Launched last week, Tera's goal is to take the often staid world of MMO questing and add a hefty infusion of "True Action Combat". Here are a few thoughts from the launch and the first 20-and-a-bit levels to help give you an idea of whether it's the MMO for you.
As far as background goes, Tera is a fairly standard fantasy set-up, with the slight twist that it's not so much a place as the dream of two sleeping gods - one apparently handling the hero stuff while the other fantasises about boobs. Get used to seeing those. From the character creation screen to the chat window to the big statue in Tera's capital city, this is a world that could seriously use a few drops of bromide in its health potion vats.
But let's focus on more relevant things for the moment.
What "True Action Combat" means is that instead of carving your way through all this by merely hitting Tab to select an enemy and then hot-keying it to death, Tera puts its focus on moving around, dodging attacks directly, and playing with tactical elements like getting behind an enemy to slice it up. One click of the mouse or press of a joypad button means one attack, and if you're not acting like a whirling dervish, you're probably dead.
Does this make that much of a difference? Raise your hand. Turn it horizontally in front of your face. Wiggle it around while saying "Eeeehhhh...."
In regular fights, the simple answer is no. It makes them a bit more involving, but at heart, standard MMORPG combat rules are in play - probably best summed up by the fact that dodging has a five-second cooldown. Beyond the hacks and slashes of your main weapon, you're still shooting off attacks with hot keys, and it's all very familiar stuff.
In particular, dodging only takes you so far. You can avoid some damage with good timing, but it tends to be a question of hitting the key when you see the enemy revving up for a super-attack and getting out of their way. It's not bad, and is still an improvement on the older style of MMO combat that at least keeps things flowing. As a Warrior, for instance, you blitz around with dual swords and execute special moves like leaping back to your feet for retaliation when knocked on your back. Compared to other modern MMOs it looks stylish, but really isn't all that different when fighting the regular mobs that soak up the bulk of your heroic murdering time.
Things get a lot better when you start fighting elite enemies, or "Big Ass Monsters", as Tera puts it. Here, the feel is closer to an arcade game's combat, with a much higher priority put on your skill. Their big reserves of health and hefty damage-dealing abilities mean you really have to nail your timing, and doing so makes you feel like you're fighting a good chunk above your weight class. There are issues with this, notably that Tera uses an enemy tagging system that both discourages people from bailing you out and means you can lose credit for your kill, but there's a genuine feeling of accomplishment when a BAM falls.
The catch? Aside from a couple of tutorial encounters, you don't get to fight any of those guys until Level 20. I wouldn't go as far as to say that you could finish something like Bayonetta before Tera gives you your first really satisfying battle, but you could definitely make serious headway. Far, far too much of it.
Worse, especially in comparison with other MMOs, is that the only thing you get to do during those hours and hours is outdated and very boring quest design. Where the upcoming Guild Wars 2 has its events and personal stories, post-Cataclysm World of Warcraft has well-honed craziness and fellow action-MMO DC Universe Online has cool unique instances, questing in Tera is a rarely broken chain of uninspired busywork. Slightly pacier combat doesn't make it any more involving, at least not for very long, and the occasional escort mission or fight against a few waves of enemies isn't enough to compensate for the blandness.
This isn't helped by the setting, which is beautiful on a technical level, but creatively, oddly barren. Despite the potential for really interesting scenery and set-pieces, the most imaginative part of the game so far is the character creation screen, where Tera takes one look at the spiked shoulders and chainmail bikinis of standard MMO heroes and rockets to a whole new level of crazy. Female characters are lucky if they get a bra, never mind an entire shirt, while the men are so bishie that the sparkling might actually blind you. Both, of course, wield insanely oversized weapons that would make an anime hero blush.
(Just to seal the fan-service deal, while male characters get an exclusive on the animalistic Popori and stern Baraka giants, the only all-girl option is the apparently prepubescent Elin, which would be a hell of a lot less dodgy if the character creator didn't like serving up random panty shots along with your options.)
Get past the fashion show, and a few nice touches like the sigil-spitting sun can't disguise the lack of cool sights to enjoy or how much time you spend running around bland woods and even blander green plains. You really have to work to see anything with a bit of pep to it - the great hall of the Eldritch Academy and its pumpkin-themed clock for instance - and those moments seem few and far between. I tried venturing out on my trusty horse in search of more, but soon got unceremoniously stopped by a great big force field. Sigh.
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Wandering back to civilisation, it was with a certain heavy heart. Tera has some great individual elements: a mini-map that highlights precisely where to find spawn-points and enemies for individual quests; a community that feels friendly when it's not going "lol boobies" or spamming for guild members; a tutorial that is ghastly but offers a taste of your class at level 20 so that you can see if you like it; top production values; and a combat system that's good fun when it actually gives you something worth fighting. At the same time though, it's a more old-school MMO than it might look, and that has a serious effect on its pacing and approach to quests and mechanics.
There are some interesting features later on in the game that I didn't get to take a look at, including a political system that lets guilds take over parts of the world, invasions by swirly Nexus things in certain territories, and of course, endgame raids and instances where the combat system can really come into its own. Oddly, one thing you'd expect to be ready - player-versus-player battlegrounds - is missing in action, due to be added later this year.
Tera is worth taking a look at if the combat sounds appealing, or if you've played other action MMOs like DC Universe and wished they had a fantasy setting. Unfortunately, there's no trial available. There is however a code in the box for people who buy it to give a friend 7 days' worth of free access, so you might get lucky in the forum or comments thread if you don't know anyone with a copy.