UI, AI, and Oh My… – A TERA Preview from GDC 2011

At GDC 2011, the En Masse crew reiterated their claim that they’re bringing the most action-packed MMO experience to the west in TERA. They even brought talking points that, they promised, would be self evident in the level 20 dungeon instance laid out like a buffet of gaming goodness on the 4 desktops before us. Advanced AI, a clean interface, combos, and “big ass monsters” were on the menu, but was the proof in the pudding? We journeyed into Smuggler’s Hideout to see for ourselves.

Talking point #1: advanced AI. To date, in MMORPGs, AI has been just that – highly artificial as in aspartame fakeness. Associate Producer Stefan Remirez promised that in TERA, mobs would fight smarter. Tanks would come forward to protect casters in the rear. DPS units would attempt to circle around players in order to exploit positional attack bonuses.

That's a big pile of rocks!

Stefan concisely summed up the concept: “They fight like we do.”And, as hit points drop, monsters would become enraged, hitting harder and acting far less predictably. Boss monsters also don’t play fair, occasionally spawning in adds, and all bosses have tells. A flashing belt buckle, a tap of the foot, pincers placed on the ground… basically, if a boss does or radiates something that’s completely out of the ordinary, you know the hurt is coming. And you should probably move or block.

The evidence was slim, but I think most of this proved out in the hands-on portion. We didn’t fight complex groupings of enemies – just a series of trash mobs and a boss – but our healer quickly drew the boss’s ire by overhealing, finally succumbing to the enraged Soulcrusher in the closing moments of the fight. Fortunately, Ben, our valiant tank, felled the box of rocks with only a few hit points to spare.  As for my contribution, I mostly (mistakenly) spammed a positional ability, knocking myself out of range for my damage-dealing spell. I wrote that to write this: TERA is an action-oriented game, but definitely not a button-masher.

Laying the smackdown.

Talking point #2: A clean and efficient UI. Producer Chris Hager brought up a ludicrously busy UI shot that could have been taken in just about any MMO from DDO to EverQuest 2 to World of Warcraft, asked us if this player could do anything but play the user interface, not the game. We guffawed and chortled assent, trying not to think of the laundry list of addons we had installed. Next, Chris showed us a screenshot of TERA. I think the chat window had faded to total transparency and no enemy was targeted, but the point was made: TERA’s UI seeks to restore the player’s focus to the center of the screen.

I personally thought this particular point was hoo-hah – that UI elements we simply scaled down to give the world more real estate, and as my eyesight gets worse from playing these games far too much (get off my lawn, MMOs!), I’m less and less amused.

But, despite my misgivings, Chris is actually right – TERA’s interface does keep your attention on the center of the screen. It works, and I think it primarily works by not allowing free mouse cursor movement a la DC Universe Online, but the interface is barebones enough that I learned my primary hotbar skills. Watching the screen as a sorcerer (a male this time, not Marilyn Monroe the jauntily prancing TERA sorceress), I had much more battlefield awareness, so to speak, and as such I stayed on the edge of my effective spell range.

I think this is going to hurt.

My tetherball-like positioning around the boss mob was greatly aided by a targeting reticule that grew a florid metallic circle when I was in range. Yet lobbing a magma glob (my ability name, not theirs) at the boss in my ironsights didn’t guarantee a hit – the Soulcrusher was surprisingly lithe pile of rocks, jumping the room. Which sort of goes back to Talking Point #1.

Talking point #3: combos. Stefan explained that abilities can be chained together, and if you do so correctly, you’ll be presented with the opportunity for a finisher. I don’t think I ever did so correctly, only discovering the most common of combos: Retaliate. If you’re knocked down, you’ll be prompted to hit the spacebar to retaliate. Hit the spacebar in the narrow time window accorded you, and you’ll spring into back to action like Bruce Lee, scoring a solid hit if your enemy is in your sights.

My sorceror did, however, have a few very cool hotbar abilities that simultaneously attacked and repositioned my character. One dropped a pillar of flame and simulated a knockback (without the nasty stun effect hangover) to get me the heck out of Dodge. It would have been useful had I ever played well enough to be in danger of drawing aggro. Instead, my LMB attack – a fast moving fireball struck with regularity for a minor damage, but my RMB attack – a slow moving energy pulse – struck almost never for a lot of damage.

That's a mighty big lance or are you just happy to see me?

I should also mention blocking. Future TERA players: make sure your “C” key works. C is for cookie, but it’s also for clobbered, crushed, and creamed, which is exactly what you’ll be as a meleer if you don’t use C to block. As a sorceror, I mostly just did laps,

Talking point #4: Big Ass Monsters. God of War put gigundous boss mobs on the map, but this is one gameplay meme that will probably never go out of style. And TERA has this in spades. Demo footage showed other boss mobs, one a homage to the giant worms in “Tremors”, Lovecraftian pincered boss mobs, hulking basilisk mobs, creepy ass spider mob. And the Soulcrusher we fought was mammoth, but didn’t move like it was mammoth. It certainly hit like its size, though.

Our GDC 2011 TERA demo ended far too quickly, but thankfully, after our drubbing at PAX Prime 2010, Team Hammer was back on the win board.

Here’s a quick video look at Smuggler’s Hideout:


Stefan promised that TERA would launch in 2011, and while we’ll personally hold him accountable to that statement (you should too, with forum hate), we want to thank Stefan Remirez, Chris Hager, and the entire En Masse team for taking the time to show us a bit more about TERA at GDC 2011.

I'm sure that this is a happy place...

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