The ESO Just Might Be Awesome
Just to get it off my chest, let me count the ways in which Elder Scrolls Online isn’t like Skyrim, Oblivion, or Morrowind – the series’ most recent (and famous) entries. Merchants don’t have limited supplies of money, and you don’t trudge along as though you’re carrying the world once your bags are filled. You can’t attack friendly NPCs, and the folks you can kill don’t drop the exact items they were wearing. Elder Scrolls Online lets you rummage through most crates and collect items such as skill books, but you can’t physically pick them up and drop them at your leisure. Role-play lovers, despair: you can’t sit in chairs. Most heartbreaking of all, you can’t revisit low level zones and still find a challenge even at the highest levels. That’s already a pretty hefty grab bag of caveats that may turn off a chunk of the Elder Scrolls fanbase, but it’s a testament to the quality of the work that ZeniMax Online has done here that I felt as though I was playing a genuine Elder Scrolls release nevertheless.
They certainly get the ambiance right, beginning with my arrival on the parched island of Stros M’Kai via a ship in the vein of Morrowind, as well as in the countless NPCs I encountered with fully voiced choice-based dialogue options. Moments of beauty were many, particularly when I made my way to the leafy orcish island of Betnikh around level 5. The serene interface recalls the immersive simplicity of Oblivion’s display of health, magicka, and stamina, although number-conscious MMO veterans can activate a more cluttered interface by clicking the Alt button. What little I saw of crafting – cooking, specifically – involved a system of experimentation similar to that found in Skyrim. The questing, too, went far beyond throwaway text to justify killing the pirates of Dwemer I encountered; at times it affected the development of my own story progression. In one, for instance, I helped rescue a thief named Jakarn from prison and then recapture his stolen gem, only to find a grumpy orc named Moglurkal waiting outside the dungeon for us and demanding the return of the jewel. In contrast to other MMORPGs, I had the option to lie about having the jewel, and I took it. Had I not, I wouldn’t have seen Jakarn popping in to help me and give me new quests on Betnikh.
My four or so hours of hands-on gameplay in ESO brimmed with moments like these, and the choices felt much more meaningful than the simple light/dark options of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Even better, you don’t have to worry about your punky leveling buddy forcing story decisions on you that you don’t want to make. I saw this most prominently when a colleague I was grouped with made different decisions as to how to handle a poisoned ship captain; I gave her an antidote and let her live, she let her die. But even though we were grouped and in the same room, I saw events unfold differently, and later, the captain came to my aid when I needed her help. I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds throughout the whole game, as I found that ESO offered a rewarding single player storyline that never comes close to ditching social elements so vital to MMOs. In fact, with open mob tagging, shared servers, and spell combos that require two or more players, it promotes it.
The combat feels very much like what you’d find in an Elder Scrolls game; the bad news (particularly for melee-oriented players) there is that means it’s subject to the series’ signature stiff animations. But here’s the thing – I felt as though I was actually hitting stuff. Playing with a sword and shield, I reveled in the familiarity of using my left mouse button to both block and bash for spell interrupts, and immediately found myself holding down the right mouse button for power attacks and merely clicking it for lighter ones. It’s fun, but I was dismayed to learn that I couldn’t play Elder Scrolls Online as I usually play Skyrim – specifically, as a stealthy archer who whips out either daggers or swords in close quarters. I could use the bow (although the arrow’s trajectory looked more like I was tossing it than firing it), I could sneak by pressing Control (although stealth bonuses, I’m told, won’t unlock until I’ve leveled medium armor a ways), but I still found myself frustrated when I couldn’t whip out my sword when my quarry finally reached me. For that, I was told, I’d have to wait until level 15 when weapon swapping unlocks.
The concept could work well, particularly since a new action bar pops up every time you equip a new weapon, and Elder Scrolls Online’s take on this mechanic offers a far greater range of customization than what you find in Guild Wars 2′s similar interface. Indeed, there’s another reason why I’m looking forward to trying it out in the future. By far the biggest announcement of the day is that Elder Scrolls Online will feature first-person combat after all, and while my experience with it was limited to watching a minute-long video of an early build set in a graveyard, I loved what I saw, particularly for the promise it holds for archery.
Alas, one reason why the first-person perspective sounds enticing is that I never really warmed to the appearance of the Breton I chose out of the three available races from the Daggerfall Covenant (along with orcs and Redguards). His muddy features suggested he’d be far more at home in Oblivion than Skyrim, but I nevertheless appreciated the way I could make the most minute adjustments to everything from his build to how he squints. Elsewhere, the freedom of development was well-suited to my fairly rushed playthrough to level 7. True to Elder Scrolls (particularly before Skyrim), the three available classes of Dragonknight, Sorcerer, and Templar were more like suggestions than set-in-stone templates, and I appreciated the ease with which I was able to transform my Sorcerer into a bow-wielding, medium armor-wearing ranger. If that isn’t Elder Scrolls, I don’t know what is.
The Right Moves
It’s too early to make judgments, but even in its current form, I could see myself logging into ESO regularly to satisfy my personal craving for more Elder Scrolls content. I’m also happy to see that the design so far seems focused on exploration and questing rather than grinds. There are no raids, after all – “That’s not Elder Scrolls,” says Game Director Matt Firor – but there are four-man dungeons and three-faction open PvP with sieges in the beleaguered province of Cyrodiil. From the live dungeon run I saw, they play with a dynamism akin to what you find in Guild Wars 2 but with a welcome degree of control, springing Elder Scrolls Online’s embrace of the so-called trinity of heals, DPS, and tanks. ”Dark Anchors” – a dynamic grouping component – also open from Molag Bal’s plane of Oblivion, but in all honesty, they bore such a striking similarity in both concept and appearance to Rift’s titular rifts such that I worry they’ll get old fast.
For all the risk that an MMO presents for a franchise that’s been rock-steady in its adherence to the MSORPG (massively single-player role-playing game) discipline, I’ll say this about ESO: I wanted to keep playing. I wanted to find out what lay at the end of an unmarked riddle quest I’d found in a half-buried treasure chest, and I wanted to find adventures lay in wait in the alleys of Daggerfall. All this is but a scratch of what I encountered in Elder Scrolls Online over four hours of gameplay, and if ZeniMax can maintain that drive to keep exploring up to and past the level cap of 50, their creation might just be worthy of the Elder Scrolls title after all.