"A bombastic mix of bleeding edge graphics and blazing gameplay..."
Inspiration can be a fickle thing; a rare spark of creative genius we find in the most unexpected of places. Having run the gamut of persistent worlds over the last 15 years, I've seen some brilliant creations that really capture the imagination. I've also played plenty of turds; blatant cash-in copy-cats of the genre's greatest. So as I delved into The Exiled Realm of Arborea, more commonly known as TERA, I was keenly aware of the negative predisposition people had toward the game.
You see, Korean MMOs don't have the best reputation on this side of the Pacific. They are usually dismissed as grind-fests with no redeeming qualities outside of pretty graphics and expanding bust-lines. The North American launch of NCSoft's Aion only strengthened this stereotype. Since TERA was developed by Blue Hole Studios (BHS), which was founded by former NCSoft employees, there was a fear that the game would follow in Aion's footsteps. I'm happy to say that these assumptions are totally unfounded. In fact, TERA not only surprised me by invalidating much of the stereotype, it has redefined my expectations for the genre's gameplay entirely. So what makes TERA so remarkable? I'd like to tell you about it.
Sleek, Chic and Definitely Not Discrete
Let's cut to the chase; TERA is freaking gorgeous. It's the most visually astounding MMORPG on the market; there really is no comparison. Using Unreal Engine 3 (the same engine used to create the Gears of War franchise), BHS has crafted an immense organic world overflowing with an incredibly diverse spectrum of characters and monsters. The use of real-time lighting, particle effects and ambient animation brings this realm to jaw-dropping life. The game's visual execution is flawless except for some small hiccups that have been inherent in the engine since Unreal Tournament 3. No matter how apt your video card, there are some periods where high resolution textures take a few moments to load in. I was a little disappointed with the short object draw distance, especially since there is virtually no environmental rendering horizon, but it does very little to detract from the overall experience.
Character creation is arguably one of the most important visual experiences in any MMO, and TERA does incredibly well in this regard. Players are introduced to the various races, and there's something for just about every aesthetic taste. The High Elves are tall and exotic with males who border on androgynous. The Amani are tough looking dragon kin with a penchant for violence. The Popori are overwhelmingly adorable pot-bellied forest fur balls. The Castanic are a sensual tribal race whose propensity for bare skin is as iconic as their exotic horns. The Elin are Anime Magical Girls Gone Wild. The Baraka are gentle giants seemingly carved from stone. Lastly, the Humans are a hardy race that is well-proportioned and attractive.
Once a species and gender are chosen, players have a wealth of cosmetic options that truly show off the game's graphics engine and artistic diversity without being overdone. While some gamers may not like the character design with its propensity for juveniles and scantily clad females, there is no denying their attention to detail. The degree of animation is incredible no matter what the avatar is doing.
With that said, the real star of this visual orgasm is the world itself. Each area is characterized by its own theme and brought to life with meticulous attention to detail. The environments are massive, seamless and diverse. I was shocked to experience structures that were even more enormous on the inside than they appeared on the outside. Citadel of Torment actually brought back memories of the Tower of Babel from FFIV due to its imposing presence on the landscape and absolutely massive interior filled with horrors. Not an experience I can say I've ever had with any FF MMO.
TERA's incredible graphics and art-style only strengthen this tremendous sense of scale throughout the game world. The effect is nothing shy of deep immersion, which is so critical for this category of games.
Playing Outside the Box
TERA's persistent tag-line has been "True Action Combat," but what exactly does that mean? Just how significant does this change in battle systems redefine the genre?
For years MMORPGs relied on Tab button targeting for combat. TERA's argument is that this old method was slow, methodical and boring. There was no rush of excitement in battle, and it didn't encourage players to improve their skills outside of learning better button rotations. In order to achieve a higher state of combat, TERA removes the safety net of locked targeting and forces players to rely on their reflexes. They don't have the cushion of a dice roll to protect them, so they need to learn to move out of the way, actively block and counterattack. The end result is an experience closer to Monster Hunter than World of Warcraft, and I couldn't be happier.
To further capitalize on this action combat, TERA is littered with enemies called BAMs (Big Ass Monsters) that are not only massive in scale but will test the limits of player skill and endurance. Though these creatures are designed for group combat, skilled players are able to tackle them one-on-one, and the sense of satisfaction with each victory is immense. The loot isn't too shabby either.
The large palette of abilities that develop along the way truly enrich the experience. You might think that this would make a fast-paced action combat system cumbersome, but TERA has a very flexible combo system that cuts down on excessive hot keys so much that the game can be played effortlessly with most USB controllers. This is a feat very few PC MMORPGs have managed to pull off.
The best part about the controls is that a keyboard and mouse plays equally well – that experience was not neglected in favor of USB controllers. Navigating the menus with a controller can be a bit cumbersome, as the right analog stick is used for the mouse, but a controller excels at giving the player the feel of a polished console action game. All buttons on the controller and keyboard can be mapped to your liking, and the sensitivity of the mouse and analog sticks are also customizable. Players who want the best of both worlds can play with both schemes simultaneously and interchangeably.
