the game’s the thing

ESO logoThe Elder Scrolls Online (2014):  I’ve played a few MMORPGs in my life (ahem) and also a few single player RPGs (and way too many FPS, but we won’t go there).   I devoted much of this past weekend to playing the latest Elder Scrolls Online beta and well…let’s just say I’m undecided.   I had fun but I also found it very frustrating at times.  At this point, a month and a half away from launch, I’m not completely sure they’ll be able to fix some issues that just annoyed the crap out of me.  I’m not looking for a perfect launch; that would be unreasonable.  I am looking to enjoy the game out of the gate and not have to grin and bear it when I run into yet another thing that is probably not working as intended.

There are essentially two kinds of people who will come to this game and they both will be carrying a lot of baggage.  The first kind play World of Warcraft and they might be a bit bored with it right now, since we are all waiting on the next expac.  The second kind loved Skyrim and are desperate for any excuse to explore some more of that world.   Many of these people will be the same person, as I am.  I’ve played WoW almost non-stop since vanilla and have put well over 300 hours into Skyrim so far (mostly just mooning over Ulfric Stormcloak, what can I say?).  From the get-go I REALLY wanted to love this game.  I’ve loved WoW about as much as it is possible to love a game and Skyrim…well…I came late to Skyrim and it was a struggle at first but when I finally fell I fell hard (probably about the first time I found some Dwemer ruins to crawl through; christ, they are amazing).  So I was pretty damn excited about Bethesda and Zenimax Online bringing Tamriel to the multiplayer environment and I was curious to see how they’d blend the best parts of the Elder Scrolls franchise with the best parts of WoW.  Let’s face it, that’s the comparison everyone is going to make and I’m not even going to pretend that’s not the case.

Even though my first beta experience was something less than ideal (due to putting it on my Mac laptop which doesn’t have the graphics oomph required for the very best experience) I was excited about the latest weekend stress test and downloaded it to my gaming PC.  Download takes a couple of hours but by the time the beta opened I was ready.   My fridge was full of beer, the house was stocked with munchies, and my social calendar was clear.  I was online at 12:01 pm on Friday and played nearly the entire weekend.   Just remember…these are my impressions.  I don’t read many game forums, don’t use skill calculators, and basically have a sorry tendency to jump into things half-cocked, because I shouldn’t have to study to play a game.  So some of things I had trouble with might be my own fault for not doing my research.  That said, away we go!

Logging in:  Takes a bit of time, but not bad.  I talked to some people in game who said they timed out at 20 minutes but I never had anywhere near that kind of wait and actually usually got in pretty quickly.   I never hit a queue, never got an error message, and never failed outright to log in.  Big win!

ESO screenshot

the hunger games V: skyrim

Character creation and Tutorial:  This is more like Elder Scrolls than WoW.  You choose between four classes and nine races.  The classes are extremely broad and allow for the sort of madcap customization familiar to anyone who’s played any of the ES games.  You want to play a plate mail wearing caster or a kitty cat battlemage?  Knock yourself out.   The races are the usual:  a handful of human and elf races, orcs, lizards, and cats.  As far as I know, any race can play any class.   You also need to choose an alliance; there are three of those and the one you choose determines where you end up after the brief tutorial.  From there you can spend an hour or more fiddling with your appearance.  It’s a surprising amount of fun and should result in a wide and varied look to player characters, although I did note that a large number of female Nord characters looked like Jennifer Lawrence.   The only real downside to this is character naming.  The game allows surnames and hyphens and doesn’t have any sort of BS filter, so my “immersive experience” included characters named “The Beef Squeezer”, “Dr. Fart-Windmaker”, and “Noodle Poop”.   Le sigh.

