Every few years, a game developer tries to take a shot at the MMO market, ever so dominated by Blizzard and their juggernaut, World of Warcraft. Many have faced this electronic Gom Jabbar, trying and failing, or worse, trying and dying in the best of Bene Gesserit traditions. While nothing has been successful in knocking Warcraft off the top of the MMO charts, RPG masterminds Bethesda have locked and loaded a large caliber shell aimed at dethroning Blizzard: Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a well calculated strategy; previous entries Morrowwind, Oblivion and most recently Skyrim all won immense amounts of acclaim. With Skyrim alone selling over 20 million copies, it’s safe to say the series has a fanbase that could take on WoW.
We here at Topless Robot got to spend a long, caffeine and Cheetos filled weekend with the latest entry, Elder Scrolls Online. Here’s your first look at what you can expect when you step into the online world of Tamriel. Is Elder Scrolls Online worth $60, $14.99 a month, and everyone you’ve ever loved? Let’s find out, starting with the good…
Players of any previous Elder Scrolls game will feel instantly at home here. While incorporating features typical of MMO games, the basics are almost exactly the same as previous entries in the series. The controls, the heads-up display and combat all seem to be lifted right from Skyrim. The expansive lore is once again expressed by characters and books which continue to be extremely detailed and well written.
At the same time, some of the flaws of games past remain. NPCs are often wooden characters, repeating their programmed lines without the slightest hint of variety or emotion. A mission a few hours into gameplay required my character to deliver medicine to six NPCs, who all responded with the exact same phrase, spoken by six different voice actors, with only the slightest variation. It might be a byproduct of the early build of the game, but it’s likely that there will soon be new Elder Scrolls memes to replace the unfortunate combination of arrows and knees we’ve heard so much about.
2. Hey, You Got Your Action Game in My RPG!
Elder Scrolls games have always been, at their core, action games with very strong role playing elements. These core concepts are still here in Elder Scrolls Online, with a touch of World of Warcraft and console action games mixed in.
While the basic controls are the same as previous games in the series, Bethesda adopted certain control concepts from MMO staples. Instead of having to equip a spell to one of your character’s hands, you now assign magic and specialized techniques to number keys, similar to the action keys of WoW or Star Wars: The Old Republic. This allows you to cast spells while having both hands occupied; a major change to the mechanics of the series. Gone is the ability to have multiple weapons and spells chained to number keys, but with the changes made to combat, it’s unnecessary. Switching weapons on the fly is a rather difficult proposition, as combat doesn’t stop just because you enter your inventory, but as you progress in the game, you do eventually earn the ability to have two separate, interchangeable weapon configurations which can be easily swapped during combat.
Generally speaking, the game plays just like you would expect if you’ve played previous games in the series. Combat can seem easy, but the first-person focus makes it easy to be overwhelmed by relatively simple enemies when attacked en masse. It’s far from perfect, with significant bugs such as invisible enemies, monsters that rez directly in front of you and immediately engage, and other such flaws. It is likely that these issues are some of the myriad problems discovered during the beta, and will likely be fixed before or soon after launch, but for the time being can be frustrating and occasionally laughable.
Aspects from console action games make an appearance as well. Enemies will occasionally start to glitter like Edward Cullen in sunlight, indicating they are about to throw a haymaker. A reasonably well-timed right click will cause your player to go into a defensive posture, blocking the massive swing of your enemy, stunning them almost Street Fighter II-style. It feels lifted right from Arkham City or Assassin’s Creed and is almost comical; it slows down the pace of the fighting and feels unnecessary, but it will likely make combat on the console a little more forgiving. The good news is this near perfect blend of action and role-playing is bound to become the bane of significant others across the globe.
3. Thou Must Keepeth It Simple, Imbecile
Skyrim, for as entertaining as it is, is a very complex game. When you’re not worrying about that dragon trying to use your femur as a toothpick, you’re managing inventory, skill trees, crafting, cooking, etc. Thankfully, Elder Scrolls Online seems to have simplified some of these concepts, by no means making them less robust, but just simpler to use and manage.
