I'm suffering some kind of Inception-style reality. I'm on a beach on a beach. The first beach is in Berlin, Germany (a country that's landlocked), and is nothing if not pretty. It's on this beach that I'm getting my first chance to play TERA, a Korean MMO with lofty ambitions. The second beach is in Southern Shara – a continent in TERA - and it's possibly the most beautiful sand construction I've ever seen. It's also built using the Unreal engine, which confuses me even more. Are not all Unreal-powered games, y'know, depressingly grey in aesthetic?
This beach stroll emphasises how incredibly pretty the world of TERA is. MMO's are generally expected to be visually delicious, but this really is something else. A lush pallet of greens, blues and purples explode from the fauna that extend across the horizon to my left, whist on my right an impeccably animated tide laps at the softened sand. For a moment, a fellow play tester and I just stand to take it all in. This is area discovery at its finest. And I still can't believe this is Unreal tech. Unreal is the engine known for its almost exclusively muted pallet of browns, grey, more grey and black. Yet here I am sauntering down the prettiest beach I've ever seen digitally created. The engine seems an odd choice to me as an outsider, but for Blue Hole Studio Chief Producer Chul-Woong Hwang, it was the only option. He and his team have been using Unreal tech since the days of Unreal 2, and have become used to the system's capabilities. “One of the strengths of Unreal 3 is its ability to do customisation, especially shader customisation,” explained Hwang. “The world of TERA in many respects is very bright compared to other Unreal 3 games... Because there was a unique goal to provide a unique colouring within the world of TERA, it was a possibility for us.”
This 'can do' attitude from the team at Black Hole Studios has produced many striking departures from the norm for TERA. Not only have they outright defied the standards of Unreal and made a remarkably colourful world, but they have rejected the set conventions of MMO combat regimes to produce something wholly different. Unique among its rivals, TERA actually delivers on its promise of action combat. Positioning is crucial to dealing the best damage, and hack'n'slash styled mechanics actually work impressively well, as I'm about to find out.
My new adventuring buddy and I approach yet another visual feast; this time something more mobile. There are plenty of dog-sized creatures along the beach just asking to be burnt alive by my sorcerer's powers, but the giant crab just a few steps away is screaming for my attention. We strike, and start to recall the lessons of combat that we were taught previously. I position myself so that there is space to dive out the way should the crab lunge forward with its ridiculously over-sized pincers, but am close enough to sear its flesh with my spells. I have a target reticule at the centre of the screen to aim with; there's no target-lock here. Using the left and right mouse buttons I fire off blasts of flame and ice from my fingertips. Their cool downs are almost instant; I can plough fireballs into my foe at a machinegun pace. Thankfully my heavily-armoured friend is keeping the beast at arm's length, allowing me to focus on building up combos. After a few bolts of energy hit home an on-screen prompt tells me to hit the spacebar. I do, and flames erupt from beneath the crab.
I recall another combat lesson as the crab starts to do a little dance. Its flailing limbs signal it's about to unleash a special attack, and there's now just precious nano-seconds to escape its reach. I run, but my tank is hammered to the floor. I turn to offer magical support, but he's not getting up. With no one to be my knight in shining armour, the crab quickly reduces me to nothing.
Monstrosities such as this crab live everywhere in TERA's three continents. Each one is meticulously designed and offers a distinct challenge. Against them your ability with a mouse and keyboard is as equally important as the number of skills and buffs you've accumulated. Combat isn't quite Devil May Cry, but there's a distinct need for some twitch skill. The combat can even be done using a controller (although trying to navigate menus and quest logs with analogue sticks is near enough impossible). This true real-time combat offers a new sense of physicality that we've not really seen before in MMOs, a feeling that's accentuated further when playing as one of the close-combat classes. Slamming a sword that weights twice your own body weight into a lumbering great knight is immensely satisfying.
As you start to climb the ranks though, it becomes very obvious that you can't enjoy this power on your own for very long. Even at high-level and packing the best skills and gear, TERA does not lend well to the solo MMO player. Whilst playing my starter character (a Castanic Slayer) in the opening zones, my heavy-handed sword techniques destroyed my enemies with ease. When trying out some of the level 35 areas, even with the fully-upgraded talents of my Popori Mystic I couldn't take on even a lone standard mob on my own. In order to encourage team play, Blue Hole have implemented campfires. They come in two forms; portable which can be laid by players, and permanent which are static in the world. Around these dancing flames players can gather to form raiding parties and discuss tactics and opportunities. However, campfires offer more than just social galvanisation. They boost stamina, which is essential for combat and so are pretty much a necessity before heading into dungeons. Even better, players can throw charms into the flames that will buff all players standing around the fire, regardless of party or guild ties. What better way to unite a bunch of solo players than offering a buff before suggesting buddying up and venturing into the depths of a Mayan-inspired tomb?
Team combat then is very much the focus of TERA, which is a solid direction to take. Whilst battle is a deep and satisfying affair, TERA's questing system offers nothing you've not seen elsewhere. For a large proportion of your journey to the upper levels, it looks like you'll be travelling to destination A to kill X amount of Y, to then return your collection of item Z to area B. The developers are keen to emphasise that there's little to no grind in TERA, but that's not strictly true. Whilst you won't be grinding outside of quests to gain the needed XP, the quests in themselves seem frequently grind based. There may be pretty cutscenes to break them up, but TERA doesn't offer the much needed revolution MMOs require on the questing front.
Instead, Blue Hole have focused on the core element of the genre; multiple players. It's one thing to best another player in one-on-one combat, but it's another thing to beat them on an all together more mental strategy. One of TERA's back-of-the-box bullet points is its political system. Players will be able to out manoeuvre each other in a game of popularity, with a political scramble for control of each of the game's three continents. And should that not be a lofty enough ambition for you, there's also the chance to become the ruler of the whole realm. So far the details of the whole system are a little hazy, but Chul-Woong Hwang explains that “each user has the opportunity to vote for elected officials in each zone. These elected officials have the ability to influence the economic system within the world of TERA. For example, they have the ability to provide additional buffs and to upgrade other players combat within a specific region.” The rulers of the three continents – known as Vanarchs - are then able to appoint someone to act as Exarch, who will wield even more power: “these three main officials have the opportunity to have one main leader, which will have influence over the whole server. This main official will be the leader in sever to sever – SvS - competition.”
In regards to visual awe, combat regimes and social interaction, Blue Hole Studios are being ambitious with TERA. It's an ambition they can't afford to mess up on; as a subscription-charging MMO they are going to be up against the biggest of the industry's heavyweights. But should the care and attention that's been put into the games core features leak over into every area, there's no reason to doubt that TERA has the potential to make its mark.