Once your character is made you start off dead and in prison in Coldharbour, one of the unhappier places in Oblivion.  In short order a glowing Prophet appears to you, mumbles some gobbledygook about you being super important, and someone appears to unlock your cage.  From there you must help the Prophet escape his own prison and get yourself reincarnated and out of Coldharbour.  The tutorial exists to get you a weapon, teach you how to interact with the world, talk to NPCs, and fight bad guys.  It is very simple and blessedly brief and is greatly enhanced by John Cleese’s voice as Cadwell, a happily mad denizen of Coldharbour.  Once you escape you will find yourself in one of three starting areas, depending on your alliance.  I’ve heard rumors that at launch you will be able to choose your starting zone regardless of alliance but I don’t know if that’s true.  On a side note, this “you are The One” blather makes a lot of sense in a single player game but is sort of silly in a multiplayer game.  Apparently the Prophet is not choosy, since there were hundreds of “The Ones” running around Coldharbour.  Perhaps he is just hedging his bets.

The World:  The view is fantastic.  I had two characters, a Khajiit and a Nord, so I saw two starting zones.  Both were beautiful.  However, be warned.  Graphics-wise, this is no Skyrim.  The amazing lushness of the environment in that game would cause most computers to explode if more than a few people were near you in game so things are bit simpler.  There’s less ground clutter, for instance, and much less weather and glorious northern lights and moonrises.  On the other hand, graphics-wise, it is also no WoW.  The characters don’t look like cartoons, the environment is nicely done, if a little sparse, and Skyrim, at least the bit I saw of it, looked like Skyrim.  The one Dwemer ruin I was in was, sadly, quite disappointing.  While not the lore junkie that many of my friends are, I appreciate a good back story and ESO certainly carries that tradition forward.  There are books everywhere and some of them raise your skills and count toward achievements so kids, remember, read a book now and then.  The voice acting is incredibly good, and not just because they got some big names to voice major characters; even minor characters have real personality and presence.  Some people may find the game a bit talky and I see where they are coming from, but in general I’m not one of those people.  At least they corrected one of my peeves from Skyrim; you can just move on to the next stage of the conversation once you’ve read the text on screen.  Unfortunately I ran into a fair number of instances where what was printed on the screen did not match in any way what was coming out of the characters’ mouth.

ESO screenshot

somewhere in morrowind

As in every Elder Scrolls game ever, wandering randomly around the map is bound to be interesting.  You will find crafting materials, quest hubs, lore books, danger, skyshards, oddities that will make you sad and those that will make you laugh, and occasionally just a pretty view you will be glad you saw.  Travel is via foot, horse (if you can afford one), or wayshrine.  The wayshrines mimic fast travel in Skyrim; once you have discovered one you can transport to it from anywhere on the map, for a rather healthy fee.  There is nothing like a hearthstone or a home binding point.  I also found no taxi services (wagons in Skyrim, flight paths in WoW) and no one who wanted me to run an errand halfway across the map was willing to give me a free ride there.  So I spent a lot of time running around, which was fine.  I never did a dungeon so I have no idea if there are summoning stones.  Same with PvP.

Questing:  I am happy to note that there are relatively few of the “go kill 10 wolves” sorts of quests that WoW loves so much.  Instead, most of the quests serve some lore-based purpose.  In the Ebonheart Pact starting sequence you help repel a Covenant invasion.  In the Aldmeri Dominion start you foil a plot to assassinate the Queen.  Along with the various zone-based quests, there are quest chains for both the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild, something called The Undaunted, and the main story quest (the Prophet).  You do run hither and yon, carrying messages, helping to kill beasties, evacuating civilians, defending forts, finding lost family members, uncovering plots, visiting the past, and the like, but most of it serves a long-term purpose.  The game, like WoW, uses extensive phasing and, like Skyrim, you are forced into choices now and then and your choices are not without consequences.  (I’m sorry Bala, I should have lied to you…)  The phasing makes it difficult to quest with your friends unless you are all at the same point and want to make the same choices.  Some folks in chat hinted that there would be a way to jump phases so you could quest with friends, but if that is so it wasn’t implemented in the beta.

By far the biggest problem I had with quests was bugginess.   I ran into quite a few major quests that simply could not be progressed because whatever or whoever I was supposed to interact wasn’t there or wouldn’t talk to me.   Reloading the UI and quitting and logging back in did not resolve these problems, and it would bother me if it did, because that is really no solution.  This might be a phasing issue and presumably it will be fixed by launch.  Many of the quests I could not complete were part of pretty major quest lines and honestly it made the baby Jesus cry.

