Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions

Screenshot_20140301_003649I spent the last two days on my second Elder Scrolls Online beta test. I wanted to post about it after the first beta I participated in but the NDA was still in effect. With the NDA lifted, I can now publicly pass nerd judgment.

I’m coming at ESO primarily as a longtime fan of the Elder Scrolls series more so than an avid MMO player. In general I do not like MMOs, though every couple years I try a new one to see if I still dislike the form as much as I remember. I spent several months playing Dark Ages of Camelot back when it launched, a year on WoW after it launched, and only about two months on Star Wars: Old Republic, also at launch.

I had little choice but to try out ESO because despite my usual dislike of MMOs, and the rumor was that you could play it almost entirely like a single player game. I managed to make level 14 in the course of these two play weekends and only grouped once for a fight I simply could not win, although I am sure after some more time in game that had I just come back in two levels I could have taken the mob on my own. Other than that it was solo time for most of my weekends with the zone chat disabled because I just didn’t need to hear the same three neck beard arguments ad inifitum.

There is no shortage of write ups on the web about the first few levels and the content offered in them so I will not rehash any of that here.

Exploration

One of the greatest complaints on the gaming blogs after the last beta weekend was that the game was too linear and did not allow for exploration. Most of the reviewers seemed to base this entirely on the first six levels or so which is a bit silly considering that these levels have to provide enough structured content to keep complete newbies from getting lost and putting down the game immediately. It’s true that the first areas (I played through early levels in both Ebonheart Pact and Daggerfall Covenant) leave little else for you to do but bang through the first six quests, but you can finish the entire newbie garden in about an hour once you’ve got your feet and know how all the mechanics work. The first five levels of any characters existence are of little note anyway.

By the time you reach the second tier area, it becomes apparent (if you’ve even tried to go off the main road) that there are treasure chests hidden all over the world. I really enjoyed sniffing these out because the spawn frequently enough in out of the way places that you can find several of them and I found quite a bit of good loot in them. There are also “soul shards” hidden about the world that you can collect in threes for a not insignificant amount of bonus skill points.

That being said, this is not like other Elder Scrolls titles in that there simply doesn’t seem to be many out of the way hidden dungeons that are not part of a particular quest. I did find a few side quests this way but with some NPC standing in front of the cave it just doesn’t have that same feeling as other ES titles that you’ve found something unique that no one else has set foot into for years or would never dare go.

Crafting

kajiithelmThe crafting in ESO is one of its best features. Foodstuff consumables are craftable with reagents that are practically jumping into your pockets out of crates and barrels along with new recipes to turn them into food and drink. Both offer lasting buffs to health, magicka, or stamina in the form of a max bonus or regen bonus, nothing groundbreaking there. Compared to the cooking offered in Skyrim, it is a hundred fold more useful and is essential for a solo style player to buff their stats.

My main crafting focus was on blacksmithing, which is simple to manage yet allows you to make significant and useful items early on and to enhance them in many ways. Items are constructed of two elements, a base element ( e.g. iron or steel) that determines the item base tier and a secondary element that determines what style motif to which the armor will conform. Each of the races of Tamriel has its own style motif which can be learned from picking up books on each. Even the Kajiit and Argonian have their own style motifs (finally, wtf Bethesda) and I really liked the look of the Kajiit helm I added to my otherwise Nord setup. Only the secondary elements can be purchased from vendors (they also drop).

Additionally, gems can be expended to add traits to craft items, but only after those traits have been learned by researching an item already bearing that trait. Research occurs on a static clock so you can fire it up before logging off and/or let it run while doing other things. This mechanic seems to be popular and I know other MMOs have implemented it since it first showed up (to my knowledge in Eve Online).