BHS was wise to invest their focus into real-time combat, because in any MMO, combat remains the predominant activity. By making the combat action-oriented, they left very little tedium to be found. The battle system in TERA is so well designed and intuitive, especially with the control flexibility, that the rush of combat kept me coming back for more.
Marching in Line
Even though TERA smashes the old tropes of MMO gameplay, it remains a conservative student of the MMO School of Design. You won't find the kind of character interaction and personal storytelling that made Star Wars: The Old Republic so engaging. There are several voice-acted cut scenes as you progress along the main storyline, but they simply don't have the impact of Bioware's juggernaut. Quite frankly, I'm ok with this. TERA boasts 1700+ quests, and I don't think I could listen to that much dialogue before falling asleep. Character progression is reliant on those quests; group and solo affairs that follow the time-tested themes of kill, gather, escort and protect.
While these tasks may seem pedestrian, executing them is anything but passé. When you are in direct control of your monster slaying, being asked to wipe out a den of beasties isn't a chore anymore, it's a delight. It might seem shallow, but when you identify with a certain class and its play style, it's just unadulterated fun. When was the last time you actually had fun with the sheer thrill of battle in an MMO? No, tweaking DPS rotations to top out the damage meter doesn't count.
TERA is also home to over a dozen instanced dungeons, not including end-game hard-modes. These are the beating heart of group play and run the gamut of themes ranging from vampire citadels to floating sky gardens. These experiences are host to abundant repeatable quests and employ boss tactics that would make a WoW raid team misty-eyed. It's also home to the most wicked-looking gear in the game. There's even a convenient Instance Matching system that pools all of the servers to place you in a dungeon team based on class roles. While it works faster for some classes than others, its level of convenience cannot be understated.
TERA is an amazing experience solo, but team action combat is a new dimension of enjoyment. As always, communication is key, and when a party functions well in TERA, it's a beautiful ballet of destruction few games can ever hope to match.
All of the expected MMO accoutrements are present and highly functional. Mounts are obtained early in the game due to the world's size. There are Pegasus flight points that connect the major settlements and a teleport system that allows quick access to the various quest hubs in each area. Players can purchase scrolls that will warp them back to towns. Each race is also gifted with a spell that returns them to one of the capital cities. Unlike another MMO that shall not be named, TERA has a functional mail system and a personal storage bank that is accessible to every character on your account. En Masse removed the personal stores that were a part of the Korean version of the game, but they upgraded the Trade Broker (auction house) to allow for faster searching and expanded sales slots.
Crafting in TERA is something of an enigma. Leveling each skill is relatively easy, but most of the equipment you can create along your progression path pales in comparison to quest rewards and dungeon loot. Players can learn to craft superior equipment, but doing so requires so many materials that it is impractical, especially in comparison to how easily similar gear can be obtained from dungeons. In fact, some of the best dungeon equipment can be found for sale on the broker (auction house), because they are bind-on-equip items. While the importance of certain trade skills such as alchemy cannot be understated in their utility, the vast majority of the other crafts seem superfluous and resource intensive. There is some viability at endgame for crafters with the capacity to force Enigmas onto equipment. Enigmas are random stat bonuses or effects that must be unscrambled via Identification Scrolls, then sequentially unlocked using the Enchantment system. So the system isn't entirely without merit, it just appears to be designed as more of an endgame activity to increase customization than a means of gear self-sufficiency while leveling.
I can't comment on the political system, as the first election has yet to be underway, but the concept is intriguing. TERA's endgame is comprised of several different activities – some tried and true, some totally new. Currently, gamers can tackle hard-modes of several of the high level dungeons for even more challenge and better loot. They can also focus on building reputation with several in-game factions via daily quests for special rewards like unique mounts. There's also an achievement system that's so massive it would make anyone's Xbox Live Gamerscore pucker. The political system has guild leaders running for virtual office over several provinces within TERA's world. This gives them the power to set and collect taxes, dispense and close vendors and even toggle free-for-all PVP. It rewards their entire guild with a posh mount and access to unique quests, etc.
The future of TERA also looks bright, as guild housing within capital cities are on the horizon. The Nexus system is also coming, which seems to be styled as endgame public quests/raids in random horde-mode invasions in contested lands.
Living the Dream
Another aspect of TERA that I feel is very well done, but sorely under-represented, is the storyline. The mythology behind the world itself is fascinating: TERA exists as the dream of two titans who lay sleeping. The continents of Arun and Shara are actually the bodies of these colossi; two beings of immense power who fought against one another in a war at the beginning of time. They managed to fall in love, and sensing the futility of the endless conflict, fled from battle and went to sleep, dreaming of a better world that manifested around them. Within this dream, their bodies became the landmasses from which new life sprouted. Even with this new world dreamed into being, there was still strife. The immortal race of gods went to war against the giants, leaving a permanent and lasting mark on TERA. Now it is the age of mortals, and a new conflict has emerged. On the boundaries of Arun and Shara, an invader has appeared. A race of living machines known as the Argons is on a ceaseless campaign of conquest across the north. Their goal is the complete eradication and assimilation of all organic life.
