Last weekend I got a chance to try out the beta of TERA, and upcoming MMORPG from Blue Hole Studio and localized by En Masse Entertainment. I came in with high hopes: I was looking forward to a game with more to do than just raiding and with more of an action-game feel to it. I was a fan of Phantasy Star Universe and, since I had just played Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I was eager to get into the combat system.
At first, it was great fun. I started off as a Warrior, with a basic left-click attack and a right-click dodge. I was set. Slash and dodge, a familiar and effective formula. Then I noticed the five second cooldown on the dodge. Err, what? That put a big old kink in my plans to dive around all over the place. Still, I could handle it, I could still do this.
It all came crashing down when I reached the skill trainer. Like World of Warcraft, the vast majority of the skills you train from the trainer are just improved versions of skills you already have. After scrolling through pages and pages of upgrades, I managed to filter my options down to what I’d actually be able to do at level 50. And it amounted to “not much.”
I know Blue Hole was developing an action MMO and not a turn-based strategy game, but they should still have followed Sid Meier’s advice: “Games are a series of interesting choices.” And that’s exactly where TERA falls flat: as a player, I never got to make a choice at all.
In many MMOs, there is some choice to be made. Asheron’s Call gave players near full control over developing their characters. DAoC limited characters to choices of abilities relevant to their class, but choices dramatically influenced the way the class developed. WoW further narrowed things to talent trees, allowing players to make some choices about how to customize their character. EQ2 locked down classes, but gave talent-like options with Alternate Achievement rewards. Rift pulled back the other way and allowed players to customize their entire class by choosing three of eight possible talent trees to spec into. Even Planetside, the MMOFPS, let players pick and choose certifications to determine what weapons or vehicles they could use. Ultimately, every game presented players with interesting choices to define their character’s abilities.
TERA has zero customization. Every character of the same class will be the same.
Beyond character customization, most MMOs also present players with some interesting decisions to make in the heat of combat. OK, sure, many MMOs, especially at the upper tier, boil down to fairly rigid spell rotations or button mashing. But even if there aren’t many interesting choices when trying to maximize damage output on a specific boss, there are plenty of meaningful choices when the pressure is off, when you’re just out adventuring, killing monsters or questing.
Consider, for example, how Phantasy Star Universe, despite having rigid classes, gave players choices by letting each class use many weapons, and each weapon could have one of several Photon Arts (kind of like powerful spell combo attacks) attached to them. A player can have six weapons in their quickbar, able to switch between them in the heat of combat. A monster rushes at you: do you switch weapons? If so, which one do you take? That’s an interesting choice, and one you get to make very frequently. It keeps the excitement fresh despite the repetitive nature of the game.
TERA has zero weapon choices. Every class has one and only one weapon restricted to just that class.
Even when weapon choices are limited or non-influential, most MMOs present players with enough skills that they have some sort of choices. When you’re an Assassin in Rift and you’re sneaking up on a target, you have several attacks that can only be executed from stealth. You can only ever make one of these attacks to initiate each fight, but which one do you use? Then you build up some combo points… and which finisher do you use first? Second? When do you use your stun skill? What do you do to take advantage of the stun? Throughout the fight the player can potentially make interesting choices.
TERA doesn’t have any interesting skill choices during combat.
Yes, there are different skills, so you can choose from a few choices, but they aren’t interesting choices, and worst of all many are locked into specific sequenced triggers. As a warrior, I can use an ability that basically just attacks 4 times and triggers a dodge if I press the action button, and the dodge triggers a whirlwind attack, also linked to the same action button. But there’s no interesting choice: either I keep pressing the action button and execute the full combo or I don’t and… that’s it.
I only played TERA so far as to finish the tutorial island, and do a few more quests to get to level 14. So maybe there’s some massive gameplay thing that’s completely hidden from me, something that radically changes the game and makes it interesting after you grind a bit further through boredom. But I never saw it. If it’s there, the devs should consider introducing it earlier, like maybe level 1.
If not, I can only suggest going back to Sid Meier’s game-making 101: give players interesting choices to make!