GDC10: Hands-on with TERA Online

New MMOs are becoming a dime a dozen. We here at Massively are constantly flooded with press releases claiming that Company A's new game is not only an MMO, but it's the best darn MMO you've ever seen. Despite this, we try to hold back the cynicism and keep a sharp eye open for the true diamonds in the rough.

At GDC 2010, we saw what could be considered at least an emerald in the rough. TERA had a huge presence at the conference, with fliers everywhere you looked and an impressive demo booth with four playable stations. Since Seraphina and I both spent some quality time with the game, including a developer demo, we decided to pool our thoughts for one big article on what we saw. Follow along for our impressions of TERA.
First, let's get the facts out of the way. TERA is created by Bluehole Studio (in Korea) and En Masse Entertainment (in North America), consisting of MMO industry veterans from Blizzard, Microsoft, EA and NCsoft. In fact, En Masse's COO is Patrick Wyatt, one of the co-founders of ArenaNet. They were formed approximately four years ago, which is actually a pretty short time period in the scope of MMO development. The fact that they're basically porting the game over from Korea doesn't hurt, but they made sure to let us know that it's not simply a matter of translating quest text. They're working hard to eliminate any traces of grind and beef up the game's lore for that Western audience.

Although it's only in the third stage of closed beta testing in Korea, the North American audience can expect to see the first stages of beta towards the end of this year, with a projected launch date early next year. Unlike most games we're seeing in 2010-2011, TERA will have a "regular" box price and subscription fee. It will also be released exclusively for the PC, aimed at 2-to-3-year-old machines, thanks to the efficiency of the Unreal 3 engine.

Other features include an extensive guild system, with guild housing and guild vs. guild battles, a deep political system, six player races, eight player classes (playable by all races), extensive PvP which includes battle grounds, duels and PvP servers and a level cap of 60 at launch.

Phew, now that that's out of the way, let's get down to the part where I tell you what I thought of it.

I hopped on a demo station fairly early in the conference, as soon as the expo floor opened on Thursday morning. I dabbled in combat, talked to Patrick Wyatt for a bit and made my way to other appointments I had throughout the day. I knew of TERA's existence, and was certainly interested in taking a closer look at it (aside from my scheduled demo the next day), but that shiny booth drew me right in almost immediately. What's most important here is the fact that throughout the day, I just couldn't help but think of TERA and how much I wanted to get back to that booth for more gameplay as soon as I could.

My second time at the booth was during the demo the following morning. We ran through the game's details (listed above), which made me even more intrigued with getting my hands back on the game. After the demo, I waited in line for an open station (yes, there was quite a crowd around the booth by this time) and jumped back into the game. I created a few different characters to experiment with the casters versus melee and ranged.

The melee classes were fun, and seemed to be a big hit among demo players. The animations were flashy and exciting while wielding weapons slightly larger than you'd think possible -- a trademark of Korean MMOs these days. The ranged class had a fun little group shot dynamic that let you sweep your aim across multiple targets, let go of the button and shoot them all at once. Casters were my personal favorite, equipped with not only the normal ranged magic blast-of-energy spell, but also small orbs of healing they could prepare and drop for later healing when needed.

But I want to take a bit of time to explain more about the combat in TERA, because it deserves more attention.

All characters, despite the class, have a small aiming reticle in front of them at all times. When you are within range of an enemy, this reticle fills in and changes appearance to let you know when you can safely land a successful hit... or at least attempt one. The combat isn't based on any kind of lock-on or tab-targeting system where you're safe to be in the general vicinity to cause damage. You need to watch that reticle throughout combat because that's exactly where you'll be swinging that giant axe or firing off that ball of purple energy.

Not only does this make combat more responsive and involved, it allows the introduction of other mechanics like blocking with a shield or rolling out of the way of an impending thrust. Much like games such as Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, blocking and dodging has a purpose, even allowing critical misses from the enemies that could cause them to fall on their faces if timed right. Positioning also plays a large role in combat, as you can cause extra damage from behind. I found myself using my thumb much more than usual to reach those Z, X and C keys during battle, which didn't bother me one bit. Kiting enemies, dodging attacks and actually aiming my sword swings kept me focused on the task at hand, instead of staring at a giant skill bar and the 1-9 keys. The game also has full controller support, which works very well if you're more of an action-based console player.

In addition to this, there is a non-clipping and collision mechanic in place to prevent passing through another character and actually blocking monsters. This adds more than just the shield block I mentioned, as some classes take full advantage of the ability to push and body-block. The Lancer, for instance, has a skill to charge the enemy with rapid-fire thrusts, literally pushing the monsters back in the process.

Even with combat as fun as it was, I had to go exploring a bit. You just can't be in a game this incredibly gorgeous without searching out the best vistas and potential One Shots locations. It's just a thing. So I ran to a nearby city (completely persistent, no zoning) and climbed to the highest point to get a better look at what surrounded me. Off in the distance I could see active waterfalls, sweeping clouds and peculiar floating contraptions that made me think that this game has much more to it than a typical fantasy setting.

It's also important to note how armor works in this game. Armor sets are actually sets of armor, where you can't mix and match. There's only one armor slot, one weapon slot and one off-hand slot, allowing less customization, but seemingly more catered towards those who want to focus on combat. That's not to say the armor sets can't be customized though. Certain armor slots allow for more customization, but we weren't shown any details on that just yet.

One thing I found quite disheartening was the way monsters spawned almost instantly after killing them. And when they respawned, they materialized out of this strange digitized arrangement of blue boxes that almost reminded me of Tron or The Matrix.. At first, I thought it was just an art style decision, but Seraphina pointed out that this is contained in the lore.

See, the two continents of Arborea are actually the backs of fallen titans. The titans are unconscious, dreaming about a glorious world of peace and tranquility. As they dream, this beautiful world comes to life on their backs... forming Arborea and everything inside of it. However, recently, this odd island has appeared in the middle of the continents... an island that has no reason to exist. The races of Arborea have sent delegates to find out what's up with this island, and there they find that animals are being "dreamt" into existence at an alarming rate. And it's there where everyone's story starts.

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? I can't wait to find out more.

After leaving my second (considerably longer -- sorry people behind me!) hands-on time with the game, I was off to my other appointments. But again, I couldn't get TERA out of my mind. I wanted to go back and try more classes, more races and oh! I want to try out a few other combat moves to see how responsive it is if I try certain combos of block-roll-swing.

I did eventually go back, and I did find myself having even more fun each time. Taking into consideration the game's deep lore and wide race/class choices, I look forward to learning more about that in the coming months until beta and into launch early next year.

Even though many players are just plain tired of the "fantasy" setting by now, I predict TERA will still make an impressive impact next year when so many other releases will be heavily sci-fi.

This article was originally published on Massively.