Tera Hands-on Preview

At last year's GDC I got my first look at Tera, an interesting massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) being brought to the west from South Korea. It looked like many similar such high-fantasy themed games, until I was handed an Xbox controller to play it. Unlike the games it resembles, Tera approaches combat differently, with players moving around, attacking, blocking, and dodging like they would in an action game. Back then the controller got that point across, but it was too early to see much beyond hacking and slashing a few monsters.

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This year I got to play Tera again, this time with a mouse and keyboard to illustrate that it's an equally viable control setup. When the game launches, the choice between the two probably comes down to deciding between moving with the WASD keys or a thumbstick. Everything else is customizeable to fit the character being played and their skills.

For instance, in the demo I played as a berserker--one of Tera's heavy fighters designed to be up front, engaged with the enemy, inflicting as much damage as possible. They wield enormous axes--the most powerful weapon in the game as a matter of fact--that strike hard and cut a broad swath. It can be swung in a standard strike that does considerable base damage, or used in a number of special skill attacks. In this I demo I had available a flattening ground smash that would stun an enemy, a big whirling attack that could hit a number of enemies around me, and a vampiric strike that stole some health from the target when it hit.

As my primary attack, I left the standard strike mapped to the left mouse button. From there I wound up with the smash on the button next to it. This arrangement worked out well both for initiating attacks and getting out of trouble if I needed to slow an enemy down a little to regroup. Then I left the other two on the number keys. As this description of skills probably gives away, combat has evolved beyond just smack it till it dies.

Tera winds up in a fairly unique middle ground between the multi-button combos of an action game and the click-on-icons-for-actions of a traditional MMO. Like the former, I needed to stay active around enemies, moving for good fighting position and watching their "tells"--signature animations that give away attacks--to know when to block. But like the latter, when I wanted to really get in some licks, I fired off my skills. In the end I wound up dancing around enemies a lot, hitting and blocking, but all the while keeping an eye on recharging skills to know when I could get in and hit them harder.

Once I got into the rhythm, I enjoyed the pace of the action. It's not without its challenges, though. The toughest I faced was using my chargeable skills while moving around. The whirlwind attack, for instance, could be charged by holding down the key. But since I'd mapped that to a number key, I had to twist my fingers to get down to WASD while holding it down.

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Tera uses a simple pop-up system to avoid similar issues with finger gymnastics when trying to chain combos in the heat of battle. Whenever a skill could be used as a combo, or situational bonus--like a rising strike, its icon appeared on my cursor. I could then use it with a tap of the space bar. I thought I'd dislike this for being too automatic, but in play it felt right in keeping with the pace of action.

Though already out in Korea, publisher En Masse entertainment is taking its time bringing Tera to North America. Well aware of the reputation for "grinding" in Korean MMORPGs, the team is spending a lot of time balancing out things like level progression and quest management. They can do this because they are also reconstructing the game's story from the ground up for the west. Both are smart steps that should help Tera's appeal when it comes out here later this year. After my brief demo, I'm definitely interested in playing more and seeing how it works out.