The Elder Scrolls Online: Fancy footwork and misdirection create an almost convincing illusion

The Elder Scrolls Online

By on February 10, 2014 at 3:09 pm

The Elder Scrolls have been a welcome constant throughout the long and wide history of the RPG genre, especially here on the PC, the platform of its birth. Its progressive gameplay mechanics, deep and interesting lore and extraordinarily expansive lands have entertained and enthralled many gamers, both new and old, for over two decades. As such, cries for the ability to share these hard fought experiences, to explore vast tombs with a friend or enter various guilds with others are just another constant to accompany each new title — although Skyrim was probably the first one that truly would have welcomed a partner.

Then, out of nowhere in 2012 Bethesda and its parent Zenimax announced that an MMO had been in the works for the best part of a decade, and wasn’t all that far away from completion.

I have spent more time than most with TESO, not only in the form of live walkthroughs with Zenimax, with the ability to talk to designers and producers alike, but even hands on time with pre-alpha code. I’ve felt conflicted with what I heard, saw, and played. Far too much of the early work featured a distinct lack of character and direction — especially with the series’ mainstay, the first person view, only barely even announced at the end of my visit to the studio last year. At the same time, I felt that I needed to stow many of my own personal issues with the ongoing direction of blockbuster MMOs, feeling that taking too few changes (and in the wrong direction) was the reason for the genre’s recent spate of lacklustre experiences.

I’ve now had the opportunity to drop myself wholly into the world of TESO – with the code now on my own machine, I could explore the world at my leisure, muck around with skills and flesh out the core mechanics of what will actually end up on shelves this year. My takeaway can be summed up pretty easily; what we have here is definitely the MMO-ification of Skyrim. But lets be clear on that phrasing – this is not multiplayer Skyrim. This is a planned experience, wrapped up with enough flair, flashes of brilliance and upgrades to the original formula to genuinely market itself as the next logical “notch in the belt” on the MMO timeline. If you expect that you can fill up rooms of your house with swords and helmets, make permanent impacts on the world, or magically find free-roaming elements in the game world, well, you may walk away disappointed.

TESO does a lot of things right, however, and many of these are distinct improvements on the existing build. First of all – and what has probably already been made obvious by the video and screenshots that have dropped so far, the game is absolutely gorgeous. It’s not necessarily high fidelity in the way that a CryEngine title might be, but the depth of detail on everything from weapons, spell effects, environments and clothing is just plain beautiful. Everything about being in this world screams Elder Scrolls, and its within the very first section of the game that you can feel yourself drifting back into that Skyrim headspace. Zenimax Online have also done a bangup job with first person (third person is still available but far less fun) – the combat system has been changed marginally to suit the next paradigm and it works well. There’s a noticeable amount of lag, however, but both Tim and I weren’t sure whether this was a beta bug or part of what Australians will enjoy come release.

Along with many other MMOs now featuring action combat, the mouse controls weapon attack and blocking systems while abilities and spells are still assigned to your keypad. At first, especially as a caster, it all feels alien and unwieldy. The first person viewpoint is not conducive to group play as it removes your peripheral vision and obscures sight of surrounding mobs. But after 30 minutes or so, you begin to get it – this is TESO, not WoW, and combat is a careful back and forth  dance involving enemy “ticks” and the management of your environment. A lack of cooldowns means the focus is squarely on your three bars (health, magic, stamina) – a cautiously minimalist UI only flashes them on screen when they deplete or rise – which automatically refill with time or quickly via potions, spells and abilities. Once again, the game successfully transports you back and gives you that feeling, even for just a few fleeting moments, that you aren’t in an MMO, but are instead traversing the world of The Elder Scrolls on your own.

But don’t be fooled — misdirection and fancy footwork can’t hide many of the now standard tropes still existing in force. There is careful placement of mobs, with timed respawns. Patrolling guards. Waypoints. Quests that provide varying instructions on where, when and how to kill those same mobs. The major difference between these and others is in the clever way the game attempts to disguise them — like passive skill upgrades based on a combination of hidden experience points and skill use. Fully-voiced NPCs with branching dialogue trees and distinct personalities — some occasionally even running up to you, others a quest marker politely requesting your attention. Leveling up by assigning points yourself, morphing abilities to provide wildcard effects, and customizing a unique ability evolution. Using disguises, lockpicks and stealth to avoid (some) combat. I won’t lie — it’s a distinctly clever ruse, one that fooled me on more than one occasion. It’s so very easy to forget you’re simply mowing down the same set of textures when there isn’t a kill counter to keep track of — the game smartly tends to place the focus more on finding people and locations than meeting quotas.

My main complaint, as it was last year and continues to be now, is that TESO is focused on refinement rather than evolution. The Elder Scrolls brand name pedigree for clear open worlds and building your own story is clouded somewhat by the genre’s traditionally rigid systems of movement, control, accessibility and choice. There is an enormous market for this type of game though, and many who thoroughly enjoy the theme park will absolutely relish the opportunity to adventure through TESO, which continues to feature exceptional lore, tons of great dialogue and a distinct ability to make you feel like you have made a difference. But the status quo has changed, with games like Guild Wars 2 and Neverwinter offering distinct, polished and interesting experiences without an ongoing payment. It’s down to the team to keep players interested, and while their strengths clearly lie in masking the same old mechanics we’ve all been there and done many times before, keeping the basement full of goodies is paramount to the ongoing success of the title.

