On the ground it’s less impressive though. Not because the fidelity is any worse, but because the game spends so much of its early hours giving you grassy plains filled with bland-looking critters. In terms of moment-to-moment splendour, Aion was both more striking and more alien. The netcode can also struggle to keep up with Unreal Engine 3. Creature pop-in is noticeable, and having to go out of your way to look for monsters makes for annoying detours.
You soon settle into the rhythm of discovering an outpost, hoovering up the available quests, before heading out into the wilds to massacre everything that moves. After The Old Republic, where a sense of story meant I listened to the most trivial mission instructions, TERA had me fall back into the old habit of not reading a single line.
None of this is fun. Uninspired quests, unchallenging enemies and uninteresting story delivery make you engage gaming autopilot. It’s still strangely compelling, in the way that any super-grindy MMO is, as the slow tick of levels and better equipment appeals to some carnal desire for bigger numbers. In order to make it through this phase I took to playing old DVD boxsets in the background. I derived no enjoyment from TERA for about 21 episodes of The West Wing.
Then, suddenly, it came alive. At the start of level 20 I resented the game. By level 21 I had a quest list full of five-man missions, and was in the middle of a long, challenging dungeon full of tough, hard-hitting enemies and giant boss monsters. In group play there’s finally a real sense of danger, and the combat system starts to make sense in the presence of an actual threat. Enemies lay down area-of-effect attacks, charge, jump and generally punish anyone not staying attentive and nimble.
Monsters become weirder, locations become more exotic, and you unlock further customisation options in glyphs, which can be applied to your favourite skills for stat boosts or MP reductions. It’s as if all the good stuff was deliberately held back for this arbitrary point along a character’s progression.
The grind isn’t eliminated, with plenty of solo stretches beyond the 20 mark, but there are enough reasons to jump into a group along the way to break up the worst of the mission design.
Whether TERA can keep that momentum up into the endgame remains to be seen. At launch, all that unlocked for players who hit the level-cap of 60 were a couple of extra dungeons. As more players reach the cap over the next few weeks, the plan is to introduce PvP battlegrounds, server-wide ‘Nexus’ raids and a political system that will let the winning guild take power over their server – but for now, the top tier are left underserviced.
On the one hand MMOs are about the long view, and rewarding those who truly put the time in to get the most out of them. But then, if there’s a lesson to take from the emergence of genuinely great free-to-play titles, it’s that time is the most valuable resource you can ask of a player. TERA wastes your time, and charges £10 a month for the privilege.
That makes TERA difficult to score. I want to raise that 64% every time I jump into a group, and lower it every time I think back to the long, lonely road to that point. In the end, I’ve settled somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
That number comes with both the caveat that the first 15 or so hours are genuinely insufferable, and also with the recommendation that I’m going straight back into the fray to play some more.
Heavy grind will rightly put people off, but make it to grouping and its combat shines. Some of the races are still creepy though.