Developer: Trion World
Release Date: 2010
I wound up seeing a lot of MMOs of various kinds at E3 this year, and a basic trend seemed apparent. Many developers are trying to change things up, whether it's through a free-to-play microtransaction-based subscription model, where you make your money off of people obsessed enough to want a unique coat, or by applying many tenets of the MMORPG to other kinds of games. CrimeCraft and Parabellum, for example, are MMO shooters, and Victory: The Age of Racing is an MMO racing game.
Then there's Heroes of Telara.
It takes a certain amount of sheer audacity to be working on a game like this in the current MMO market: an unabashedly trope-based fantasy MMO, complete with a very traditional take on character roles. You play as a fighter, thief, mage or cleric, with all of the usual MMO party roles firmly in place: somebody's the tank, somebody's a healer, and everyone else dishes out damage either in melee or from a distance. It's set in your standard-issue fantasy world of a quasi-medieval Europe without quite so much disease or horse crap on the streets.
Where Heroes of Telara departs from the formula is in character roles. While the roles themselves have not changed appreciably, a single character is capable of doing any one of these jobs at any given time.
Outside of combat, a character can change his or her base class whenever the player feels like it, going from fighter to mage to thief to cleric without a noticeable penalty. Anyone can tank; anyone can heal; anyone can do damage.
You can further specialize your role by equipping sub-class cards, which are available in the game world like any other piece of equipment would be: You can find them as drops, in stores, or as quest rewards, or get them from trainers or treasure chests. A given sub-class card interacts with the base class to create a new class for the player, with appropriate specialties and vulnerabilities, and you can even do so in the middle of a fight.
In the E3 demo, while defending a village from a bunch of monsters, the player switched sub-class cards to turn his basic fighter into a berserker, capable of dealing AoE damage to multiple enemies at once. This allowed him to wade into the mobs and take them all on simultaneously, which his previous tank-ish build couldn't handle.
When a mini-boss showed up in the village's square, he had a couple of abilities that made closing to melee range with him a really bad idea. Fortunately, the player had another sub-class card that allowed him to transform his berserker — in mid-combat — into a grave lord. Now, thusly equipped, he could harass the boss from afar with spells and summoned skeletons.
This does bring up a host of points and observations, of course. For one thing, the game's developers don't have to balance the game for every possible situation, as they're free to put monsters or encounters into Heroes of Telara that are blatant, unapologetic screwjobs for one character type or another; witness the melee-proof mini-boss up there, for example. The ability to switch from class to class in mid-fight seems like it'd make PvP balance a nightmare, though, and for that matter, you know the player base is going to consist of the usual pack of nimrods who stick to one role like glue and refuse to switch no matter what. (Witness the "DPS death knights" of WoW.) Further, the fact that anyone can do anything would presumably result in a great deal of homogenization, unless some of the sub-class cards wind up being really hard to get.
The catchphrase that Trion uses for Heroes of Telara is "server-based." With a lot of the in-game action corresponding directly to the game's server, they're free to throw in a randomly changing world that actually shifts according to the players' actions. In the aforementioned example, the village being besieged by monsters is still visibly scarred by the aforementioned siege after you defeat them; other players will be able to come along and see the village as it appears to you. The village won't be absolutely the same now and three years from now.
Heroes of Telara is the first game under development from the Trion World Network, a relatively new development team that's being funded by Time Warner. Members of the team have worked on virtually every noteworthy MMO to come out over the course of the last few years. It's got a decent pedigree, even if it raises more questions than it solves.
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