But I must stress, this is still very much a beta — PVP was not yet available to play (stay tuned) and the world was still very bare. Some systems, like grouping and the quest log system, were buggy and broken, and pathfinding left something to be desired for AI. Unlike my colleagues, the game did not grow on me over time. I felt the game’s polish became diminished by dated mechanics, and no manner of deft illusions could forgive what was arguably quite a dull experience. While certain elements were refreshing, far too many others were not as developed as a new MMO in 2014 should be. Between this and the large up-front cost of the game, TESO may have prevented itself from reaching critical success. Only time will tell.

Stay tuned to GON for future coverage as we edge closer to release. To see the game in action, check out our massive 11-minute long preview video.

22 comments (Leave your own)
Loophole_62ndFF

“Theme Park” … yes, James has pretty much hit the nail on the head there.

 

As an MMO it’s pretty good but as an elder scrolls game it isn’t really.

And its the beta. Bugs are supposed to happen. I would be pissed if they had these issues in the full release. In beta I’m not. You can report those issues.

 

It needs local servers. The combat just feels off much like GW2. Waiting for an ability to activate or even trying to react to a mob via blocking or interrupting is frustrating or nigh impossible.

Questing itself is mind numbing – you really don’t spend much time killing things especially in the high elf area. I spent literally 1.5hrs running around killing maybe 10 mobs in that time everything was press ‘E’ on this talk to him/her.

 

probits,
Doesn’t really need local servers, it just needs to be built right. Look at WoW, plays just fine with inexplicably high pings.

 

yurtles,

Wow on 30ms feels like a different game compared to the 220 i get in AU. It was so much more responsive, especially the interrupts – my god 1 sec casts felt like an eternity.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

 

yurtles,

Doesn’t WoW use tab targeting as opposed to first person attacking/blocking? I don’t really see how your comparison is valid in this case.

 

Neverwinter Online is a travesty. The last two content updates are small areas where you do daily quest loops.

It is pay to win and most of the ‘reward’ (most likely spending zen/astral diamonds/actual cash) system is random.

There is no craft too it, at all.

Subscription is a fine system. Far more fair. It the market allows it, good luck to TESO.

 

jez:
yurtles,

Doesn’t WoW use tab targeting as opposed to first person attacking/blocking? I don’t really see how your comparison is valid in this case.

go play wow with aus connection 180-350 ping on ave, with a rogue or against a rogue in pvp. Than come back and tell me why you are wrong. It still means Aussies have to predict and mindread an be alot better at the game just to be average. Now this is a game thats less affected by lag.. An action combat mmo without local servers is a waste of your time and money to even try to play.

 

nayphen:
Subscription is a fine system. Far more fair. It the market allows it, good luck to TESO.

Exactly. Free to play games certainly have their advantages but I’m glad that ESO is not one of them. If you want quality and fairness in an MMO, then a subscription based model is often for the better.

A subscription based system also works a bit like a filter. A filter that lets only those people through that take the gamer seriously enough to pay money for it. That automatically reduces the amount of players that play the game only to dick around. (which is much easier to do when your account is completely free and you can make a new one whenever you please)

Oh and what’s that about PVP not beeing available yet?
Not true at all. From what I hear, the PVP is pretty damn awesome but like the rest of the game should be taken with a grain of salt.

Some people seem to make the mistake of playing a game while constantly looking for reasons to not like it. I think, if you take the other approach (ignore minor flaws and actively acknowlege the good parts), then you’re going to enjoy ESO alot!

 
James Pinnell

tajin: Exactly. Free to play games certainly have their advantages but I’m glad that ESO is not one of them. If you want quality and fairness in an MMO, then a subscription based model is often for the better.

A subscription based system also works a bit like a filter. A filter that lets only those people through that take the gamer seriously enough to pay money for it. That automatically reduces the amount of players that play the game only to dick around. (which is much easier to do when your account is completely free and you can make a new one whenever you please)

I think this is an enormous furphy. A subscription system is not a filter, or some kind of “advanced player vetting system” – it’s an arbitrary paywall that allows the developer the ability to monetise through the players directly rather than via cosmetic or staged purchases. Having a subscription does not automatically imply quality or stability – the tens of failed MMOs (TERA Online, RIFT, DC Universe, Everquest 2 et.al) all came out with subs and ended up losing their player bases en masse.

GW2 doesn’t have a subscription and it’s a genuinely fun and impressive game with a great community and free regular content. To have a subscription means the game requires people to make a strong investment. In Eve Online, it’s to keep the entire system ticking over. In WoW, it’s the ridiculously deep and long social connections players have. New games don’t have this luxury and shouldn’t pretend to.

Oh and what’s that about PVP not beeing available yet?
Not true at all. From what I hear, the PVP is pretty damn awesome but like the rest of the game should be taken with a grain of salt.