ESO screenshot

somewhere else in morrowind

Leveling:  Leveling is interesting.  It seems that, like in Skyrim, you can level your character by leveling your skills.  Skills include armor and weapon skills, crafting, guild things, magic, class abilities, etc.  Skills are leveled by using them, by reading lore books, and by completing some quest chains.  You can also level via questing, which makes bugged quests quite problematic.  I noticed a huge XP burp whenever I finished a major quest line.  You can also, after you reach level 10, gain substantial experience via PvP by participating in the Alliance war.  I barely made level 10 by the end of the beta so I didn’t get a chance to do this.  However, I have seen some videos and it reminds me a great deal of the PvP system in Dark Age of Camelot.  This is a good thing.   It is not clear to me that just killing stuff gives XP.  If it does, it wasn’t as noticeable so it may be that killing random critters is of no real benefit, other than for what they drop.  In general I found leveling to be very slow, almost to the point of being boring.  This might be because I suck at stuff but probably not.  This is contrary to most other MMOs I’ve played, where they hook you with easy, fast leveling in the early stages and then make progression more and more difficult.  Max level is apparently going to be 50, which seems kind of low, except that it will take me forever to get there at this rate.  I’m not sure how well this will work out.  I play with a lot of people for whom the end game is key and if it takes too long to get there they will lose interest quickly.

Character development:   With each level increase you will receive one attribute point and one skill point.  Attribute points are spent to increase magicka, health, or stamina, and your choices here will obviously be informed by your vision of your character.   My Nord templar put her points into health and stamina but might spare a few for magic down the road, since she can heal herself and others in a pinch.  Skill points are more complicated.  Every skill has a skill tree.  This includes skills related to the Mage and Fighter guilds, the crafting skills, race-based skills, class-based skills, PvP skills, and active and passive weapon and armor skills.  Where you choose to put your points will be very important and it will probably pay to peruse the skill trees in depth before you spend a single point.  Your level in each skill will increase as you play and as you and your skills level various parts of the tree will open up, including morphing, which allows you to enhance the effect of a basic skill you’ve already put a point into.   Although you can get extra skill points from completing some quest chains and from finding skyshards, skill points are the real limiting factor in character development.  It just won’t be possible in any real sense to spec into everything you’d like.  Respeccing will apparently be available in the game at launch but will be hideously expensive.  Never fear, there are already skill calculators online to help you out.

ESO screenshot

a quest NPC with an attitude

CombatOy vey.  People are either really going to like this style of combat or really hate it.  It is probably the biggest departure from WoW-style mechanics in the game and it’s taken me a long time to get used to it.  There are no cool-downs; you can use your weapon skills as long as you have stamina and cast spells as long as you have magicka.  The right mouse button blocks; the left uses your weapon; both together perform an interrupt.  Double-tapping your direction keys will cause you to dodge.  You get five hotbar slots for your weapons/spells and one for your ultimate ability; those of us who are used to having a couple of dozen combat-related keybinds may appreciate the simplicity, but it does mean that not only are you going to have to choose your abilities carefully, you are going to have to decide which ones you want to use in combat.  Changing them in combat isn’t possible (I don’t think) but it’s fairly simple to rearrange your slots when not fighting.  At level 15 you can add a second weapon set and you get another set of six slots for that weapon set.  Blocking and dodging (i.e., avoiding damage) is huge.  Armor type is important, not just because it protects your ass, but also because the different types enhance the different attributes.  Light armor tends to be heavy on increasing base magicka and magicka regen.  Medium armor tends to regen stamina.  Heavy armor is good for health boosts and defense.  Targeting is mouse-over and not tabbing, although you can “lock” a target you’ve moused over by hitting the tab key.

My experience of combat was primarily a matter of mad mouse-clicking and button mashing, with the occasional helpful reminder to “hold down a mouse button to exploit” or “use X to impale”.  No idea what either of those means, although the exploit one seemed to happen whenever one of my abilities staggered or stunned an opponent.  Again, it’s very important to dodge or block.  You get a fair amount of warning when an adversary is winding up to hit you, and somewhat less when they are going to do something you should dodge.  I got better at it as time went on, although I’m not sure I ever successfully interrupted anything.  I’ll be curious to see how it works out in dungeons and raids.  The quickslot bar (for health/stamina/magicka potions and the like) was completely arcane to me.  I’d put stuff on it and they wouldn’t be there when I got into combat.  So I don’t know what is up with that.  You can have one stat-enhancing food buff at a time and they last through death.

