Massively’s Elder Scrolls launch week diary: Day one
Like any proper Tamrielian title, The Elder Scrolls Online starts you off in chains. This isn’t the boat-bound incarceration of Morrowind, though, or the relative comfort of Oblivion’s initial Imperial lockup. This is the Wailing Prison, an otherworldly abyss stocked with iron maidens, soulless inmates, and a spectral Prophet who sounds a lot like Albus Dumbledore.
Don’t worry, though; ZeniMax didn’t blow its budget on Michael Gambon or the rest of ESO’s A-list voice cast. This is a fairly deep game, and it also does a surprisingly decent job of translating 20 years’ worth of single-player sandbox history into a mass market MMORPG.
Before I get more specific with my early release impressions, let me lay the groundwork for this week’s launch diary. This isn’t a review series, per se, and it’s certainly not a guide. It’s a snapshot of a particular play experience that may help you to decide whether or not ESO is worth your time. Or maybe you’ve already decided, but you’re stuck at work and feel like commenting. Either way.
It bears mentioning that I’m a fan of the franchise who started playing with Morrowind and who has sunk many hundreds of hours into that game and its two sequels. In other words, I want to like Elder Scrolls Online, and thus far ZeniMax is making that pretty painless.
Familiar is the word that best describes the day one experience. And I don’t mean that I beta-tested the game or followed it much at all prior to yesterday’s early-morning server stampede. It still felt familiar, though, because ZeniMax aped Skyrim’s PC interface (get ready to love your ‘E’ and ‘Alt’ keys) and because that oh-so-brief snippet of Jeremy Soule’s famous franchise fanfare goes a long way toward setting my personal mood.
Character creation is, in a word, robust. It’s divided into four stages, the first one being your racial and faction choice. Depending on whether you select the Daggerfall Covenant, the Aldmeri Dominion, or the Ebonheart Pact faction — and depending on whether or not you purchased the Imperial edition of the game — you’ll find yourself selecting from one of the franchise’s nine traditional races (10 if you bought access to the Imperials).
Once that’s done, it’s on to a deceptively simple class selection screen. While you’re initially restricted to Dragonknight, Nightblade, Sorcerer, or Templar, trust me when I say that the game’s progression opens up substantially once you start playing.
The body and facial sections of character creation feature a lot of options, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find your twin running around Tamriel due to the sheer number of sliders and presets. Yes, you can have a beer belly on your Orc. Yes, you can roll a female avatar that would make Sir Mix-a-Lot proud, and no, you can’t make one of those tiny target PvP midgets or an Aion bobblehead doll with a ginormous hot pink afro. In other words, well done ZeniMax!
Combat is also familiar, at least at first. You’ll need to aim at your foes and fire off ranged and melee attacks with your left mouse button. Holding down the right mouse button blocks. You can also deliver a stronger attack by holding and then releasing the left button. As in many of the action MMOs you’ve probably played in recent years, mobs will telegraph their intentions both via body language and with red cones or circles that you’ll want to step out of as soon as possible.
Your health, stamina, and magicka vitals are displayed in bar form at the bottom center of your screen. They disappear along with the rest of the UI, though, (yes, even your hotbar) when you’re not in combat. It remains to be seen how the recent mod community nerfs will affect the UI over the long term, but personally I couldn’t be happier with the game’s default interface. I’m not a min-maxer, nor do I particularly like math, and as I’m given to wandering around my favorite MMOs in “screenshot mode” with the UI turned off anyway, I’m completely on board with ZeniMax’s functional but minimalistic approach.
One final dose of Elder Scrolls familiarity manifests itself in the ability to pick up random items in the game world. Mine had to have been the most leisurely escape in the annals of The Wailing Prison, as I stopped along the way to pillage and plunder every barrel, basket, backpack, and bone pile I came across. I even helped myself to the foul hides rotting away inside those gruesome maidens, and I pilfered quite a few lockpicks that I’m sure to find a use for later.
Final first day thoughts
In terms of aesthetics, thus far ESO is a mixed bag. The newbie prison instance is a visual marvel with its kaleidoscopic blues and purples and its hellish production design. By contrast, the starting city of Daggerfall is a bit of a letdown. I won’t go so far as to call it ugly, but it’s clear that ZeniMax opted for open world performance over eye candy, and I found myself reminded rather frequently of 2008′s grimly stylizedWarhammer Online.
Performance was generally good, though I do have to report a couple of loading screen freezes and one instance of NPCs failing to appear in the game world. A restart fixed both issues, and fortunately logging back in was instantaneous thanks to a complete lack of server queues.
All in all, I’m happy to tell you that my day one Elder Scrolls Online experience was almost entirely positive. I put approximately eight hours into the game and spread it across six characters (yes, I know, I need professional help). Check in with Massively tomorrow for my day two journal, where we’ll talk about progression, skills, and the leveling experience.