In response to a few recent games that appear to be lacking in the criteria. This is a short list and thoughts on some stand out game mechanics that developers seem to be ignoring and need to build upon.
The Elder Scrolls Online Beta – Gameplay Video and Early Game Impressions
Last weekend Bethesda and Zenimax Online hosted another Beta event for their upcoming Masively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game based on the popular Elder Scrolls franchise – The Elder Scrolls Online. Being a dutiful PC Gamer, Elder Scrolls fan and old-school MMORPG aficionado I jumped in to see if TESO is our dream come true of a massively multiplayer Skyrim, or a World of Warcraft clone with Elder Scrolls dressing. After all, TESO was one of our Twenty Most Anticipated PC Games of 2014.
Thankfully the Non-Disclosure Agreement has finally lifted, and you can watch my recorded live stream below as well as read my thoughts on the first six hours of The Elder Scrolls Online Beta.
Crafting Your Character
Character creation is often praised in The Elder Scrolls series for the amount of aesthetic options you’re given and TESO continues this tradition. Numerous sliders allow you to pull and stretch your face, determine a basic body shape, and throw on various tatoos, makeup, or facial hair. Few MMORPGs outside the Cosplay fantasy of the superhero games allow for this much freedom when choosing a character.
All the familiar Elder Scrolls races are fully playable, and each race is divided into three factions of three races each. The factions have a backstory and reason for uniting, but are mostly a reason for PVP battles. Each faction smartly contain at least one of the human races and divide Tamriel according to their geographical home territories.
The Ebonhart Pact, made up of Dark Elves, Argonians, and Nord (If you’ve played previous Elder Scrolls game, you know this alliance should be filled with a lot of tension at best) begin in the unique mushroom-filled landscape of Morrowind. The Aldmeri Dominion is all about Elves with High Elves seeking the aid of neighboring Wood Elves and Khajiit in the South, and the human-friendly Daggerfall Convenant covers the Northwest home of its Redguards, Orcs, and Bretons. Thus the central region of Cyrodil, familiar to players of Oblivion and home to the Imperial City, remains a contested meeting ground for all three factions.
As freeform as the physical character creation is, it’s a bummer that TESO forces players to choose one of four classes to determine your overall playstyle: Sorcerer, Nightblade, Templar, and Dragonknight. Each class has three skill trees, in addition to a racial skill tree and skill lines for each weapon type (dual wielding, staves, bows, etc). While Skills are improved with use as in other Elder Scrolls games, additional skills must be unlocked by spending a skill point earned from leveling up (or for every three skyshards found in the world) as well as meeting a skill level requirement.
Weapon and armor skills are not tied to your character class, giving you more freedom to use whatever cool items you find and discover either a traditional or uniquely hybrid playstyle. My Sorcerer received a really nice mace and shield after completing some quests, and I was able to employ a one-two punch by opening a fight with my offensive spells and then rushing in for some old-fashioned bashing.
Each individual skill levels up as you use them and gain experience. Once reaching the fifth level in a skill, you’re given the option to spend a skill point to unlock a new, more powerful version of the skill by choosing between two different options. Most of the early skill advancements seemed pretty minor but could have big repercussions toward perfecting a certain playstyle or strategy – one spell could be upgraded to either stun an opponent or refund some mana if they died from it. My favorite was upgrading my small summonable imp into the awesome dinosaur-like clannfear (whom you’ll spot in several of these screenshots).
In The Beginning
Tutorials and introductions are crucial for any game; it sets the tone for your entire world, establishes basic gameplay, and often determines whether your entire game is even worth putting more time into thanks to the plethora of excellent options that constantly vie for a gamer’s attention. Judging a Massively Multiplayer Online game by its tutorial or even opening few hours seems especially difficult given the scope that the genre attempts to include, but it’s still a shame that The Elder Scrolls Online’s tutorial is pretty lame.
A somewhat interesting premise starts you off in the Oblivion realm of Coldharbour (which you may recognize in name from Skyrim’s Dawnguard DLC). You’ve been killed and are now a prisoner of Daedric Prince Molag Bal. Well not for long – the tutorial surrounds a grand escape from the Oblivion realm as you and other prisoners fight back. The cave-like area is nice-looking but with dozens of other real players running around the illusion of being the one big hero is immediately dissipated – a problem inherent in many Massively Multiplayer Online games.
Thankfully combat is surprisingly fun with the melee focus on actively blocking, dodging and interrupting your opponent rather than just tapping an auto-attack and grabbing a drink. Controls are similar to Skyrim but with a more intuitive combat system and enemies with easy to see wind-ups more akin to action games than RPGs.
Power attacks are performed by holding down the attack button, but enemies can interrupt you. Blocking can be performed with a shield or weapon to help mitigate regular strikes, but if you see your foe winding up for a power attack, performing a shield bash stuns them. Many enemies have AOE or cone-based attacks that appear as red marks on the screen, allowing you to double tap the run key to perform a dodge roll to avoid it. This action-packed flow makes even the simple early game combat fun and engaging, and I was especially impressed that I could excel in my much more preferred third person view while both exploring and fighting.
Welcome to Newbie Island
Instead of dropping you off into the world, TESO eases you into Tamriel by putting new players on their own faction-specific island. This island contains a central town with a few surround areas of interests with quests, low-level critters, and some small dungeons. It’s not a terrible concept but players immediately wanting to rush off and explore the world are stymied for the next couple hours as they’re forced to go through the quest chain to completion.
