MMOs tend to open with flashy, pre-rendered cutscenes to show of just how cool their universe is meant to feel. Seasoned players know this is just smoke and mirrors — something to draw in the pedestrian crowd and invoke the “feeling” of what’s actually conveyed by digital dice rolls and numbers leaping from wild boars’ heads.
The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t really so different in the first sense. There’s a lovely, action-packed trailer with all the excitement of chains crashing through the sky and wizard/barbarian types thrashing about demon-y things.
Like all Elder Scrolls games, however, you start much more humbly — as a prisoner. You’ve been taken to Coldharbour and had your soul removed. One of the big bads of The Elder Scrolls mythos needs it — and those of several million of like-minded players — to continue being evil. You escape from this contrived tutorial, of course, and the game drops you on Cyrodiil proper in one of three starting islands.
Where you end up at first is determined by which faction you choose. Literally nothing is done to explain what choosing a faction means. I had to hit up the game’s website to learn the Ebonheart Pact includes the vikings, lizard people and dark elves. These being the raddest of Elder Scrolls species, I obviously chose their alliance and wound up in Morrowind.
That lack of explanation is an unfortunate constant. I was immediately dazzled by the number of skills and abilities I could level up independently. Oh jeez, every school of crafting has its own skill tree! Two-handed weapons level up as I use them?! Fantastic!
At some point I hit a giant spider with a mace and my skill Restoration Staffs increased. How’s that? It took a bit of digging and supposition, but I think each class of weapon (staffs, axes, hammers, etc.) levels up independently but still progresses when you use an object in its parent category (two-handed, one-handed, etc.).
Sure, I’ve saved you the trouble of figuring that out for yourself, but it’s a shame the game didn’t do the same for me. The same goes for crafting. How much experience one gains from completing quests? And for god’s sake, would it break the game to include specific locations for crafting stations on the map?
The lack of available data is crystallized in the lack of a minimap, that old MMO standby. There’s an overhead compass like past games in the franchise, which implies to me that the lack of available data is an attempt to replicate the franchise’s listless exploration. The compass works well, but the other omissions feel like an oversight.
What TESO doesn’t replicate from its forbears is aesthetic. The stiff postures and clay-modeled faces are here much softer, if not more “natural” then at least more active. A quest-giving character might wait for you at the same post for days on end, but at least they’ll lean against it and flip a coin to pass the time. Their face, while not modeled with the same meticulous detail, looks less like it was modeled by an alien race familiar with the human species only through song and legend.
Previous Elder Scrolls games lacked technical proficiency, but expressed themselves in other ways. Morrowind was the sort of ashy, swampy, low fantasy muck Conan ought to wander through on that horse from The Neverending Story. Skyrim carried itself with mountainous dignity and barrel-chested, snow-capped masculinity. Oblivion… Well, at least it was very green.
I can’t quite pinpoint what I don’t like about TESO‘s design. “Bland” isn’t a useful description. There’s a lack of contrast between colors of structures and environment. Nothing stands out, and that which should seems obscured by fog — even with viewing distances turned up in settings. It just doesn’t inspire any sort of emotion.
It dulls that solemn wandering the franchise is known for when the world isn’t particularly solemn inspiring to wander. As such, the quests are the primary incentive to explore, which is a definite change.
So far, the plot holds up unexpectedly well in terms of the greater Elder Scrolls fiction. Full voice acting helps. So does more player-dependent alterations to the world. That is to say, a quest-giving character can die over the course of their story, and at least to your character they’ll stay that way. If wandering the world can’t be as interesting, at least altering it to your personal narrative is.
How interesting exploration continues to be will largely depend on the quality of the quests in the later game.
Click one mouse button and you attack. Hold another and you block. It’s the rather simple, action-oriented combat you’ll find in most games; but in an MMO it’s not exactly common. Neither is the first-person perspective you’ll likely spend most of your time using.
You still have your standard, five-slot bar for spells and special abilities, but actual combat is the same real-time affair any Elder Scrolls player should recognize. I actually found myself dying often in the early goings as I wasn’t blocking or interrupting enemy attacks nearly enough.
How close this actually gets to achieving “real-time” depends on the whims of your connection and the game’s server. There’s definitely a delay between the swing of your axe and the enemy acknowledging its presence through their skull. It just feels “off.”
Controlling your character’s every action still balances the game away from most players’ primary complaint about MMOs. It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting.
Real-time combat isn’t totally new to the genre (TERA has had it for some time now), but in addition to the default first-person perspective (you can switch to third-person at any time) TESO has a unique feel among its peers — assuming you count other massive online games in that category, and not other Elder Scrolls titles.
If you’re looking for the best example of the latter, you’ll be disappointed by how loose it feels. If World of Warcraft’s cooldown-centric fighting style is all that’s kept you from trying out an MMO, I might have good news for you.
My earliest impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online simply refuse to fall on one side. For each success in the “classic” Elder Scrolls school of gameplay, there’s a caveat resultant of the MMO DNA. How I ultimately feel about it might come down to how it handles the more online game-centric components like crafting and PVP (which I’ve heard promising things about).
For now, I’m not sure how well it succeeds at either endeavor.
The Elder Scrolls Online is available now for PC and Mac. You can pick it up here.