Elder Scrolls Online has been in beta for many months, but finally the NDA has been lifted, giving us the chance to write about our impressions of the game so far. Here are my thoughts and opinions about my experience with the game so far, what could be improved in the game and what I think could be done better for a more satisfying experience.
First, let me give you a brief glimpse of my background as a beta tester and a player of MMORPGs. I have played the following: World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Rift, TERA, Neverwinter and Elder Scrolls Online (beta). Of these I have beta tested for Rift, Guild Wars 2 and ESO (those are the ones I’m allowed to talk about.) While I don’t consider myself a veteran of beta testing, I do think I have considerable experience in the MMO field, though there are other major titles I haven’t played (and probably will soon to actually experience what they are like.) Taking all that into consideration, I went into the ESO beta knowing what to expect from the beta, bugs, glitches and all, and although I have a few concerns, I came out relatively excited for the finished product.
[ Story ]
The story of Elder Scrolls online revolves around the Daedric Prince Molag Bal and his vile plans to drag Nirn (the mortal world) into his own Oblivion Plane of Coldharbour, and a prophecy that the Soulless One will defeat him. You can read more about the story here. While I haven’t had the opportunity to experience much of the game’s story yet, what I have played is very good; escaping Coldharbour with the Prophet (voiced by Michael Gambon) had me burning to find out what happened in the next stage of the tale. The presentation of the story is excellent and very user-friendly, not unlike the other Main Quests from previous Elder Scrolls games, and it is very satisfying to hear the voices of actors such as John Cleese, Malcolm McDowell and Alfred Molina bringing their talent to the game.
[ Graphics ]
Graphics wise, the game is pretty good, as much as you’d expect from a modern, realistically styled MMORPG. The sunlight on the water, the blue stars in the heavens, the rainfall, its all gorgeous; this is a very good looking game. The architecture in particular is reminescent of other TES games, players will instantly recognise some buildings as those of Skyrim. A special mention must go out to the art team on Elder Scrolls Online and dismissing the earlier claims that this was just like a better looking World of Warcraft: it actually looks nothing like WoW and more like Oblivion. And players shouldn’t go into the game expecting the art style to look exactly like Skyrim: all the TES games have had their own unique style, and none of them are exactly the same. Although Elder Scrolls Online is not the next game in the acclaimed single player series, it is set in the same universe and so there are many visuals that fans of TES games will know and recognise. Overall, the look and feel of the graphics in ESO is awesome.
[ Voice Acting ]
As mentioned, big acting stars take on the role of many of the characters in the main quest, but its not just the story voice acting that is brilliant, generally the rest of the cast does a really good job as well. The game is fully voiced, so there is no reading walls of text. Sometimes the characters do waffle on a bit, but there is the option to simply skip the dialogue for those who are so inclined. But generally I felt the desire to actually listen to all the NPCs had to say, I felt more invested in the characters and their own personal stories, which made it more realistic that I would want to help them (and therefore do their quest).
[ Sound & Music ]
The sound and music in ESO is top notch, pure excellence. You could not ask for better in a video game. Whilst standing motionless in the rocks, ferns and palm tree-clad landscape in Khenarthi’s Roost I could hear the calls of birds, the trickling of a nearby brook, the whisper of the wind and the faint clash of combat from over the next hill. Walking along the sandy beaches I could hear seabirds, the lapping of water and the quiet digging of mudcrabs (non-hostile ones). Running and jumping provides a satifying clump of boots kicking up dust. Firing arrows gives the twang of your bowstring and the thunk as your arrow hits home in the body of your target. Similarly, hitting an opponent with your axe gives a satisfying thwak and when they crash against your shield you’ll be rewarded with the metallic clamour you’d expect. The same goes for crafting: the clang of hammer on anvil and the shaving of wood, its all excellent. As for the music, it is really, really good, I’m talking better than most games. Not only has master composer Jeremy Soule contributed, the rest of the music is equally brilliant, especially the bard songs, which are a welcome relief from the rather mundane singing in Skyrim. To top it off, Zenimax have hired highly talented singer Malukah for some of the songs in ESO. If you haven’t heard her sing go look her up on youtube right now, listen to her voice and rejoice that you’ll hear her in Elder Scrolls Online.
[ Gameplay ]
And now for the meat of Elder Scrolls Online, the gameplay. For the most part, the gameplay is good. The controls are tight, skills and spells work exactly as they should, and the UI is non-obtrusive; there are no wow-esque piano key action bars here. When you first enter the game you arrive in Coldharbour in a tutorial –like zone, after you escape you are pretty much free to explore at your leisure, although you should be warned that like many MMORPGs you will encounter zones that feature significantly higher level quests and monsters, so its a good idea to explore the lower level areas first.
The Elder Scrolls resource system (Health, Magicka and Stamina) works perfectly for an MMORPG. An example of this is as follows: whereas Guild Wars 2 has a resource specifically designed for dodging called Endurance, Stamina has already been established long ago in the TES franchise, so its perfect for dodging. Dodging simply consumes Stamina. And dodging isn’t a skill, anyone can use it. Skills typically use stamina or magicka, depending on what they are, so for example, Bow skills such as Scatter Shot use Stamina whereas spells such as the Dragonknight skill Fiery Reach uses Magicka. Skills level up as you use them, becoming more powerful and some morph into completely upgraded and better versions. In addition, when you level up there are so many skills to choose from, its actually almost overwhelming. Not only are there the three class skill lines of your chosen class, but there is a skill line for six weapon types/combinations and for each of the three armour types, a skill line for both the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild as well as the dungeoneers’ guild known as the Undaunted, one for each of the six crafting professions, and also one for Soul Magic, not to mention the Vampire and Werewolf skill lines that will inevitably be included. So when you level up, you have at least twenty-four options when choosing a new skill. That is a lot of choice, and if you accidentally put your skill point into the wrong spot, or you decide later on you want to try out a different play style, you will be able to respec, for a price.
