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The Obstacle of Combat

Lewis Burnell Posted:
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My time in The Elder Scrolls Online has been an odd one this week because despite my random adventuring across a variety of zones, I’ve begun to grow incredibly frustrated at how a AAA title, and arguably one of the last MMO giants, got something as fundamental as combat so spectacularly wrong.

In some respects, The Elder Scrolls Online perfectly mirrors its Skyrim and Oblivion siblings, in the sense that they too offer relatively dull, hack and slash combat. In contrast, MMO players have - to some degree - come to expect slick experiences that are gratifying and fast paced. This is largely at odds with what The Elder Scrolls series is about and I can sympathise with Zenimax for attempting to find a balance between the series and its roots and its venture into massively multiplayer territory. It must have taken up a great deal of the studios time debating how to approach the combat, and yet The Elder Scrolls Online tragically misses the mark.

While it has a pace reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls series and there’s unquestionably an element of hack and slash, it’s always going to be compared against its peers. While the game might be a little over two years old, it still falls short of where it should be. I wouldn’t wish to hold the likes of Guild Wars 2 aloft as the benchmark developers should be aiming for (I actually prefer the combat of Guild Wars 1) and yet ArenaNet ensured the core feature of their game - which players spend most of their time doing - is very good. Guild Wars 2’s combat might be overly busy, have far too much “noise” and lack the intricacy of its predecessor (much to the detriment of the game, if you ask me) but it’s undeniably polished in comparison to The Elder Scrolls Online. Animations are smooth, movement isn’t stilted, there’s a sense of “oomph” when using attacks and combat is generally snappy and reactive.

In contrast, The Elder Scrolls Online leaves me with a disconnect between my action and that of my character, to the point where there’s a niggling lack of pace and immediacy. Everything is just a fraction of a second too slow and animations a little too wonky to provide any sense of strength or impact. As a bow user, using Draining Shot, it should not only be immediate but result in a satisfying knockback and while it serves its purpose the end result typifies the combat and its lack of polish. Enemies struck stagger oddly backwards in the air, snapping into a Disorientate pose before skipping animations to recover. It’s incredibly jarring and, I would think, largely linked to the game engine Zenimax chose.

The poor animations and odd effect of the Z axis spills over into the game (you only have to jump to see it) and leads me to think it’s a heavily modified version of the HeroEngine, the same that’s used for Star Wars The Old Republic; a game that also happens to share many of The Elder Scrolls Online’s oddities. Unfortunately by adopting the HeroEngine, Zenimax have sacrificed one part of their game for the expense of another. 

Does the lack of combat and animation polish detract from my enjoyment of the game? Honestly, yes. It does bother me and I expect it would (or should) bother most people. If you’ve any level of exposure to a variety MMO’s The Elder Scrolls Online is unquestionably inferior in this one area. The most important question however, is does the lack of combat and animation polish put me off playing the game? Absolutely not.

Unlike in Black Desert Online where I’m constantly plagued by textureless NPC’s and the worst pop-in I’ve ever seen in a video game, The Elder Scrolls Online remains unquestionably fun, even with its combat. I’d still like to see Zenimax take the time to do a pass on animations and combat timing (if it’s even possible for them) but I suspect engine limitations could severely hamper progress for them. There’s so much scope for them to improve what they already have, it’s frustrating to think they potentially can’t.

Perhaps as my character levels up and if I stop playing other games that are slicker, I could grow more and more accustomed to its combat. Three weeks in however and it still a difficult hurdle to jump over. I can’t be the only one who feels the same.

Which MMO do you think has the best combat? What do you think The Elder Scrolls Online and nits combat is missing? Is fast paced, polished combat key to your enjoyment of an MMO? Would you like to see The Elder Scrolls Online spend time improving animations and its combat polish? Let me know!


Lewis Burnell

Lewis has played MMOs since Ultima Online launched, and written about them for far too long.