If one genre was under-represented at this year's GDC, it was the Massively Multiplayer Online game. Sure, there were enough social networking games to choke an elephant, but where were the developers still brave enough to create a full-on MMO?
Keeping the faith for fantasy MMO players amidst the flood of Farmvilles was En Masse games with its upcoming “next generation” online game, TERA. It makes sense they should refer to it as next generation, since the game's storyline revolves around the Federation—the Valkyon Federation, that is. Whoever controls this organization controls the world of TERA, so the many races: the reptilian Aman, sexy-demon Castanics, yeti-like Baraka, cute-and-cuddly Popori, Humans and High Elves, are constantly fighting it out for Federation dominance. It was hinted that players have direct control over the game's economy and political system, but beyond that, the presenters were mum on what exactly TERA is about and preferred to focus on the game's combat system.
Created by the makers of Lineage, TERA exhibits certain similarities to its spiritual ancestor, but expands considerably on them. The majority of MMOs feature turn-based combat, but TERA features positional-based combat that allows you to dodge or block attacks. This means, for instance, that tanks can position themselves in front of the party and instead of relying entirely on drawing aggro, can literally use their bodies as a shield, preventing weaker party members from getting hit. En Masse sees this unique approach as combining a “console sensibility with the benefits of an MMO”. We got to see this combat system in action while running around a grassy, sunlit area, playing as a curvaceous female sorcerer. Sure enough, the mouse-based combat did feel much more like a console action game, something that will probably take some getting used to for the majority of MMO players. (Note: if you just can't get into the mouse control, TERA will support game controllers at launch.)
In addition to its action-style combat, TERA features a non-faction approach to gameplay. With no over-arching factional division built into the game, players have a lot of freedom; any race can group with any other race. The game offers eight classes: Archer, Berserker, Lancer, Mystic, Priest, Slayer, Sorcerer and Warrior. All classes will have abilities unique to their class, but everyone will have the same access to the game's crafting mechanics, which from what we gathered, are the only non-combat-related skill system so far in place. We were told that the best items come from player crafting rather than drops and as such, crafting will enable players to directly control the game's economy.
In addition to combat, during the demo, we were given a glimpse of the starting area, which in TERA is the same for everyone. Apparently the developers chose to avoid creating unique starting points for each race, in favor of focusing their efforts on making movie-quality graphics. Whether or not you dig the gameplay, you can't deny the quality of the graphics which from environments to characters, are really exceptional. No surprise really, since this is the standard for a big-budget MMO coming out of Asia. Unfortunately, the demo only showed us the starting area and the aforementioned sunny-flowery space our sorceress was fighting in, but we were told that the game features a wide range of similarly gorgeous (though varied) environments, including an impressive collection of indoor and outdoor dungeons.
Although details regarding TERA's story are vague at present, we were told that it's being written by a team of veteran fantasy authors who, having worked in games, know what it takes to write for interactive media. In addition to this, and the obviously talented art team, we were told North American audiences will benefit from the game's early release in Asia, because by the time the game arrives in the 'States, all balancing issues should be worked out and leveling rates set specifically to serve Western gamers' expectations. TERA is set for release in Asia this summer and will be released in the U.S. early in 2011 on a monthly subscription basis. The beta is set to begin later this year; anyone wanting to sign up for the beta should visit the TERA website and sign up for the monthly newsletter.