Weekend warrior: Two days with TERA's beta berserker

TERA - Aman Berserker character screen
This all feels very familiar.

The gorgeous Asian aesthetics, the sexed-up avatars, and the hordes of high school tykes runting and squealing in global chat take me back to September of 2009 and the opening gyrations of the themepark orgy that was Aion.

Only this time, there are no angel wings, there's but one faction, and the game's called TERA.

TERA - Careful with that axe, Aman
Let me start off by saying that I loathe these quickie beta weekends. They're basically an MMORPG one-night stand, and you barely have time enough to get a good look at your breathless new crush of a game (never mind establish any chemistry) before she's out the door with a coy smile and a wink-nudge-I'll-call-you-later!

That said, I had a good time with TERA last weekend (certainly good enough to warrant a second date).

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TERA, part deux

This wasn't the first opportunity I've had to play TERA. During last month's GDC, Massively's MJ Guthrie and I braved the wilds of En Masse's Temple of Temerity horde-mode dungeon.

That was a tightly controlled showcase of a high-level instance, as producers Chris Hager (an Aion alumnus) and Stefan Ramirez held our hands in the play-through after they delivered an expertly choreographed spiel about TERA's various virtues (during which they managed to sidestep all inquiries about endgame, the political system, the economy, etc.). The four of us barely conquered the Temple instance, and it was all very rah-rah and exciting in that you-know-what's-going-to-happen-because-it's-a-big-budget-summer-blockbuster kind of way, but the long and short of it was that I didn't get to see the parts of the game that I wanted to see, nor did any of my questions get answered.

This beta weekend was different, and the only word that adequately sums up my solo TERA experience is pleasant. The game isn't really revolutionary, despite all the hullaballoo you've heard about action combat. It was fun enough, though, and it is undeniably attractive and polished to a spit-shine.

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Character creation

I rolled an Aman, and if you're not familiar with TERA's character classes or lore, let me sum up: They are the beastly folk with stone golem abs, hooves for feet, and weapons that dwarf their own considerable physiques.

I guess character creation is a good starting point, and it's a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand, TERA makes great use of the Unreal 3 engine; in fact, the game is easily one of the top two or three MMOs I've ever seen in terms of nifty character details and animation. It's just too bad that Bluehole and En Masse handicapped the sliders. Aside from the ability to sculpt some facial details, character creation basically consists of presets, and it falls well short of Aion's launch benchmark (never mind its updated standard). There are no body sliders at all, and if your ideal avatar build is short, skinny, fat, or otherwise outside the realm of supermodel perfection, you're out of luck.

Don't get me wrong; I love looking at TERA toons, but after a while it's like looking at Vogue or Vanity Fair brought to life: endless, unattainable perfection unbroken by any hint of blemish, realism, or relatable humanity. And my boobs were just way, way too big.

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MMO combat sucks

Let me be honest: I really don't like MMO combat. At all. And it's not because I'm one of those guys who want twitch FPS mechanics or whatever other "hardcore" assumptions you want to make. No, I actually think there's too much focus on fighting, period, and I'd be quite happy to play combat-free titles like A Tale in the Desert all day long if only they looked like TERA.

I was Massively's Age of Conan scribe for two years, and despite enjoying the game for quite a while prior to that, I absolutely despised its bunny-hopping, circle-strafing, jumping-bean-aping melee combat system (which is why I played a Demonologist).

Some people like all that extra crap, but I gotta tell you, when I sit down to play an MMO, the last thing I want to do is work. And that's exactly what most MMO combat is: work. You have to do a bunch of research to determine the optimum build, then you have to do a bunch of grinding to build up your muscle memory for combos (and acquire competitive gear), and then -- if it's an action game like Conan -- you have to flail around like a crack-addled spaz in both PvE and PvP.

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But TERA makes it suck less

TERA's combat is sorta different. I went with a Berserker for the weekend beta mostly because I have no intention of playing a melee character at release and I didn't want to spoil the Ranger or Sorcerer for later. Crazily enough, I had a terrific time with the class.

Berserkers are pretty much what the word implies: insane, axe-wielding madmen (or women, in my avatar's case) who think nothing of wading into danger and smacking it square in the kisser. The axe has a pretty small range, and a very... slow... attack... speed. The tradeoff here is that the attacks are stupid powerful. Woe be to the poor PvE mobs when you manage to land a blow or two.

Berserker animations are a sight to see, and I think I'll probably die quite a few times at higher levels just from gawking at the graceful whirling dervish that is my Aman and her weapon. TERA's interface is minimalistic, and the combat is intuitive enough to let you focus on your character (rather than stare at your hotbar cooldowns), but I see this being a distraction in terms of situational awareness, especially when the mobs get tougher. It's a good problem to have, though.

The class boasts several interrupt skills (stuns, knock-backs, and the like), but because of the methodical movement and deliberate attack speeds, you'll need to be pretty accurate with both your aiming and your timing to get the most out of a Berserker. Fortunately, the Island of Dawn has plenty of mobs to practice on, and by the end of the weekend, I felt reasonably confident in my ability to take on large groups of same-level enemies.

One final thing to note for those thinking of rolling the class is that it loses mana over time (and there is no out-of-combat mana regeneration). The traditional fantasy Berserker archetype is based on channeled rage, and TERA hits on a novel way to present this in gameplay terms by preventing the class from gaining mana outside of successful combat strikes.

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The verdict

There's a lot more to it, of course, but due to the limited beta weekend, it's mostly still hidden behind that mysteriously seductive level 10 veil. I didn't have the chance to play around with TERA's tradeskills or PvP (and I still didn't get any info on Vanarchs or the political system). I did see enough of the game to justify a pre-order and at least a month's worth of playtime at launch. Combat is evolutionary (if not revolutionary), and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more appealing gameworld in terms of polish and aesthetics.

Ultimately, TERA is like that cute girl I sat next to in some semester long past. We chatted, there were some shared interests, and I definitely wanted to spend some more time with her. How much time? That depends on a number of factors, and while this is all pretty exciting, it's still too early to tell just how exciting, you know?

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.