Crafting:  In nearly every game I play I try to get into the crafting system, but in most of them it’s not worth the effort and cost.  Player made gear is usually subpar compared to what you can get in dungeons and raids and sometimes even in world drops so no one really wants it.  But still I try.  In WoW, which allows only two major professions per character, I have characters maxed in every profession just so I can make everything I need and gather all the necessary resources.   The most useful professions I have are the enhancement professions:  alchemy, jewelcrafting, and enchanting.  I almost never make gear.  In Skyrim, on the other hand, making armor and weapons and then improving and enchanting them is flat-out awesome.  I could easily make better gear than I could find and I maxed out all the crafting skills.  So I think it’s fair to say I like crafting, or at least I tolerate it extremely well.  In ESO,  making stuff is complicated, time-consuming, and resource-intensive but it has the same potential that crafting in Skyrim had.  My level 10 character is wearing almost a full set of armor and using weapons that she crafted herself, and I’ve found that the crafted stuff is a wee bit better (higher stats) than same-level items that drop off mobs.  It is just going to require some tough choices because you will never be able to max out all the crafting skills.   For one thing, doing them justice requires spending those all important skill points, for another you will never have the bank and bag space required for all the necessary materials without a huge outlay of gold.

An example will illustrate this.  Making armor of any kind requires 1) raw materials that you then turn into finished materials (iron ore to iron ingots, for example); 2) a special type of ore depending on the style of gear (based on your race); 3) an optional trait (there are lots of these, at least 10), and 4) materials to “improve” the item (taking it from common to rare, for example).  You’ll pick up the raw mats out in the world.  They stack to a hundred, which is nice.  You will also pick up the special ore and these also stack to a hundred, per type, so you could have up to ten different kinds of these taking up inventory.  You can’t use them until you learn that style of gear.  My Nord started out knowing the Nordic style and picked up the Breton style out of some chest or other so those were the only two styles of gear she could make.  Then there are the gems for traits.  Traits have to be researched before you can use them; this requires a piece of gear with the trait you want to research (it will be destroyed) and six hours of time.  I never researched any traits for heavy armor but I have a dozen or so of the gems taking up bank space.  The  materials for improving items are different for each gear type and there are five per type.  Now multiply this by all the different kinds of crafting you can do:  light/medium/heavy armor, woodworking (shields, bows, staffs), provisioning (cooking), enchanting, and alchemy, all of which use dozens of mats.  You can also fish, but I see no point to it and so far I’ve run into six separate kinds of bait.  You’ll pretty much need to focus on one or two crafting skills and rely on other players or alts to do the rest for you.

Another point:  There is no “craft all” option.  I quite frequently found myself wanting to make 30 goat pies or a stack of health potions and having to do it ONE. AT. A. TIME.  Please.

Still another point:  Lockpicking sucks balls.  It’s horrible.  Literally.  Also, given the difficulty of opening even the simplest chests and rate of breakage of lockpicks, there needs to be way more lockpicks in the game.  Seriously.  (I know this isn’t a crafting skill.  This just seemed like a good place to mention it.)

ESO screenshot

everyone’s favorite crazy guy

Inventory Management:  This brings us to probably the most annoying thing about ESO.  It might seem a petty thing to gripe about but not only did it drive me bonkers, inventory management took up a disproportionate amount of time and energy that I could have spent exploring and fighting bad guys.  You start out with 30 bank slots and 50 bag slots and buying extra space is pricey and gets pricier as you go along.  The bag slots are per character, but all your characters share one bank.   Apparently Bethesda/Zenimax hate bank alts.  You cannot mail things to yourself so you can’t even use the mail system for inventory management.  Since the world abounds with lootable barrels, sacks, furniture, crates, resource nodes, and whatnot you will fill up your 50 bag spaces quite fast.  Once you start cooking and making potions and runes you will have those to contend with as well and of course if you refine your raw materials you will then have two stacks instead of one.  And your spare gear.  And any drops you might want to hang on to for crafting or selling.  My solution to this was to keep my raw and finished blacksmithing and wordworking stuff in my pack, put my light and medium armor crafting stuff in the bank, then log in my Khajiit and have her pull those mats into her bags.  Eventually I’ll have to do the same for whatever characters do my enchanting and alchemy and perhaps even cooking.   This will be cumbersome, to say the least.  It might be mitigated a bit by guild banks.

