Elder Scrolls Online. Those three words do some strange things to the gaming populace. They both titillate our dreams of an online Tamriel, and fill us with trepidation on what could go wrong with such a venture. When the game was unveiled and previewed at E3 2012, many worried that it wouldn't live up to the Elder Scrolls name it carries. Well it just so happens that we were invited to the Maryland offices of Zenimax Online Studios to learn about the current status of the game's development, it's plans for the future, and more importantly? We played the thing... for three freakin' hours straight. Three glorious hours that flew by in what seemed minutes. When the devs told us we could get lunch? We stayed put. When they told us the building was on fire? We didn't flinch. [READ: The building did not actually catch fire.]
Elder Scrolls Online is still in pre-alpha stages, but what we played for hours was enough to make one thing certain: it's more than worthy of the Elder Scrolls name.
THE BEGINNINGS OF YOUR JOURNEY
One of the pivotal aspects of any Elder Scrolls game is the story of your character and the world around him. The same is true here. Set a thousand or so years before the events of Skyrim, your character will be "a hero" on a quest from 1-50 to reclaim his soul. Molag Bal has gone and stolen it right out of your body, and your search to reclaim it leads you across Tamriel and even times into Oblivion itself. The three playable factions (Ebonheart Pact, Daggerfall Covenant, and Aldmeri Dominion) each have their own entire 1-50 leveling experience. Yes, this means that you'll be able to replay the 1-50 game three times in three completely different ways if you're the sort that loves leveling through the theme-park more than anything else.
The Ebonheart Pact is the only faction we were allowed to play during the event, and we only were allowed to choose from two classes: the Templar (sort of a holier than thou knightly type) and the Dragonknight (fire, brimstone, and badassery). Character creation, even at this early stage, is similar in depth to the other TES games. You can tweak the size and girth of your character's body, the angles and characteristics of their face, skin-color, several hair styles, beards, accents, and so forth. It's quite deep, as it should be, and we were told even more choices would be coming before launch. Naturally, being a man of Northeast Ohio, I chose a red-headed and bearded Nord (though Argonian and Dark Elf were available too) and Begud Thryston was born. Yep, you get to have two names right off the bat as well.
The tutorial and opening story mission involving Molag Bal were not ready for prime-time so we began our life in an online Tamriel on the Skyrim island of Bleakrock. The Akaviri invasion has forced the alliance between the uneasy three races, and they are now determined to stand united against a common enemy and defeat the empire so that they might keep their fiercely defended homelands. You find out quickly that Bleakrock is under attack from the Daggerfall Covenant (Bretons, Orcs, and Redguard) and you're recruited to help stave off the attack or at the very least get the townsfolk off the island before things get hairy.
This is where the first interesting design decision of ESO is seen. The game uses a form of "phasing" for the lack of a better word. As you complete missions, the world changes, and choices you make stay in that zone throughout the rest of your character's life. At one point after Bleakrock when you've made your way to Morrowind, you're asked to choose between defending docks or a keep from the encroaching forces. Whichever one you choose ultimately means the other suffers. And this choice stays that way permanently for that character. You might wonder how you'll be able to group with friends who choose the opposite. I wondered too, and was assured by ZOS that there will be a work-around so that you can always help your friends and group up even if your "statuses" in the world differ from one another.
The game is still quest-based as well, though in a far more effective way that's something of a cross between traditional questing and The Secret World's investigative missions. No, you won't be compiling Morse code here, but ESO promotes exploration around every turn. The world's zones rarely feel "fenced in" and moutains are often there to be climbed because you might stumble upon something that needs doing. NPCs don't just sit in a town waiting for you to collect their quests and then run out and do them before running back. They're littered across the map, and each quest has a purpose to drive the story or that area's overarching story. Simply put, the quests in ESO are quests, but just like in Skyrim they're there for a reason and to entertain you... not just push you along some leveling path.
You also won’t find many quests that involve just killing monsters and going back to get your reward. It was only the first few hours of gameplay, but we did everything from rescuing people from webbed cocoons to throwing eggs at Bull Netches, and solving the riddle of a crazy Frozen Man who used a dead man’s skull to drink water. I even distracted a bartender by making a drunk man sing so I could steal his prized Tears of Amaya wine when I was in Morrowind. Yes, they’re still quests in the very traditional sense. But you don’t just round them all up and go do them like some quest-monkey. Like in The Elder Scrolls proper you discover them as you explore the world. You might be in the middle of one quest, only to stumble upon another and find yourself distracted. It’s not linear, though it remains to be seen if the zone progression is or not. Monsters aren’t littered every step, and quests aren’t either. On more than one occasion I got the feeling I was playing just another Elder Scrolls game. And that first thing assuaged a lot of my own fears that ESO wouldn’t “feel like Elder Scrolls”. The second was the combat.
