Here are my impressions of the Elder Scrolls Online after logging in last night for the first time and spending the evening exploring whatever part of Tamriel I was dropped into.
I should probably start by saying that I’m not en Elder Scrolls devotee. I’ve played Skyrim up to about level eleven, and that’s pretty much my experience with ES. There was a lot to love about that game, but there was also a lot of tedium that I just didn’t have time to mess with, not least of which was sifting through my quest log trying to figure out what to do next – before getting distracted by another NPC who wanted to send me to the other side of the map. I also wasn’t crazy about how mashy the combat system felt. It was cool at first, but there’s only so much you can do with left mouse/right mouse. I should probably also say that (as a consumer, anyway) I am still not a fan of the subscription-only business model. I understand the reasons for it, and that it can lead to better and more frequently updated games, but I just can’t get over the old rent vs buy conversation from economics 101. Renting never, ever benefits the consumer. It will always cost you more in the long run. If you have the means to own something, do it.
There are probably a lot of folks who want ESO to be “Skyrim with friends”. I’m not one of those, and I’m happy to report that it doesn’t feel that way to me. Let’s start with character creation. ESO has chosen to stick with the realistic art style for the game, and the character models are no exception. The characters have a realistic look and feel about them, both just to look at, and during movement. To date, these are some of my favorite character models that I’ve seen in a game. They’re Skyrim, but with some of the ugly polished off. Not to mention THERE ARE SO MANY SLIDERS! This is fantastic. Too many games have tried to simplify the character creation process to get people right into the game, but I love the fact that we have so many customization options. It’s going to make it very difficult to find your twin in-game. I want to feel that my character is unique and brings something unique to the world. There are some race options, but since I’m not big on the ESO lore I just picked a race who’s skin color looked interesting. I ended up as a Redguard. I made him a Nightblade because it sounded fun.
When I finally got thrown into the starter area, I was so happy to be able to move my mouse wheel a few clicks back and immediately enter into 3rd person mode. Even better, moving and fighting in this mode feels much more natural than it did in Skyrim. Nothing gives me temporary vertigo like spinning my mouse around and around in 1st person mode, looking for that skeleton that somehow got behind me. The combat system still uses the mouse buttons, but they’re set up differently in ESO. Left button is attack, right button is block, both buttons together is interrupt. Only one attack button? Well, yeah, but you use this attack in combination with a 5 slot skill bar, on which you can also slot more specialized attacks that are unlocked as you or your weapon level up. This makes combat feel much more versatile than on Skyrim, where you pretty much had two attacks and had to be constantly switching spells or weapons to do something different. ESO gives you more attack options with a single weapon slotted, so combat doesn’t have to be interrupted by switching stuff in and out. That being said, at level 15, you are able to unlock a quick-switch option where it appears you’ll be able to…well, quickly switch to a secondary weapon setup. Not sure how this works exactly, as I’m a long way from level 15. As far as combat flow, I found that the mouse button attack is very slow and unresponsive with a bow as my primary weapon. So, I relied fairly heavily on my quick slot attacks, which were much faster and more effective. I hope this is something that is fixed, because it’s nice to have the option of an extra ‘auto attack’ during combat. One note from a bow user: unlimited arrows. Yes.
Questing seems to be balanced fairly well. I like the long, meandering storylines within the quest structure of ESO. Also, there are side quests to pick up along the way, but not an unmanageable amount. I don’t think I ever had more than 5-6 quests on my tracker at any one time, which seems like a sweet-spot number of quests to be focusing on. The quests are designed to get you out there wandering around the beautiful landscape, but never did I lose my sense of purpose while running up beaches or scaling old mine shafts. I never had a “what the heck was I supposed to be doing?” moment like I encountered in Skyrim frequently. I also don’t recall any of the typical “kill ten rats” quests that you expect from early NPCs. In all, I thought the questing was well done, interesting, and logical. After completing the first area (around level 5) I was starting to feel like I really knew some of the NPC characters who were along for the ride. Part of the reason for this is the nice voice acting, but part of it was also that they were involved in some of my story quests, and even helped me out along the way.
Character progression is pretty interesting. They combined the weapon/skill leveling from Skyrim with a more MMO-ish character leveling system where you are awarded skill points for each level attained and some other random things that I don’t remember. So, the more you use a weapon, the more powerful your weapon attacks become. The more your character levels, the more skills (weapon, world and class, I believe) that can be unlocked with skill points. Still, only 5 skills (which includes spells) can be slotted on the skill bar at any one time, so you must chose your skill combination wisely. Upon reaching a certain level, weapon skills can be “morphed”, that is, you can chose an enhancement for the skill from a list of two choices, (or kind of a mini skill-tree) – but this also costs a skill point. For the most part, the skills did not feel like a “tree” system due to the fact that skills are gated only by character level and skill points, not by previous skills. In other words, the fact that I hadn’t unlocked ‘poison arrow’ did not affect whether I could unlock ‘barrage’. Both are independent of one another, and only dependent on whether my character was the appropriate level to unlock them and whether I had a skill point to do so. Because I’d picked a Nightblade class and selected a bow as my first weapon, I have some interesting ranged/stealth skills currently slotted on my bar. The weapon/class combinations should ensure some interesting and unique character abilities. By the way, a nightblade doesn’t have to have an actual ‘blade’ of any kind equipped for his stealth attack skills to work. This was a relief because I was afraid that half of my skills might be useless when I had my bow slotted. Not the case.
What didn’t I like about ESO? I would say that the mouse attacks/dodge mechanics need to be more responsive. Also, targeting is a little cludgy – your mouse crosshairs must be ‘moused over’ your target in order for your skills to be usable. It would be nice to have some kind of target lock mechanism so that re-targeting isn’t required after a dodge or even the mob wandering out of your crosshairs. More than once I looked down at my skill bar in-combat and thought “why isn’t that skill available?”. Also, I’m wondering if there could be a better visual indication of who on my screen is another player. A couple of times I ran by a “player” only to realize that it was actually a mob who subsequently decided to take a whack at me. I realize that floaty names may take away from the realism, but the option to toggle them on would be great. Some of the funniest moments I’ve had in MMO’s is reading other people’s character and guild names. As it stands in ESO, you must mouse over another character in order to even see their name. Most people are flying by so fast that it’s not even possible to target them for that long. Lastly, I wish it was less expensive. Yes, after playing the beta I’m more tempted than ever to jump into a sub, but $60 and $15 thereafter for however long still seems a bit steep for me. For $40 and $10, I might just sub day 1, but as it is, I’ll probably wait and see if they decide to discount the virtual “box copy” after a few months. But as I’ve discussed before, I’m apparently not the target audience for this game, anyway.
In all, I was pleasantly surprised by this game. I think it does have a bright future, if it can survive the hype and inevitable backlash that comes with the fall into the trough of disillusionment. I wish it the best of luck!
#ESO #TESO #BETA
Featured image by verifex on Flickr Creative Commons