Elder Scrolls Online
As I rushed through the crowds to arrive at Bethesda’s booth that was of course tucked away as far from the entrance as possible (and I had about 4 minutes to get there for my appointment!) a few things become clear quickly. Where were all the MMORPGs? Beyond that, where were all the free to play MMORPGs? No presence from Red 5 Studios for FireFall. Perfect World Entertainment? No where. Sega was seemingly console focused. Mainly SOE stood as the lone island of quality high production F2P MMORPG gaming on the showroom floor. Granted there were some instances of F2P shooters like Nexon’s Extraction and MOBAs like Strife and League of Legends, but that’s about it. I pondered this as I checked into my appointment and got onto the closed off room where cameras are thrown on the floor and smashed on site.
The demo started me off making a character on the Ebonheart Pack. That’s the Nords, Argonians, and Dark Elves for those not following ESO closely. I grabbed a Dark Elf girl expecting to turn her into a pretty princess but was pleasantly surprised by how far the character creation tools have come. It was more enjoyable adding more wrinkles, putting a small belly, and building her out as a chiseled muscular nightblade than a pretty little elf. To be honest I don’t know if I could have made a PWE level pretty character on there if I tried. Bethesda seems to have a distinct vision for their game and the character models are designed to keep everyone well within the boundaries of it. A pro or con depending on who you ask, to be sure, but as long as there’s enough to differentiate each other’s looks (and there are), I’m in. Just know that if you’re going in as a dark elf, your differentiating features will be structural and not so much color as I was given roughly fifty shades of gray to choose from. Though I will say the guy to my right spent quite a bit more time and crafted a beautiful Nord girl. Some races are better suited as princesses it seems.
After getting into game and re-familiarizing myself with the interesting control scheme that plays far more like Skyrim than an MMORPG, the demo hit me like a ton of bricks. Was this REALLY the same demo I played at Bethesda’s Headquarters last November?! Then why did it take me so long to figure it out? The answer is simple. Polish and subtle content. I was so busy emoting still unvoiced but well animated laughs at NPCs, watching as they went about their business, and reading the cocky oh-so-Nordish dialogue of shop NPCs my mind simply didn’t comprehend I was back in the Ebonheart starter zone.
So I equipped my dagger and shield to test out this so called “More Visceral” combat that every Bethesda employee in the booth seemed to have been told to fit into every second sentence they spoke. “Eh,” I thought, “I played it just a couple months ago at E3 and it had only changed slightly. I don’t expect too much.” Whew was I in for a surprise though when my epic clash with a lone wolf began.
Being a Nightblade dark elf and not exactly understanding what that meant in terms of gameplay, my roleplaying instincts took over as I slowly crouch walked up behind the wolf. The wolf was animated to make believable reactions to my approach as if it knew something wasn’t quite right. Its head bobbed left and right and it even let out a warning howl to nearby wolves. I never imagined to see the MMORPG AI one-upping Skyrim but this demo seemed to point to just that. Finally I wound up for a power attack… and… lifted the weapon up… and swung it around… and leaned forward…… and at some point in the distant future I landed a hit that took out about 30% of the wolf’s hp.
“What the hell kind of power attack was that?” I was slightly furious that I just spent a good portion of my stamina on that pitiful strike. But then it made sense. This is my first strike in an MMORPG built like Skyrim. If I just came out of the gates mauling wolves left and right, where would the challenge be? I’m sure as I gain greater mastery of my weapon, the power and speed of the power attack would adjust appropriately. As would my sneaking ability because that was the last wolf I successfully crawled up behind for a good half hour of gameplay.
As I fought more powerful bosses (and nearly was killed when a gargoyle mini-boss and wolf decided to double team me), I was forced into learning the nuances of combat once more. The visceral combat the staff was mentioning didn’t just revolve around increased difficulty and making starting characters weaker. It also made every hit, block, and dodge feel like it was being played out with cinematic flair. Skills that don’t directly state status effects are now able to stun, daze, and even knock down various foes if used appropriately to counter their actions. Blocking one enemy elf’s power swing resulted in a dazed state that, when followed up with a power attack, sent him sprawling to the floor where my hits dealt additional damage. This combines well with acquirable skills that are best used at specific times for full effect, such as when a foe is down or as a finishing blow against a low hp target. After a bit of experience my character was two shoting wolves with sneaky power attacks followed by quick thrusts after I sent them sprawling and yelping. It felt satisfying and apparently I wasn’t alone as I shook my head at the other press breaking my immersion on the stealth mission. It wasn’t terribly challenging being sneaky with 15 guys killing every guard in sight that might have seen through my disguise!
Beyond that the UI and visuals have improved quite a bit while still maintaining its distinctly Elder Scrolls minimalism. Rather than an obtrusivemini-map, they’ve adopted the Skyrim compass system but with slight well received tweaks such as giving you a heads up when the quest objective is above or below your elevation. Hitting M still opens up a clear well designed mini-map for those who prefer knowing the layout of the land. The only piece of the puzzle well hidden seems to be your progress bars for advancing various weapon, armor, and magic skill. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this is done on purpose to make the game feel like less of a grind. As for the visuals, the screenshots can speak for themselves. But compared to the previous demo in November, I can say the snow sparkled brighter, my dagger of hatred loot had a delightfully evil wave patterned aura, and the mud crabs never looked more delicious. Argonians rejoice!
I have a couple final notes that should bring some smiles to the true ESO fans. Weapon swapping on the fly is in starting at level 15. Players will not only gain access to a new left and right hand weapon slot that they can tab through at any time, but a separate bar of hotkeys that will swap over as well to have you fully effective with zero downtime. The skill tree is getting more fleshed out by the week with tons of armor based, weapon based, class based, and racial based skills present to ensure almost no one will carry the exact same build as yourself. And the feature I’ve been biting my nails over since my first demo last year, crafting, is now present in the most basic form.
The crafting names are likely provisionary but currently five trees of crafting exist. Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Enchanter, Alchemist, and Provisioner (a form of chef). While I didn’t get a chance to test any of them out in the newbie zone, it adds depth to Elder Scrolls Online’s ability to loot random houses and barrels for crafting goods. And while currently crafting levels separately from combat experience, player feedback in beta is making Bethesda reconsider this approach. So even my Ork of a friend who never touches crafting in any title might at least be able to lay claim to a minor degree of crafting skill, assuming the combat experience change goes through.
And one final gem I was happy to stumble upon while collecting mud crabs was a chest. A locked chest requiring lock picks no less. And even happier I was to fail at the new mini-game system 3 times before getting it right. So upon opening a locked chest, you will get a series of spring loaded weights that you push down with your lock pick. As soon as you feel resistance, you should stop pushing a spring and move to the next one. If you push too long, it will spring back to start. If you push just right, it will remain a distance down. After you get all five springs down far enough, the chest will unlock. But you only have a set amount of time to accomplish this before your spring breaks, leaving you locked out of trying the chest for a few seconds while some rascal rogue runs in to swipe your loot. It’s a good system and I’m assuming as the difficulty of the chest increases, the number of springs will increase or the timer will decrease to keep the challenge up. There might even be skill sets that improve your ability to pick locks but I’m too novice to say such things for certain.
Overall Elder Scrolls Online is a hidden gem in the MMORPG world. And by hidden I mean they need to hurry up and let us start filming the thing because it’s already more polished than all but a handful of competitors right now. Bring on the open beta already Bethesda!