COMBAT AND GROUP PLAY
Combat is nearly identical to other Elder Scrolls games. You control your swings with the left mouse, and block with the right. While blocking, you can press the left to “interrupt” your enemy’s casting. This takes a lot of stamina, but it’s effective in fights. You can sprint with shift, and crouch to sneak. Sneaking works just like it does in other TES games, and obviously lighter armors will help you out here. The one thing that is a bit different is that you’re not going to assign spells to your right hand or left hand, and dual-cast or dual-wield in that manner. All abilities are slotted on the 1-6 hotkeys. One through five will eventually house a mix of your weapon or class abilities (in the build we played, weapon abilities could only be slotted on the left or right mouse), while six will be one of your class’ “Ultimate” skills. The Ultimates are fantastically powerful abilities that recharge after use by excelling in combat. The better you perform in combat, you’re awarded with finesse points that can give you bonus experience, additional loot, and fill up your ultimate bar faster. Oh and you’ll also be able to assign consumables to the “R” key and drink magicka or health or stamina potions in battle.
Five skills might seem like it’s not enough, but when you through in the fact that you’re blocking incoming attacks, strafing your enemies for the advantage, and interrupting their casting… it works really, really well. One click will swing lightly, while holding down the left mouse will charge a power attack. Just like in Skyrim you can charge this up completely or let go midway. Either way you’ll do more damage and have a chance to break through a blocking foe if you charge your attacks. These also take up more stamina than normal attacks.
And while we didn’t get to play a sorcerer, spells and attacks aren’t targeted with a simple “tab-target”. Like TERA, you have to be moused over your opponent to connect. It’s a much more skill-informed system, but don’t worry… it’s not so fast that you’ll feel overwhelmed if the idea of “shooter-esque” combat in an MMO intimidates you. Elder Scrolls Online manages to walk a careful balance between “twitch” and strategy, much like Oblivion or Skyrim did before. You want to block, you want to dodge, and you want to time your skill usage just right. It’s very fun, and after a few levels I’d worked in my own “starter” combo with my Dragonknight but we’ll get to that in another article.
What makes the combat in ESO even more enticing is the fact that you don’t have to worry about “kill-stealing” or fighting over mobs. Like Guild Wars 2, ESO has what I like to call an “Open Group” system. If you see someone in need of help, you can help them. You’ll both get credit, experience, and loot. Mission objectives are more often shared just by being in an area when something’s happening, as opposed to having to “line up” to get yours. Yes you can still group up in normal parties and this will be preferable to folks who want to work more coordinated together. For instance when you enter a Public Dungeon like Crow's Wood in Morrowind (an instanced area that has its own story, missions, and multiple players and parties can enter at once), you’ll likely want to group up so you can work together easier. Public Dungeons are an interesting thing in general, this mix of instanced gameplay and open social play. It’s like a mini-zone with tougher monsters, better loot, and all that. But we’ll get to that later this week.
Perhaps even more important to team play is the fact that classes, weapons, and spells have synergy to them. A sorcerer could place an AOE of static electricity that does damage to enemies in it. But a teammate could run into this area and be presented with an on-demand ability to act as a “conduit” and create his own PBAOE effect, theoretically doubling the spell’s damage and effect. It’s this kind of teamwork that is present throughout the combat of ESO, and while we only got a brief taste of it I can’t wait to see how all the classes work together. What’s more is that the AI mobs use this too. A daedric scamp can light the oil left by a bandit on fire. A Dwemer drone can super-charge an area with electricity, buffing all nearby dwemer unless you stop it from happening. It’s stuff like this that adds an extra layer of interactivity to combat, as well as strategy.
PROGRESSION AND CHARACTER CUSTOMIZATION
Combat and group play would be nothing however without excellent character progression and customization, and ESO has that in spades. Great big giant ones. While in the build we played it wasn’t the case, in the final game every class will be able to wear any armor or use any weapon. In our build, we could use any weapon, but not any armor. Moving on though, the beauty of this system is two-fold. You can finally be that battle-mage you’ve always wanted to be. As you level your character you’ll get new class-specific skills and abilities. But you’ll also get better and better with whatever weapon it is you’re using. If you use a battleaxe a lot, it’ll level up and get more powerful and have its own skills as well. The same will even be true of armor. If you use light armor a lot, you’ll level up its abilities and benefits as well, just like you would in Skyrim. Hell, even every class specific spells has its own leveling path which splits into two. You can go down one path and then later switch and go down the other. Both will make the spell completely different, effectively giving you two spells for every one.
The best part of this from my vantage point? It’s like a built-in alternate advancement system. Sure you might level to 50 and be done gaining new class spells. But you’ll be playing a very long time to learn every weapon’s abilities, every armor’s abilities, and even longer to learn every one of your class spells’ unique versions. Add this all together, the fact that every class can use every weapon or armor, the many different spells and abilities and their morphs, and even the points you spend on Magicka, Health, and Stamina… well, you get the picture. Matt and team informed us that while there are “heals, DPS, and tanks”, every class can take on every role with the progression system and the armor and weapons. It’s just a matter of switching out your loadout and you’re good to go. There’s a whole hell of a lot of character customization in Elder Scrolls Online.
THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION
But all of this gameplay goodness would be moot right, if you couldn’t find your friends? Well don’t worry about that either, because Zenimax has you covered. There’s only going to be one “Megaserver” when ESO launches. When one “layer” of a zone fills up, it’ll create another and put people into there. It’s not unlike say, Champions Online or DCUO’s technology. But ESO goes a few more profound steps further. You’ll be able to set your preferences so that it groups you into areas with like-minded players. Want to be a lone ranger? Tell it so, and it’ll put you with people of the same mind. Love to group or RP? Tell it, and it’ll put you in layers with others that like to. This way there will be no fighting over what server your guild should join, or how you’ll get all your guilds on the same server… yes, you can join multiple guilds in ESO too. Matt even said it might be possible to tell the game you only want to play with adults over thirty and it could do that. Though they haven’t decided if that’s the kind of direction they’ll take it. The Megaserver will even remember the people you’ve played and interacted with, and put you in their zones if they’re online. If you forgot to “friend” them? That’s okay, it’ll make sure you reconnect eventually.
On top of all this, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter will each be built into the game from the start. If you so choose, you can simply import your entire social network friends lists into the game. No battle-tags or usernames or anything like that to compile. Elder Scrolls Online will just connect right to Facebook and others because it doesn’t want you to have to manage yet another “network” of friends. The team assumes that your friends in real life might likely be your friends in gaming these days, so why add a hurdle? The social panel in the game will even tell you what your friends last did in-game, like Facebook statuses so that you can congratulate them with a note or a comment. Of course, if you want this all to be private, there’s that option too.
Combined with the Megaserver tech that puts everyone together at any time, it seems like ESO just might end up being the most socially forward thinking MMO of all time. No game that I can think of makes it easier to connect and play with friends and strangers alike.
THE TROUBLE SPOTS
There were a few areas of improvement. I’d be lying if it wasn’t the case. It was a pre-alpha version of the game after all. Phasing during the questing through zones part of the game has me a bit worried. I lost Garrett once when I took one path through the content and he took another. The team says you can join up with them with a click of a button, but it wasn’t available in this build.
The combat reticle was also a bit wonky at times. It certainly worked, but as it’s a work in progress, I noticed that occasionally if I didn’t have my mouse right over my target I couldn’t even swing. I should be able to swing, even if I miss, and I’m hoping this is altered in future builds. Let me whiff, dagnabbit. I’d also like to see an active dodge mechanic implemented. It’s one of the best features of Guild Wars 2’s tab-target combat, but a dodge would feel even more at home in ESO. Make it take stamina certainly, but definitely let me double-tap W, S, or D to roll out of the way. It would add yet another layer to already fantastic combat.
While I appreciate quest tracking, even in Skyrim, I’d like a little less of it here. Part of the fun is exploring, so during questing if I see a dot telling me where to go exactly, it’s a little off-putting. I’d almost like a “general direction” instead of an exact waypoint for quest objectives. Or just lay it out in the quest details. If this becomes an optional feature of the UI, I’d be happy.
And while we didn’t get to try the PVP in Cyrodiil, I do have a concern about the Megaserver and the AVA system. Players are likely going to want to dabble in all three Alliances to experience all of the PVE content. What’s to stop someone from Ebonheart from hopping over to their Aldmeri character and working on some subterfuge? Some might argue this is a part of the gameplay of AVA (RVR), but I’m hoping there’s at least a timed lockout when you enter Cyrodiil with one Alliance character before entering it again with another. Further more I really hope there are excellent rewards to keep people interested in the long term for the AVA.
THAT’S ALL FOR NOW
Now 3,000 words into this recap of three hours spent playing Elder Scrolls Online, what have you learned? I hope you’ve seen that there’s a whole more lot to ESO than many would have thought initially. The team at Zenimax Online Studios set out with the monumental task of bringing one of gaming’s most revered franchises to the MMO space. We’ve seen it fail before. But through careful consideration, a true love of the franchise, and the knowledge from years of MMORPG development, I think that it’s safe to say Elder Scrolls Online is shaping up to be one of next year’s best titles. Not just in the MMO realm, but in gaming as a whole. Yes, there’s definitely a lot more to discover about this game. It’s still pre-alpha, after all. But those three hours in this new version of Tamriel were not nearly enough. I want more, and I’m genuinely sad that we’ve got months and months more to go before I get another taste. And, if after all these words you’re still a skeptic? Fair enough. That’s your right. But me? I’ll be on the other side of that fence with the believers. I really hope the invite me back soon, because I'm going to need my fix.