One of the key features in any game is combat. Players love to explore, do quests, and discover mad loot, but in the end it all comes down to the combat as it’s what you do most in the world. Elder Scrolls Online has a very tricky balancing act to do. They have MMO combat mixing with the Elder Scrolls style combat from the single player games. How do you possibly combine these two forms into one fun and very playable state? Easy, you take several years to build a game and go through loads of different combat ideas. Thankfully the team at Zenimax Online did just that. The combat in Elder Scrolls Online is a fantastic hybrid of action that captures both traditional MMO tropes and classic TES elements.
First let’s go over what you have to work with. Any character can use any weapon and wear any armor. Get that everyone? Yes you can be a Sorceror and wear heavy armor. Yes you can swing a great sword as a Templar. It is all there for you. You choose your gear and can progess in your weapons the more you use them. Even better, you can master every weapon in the game if you wish. While playing, I definitely felt like I was not limited to my playstyle based on the weapon choices alone. I went from two handed hammer to sword and shield to dual wield as I leveled. I just wish we had seen some ranged weapons in this build, but since the targeting system was in flux from older builds (from tab-targeting to TES-style controls) they weren’t ready for our hands on.
Still the combat over all was very refreshing and from an MMO standpoint. I didn’t feel limited to a specific weapon set just to use my abilities. Each weapon has its own abilities you can equip as you learn them. Plus each weapon has a normal and a heavy attack. For armor (though in this build we were limited to what types we can wear), in the final product you will wear whatever you like. The Light armor helps your magic, medium armor will boost stamina, and heavy armor boosts defense and/or health . You can switch armor any time you like while playing, as long as you’re out of combat, and it might make sense for a hybrid build to wear some pieces of each. There are benefits to your choices in terms of how you want to play your character. The options are wide open when it comes to your gear, instead of being limited because of a class choice.
The last element to this puzzle is the hotbar and class skills. You get up to 6 slots in the hotbar and choose to add your class skills accordingly. However, as mentioned, there are no cooldowns on skills. So if you are casting spells, you have what your mana bar allows and that is it. If you are using power attacks, then your stamina bar comes into play. You can use all of your class skills from the hotbar without timers dictating use; you are only limited by your magic and stamina. And this too, recharges based on stats and (presumably) gear and upgrades from crafting.
The act of combat in Elder Scrolls Online is very close to the single-player RPGs like Oblivion, and Skyrim. You can move while casting, and indeed you’re going to want to so you can dodge incoming attacks and reposition yourself as needed. As you approach a mob the mob will glow red if it has agro (in this way you can tell who’s hostile and who is not. Archers will stand and shoot you, run from battle if they feel they can gain advantage from some other ground, or they might equip a melee weapon and attack after you close in. Dogs will run up and bite you, skeevers jump and annoy the crap out of you… think of Skyrim and you are on the right track. You can switch back and forth between targets very smoothly without having to click all over the screen. I found the combat to be very easy to learn and taking time to get the right fighting styles down may be the mastery that comes with time. The only downside is that the build we played is midway between the old tab-target system and the new free-form targeting so unless you were aimed perfectly on your target you couldn’t even swing and miss. We were told this will change so that it won’t be “soft-targeting” and instead will feel more natural and truly reticle-based in future builds.
The game also has a Finesse System which adds a nice little bit of bonus to the action. You are rewarded for how well you dispatch foes and how “good” you are fighting in general. The finese system rewards you with chests and drops for how well you kill stuff. These rewards include bonuses to XP, items, and also kill-cam deaths like we’ve seen in Bethesda games since Fallout 3. The finesse points also pop up discreetly to the right of the screen as you go through combat so during a fight you can see how well you are doing. If you learn to get good with your character, the finese system will become a major aspect of your character. We loved it, and were pleased to see you could simply “stop” the kill-cam stuff by pressing button if you don’t care for the slow-mo John Woo sort of action. I imagine it could be dangerous but visually rewarding in PVP, for example.
One of the great things about PvE combat was that the monsters work together against you. If you come upon one monster in a hallway, you pretty much know what you will get. However, some monsters work in teams. The monster AI is designed to work against you when you face multiple mobs. For example, we saw a foot soldier and a fire mage during a presentation at the end of the day. When the dev attacked the foot soldier he dropped oil on the ground. The fire mage blasted at us and immediately lit the oil aflame and burned the area. This was a small example that Nick Konkle gave us during his presentation. He did say that the more you face groups of monsters, the more challenges players have in store. The AI strategies will change so the combat remains fresh and does not become a rinse and repeat style. But that we’ll just have to see to believe.
Overall, the combat felt mostly spot on, minus a few issues like the aforementioned “unable to swing” stuff. If those issues remain temporary, we’re in for a treat. The power attacks took a split second to power up, but were worth the time to finish off enemies. The combat is as fast or as slow as you want based on your movement and how you want to attack, and the weapons you choose. Combining weapon swings with Templar abilities I found all kinds of fun combinations to finish fights even at a low level. One last thing, for those of you concerned about Sneak, it is in the game. Sneak does play a role in combat and works best with light or medium armor. Sneak will have abilities to unlock as you use it and will very much be a part of PvP from what we’re told. Good news for all you Dark Botherhood folks. It just wasn’t very functional in our build… yet. Overall, the combat for Elder Scrolls Online was a magical mix of the classic RPG and MMO customs. Now we just need a combat video to be released to the masses so you can see how well it works in practice.