[ Quests/Phasing ]
The heart of PvE in many MMORPGs is Questing. The player goes out into the world, exploring the area, and inevitably comes across NPCs offering tasks to retrieve items, kill enemies or some such errand. The questing in ESO is generally pretty excellent, with no kill ten bandits or collect ten bear hides type grinding and are mostly story-driven with good characters, monsters, rewards and locales. However, the system is not very encouraging for group play: many of the quests are pretty much solo-focused. This means that they are phased to the player exclusivly. While this is good for some instances such as being able to make different choices from the other players in your party, resulting in the quest having a different ending, often it means having to complete objectives individually when they should be shared.
An example of a good use of the phasing is as follows: There was one quest called Dark Knowledge, in which I was tasked to find three books of forbidden knowledge. After they were discoverd, I was given the choice to either burn them, or give them to an NPC in return for cash. Each player doing this quest can make his or her own choice and the quest will play out differently depending on what decision you made. I chose to sell the books, my friend chose to burn them. The results for her were that when the books were burned the dark spirits inhabiting the books were destroyed, but on my side the result was different. Instead, the NPC gave me cash, wandered off pondering about her new purchase, and then was suddenly sucked into a portal into Oblivion. This is an excellent use of phasing, as the players have to each pick up the books, but they get different endings as a result of their choices.
An example of a quest where the objectives should’ve been shared was when I had to infiltrate an enemy camp and burn trebuchets. Rather than operating as a team, each member of my party had to burn each trebuchet individually. So you can group up and take out the guards operating as a team, but then, instead of one person setting fire to the trebuchet, we all had to do it. I can’t stress enough how annoying and irritating this is, and many of the quests I did had similar problems. Granted, there may be less quests like this in the rest of the game, but having them in the first few areas basically gives the impression this is all meant for solo-play. There is no reason for this to be the case; if you want to do it solo then there is that option; but there should be phasing in place to enable objectives to register as done when someone else in your party completes them. Every other MMORPG I’ve played does this, there is no reason it should not be in place in ESO.
Another example of this is a quest that changed the landscape: I had done this quest previously, but I couldn’t go back and help my friend do the quest, because as soon as she entered the area she vanished. This was because I had completed the area already, and so she instantly went out of phase. This is incredibly frustrating as it means that if you want to group up everyone has to be at the exact same stage of a quest otherwise you can’t see each other. I might seem to be harsh on this point, but questing is the heart of PvE and without group questing, you may as well play Skyrim or any other single player RPG. For players who regularly log on twice a week to go on adventures together in a virtual world, the system is severely lacking because it punishes players for questing together. However, there were some quests where the objectives were shared, I can only hope that these outnumber the single-player quests. After all, this is an MMORPG, meaning it is supposed to be a multiplayer game.
I have another criticism of the phasing that I think should be able to be fixed, as it has been with other MMOs. In Guild Wars 2, players have gathering nodes phased to them individually, so there are no arguments about who should get to mine that particular chunk of iron ore or should be able to harvest that bunch of herbs. There is no camping around known spawning locations of such nodes. This has completely eliminated the problems associated with the “first come first served” concept. Where this concept is used, often it is not first come first served at all, and rather “whoever has the least lag and most speed boosts.” Unfortunately, there are no phased nodes in Elder Scrolls Online. This is going to cause endless frustration. In addition, there are chests littered around the world and in dungeons, also subject to the false “first come first served” notion. Problems are sure to crop up, especially in the case of these chests, as they usually contain decent loot. One of my friends noted that one player simply went around looting the chests before any other player could. This is the sort of behaviour that will be encouraged in Elder Scrolls Online, should individual player phasing not be included.
[ Compass ]
Many MMORPGs have a minimap, showing a smaller version of the map screen. While they do have their functionality, I find mimimaps really pointless and frustrating, as it takes up room on my screen and if I want a map, I’ll look at the proper one. However games such as Skyrim and Borderlands have solved this problem: instead of a minimap there’s a compass instead, a thin bar showing what direction you’re facing and showing the quest marker for your current mission. It also shows red dots for enemies. This is all in place in ESO, however what’s frustrating is the player markers. These are barely noticeable, small white “v”s which look like those irriting white flies that gather around cabbages. When a party member is in combat its slightly better, including a sword symbol impaling the “v”, but overall its pretty frustrating. When you’re not in the same area it is not possible to see where your companions are, as there is no symbol on the compass, whereas other games such as WoW at least have the player markers indicated on the edge of the minimap. Opening the map allows you to see other players, but the tiny “v” is once again very hard to see, especially if the player is standing near one of the map symbols. And if they’ve just teleported to a wayshrine, the marker is not on the map at all. In addition, dungeon maps don’t show player markers either. Hopefully player markers can be updated or changed to be generally more visible; perhaps blue dots on the compass instead of red ones.
[ Closing Thoughts ]
Overall, I am thrilled about Elder Scrolls Online. It is a beautiful, well crafted world set in one of the greatest fantasy universes, it has gripping stories, sounds excellent and has great combat. The gameplay is smooth, progression is good and there is massive choice in how to create and level your character. Classes are a small restriction, made up for by the sheer amount of other skills available. Elder Scrolls Online has great potential and with a few changes it could be one of the best MMORPGs on the market.