Tera Online hands-on: Bringing the BAMs

It's tough finding a good-looking MMORPG these days. Most developers cut back on the visuals to ensure that their game can run on a variety of systems without bogging down the servers, and too often the result is that they look like something out of 2006. By contrast, Tera is one fine looking game, and an intriguing action MMO to boot.

Original developer Bluehole Studio based it on Unreal Engine 3; and impressively for what is a notoriously finicky engine, it both looks and plays great. Ask BioWare or Silicon Knights: that's not necessarily an easy feat. And the visuals are bright and interesting, which is a far cry from the muddy browns the engine is usually known for.

Tera has been available in Korea since January, and it's coming to North America courtesy of En Masse Entertainment. In a departure from the free-to-play model that tends to dominate games from that region though, Tera will be subscription-based. En Masse hopes that the excellent visuals and the action-based, "console-like" gameplay will be enough to distinguish it from the likes World of WarCraft.

Tera's combat retains the familiar skill bar, but En Masse's stated goal is to take the focus off the hotkeys and put it on the action instead. The user interface hasn't been completely removed, but it has been dramatically streamlined. The skill bar, chat window and map all take up relatively little real estate on the screen, and can be moved around at will.

Referring to the habit of gamers to modify their interfaces, producer Chris Hager said, "We realize that there is a very popular UI community out there, but what it's become is that players are playing the mods rather than the game."

The combat ends up being a pretty delicate balancing act, as various skills are activated via hotkeys while the mouse is used to fire off attacks. It's a system that in many ways feels better suited for a controller, which will thankfully be supported in the final release. During the demo though, we had to stick with the good old mouse and keyboard.

Combat took place in the "Smuggler's Hideout," which is home to a host of demonic creatures and one BAM – what the development team calls a "Big Ass Monster." We were put into a party that included a mage, a priest, a warrior and a tank, and we were soon fighting for our lives against a relatively ordinary mob.

The party's healer wasn't quite strong enough to keep everyone's hitpoints up during the onslaught, so the tank had a harder time than usual staying upright. For our part, we stuck to the back ranks and pelted the enemy with spells like "Blazing Barrage" and "Flame Pillar," both of which are fairly reliable area attack spells. The mage was also a member of a race called the "Castanics," which meant that he had a racial ability that dramatically increased his speed.

It wasn't apparent during the battle, but the mobs have apparently been programmed to act as much like players as possible. That means that they party up, tank and heal other monsters as much as possible. The ones in the Smuggler's Den were mostly intent on mobbing us (with some success), but superior AI could make for more interesting encounters in higher level instances.

One area where intelligence was more evident was in the boss. En Masse made a point of talking up their BAMs as much as possible, which serve to give Tera a faint whiff of popular Japanese franchises like Monster Hunter (the fact that it originated in Korea helps as well). Like the monsters from Capcom's game, Tera's BAMs exhibit their own unique behavior, offering certain "tells" before launching attacks and periodically going berserk.

Boss battles in Tera tend to result in full-scale chaos, as the combat is based more on skill than hidden dice rolls. Having to line up and launch an attack can be tricky when you're a warrior, particularly when a terrifying rock monster is bearing down upon you. Evasion moves becomes more important than ever in these encounters, as many of the attacks can be hideously damaging.

Hager explained that it was a deliberate decision designed to put the action more in the hands of the players, "It's all about direction and positioning; am I aggressive, am I defensive. It's not managed by the die roll, but by the player and the skill of the player."

After several minutes of dodging, healing and trying to get in close enough to Flame Pillar, the rock monster finally went down. That particular instance takes place at Level 20, which puts it near the midpoint of the game. When Tera launches, the cap will be level 60.

No release window yet, but En Masse expects to release Tera by the end of the year. Being one more in a long line of Korean MMOs, it may end up flying under the radar. Given the excellent graphics and entertaining combat though, it deserves any attention it gets.

Mar 14, 2011