We've been secretly playing The Elder Scrolls Online in Mayland, USA. Now, it's time to share our thoughts.
By James Pinnell on March 20, 2013 at 12:36 am
The Elder Scrolls Online finds itself in an unenviable position, where the two elements that it is attempting to combine are, ironically, quite incompatible.
On the one hand, you have the traditional Elder Scrolls experience — in this case Skyrim — that offers a reasonably ambitious sandbox in order to meet your armour hoarding, guard pickpocking, and naked dragon-hunting needs. On the other, Zenimax need to build a title within the MMO guidelines that define the boundaries of the online framework: a functioning economy, consistent access to content, and rewarding progression.
Thus the key to creating a successful fusion of these two competing sides requires a lot of careful research and experimentation — something that may possibly disappoint the stalwarts on the hard right and left of the spectrum. But if you’re one of those sitting in the middle, willing to compromise on a few freedoms here and there in order to enjoy what is actually quite a well designed rendition of The Elder Scrolls rolled into a theme park, then put on your knee guards and come hither.
You might be surprised to find that the world has not, in fact, ended.
It’s hardly a secret, after all the media releases, trailers and screenshots that have crept out of Bethesda over the past year, that what Zenimax Online Studios were busy creating was not a ten-thousand player duplication of Skyrim. Although the developers have certainly moved on from their original choice of the much maligned and restrictive Hero Engine for their core mechanics, what I played for three hours in the suburban outskirts of Cockeysville, Maryland was — as Studio Head Mark Firor put it — the “core game”. Even so, unpolished, unfinished and missing one of the more game-changing features, there is actually a lot to like.
Straight off the bat, TESO is pulling out all of the stops to ensure you are comfortable. People worth talking to glow an interesting shade of yellow, indicating a quest or an objective. There are maps, both small and large, to highlight where you should be heading alongside areas of interest. A grand, dynamic score booms throughout the expansive, detailed environments, complete with that chunky, slightly realistic art style you would recognize from the series’ predecessors. NPCs voice every single line, offering you a varied number of available responses, as well as choices that the developers promise will reverberate throughout the entire game.
It doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things either — while the tutorial was not finished at the time of the play test, we were given a short guide before our hands-on to how the new combat system worked. Thankfully, TESO has joined with more recent efforts like TERA and Guild Wars 2 by featuring a mouse heavy control scheme that rewards movement: quick left-clicks the allow for short and swift attacks, with a longer one offering significantly more damage in return for a delay. Right-clicking will block attacks, either reducing blows or throwing an enemy off-guard, opening them up for a more direct piste.
Hotkeys are still used in order to activate specific spells or skills, but thanks to a clever AI system known as “Enemy Synergy”, most fights feel spontaneous enough to remove that feeling of rotational monotony. Mobs will call on others to help them, circling or moving around to disorient or sneak up on you. They’re also a lot more likely to kick you in the arse if you’re unwilling to make use of crowd control. The developers have also done a valiant job of reducing the focus on UI and numbers to gamify combat — outside of a few bars to show stamina and skills, there are no cooldowns.
I was impressed by the combat system, although the decision to make us start from level one meant that much of the challenge posed by stronger enemies in larger groups left us wanting to see how this new AI system really performed. Thankfully, there were a few other tricks left in the sack; like the use of various disguises in order to sneak past enemies to complete difficult missions solo, or using lockpicks in order to open chests of various difficulty levels. There was also plenty of stuff to pick up although, sadly, those looking to fill with house of swords, shields and cooking pots will leave disappointed.
One of the major points that the team were falling over themselves to push was the expansive progression and ability system. Each skill line focuses, essentially, on one type of area, from your weapons, to your armour, healing and lockpicking. Equipping items and putting skills in your hotbar enables them to level as you do, splitting the overall pool of experience across all of your active elements. As using lightning magic repeatedly in Skyrim would level it, focusing on particular ability classes will do the same, allowing for vastly customised sub-classes of player.
It’s a sound system, and bears a lot of resemblance to both the series and other MMOs such as Guild Wars 2, which reward the continued focus and use of specific abilities and equipment. Zenimax promise that there will be tens of available skill lines, many of them secret and dependent on various objectives to unlock. It was unfortunate that we were given such a small amount of time in order to explore the possibilities, but it was cool to see that Elder Scrolls-style “Light Armour is now Level 2” notification.
This, coupled with the revelation that, yes, the final product will feature a proper first-person mode that shows your hands, along with dynamic effects and the promise of a workable model for things like dungeon running, shows that there has been a hell of a lot of effort put into justifying that Elder Scrolls stamp. But it’s not entirely clean sailing — we weren’t given hands on to many elements, such as crafting or PVP, although we were provided with short runthroughs. Dynamic events, such as large public, random events and enemy attacks are not part of the game.
Additionally, what we’ve seen of questing is very linear and does not deviate from the standard “go here and do this X times” mentality. Much of the creative direction so far has been to provide a rigid structure for the title, removing a lot of that non-linearity that makes Elder Scrolls games so majestic. While I can appreciate that many of the boundaries in place are in order to protect important functions such as the economy and to soothe player frustrations, they run the risk of producing something that is functionally identical to a lot of competitors. I questioned many of the developers on some of these concerns, and you can see their answers in our companion interviews, to follow soon.
The Elder Scrolls Online is shaping up to meet a lot of the promises it made when it was announced, and for this it should be applauded. But it is disappointing to see that much of the game is unwilling to break with long-standing conventions in the ways that its single-player brethren have done over the years, and to allow for more open and unpredictable play. While many gamers will be, justifiably, excited by what’s on offer here, there will be a slew of others wondering what could have been.
Disclosure: Bethesda Softworks flew the author out to Baltimore, Maryland for the express purposes of this preview. The publisher paid for accommodation, some food and travel costs.