With all this, I found myself needing to go back to town a lot just to sell, craft, and empty my bags.  Merchants aren’t hard to find and unlike in Skyrim it seems that all merchants will buy anything from you.  They also all repair gear, which is useful, and they give pretty reasonable prices on stuff you sell to them.  There does not appear to be an auction house, although perhaps it just hasn’t been implemented yet.  If there isn’t one, look forward to the same sort of spontaneous player marketplaces you saw in the original Everquest.  If you are a member of a guild you will have access to a guild store where you can buy and sell items with fellow guildies.

As silly as it sounds, I honestly believe this will be a huge sticking point for a large number of players.  I’m sort of a moderate hoarder; I hate to discard or sell anything that might be useful down the road but I’m not ridiculous about it.  However, I know quite a lot of people in WoW that not only have their bank space maxed on eleven characters but who also have guilds that exist solely for bank space and those are maxed out as well.   Now that we can mail stuff to our characters on other servers this will only get worse.  I have no idea what the maximum size of the bank and bags will be in ESO but it cost me 400 gold for 10 extra bag slots (2000 gold for the next 10) and 1000 gold for 10 extra bank slots (next 10 cost 3300).   I’m told horses (if you can afford one) will also have inventory slots and this right here might be a good reason to shell out for the Imperial Edition.   For what it is worth money doesn’t seem particularly hard to come by but it also seems pretty hard to hold on to.  YMMV.

Player Interaction:  Hey, it’s a MMO, right?  I should do some of that!  Well, sad to say, I didn’t do much.  I never made it to level 15, which is the base level for group dungeons and didn’t have a chance to try PvP.  But I did group a few times with a couple of people to kill some mobs and tagged along informally with others in some of the more mob-heavy quest areas and it worked out OK.  There was nothing as organized as setting up tanks and healers and the like; most of us just spammed our DPS but we did alright.   I did note that most conversations in chat about dungeon groups were of the “need a healer” or “need a tank” variety, which might mean either that the game itself isn’t going to stray very far from conventional group play or that players can’t get themselves out of that mindset.  I had some few conversations with other players via the chat window; it worked well and is basically a clone of WoW’s, even down to whispers being colored pink.  We mostly talked about bugged quests.   General chat was the usual juvenile drivel and mostly consisted of players bitching about the beta, bragging about how long they spent in WoW and how it went downhill after vanilla (or TBC or WotLK, or whatevs), and asking questions that no one would answer.  Fortunately, if you aren’t actively engaging in it, the chat window disappears off your screen so you don’t have to see it.

ESO screenshot

some bugs were more interesting than others

Stability/Connectivity:  At this point the game is pretty damn stable, which is very encouraging.  I suffered nearly zero lag.  This was the case when I was alone out in the wilderness and when I was in the same cave with twenty other people all casting spells, swinging swords, and bashing things with shields.  I never experienced a crash and I was never booted from the server.   On the other hand, I needed to reload the UI a lot due to some bug (I guess).  And when I say a lot I mean nearly every time I interacted with a banker, crafting station, or merchant, and occasionally with quest NPCs.  Reloading the UI usually fixed it but a few times I actually needed to log out to the player menu and then log back in.  Hopefully this will be fixed at launch, because it is straight up annoying.   Load times between zones can be quite long, although entering houses and caves and such usually has a very short load time.  Other than the quest problems and the UI reloading issue I actually didn’t find that many bugs.