Gone is the concept of item weight, replaced with a much simpler standard inventory system that allows you to carry a certain number of items. This means no slow down when overburdened, because you can’t get overburdened. Instead, running out of room in your inventory means you’re not picking anything else up until you clean out space. Sure, it takes away from the realism, but in a group quest environment, realism isn’t necessarily what you want.
Crafting is simpler as well, with basic blueprints part of your character’s knowledge that expands as you gain experience or find “recipes”. Alchemy is still a guessing game of mixing random components, trying to make something valuable, but with what seems to be a cleaner and simpler interface.
The simplification of the game is certainly going to ease the transition of both traditional MMO players and Elder Scrolls veterans into the new hybrid format, making ESO the perfect entry for people looking to get into the series painlessly. After all, who wants to slay dragons, concoct potions, smith a sword, chop firewood, mine for iron, fight a war and still have to find time to have dinner on the table by 5?
4. We Were Warned About the Graphics…We Didn’t Need to Be
Since the announcement of Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda, the media, and everyone else warned us not to expect visuals on par with Skyrim. Initial interviews with Bethesda mentioned the need for less detailed character animations, with steps taken back from realism in favor of more computer-friendly “cartoon-ish” graphics. When Elder Scrolls Online begins with your character trapped in Oblivion, it’s apparent that we’re not playing Skyrim. The character models are detailed and impressive for an MMO, but comparing the Ultra-Fine setting graphics of ESO and Skyrim show a loss of detail. The caverns of Oblivion immediately bring back memories of some of the cookie-cutter dungeons from previous games. Even as you escape eternal damnation, the environments of your first location (an island off the coast of Skyrim) are reminiscent of the previous entries in the series. It’s when you begin to truly explore Tamriel that the graphics become visually impressive – incredible when compared to other games in the MMO genre.
Landscapes are teeming with life, both animal and plant. Instead of the drab, snowy greys of Skyrim, this world is saturated in color. Character models, while not of Skyrim detail, are not lacking; something that is particularly noticeable when getting up close and personal with some of the non-human races like the Argonian. Instead of skimping on environmental and character details, more subtle sacrifices were made, reducing the detail of water or objects. These sacrifices do not detract from the game whatsoever, and allow more modest computers (as well as the new generation of consoles) unabashed access to Tamriel without forking out tons of money. Elder Scrolls Online isn’t supermodel hot; rather it’s more like that best friend who you can’t quite get the nerve to ask out hot.
And now, the not-so-good…
1. Consoles and Content are the Key
Bethesda is taking on a rather daunting challenge with Elder Scrolls Online. While the PC release of Skyrim is the definitive version of the game, with its superior sound and mod capabilities, it only accounts for 14% of the total game sales, with the Xbox 360 version dominating sales charts. The difference this time around is that there are only about 7 million new-generation consoles in the hands of gamers. The fact is, not every single new generation console owner will be buying Elder Scrolls Online. Those who buy the game are also not guaranteed long term subscribers. Basic math dictates that it’s unlikely Bethesda will be making the kind of money from Elder Scrolls Online that Skyrim brought in (1.29 billion dollars in revenue in the two years since release).
Aside from needing a significant amount of console sales to be successful, the key to the survival of the game is long term subscribers. World of Warcraft subscriptions have accounted for 2.3 billion dollars of revenue for Blizzard, and it’s the consistent stream of new content and expansions that keeps the game earning, even so many years after its release. Bethesda will need to keep the content fresh and exciting to retain subscribers, especially in a world where other top-tier MMOs have transitioned into a Free-To-Play model and maintained or increased revenue. The fact is, in these economically conscious times, it’s going to take something special to warrant $225 for the first year of play, something which thus far the game doesn’t quite have yet. If a poor nerdy bastard like myself had to choose between a year of ESO or Watchdogs…and Destiny…and Wolfenstein…and three tickets to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier in IMAX…the choice would be clear.