The Argons managed to conquer and terraform almost all of northern Arun before the sentient races of TERA banded together to stop their progress. This new allegiance would be known as the Valkyon Federation. During this time, an island appeared out of nowhere between both continents. Is it a part of the great dream, or is it something else? It is here that you start your adventure in the footsteps of the previous expedition, who vanished while exploring the island. As a raw recruit of the Federation, you will uncover the truth behind the missing explorers and much more. As you rise through the ranks, you will not only discover conspiracies within this alliance, but become embroiled in a conflict between the gods and learn the true horror behind the Argon threat. Your journey through TERA is nothing short of the creation of legend through prophecy fulfillment. Sadly, this amazing storyline isn't going to get the recognition it deserves because of the medium in which it's told and some of the bad habits that most MMO players have learned over the years. In order to really capture the essence and flow of these unfolding events, players actually have to read.
I know! What were they thinking!?
Gamers of the WoW generation already have issues with reading comprehension. The ceaseless pursuit of level cap has created a focus on the quest tracker, not the actual dialogue. Of course, it doesn't help that as a character, you have remarkably little to say. After seeing how SWTOR succeeded in bringing players into the tale, it's understandably hard to go back to passive storytelling. That's unfortunate, because the story written by David Noonan and co. is really very good. The written dialogue is often witty and insightful with none of the grammatical train-wreckage that characterized Aion at launch.
The storyline pacing is also excellent. As players level, major plot quests are added automatically to the journal and they are allowed the flexibility of pursuing them at their discretion. While progression within the main storyline is fairly linear, players aren't required to finish a chapter before moving onto the next; many chapters actually overlap and complement each other. Every episode takes players directly into the appropriate dungeons for their level range, so these group experiences actually feel pertinent to the story. The multitude of side-quests also do a great job of fleshing out the environments and current events of the areas, often enriching the main storyline itself.
As mentioned, TERA has a respectable number of cut scenes that try to progress the storyline. However, they are plagued by lackluster voice acting and the redundant use of sub-par FMV to display in-game graphics. En Masse went to great lengths to get seasoned actors for many of these roles, but someone forgot to tell them that voice-over work and screen acting are very different skills. Don't get me wrong, there's some solid acting, but some of the characters are such caricatures that it's laughable. The short voice snippets when talking to NPCs are really well done, but a large portion of the spoken dialogue in the storyline cinemas is just awful. I'm still confused as to why BHS would use pre-rendered FMV of in-game graphics for many of the later cut scenes when they could have simply continued using the engine itself to render them. It looks cheap, feels tacked-on, and players will skip them. It's a shame, because there are several scenes that were really amazing even when they let the engine do the grunt work.
Melodies en Memoriam
Another aspect of TERA that will probably be underappreciated is its score. Composed by Rod Abernathy and Inon Zur, it's a mix of classical and contemporary world music that does an amazing job of bringing the dream of Arun and Shara to life. It's not really surprising, since their collective body of work includes some of the biggest gaming soundtracks in the last few years, such as Dragon Age and Fallout 3. There is a strong emphasis on thematic music for each region of the game that accentuates the graphic representation perfectly. Most MMO soundtracks are forgettable if not outright grating after several weeks of exposure, but Abernathy and Zur have captured the essence of each new area so well that they become memorable. When I heard the staccato of drums while fighting my first BAM, I couldn't help but gasp. It captured the raw tension and energy of the encounter like so very few soundtracks do.
I also have to applaud the sound effects team for their work in TERA. For a game that is focused around combat, I can't express how important the sounds of battle are to making the experience exciting and believable. Every sword slash, blood spray and infernal explosion is crisp, timely and accurate.
A Foregone Conclusion
It goes without saying that I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with TERA. But it didn't start out that way. Overcoming the Korean MMO stereotype was difficult in the beginning of the game, because it does little to foreshadow the amazing experience that develops as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, the new prologue that was added as a preview to what lies ahead is more bewildering than anything. Sticking with the experience was well worth the effort though, as it doesn't take long before the first legitimate BAM encounter and that first dungeon. Then and only then does the game truly click. The first few hours on the Isle of Dawn don't do the game justice, but every journey needs a beginning – and not all of them can be exciting.
All of the trappings that players have come to expect from a modern MMORPG are present and functional in TERA without issue, even though crafting doesn't really seem to have an important niche. Players with any previous MMO experience will be able to dive right in and feel comfortable. All of the classes are unique experiences and should appeal to just about every taste. BHS and En Masse also seem committed to enriching the endgame experience, which is always a good sign for the long term health of an MMO.
Overall, I found TERA to be a bombastic mix of bleeding edge graphics and blazing gameplay in an enormous persistent world. I cannot express how much the change to action combat has enriched an already competent MMORPG. It revitalized questing, an activity that was growing stale and mundane. While SWTOR did a great job telling a story, TERA does an impeccable job letting you live the action; which I believe is arguably a better compromise. The real shame is that TERA has rich lore and an engaging story just begging to be told, but it is held back by static, non-interactive storytelling and unpolished cinematic exposition. Regardless, players looking for an MMORPG with fast-paced, exciting gameplay in a beautiful, massive world need look no further: TERA will glamorize you before rocking your action socks off.