Existing items can also be improved with additional reagent types such as honing stones and Dwarven oil. This is where I have a gripe, as improvement can be applied with anywhere from one to five of the improvement reagents with each one you add adding another 20% to your chance of success. If you fail the item is destroyed, a man rings your doorbell, and he punches you in the face as you open the door. Okay so the punching does not actually happen, but you’ll sure feel like it did when you build a new item and decide that 80% odds are pretty good but lose the item anyway. I hate this mechanic and would have rather they just made the reagents five times less plentiful and only require one. This gambling mechanic is no fun and just teaches you to wait until you have five anyway, so why even tempt us?

Combat

Combat is an interesting mix of real time hit per click and auto targeted cool down abilities. Melee is hit per click like single player ES games, but magic attacks will remember the target that was in your crosshair when you started casting and will find its way to the target (if still in range) even if you move to the left or right, at least in PVE. I can’t say for sure with PVP (about which I will have more to say in a moment). The cooldown on all abilities seems to be very quick with stamina and magicka being the real limit to what you can do when. One of the big letdowns with Star Wars: Old Republic was its use of the old click to acquire a target and cue up the same four abilities dynamic that had already grown so stale in WoW. At early levels you still end up executing the same few moves in a row (there is no queue) until your targets become more varied and required different tactics.

There is no enormous menu of items and abilities as per the other MMOs I have played. There are only five hot keys allowed for each weapon load out you have and you can’t even use the second load out until level 15 so I never got to try that bit out. Surely some of this is because of the limits imposed by future support of ESO on PS4 and Xbox One and the controllers that will be used on those platforms. However I find this preferable to six rows containing every ability ever because when given that many options I still can’t find what I need when I really want it. The limited set requires you to have a plan of attack and execute it and if your next target is different, then you must rearrange your small set of keys. Having forty shortcuts never worked for me because when things got crazy there was only a 10% chance I could remember the location or hotkey for Divine Intervention in time to use it.

PVP

I got to PVP late on the last day but in short, I hated it. I’ve never been good at PVP in MMOs for the most part so I’m a hard sell on this feature, it’s one that just doesn’t appeal to me. For my part PVP games are Quake, or I’m not playing them.

All of Cyrodil is the battleground and each of the three factions has forts that can be taken, lost, and retaken, each supported by smaller nearby locations like farms and lumbermills which also must be defended or taken. You and 100 of your closest friends use siege weapons to breach the keeps and claim Elder Scrolls tucked away within. What it breaks down to for me is way too many people playing a game of capture the flag. If you are a melee character you get nuked before you can swing your blade. If there is no forward camp up when you die you have to run fifteen miles back to the fight (unless you have bought a mount for a small fortune of 17,400 gold) only to die again in an equally ridiculous way. Absolutely nothing about it was fun because unless you belong to a guild that only does this one thing with their lives you will never be on the winning side of the battle, period. I’m disappointed that this was the route Zenimax took for PVP, but again, I don’t generally like PVP, so this part of the game just doesn’t cater to me. There are other quest type options for the PVP areas that are scouting based missions but without a mount they just seemed like they would be work. I actually had much more fun back in Old Republic with its smaller 10 vs 10 maps on quick rotation.

Conclusions

There is a great deal of polish on the content in the Ebonheart Pact areas, but the time I spent beta before last in the Daggerfall Covenant area was less than impressive. NPCs spawned in silly places at the wrong time, reagents for crafting where far too scarce, and the voice acting and writing for Daggerfall is just not as good as Ebonheart Pact. In some instances it was downright abysmal. The graphics are breathtaking all over but I have not mentioned them until now because as much as I appreciate them they don’t make the game in any case. For my money I will not likely buy this title at launch but only because I have been burned so many times in the past buying MMOs at launch. They get cheap too fast, or go “free to play” so that you end up feeling like you got mugged and that is just not an experience I want to associate with Elder Scrolls or Zenimax. Once the launch dust clears, however, I will very likely be back to give this another go. The crafting and solo PVE still scratch the Elder Scrolls itch even if they are more MMO than ES. I am also interested to see what Zenimax does the subscription model and what kind of tweaks and updates they will make to the game. Even when not playing, I will still have a very close eye on ESO.

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