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Elder Scrolls Online Previews: Testing the Nightblade at PAX Prime

By Michael Bitton on September 03, 2013

When The Elder Scrolls Online was first announced, I counted myself among the skeptics who didn’t believe that an MMO developer would be able to put together a game that could live up to its single-player counterparts. Expectations for a new Elder Scrolls game are always high among fans of the series, and The Elder Scrolls Online is no different.

Mike Plays the Nightblade

The main stickler for me was finding out if The Elder Scrolls Online played more like an Elder Scrolls game than an MMO with an Elder Scrolls skin on it. I first played ESO at this year’s PAX East and I came away from that experience a good deal more optimistic than I was previously. The game definitely talked the talk and walked the walk back at PAX East and things have only improved since I last saw ESO.

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We spent some time playing the latest demo build at this year’s PAX Prime and the first thing I wanted to know was if the first person mode was in the build. Zenimax Online released a video a couple of months back showing off the new first person mode and that video really showed off the game in a better light. Sure, some people play ES games in third person, but it’s that first person adventuring that’s so iconic to the series.

Thankfully, first person mode was in, so the first thing I did was fully zoom in and give it a go. Well, that is after I created my Dark Elf Nightblade. This latest demo build focused on Skyrim and the Ebonheart Pact alliance. That alliance consists of the Dark Elves, Nords, and Argonians. Being a Dunmer fan myself, I couldn’t resist. For whatever reason, the Nightblade starts with a dagger and shield instead of dual wielding daggers, but I found quick use for the shield as I settled back into ESO’s combat system.

As always, I immediately went out into the world and tried to play the game like I would any Elder Scrolls game, and it worked. I didn’t feel like I needed to do anything in any particular order. I just ran around the snowy plains and explored, looking for things to kill, points of interest to explore, and mobs to fight. The combat definitely feels a lot better in first person, though it’s functionally the same as the third-person gameplay.  You swing your weapon at enemies and dodge out of the way of their attacks. You can block with your shield and even stun enemies who are charging up an ability by using a shield bash. Doing this gives you the time to charge up a free power attack that does extra damage against your foe.  Combat is simply more entertaining and visually interesting in first person, at least to me, but the lack of situational awareness when compared to third-person mode puts its viability into question for anything but casual combat.

As a Nightblade, I also sneaked around and back-stabbed enemies, though sometimes I couldn’t really tell if I had gotten it off correctly as there wasn’t much in the way of visual feedback for a back-stab attack and it didn’t seem to do as much damage as I expected. Still, if you’ve played The Elder Scrolls games you will be instantly at home. If you jumped out of Skyrim and into ESO, you would really need maybe only a minute or so to adjust to the way the game plays.  The controls and interface are almost identical. The biggest difference in the combat system is the use of hotbar bound skills. Sure, Elder Scrolls games such as Skyrim feature spells and such, but you would typically set these spells as your ‘active’ ability and then fire them off.

In ESO, you have an MMO-like hotbar that is normally hidden away. This hotbar can be slotted with skills and spells you’ve put points into. The Nightblade features three distinct skill trees (separate from the common pool trees that everyone shares) and I decided to pick up Assassin Strike for my first ability. This ability is essentially an execute, and this means it does significantly more damage when the target’s health is below a certain threshold. It was probably a good choice too, as it was quite satisfying to use as a coup de grâce after shield bashing and power attacking an enemy onto his back. This kind of helped emphasize ESO’s flow of combat a bit more and really got me thinking of the fun possibilities available to a fully tricked out character.

The only downside to ESO’s combat that I’ve noticed so far is that lack of feedback I mentioned earlier. While you as a player are free to attack at will, combo attacks, and all that, the enemies still respond to your attacks the way they generally do in MMOs – and that means not much at all. You smack ‘em, and they generally keep attacking unfazed. It’s still a bit more visceral than your garden variety MMO combat, but the lack of feedback can take you somewhat out of it  and remind you that you’re still playing an MMO. Then again, The Elder Scrolls series isn’t known for its excellent combat features to begin with, so tempering your expectations shouldn’t be too hard.

One of my favorite aspects of the game so far is the emphasis on the minimalist UI and the game’s compass feature. The screen is mostly free of HUD elements and that lets you really appreciate the great looking world. Truthfully, ESO doesn’t look as good as its single-player counterpart in Skyrim, but it’s certainly no slouch. You’ll definitely want to take in the environment and the UI elements being off the screen really help you feel immersed in the action and in what the game is showing you. Some players may prefer a mini-map, but I found myself really loving the familiar Elder Scrolls compass that replaces it. You don’t know exactly where things are and you aren’t required to have your eyes focused on some silly map off to the side to figure out where you’re going, but the compass is still just as useful. Icons denoting points of interest, quest objectives, and other things will show up on the compass and you’ll be able to tell your distance from them and their direction simply by how large (or small) the icon is and the direction you’re facing. It’s easy for me to pick a point I’d like to head to and just start going in that direction, making detours along the way to check out something that catches my eye without losing sight of where I ultimately want to end up.

Speaking of exploration, NPCs will find you in the wilderness and seek your help, just as they do in the singleplayer games. As I was moseying around a rocky outcropping, some distraught girl ran up to me with a hysterical tale about how her friends were turned into skeevers and begged me to follow her and help her out. I didn’t get to find out the ultimate conclusion for this particular quest as we ran out of time, but the content coming to you is an interesting departure from your typical MMO adventuring experience.

Bill Talks to Paul

We had a chance to talk with Paul Sage during our demo about the game's progress as well. First and foremost, we asked if they'd be going into the dark now with the game shows over and release six months away, and Paul was quick to shake his head saying they have a lot more to show us and beta is just getting started. The game will be out on Mac as well as PC at launch, but in terms of console versions he couldn't say if it would be out at the same time as the PC and Mac clients. This should ease fears that the game's release is somehow being held up or crippled by the console editions.  

I asked Paul whether we'd soon get to see any Alliance vs. Alliance warfare, and he said that they've been testing it internally for some time now with big groups of players (hundreds), and that as the beta test proves the servers can handle the load, they'll work towards having play sessions centered around the AvA.  But for now, the goal is to watch players and see how they work through the content.  One thing that's changing shortly is how crafting works.  They've been listening to a lot of feedback, and the crafting is one area that testers believe needs a little love in terms of making it fun. He said it's useful as is, but just not as engaging to partake in.  He couldn't go into more detail, but said that crafters would love the changes when they're unveiled.  

Lastly, we asked Paul beta in general. He said that the feedback has been resoundingly more positive with each iteration which makes them feel they're on the right path and did right to delay launch into 2014. He also said that they're adding so much fluff to the world that the TES fans will find no shortage of little nooks and crannies to uncover, lore items, books, hidden places. He believes they're really striking the balance between making the open world feel like a multiplayer Elder Scrolls, and making the PVP in Cyrodiil feel like the best three-faction warfare on the market. I guess we'll all find out when the game is launched next year.  For now, we'll be left waiting on our own beta invites.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB

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