James almost falls down the Elder Scrolls' latest rabbit hole.
By James Pinnell 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.