the design is unquestionably striking in form and detail, despite the obvious impracticality.
“…with little to no variation in quest design, each new quest hub feels like the last.”Aurally speaking, TERA is a bit of a mixed bag, with the soundtrack impressing, but the voice acting falling short. Inon Zur (who also composed the music for Rift and Dragon Age) has created an orchestral score that manages to concoct a fitting blend of aggressive militaristic beats, classic high fantasy pieces and string-heavy, whimsical melodies. Overall, it’s not music that inspires the listener to step away from the game and scour the internet for a place to purchase the soundtrack, but it’s well-composed, pleasing to the ear and doesn’t quickly wear out its welcome – an admirable feat for MMO tunes. On the other end of the spectrum is the game’s voice acting. It’s not the worst you’ll hear (odds are a Dynasty Warriors game takes that crown), but it’s pretty bad. Voice actors clearly tried to match the game’s Korean lip-syncing, but only succeeded in sounding stilted and awkward. The ability to play with Korean voice acting and English subtitles would have been nice, but, alas, no such option (officially) exists.
If simply taken as the sum of its parts, TERA might not seem all that impressive. But considering just how excellent its combat is and just how gorgeous everything in-game looks, it’s impossible to dismiss the game as just another run-of-the-mill MMO. TERA truly stands out as an important entry in the MMO market, and developers – yes, even Blizzard – would do well to learn from what Bluehole has accomplished with the combat system and apply it to future releases (I’m looking at you, Titan). Given a more inspired quest structure, deeper lore and a wider breadth of end game content, TERA could have been the best MMO offering of the past half decade. As it stands, it is a flawed-yet-fun game that should be experienced by all fans of the genre and action games in general.