The PVP wasn’t available in the Press Beta because it’s being run on a separate system with staged releases. I wasn’t attempting to sabotage the impressions by ignoring it – it wasn’t available for play.

Some people seem to make the mistake of playing a game while constantly looking for reasons to not like it. I think, if you take the other approach (ignore minor flaws and actively acknowlege the good parts), then you’re going to enjoy ESO alot!

I’m sorry, but I don’t think “you’re playing and looking at it wrong” is a fair argument here. My job is not to find all of the amazing parts of the game and ignore all the bad parts. My job is to critically analyse the game. I spent half of this article highlighting many of the fine elements of the game – but the actual meat of the title is lacking. It’s just dull.

 

The PvP was available last weekend. Given that nobody wrote about it one might reasonably assume it was not the focus of the weekend. ;)

And EQ2′s unspectacular release and the following months had nothing to do with the subscription, which was not unusual at the time, and everything to do with another MMO that came out a very short time later and had a lot more momentum.

Not that I disagree. Subscriptions haven’t improved the quality (or behaviour) in any MMO I’ve ever played and all it indicates about the game itself is it’s going to cost you money every month. You have great games like Rift on the one hand and absolute rubbish like The Secret World on the other. A subscription doesn’t mean jack. :(

 
TheBeckoner07

yurtles,

play a mele class on wow with 200ms and get used to the constant “out of range” and tell me it don’t matter when your standing on the guy. run a flag and get killed buy the guy who looks miles out of mele range.

I lvled my shammy from BC to WotLK as enhance on a 70-80 ms connection. moved houses and was getting 200ms and couldn’t play as enhance anymore. same went for all my mele classes.

When I was playing SWToR when we all started on the US servers mele PVP was near impossible then too. then they gave us the AU/NZ servers and it was amazing the difference.

but on topic yeah the lag was noticeable big time. playing mele on ESO was kind of like huh where did that mob go I just charged at or it charges the mob stays in place but so do you. playing caster felt the same too. took so much dmg from mobs that should have been dead on my screen but somehow got multiple hits in. (mele and caster mobs)

I gave it 9 hours of play after a 12 hour download. I knew I would never buy it after 4 hours but I played on just in case. sadly I wouldn’t play it even if it was F2P. and I love the elder scrolls games. have clocked many many hours in the last 2 games alone (oblivion 200+ hours skyrim even more).

 

tajin: Free to play games certainly have their advantages but I’m glad that ESO is not one of them.

Not for the first month anyway.
It will be a few months in though because the game simply isn’t good enough to sustain the same subs as they will get in the opening 2 months.

As MMORPGs go its no different then TOR, it gets repetitive quickly and will only hold the die-hards that drank the kool-aid that came with their $100 investment.

then they’ll go F2P.

 

I had no idea so many people believe PVP is the be all and end all of MMOs.

I was a WoW PVE junkie, never had a problem worth mentioning as far as ping goes. That’s what I was talking about, have the proper behaviour for your mobs/players/environment and higher ping isn’t a big deal.

 

I keep seeing comments about the ‘great graphics’, but I’m really not seeing that evidenced in the game. It looks muddy and low-fidelity, with a lot of the environmental meshes being laughably low quality. And ‘it’s an MMO’ is hardly an excuse these days. There’s plenty of better looking MMOs out there right now.

 

hobomaster,

The effects such as weather (esp lightning) are pretty damn good. What they nailed tho was scale. Everything just looks the right size. I think it does that better than any game I’ve seen to date.

 

The exaggerated claims about WoW make me laugh. I’ve played form Australia and America and while their is certainly a difference between the 2 The game is very playable in Australia. Having said that it’s probably one of the worse MMOs for noticable latency for Example Rift did a fantastic job of making us not notice lag with the game feeling exactly the same with a ping of 20 as it did with a ping of 200.

Elder scrolls online is a similar case I’ve had no problems with blocking/dodging and the game feels very fluid.

 

spooler,

Yeah only had the occasional situation where an enemy will just seemingly vanish, so it’s not so bad. That said I haven’t had that much to do with the combat as it seems a little…dull. I wave my sword at the enemy and they lose hitpoints and eventually die. It really doesn’t feel like I’m hitting them, the only evidence of that happening is the health bar shrinking. It just feels…weird…so yeah, mostly just chugging around the landscape and looking at the scenery, chasing arrows and plugging through conversations and binary choices…actually now think about it it really isn’t that much of a convincing illusion. <_<

 

“the game is absolutely gorgeous”

The world was nice enough but the character models and painted on chest armour are straight out 2005. Nothing like seeing your ‘plate’ mail flex and stretch as your character moves around.

Game play wise people are free to make their own judgement, I’m sure some liked it. But art wise it’s a massive step back from older games like Tera and yet to be released titles like EQN.

 

Tayschrenn: But art wise it’s a massive step back from older games like Tera

I thought TERA looked aweful … it’s a very common aesthetic and one I’m not a big fan of … I like the aesthetic of TES:O … but the starting gear looks awful high end gear looks alot better and you won’t want to gouge your eyes out quite so badly.

 
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