In Conclusion (finally!):  A shamefully large number of ESO reviews that I’ve read start out with “I hate MMOs” or “I could never get into the Elder Scrolls games” and this is just absolutely wrong.  It’s not surprising to me that very few of those people have much good to say about the game.  They want to be knocked out of their socks but one gets the impression they decided they didn’t like the game before they even started character creation.  The true test of a game like ESO is not how many nonbelievers it can convince, it is in how many of the people who already love Tamriel or who spend a lot of time in MMOs will be willing to spend their time and their treasure in this new game world.   The people who review ESO should be the ones who love multiplayer gaming and who love Skyrim; believe me, we will be the most honest critics you could ever imagine.  We already love you and we want you to succeed.  We want to believe.

I tried really hard to love ESO and to cut it some slack due to growing pains, etc. and I did have fun playing the beta.  But the bottom line is this:  I’m not really sure that multiplayer adds anything to the Elder Scrolls experience and I’m not sure that ESO adds anything new to the multiplayer experience.   WoW is the most successful MMORPG ever for a reason and I think it has to do with it having something for everyone.  You can play the entire thing solo and have a great time.  You can join a guild and raid and have a great time.  You can do nothing but PvP and have a great time.  When you get bored with that you can collect mounts, pets, and achievements.  You can do Pokemon-style pet battles.  You can roleplay.   You can farm.  It’s the only game I’ve ever played that stayed interesting and fun long after I hit level cap.  People gripe about it and drift away and have dalliances with other MMOs but a surprising number of them come back.   At the same time though, I’ve loved the Elder Scrolls games that I’ve played (Morrowind, Skyrim) precisely because of the open-ended, non-linear, flexibility they offer.  Aside from being beautiful in their style and deep in their execution, they give me enough control over the story that they feel like more than just games and like I am more than just a player.  It feels real to me in ways that games rarely do.  When I’m in Winterhold I actually feel cold.  When my stupid horse engages a dragon in combat I worry about him.  I take great care of my followers.  They aren’t just pixels to me.  I lived those games, I didn’t just  play them.  I was waiting for that same frisson of immersion in ESO and it just didn’t happen.

Nine years down the road, I think people tend to forget something about WoW and it’s a simple thing really.  Despite all the whinging about character nerfs and dumbing down the game, people fail to realize just how amazingly responsive Blizzard has been to player concerns over the years.  Remember boss camping and ninja looting in EQ?  Remember how a full raid could down a boss but only one person could get the epic quest item?  Remember how in Ultima Online PvP was only optional if you never left a city?   Remember how in all those games there just got to be a point where you couldn’t play anymore if you weren’t in a guild?  WoW changed all that.  Over the years they’ve given us a fabulous and safe auction house, the ability to mail stuff to ourselves, bind to account items, XP for farming and PvP, flying mounts, dungeon and raid finders, and just basically just so much shit we’ve asked for to make our lives easier.   Now that Bethesda is making Elder Scrolls an online game they would do well to remember that.  Yes, I really, really want to play Skyrim with my friends and no, I do not want them to bowdlerize  the world I love to make it “more like WoW.”  But I would very much like them to recognize that things like having an adequate amount of inventory space are not going to kill the Elder Scrolls experience.  After all, I do remember that although I couldn’t carry unlimited amounts of stuff, those chests in my five houses seemed pretty bottomless.  That’s all I’m saying.

When I started playing WoW I never wanted to stop and I haven’t.  When I played Morrowind and Skyrim I never wanted them to end and they technically don’t.  I could log back into Skyrim right now and someone somewhere would have something for me to do.  These worlds, Azeroth and Tamriel, swept me away for good (well, when I’m not busy in some post-nuclear wasteland or other).  So why didn’t ESO do the same?  I don’t know.  All I can really say is that it didn’t blow me away.  It didn’t feel much like an MMO and I didn’t get quite the immersive feel that I get from the single player games.  Will I buy it?  Most likely.  Judging from a beta is harder than you might think, especially when a giant load of changes have been made that weren’t actually available in the build I just played.  Hope springs eternal and all that, and I am curious to find out what the Prophet has in store for me.   But also, you know, I think the game has great potential.  I want to make a character and take her places.  There are worlds to explore out there, wars to fight, people to save, armor to make, stuff to do, and that’s really what it’s all about.

[Edit 11 March 2014:  Eh, screw it.  I need a new drug.  Digital Imperial edition bought.  See you in Tamriel!]

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on March 3, 2014.

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