My Ebonhart Dark Elf Sorcerer followed a dog to its injured master, infiltrated a bandit camp using a disguise, hunted down a big bat-like creature that had been terrorizing the town, and killed lots and lots of wolves, bears, and giant spiders.
TESO doesn’t attempt to break the mold too much; although many quests seem varied and interesting all of them come down to going somewhere and hitting the interact button to perform the proper action. Rescuing foolish adventurers from being polymorphed skeevers, shutting down magical daedric artifacts and lighting signal fires all involve just tapping “E” at the proper location, which is marked visibly on the map.
Skyrim’s familiar UI is utilized again here for full effect, and I did appreciate some subtle improvements such as the quest name popping up above the compass when looking in the direction of a quest. While quest markers are a hot debate for the supposed dumbing down of role-playing games, in MMORPGs they are entirely commonplace and welcome as mechanics and social interaction trump any light role-playing aspects.
While Skyrim’s also obvious console and controller-friendly inventory screen rears its ugly head again here, category tabs help mitigate the problem of scrolling through all your items somewhat. A 50 item limit can quickly become a problem if you stop to gather all the various ingredients used for crafting though backpack upgrades can be purchased to increase your carrying capacity.
There are a ton of crafting options which I didn’t get to dig too far into. Blacksmithing, leatherworking, woodworking, alchemy, enchanting, cooking and more. If you enjoy scouring the landscape for ingredients or just stopping to loot the occasional flower or mine some ore it seems pretty darn useful. I especially found the runes interesting – lootable little stone pedestals you could find and combine in groups of three (designated by their shape) to create a socketable item effect. As with combat skills each crafting skill also improves the more you do it, unlocking the ability to make better and more complex items and enchantments.
Returning to Morrowind
Newbie Island (this is not the official name by the way, just my affectionate nickname which I don’t doubt will become the standard) finally comes to an end with an admittedly cool attack on your starting village as NPCs of another faction invade and you must lead the exodus to the main land. As in the tutorial, the concept is far better than the limited execution, as the enemies go through their animations of casting fireballs on buildings or just standing around waiting for you to engage them. I didn’t expect Skyrim’s Civil War battles but it’s still disappointing to see a modern MMORPG hold tightly to genre conventions and engine limitations.
Once escaping to the main land, my Dark Elf found himself in a small coastal village in Morrowind. Instantly I was flooded with memories of the third Elder Scrolls game (of which many fans consider the best of the series to this day). It was a true joy seeing netches, rakks, guars, and the bizarre and interesting landscape of the Dark Elf homeland rendered in HD. Even with the textures being a bit more simplistic and the world being just a bit less detailed to accomdate for the MMO part of MMORPG, exploring just this small slice of Tamriel was a lot of fun.
Peeking at the other maps I was able to gauge the sheer size and scope of TESO’s take on most if not all of Tamriel, and it’s impressive. The map itself is the wonderful topographical representation we’ve come to expect from The Elder Scrolls while offering additional useful information on where to find vendors and crafting tables.
My initial quest did a good job of sending me around to various places just outside the village, a fort and a dock, while giving me freedom to quickly find other quest-givers and hunt down various native creatures and foreign invaders. The world building was impressive, and I felt that old but familiar urge to just set off in a direction and explore, regardless of my quest log. Exploration is rewarded thanks to experience earned from discovering locations on the map, finding the scattered skyshards for additional skill points, stumbling upon new quests, and collecting oodles of crating materials and supplies.
While the tutorial was an annoying reminder of gameplay mechanics we’ve been revisiting for well over a decade and the forced extended tutorial in the form of a segregated island further delays the jump into the proper game, I actually came away from my weekend in Tamriel quite impressed. The more action-oriented combat was fun and fluid – reminding me more of Kingdoms of Amalur than World of Warcraft, and the world building of even just the initial zones was varied and interesting.
Make no mistake though, this is not multiplayer Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls Online is very much a MMORPG in all the traditional ways, and the evolution from “you’re the hero, the entire world reacts to you” in a solo experience to “you’re the hero, the entire world reacts to you….but also there’s hundreds of others doing the exact same thing” is incredibly awkward. It’s a problem for most MMORPGs but as the main Elder Scrolls series is particularly known of its wonderful freedom and Choose Your Own Adventure playstyle it makes it all the more painfully obvious here.
It’s a bit like that South Park episode where Cartman is given a theme park all to himself – he can ride and do whatever he wants all the time, but adding more people suddenly takes everything away as he’s forced to wait in lines and put up with everyone’s crap. That’s a pessimistic look at what MMORPGs can offer, and I hope that TESO’s public quests and PVP can help sustain the social interaction, or at least create one. I never once had to so much as talk to another real player during my play time, and often felt like these other people were simply in the way of my exciting return to Tamriel.
A $60 box plus monthly subscription fee is a very hard sell these days, and many of the last struggling modern wave of MMORPGs that have tried have quickly had to abandon the model for a more sustaining free-to-play model with microtransactions. It’ll be interesting to see if The Elder Scrolls license is enough to convince gamers to pony up the cash, but I fear most folks will simply see a derivative, albeit high quality and well-made MMORPG and wait for the next true Elder Scrolls title.
The Elder Scrolls Online launches on April 4th for PC, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One.