2. The Ground Hasn’t Been Broken Yet
Those anticipating Elder Scrolls Online changing the dynamics for all MMO games will be sorely disappointed come April 4th. While the game is certainly different when compared to the click-happy Warcraft in terms of style and gameplay, the game unfortunately follows many of the MMO cliches to a tee. An overwhelming amount of the quests you will embark on are cookie cutter clones that could have been lifted from any MMO. You’ll often find yourself accepting a quest, travelling five minutes in each direction to collect required items, then returning them to the quest originator for a reward. In my time experiencing the beta, it took hours of mundane questing to progress the story along, with the main quest finally becoming interesting after my character had reached level 7, approximately 10 hours into playing.
Frankly, there are more ground breaking MMO games out there. While being incredibly similar to WoW, Star Wars: The Old Republic spiced things up with its morality system, starship combat and the superb Flashpoint system. At this point, Elder Scrolls Online too often feels like the duller portions of its predecessor. More risks are going to need to be taken to make this product stand out like The Old Republic, and of course we all know what happened to that one.
3. PvP May Be What Shatters MMO Conventions
Based on descriptions and trailers, the Player vs Player portion could be the driving force behind Elder Scrolls Online. Alliance War, the name for ESO’s PvP portion, pits three rival factions against each other for domination of Imperial City, and you’re a member of one of these factions. Dominating Imperial City is important, as certain aspects of the game will be limited to the faction currently sitting on the Ruby Throne of Cyrodiil.
While most MMO games require a ton of time and dedication to be able to survive long periods in PvP zones, ESO is going to allow even casual players a fighting chance by level balancing characters. Your character’s attributes will be boosted to more competitive levels while in Cyrodiil, though your skills, perks and abilities will still be tied to your actual level. This means theoretically you could take your level 20 character toe to toe with a level 50 character, and statistically have a chance at winning.
The risks are minimized in ESO’s PvP component as well. If defeated, you thankfully will not suffer both the teabagging and looting of your eviscerated corpse. Instead, deaths in the game merely cause wear on your equipment rather than the instantaneous usurping of all of your accomplishments, making it more likely that players new to both MMOs and Player vs. Player gameplay will be willing to fight and die for their faction rather than stick to the PvE aspect of the game. Based on my time in the standard ESO environment, I get the distinct feeling that some of the most compelling moments of the game will take place in PvP.
4. Not Enough Bang for My Buck…Yet
In the moments when Elder Scrolls Online was at its finest, I was drawn in almost inescapably. Once the story picked up, a planned two-hour play session quickly turned into five eyeball-bleeding hours of adventure bliss. The moments of tedium were quickly completed and replaced with compelling sequences that advanced the story and my excitement. The problem is, the number of those tedious moments were far greater in the beginning of the story, enough that the game became flat-out boring for a time until I progressed far enough. Were I someone who plays games more casually, I would have likely put down ESO rather quickly instead of paying my dues long enough to get to the meat and potatoes of the game. On the other hand, there is enough to do in Tamriel that fans of the grind will not be disappointed. It’s finding that balance that is going to be key moving forward, and it’s not quite there yet.
That being said, there is absolutely limitless potential moving forward. The high production values, the quality of the action, the depth of the gameplay are all fantastic signs of the shape of things to come, if the game can survive enough to become fully realized. Add to that the potential of reaching millions of console gamers, and Elder Scrolls Online could very well eclipse Warcraft. Remember, the WoW of today has evolved significantly since its inception. It’s a daunting task, but from the time I spent in the game, I think it could be done.
After a sleepless, Red Bull fueled weekend of frat boy-style binge gaming, I’ve seen the amazing amount of potential Elder Scrolls Online has (or maybe it was just exhaustion-induced hallucinations). At this point in development, the game isn’t worth blowing my marriage and career on, though I wouldn’t mind ditching work for a long run through Tamriel. Thankfully, with two more months before release, Bethesda has time to step up their game, pun totally intended. Until then, I’ll be following its development closely, likely from a treadmill as I try to work off the copious amounts of junk food that have made my ass bigger than the plot holes in Prometheus. Oh wait, that PvP beta started. I’d better check it out…for journalism!
Previously by Jason Helton