Australian Exclusive: We go hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls Online

By 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.

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

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.

yes, the final product will feature a proper first-person mode (…) there has been a hell of a lot of effort put into justifying that Elder Scrolls stamp

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.

13 comments (Leave your own)

Fantastic scoop there James. And looks very, very interesting.

 

Sounds alright, but still doubtful in how the elder scrolls combat system will even be playable for aussies if we’re getting put on the US ‘megaservers’.

Have they said if they plan to make an oceanic region server at all?

 
James Pinnell

syncourt:
Sounds alright, but still doubtful in how the elder scrolls combat system will even be playable for aussies if we’re getting put on the US ‘megaservers’.

Have they said if they plan to make an oceanic region server at all?

I asked one of the developers and they said they couldn’t confirm this yet.

 

does not deviate from the standard “go here and do this X times” mentality.

Sigh, I guess TESO wont be the mmo to bring me back to the genre. I got enough chores to do IRL… why do more when I play games?

 

James Pinnell: I asked one of the developers and they said they couldn’t confirm this yet.

So probably a no then. Not straight away anyway.

 

Sounds better than I was expecting… still, an MMO is going to have to be at least a 12/10 to convince me to play for more than a month.

I hope I’m still a nerd when I’ve retired, then I’ll be able to dedicate enough time to one.

 
ageNtreachery

Fortunately this is being done by another studio and the original team is supposed to be still working on a proper Elder Scrolls RPG.

 

Yeah I’m more likely to go after the Elder Scrolls VI before this. Although after the endless streamlining that occurs from Elder Scrolls to Elder Scrolls this may end up being more complex.

 

As general with MMO’s now all I worry about is if I think I am going to get enough fun to warrant the box price. I don’t consider it wasted if I’m not playing still in 6 months time.

I think there should be enough fun here at the start, if it devolves into the normal grind closer to end-game then I will stop. I will say this is probably the last fantasy MMO I will try for a long time, unless someone brings out something really surprising and novel.

 

Most MMO worlds are more than large enough. Most MMO games offer more than enough talent trees. And most MMOs contain more content than I could ever experience.

But my 3 biggest griefs against MMO games are as follows:

1. Very Unsatisfying Combat:
Mostly due to the complex nature of an MMO and its ping issues to so many players. Rarely has there been a sword I swung or a spell I cast that satisfies my combat lust in an MMO. All of their combat systems feel out of the players full control in one way or another, the motion feels inevitably turned based and basically they just feel plain which also makes grinding an awful experience. If only combat can be as fluid and entertaining as a modern single player game (I’m sure it will in the future).

2. Little Character & Story Development:
Character creation is one of my favourite moments in any RPG games. Many MMOs offer a decent selection of faces when you begin but then fall flat. Generally you are unable to give your character a personality in his world with little options (if any) on background history or as you progress you cannot influence your dialogue, quest progress or results (unless its KOTOR, kudos to that game). Basically quests and story progress feel more like obstacles to a preset character you control (with your choice of face) as oppose to an engaging storyline of your ideal hero.

3. A linear game structure:
I only hear stories of old MMOs in which players can truly commit to being a professional trader or tradesmen without having to result to much combat or general questing to make it somewhere in the game. MMOs do not have enough support for players who wish to enhance immersion via services. If any, its an experience player hired for a raid for his share of the loot, which is combat orientated. Where are the special and doable assassination contracts? Official shops for hire? Player temporarily owned mines in which others can get jobs at for a set rate? Would it hurt to actually allow player organisations to own some territory and build forts, police and influence mob rates in their area, set taxes for their services partly controlled by NPCs? However I hear EVE Online offers such interesting worldly features. Although in my opinion it completely fails in the above two points I ranted about.

Anyway, has anyone had a good play-through of a Mount&Blade campaign? In particular with some very well made mods? My dream MMO would be based of its combat system, its map with factions both player and AI, its RPG elements but also at least 50% of NPC controlled units in that should be designed strictly for players. That would be the equivalent to my dream MMO.

 

timmytim:
Anyway, has anyone had a good play-through of a Mount&Blade campaign? In particular with some very well made mods? My dream MMO would be based of its combat system, its map with factions both player and AI, its RPG elements but also at least 50% of NPC controlled units in that should be designed strictly for players. That would be the equivalent to my dream MMO.

So basically you want either Mount And Blade PWMod or Mount and Blade cRPG. If you haven’t played them yet do so.

In relation to all your other criticisms, I think it could’ve been safely satisfied with Star Wars Galaxies… and now you know why it sucks that SOE killed it because it was simply that good of an MMO, easily one of the best if not the best MMO ever made.

 

ooshp: Sounds better than I was expecting… still, an MMO is going to have to be at least a 12/10 to convince me to play for more than a month.I hope I’m still a nerd when I’ve retired, then I’ll be able to dedicate enough time to one.

This (bit about retiring a nerd) this and all of this!

 

gammad: So basically you want either Mount And Blade PWMod or Mount and Blade cRPG. If you haven’t played them yet do so.

In relation to all your other criticisms, I think it could’ve been safely satisfied with Star Wars Galaxies… and now you know why it sucks that SOE killed it because it was simply that good of an MMO, easily one of the best if not the best MMO ever made.

I knew someone would mention PW. And your right that is leaning quite close to what I want. Unfortunately it will be too long to ever be as polished as I want it to. Its also limited in features to make it a true MMO but also its too player dependent where rules are consistently created, managed and broken by players. For me, it should contain inbuilt mechanics certain players can use or alter depending on its conditions like a complete game would have.

 
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