The Elder Scrolls franchise has been a series of strictly single-player games, and it didn't seem like a traditional MMO format would do it any justice. The developers have stated the intent to remain faithful to the preceding games, but it was still pretty difficult to imagine how The Elder Scrolls Online would work. Last weekend, we spent quite a few hours with the upcoming MMO to see how the game stacks up.
In every Elder Scrolls game, you start off as a prisoner being set free for an obscure reason, and ESO follows the trend. This time, you are already quite dead, having become a prisoner in the Oblivion plane of ColdHarbour after being sacrificed in a dark ritual. You escape your cell and fight through the hellish landscape before meeting the Prophet, a mysterious man with great power who helps you return to Tamriel. Where you wake up depends on your race's faction, but the goal remains the same: meet up with the Prophet and learn more about the plans that the Daedric prince Molag Bal is putting into motion.
Immediately, the gameplay is reminiscent of the most recent Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim. The interface is quite minimalist, especially when compared to nearly any other MMO, with most elements only showing up when relevant and others (such as a minimap) outright missing. Much as in Skyrim, your navigation is dictated by a compass bar at the top of the screen that shows points of interest and quests objectives. More often than not, you'd be hard-pressed to say that the game isn't another entry in the single-player series.
This remains the case for the combat system. Rather than a ton of action bars, you have one, but it has six abilities on it. The bulk of your combat comes down to basic, real-time actions. Left mouse can be tapped for a light attack with your equipped weapon or held for a heavy attack. Right mouse blocks against enemy attacks, either with your weapon or an equipped shield. Pushing both at the same time performs a bash.
Successful combat is more about reading your enemy than spamming attacks. Enemy light attacks aren't telegraphed but do minimal damage. Heavy attacks are accompanied with a bright shimmer around the enemy as they wind up, and if successfully blocked, the enemy is stunned for a couple of seconds. This leaves them open to a heavy attack, which not only causes a lot of damage but also forces most enemies to the ground. Finally, you can stun enemies who are casting spells by bashing them.
Rather than attacking enemies from one location, you need to stay mobile during combat. Prior to using a spell, enemies show their attack template on the ground, giving you time to get out of the area of effect — or bash the enemies, if possible. In a pinch, you can double-tap a movement key to dodge in that direction, completing an evasive roll that can quickly get you out of harm's way.
Your ability bar is tied to how you choose to spend your skill points. Character progression in ESO is very open-ended, despite having only four classes. For the most part, spending a skill point grants you a new skill to add to your bar, though you can only equip six at any given time and cannot change them during combat. Each class has three skill lines, but the majority of them can be pursued by any class, such as those for the different weapon types. There's not much to stop you from building a sorcerer clad in heavy armor who uses a war hammer, nor is there anything stopping your templar from using a restoration staff. Similar to the single-player offerings, your character isn't restricted by artificial barriers based on decisions made during character creation.
Though you gain experience with every kill, your best bet to level up is to complete quests. Quests behave very similarly to Skyrim, with a waypoint placed on the map and compass. Area quests are represented by a circle on the map if the objectives have no set position. There are the standard courier and kill quests, but occasionally, you'll need to solve puzzles. Some quests give you choices that affect their outcome, such as picking which of two people stays and dies and which one lives. Others have optional objectives that usually shed light on how the main objective can be tackled.
We played on a server separate from the main beta server, so the population was relatively low. It was odd to come across other players — mostly because it seemed like they had somehow managed to jump into your game of Skyrim. It remains to be seen how the world scales once there's a reasonable player count. It'll also be interesting to see how it affects the availability of non-quest enemies to kill or of crafting resource nodes to gather. Much of how successfully ESO emulates the feel of the single-player games hinges on keeping area populations reasonable, and we don't know how that will pan out.
Crafting is pretty simple but offers a fair amount of possibility. Using blacksmithing as an example, you can gather iron ore from resource nodes located around rocky terrain. This ore can then be smelted into bars, and those bars are the sole ingredient needed to create basic iron armor. How much iron you use determines the item's level requirement and its stats, such as raising the level requirement two levels for every additional bar of iron. Items can also be augmented while crafting to give them additional properties, assuming you have researched them prior. Research can only be learned by first reverse-engineering an existing example, such as a quest reward that gave you a hammer with an increased weapon speed. Research that item, which gets rid of it, and in a few hours, you can make hammers with that trait.
Items can also be improved, such as taking a quest reward that you want to keep and using your crafting skill to make it better. It can be a bit of gamble since it requires the use of at least one relatively rare ingredient, but you can use up to five. Each one increases the chance of success by 20%, so the only way to guarantee the improvement's success is to use five of the required item. Any failure causes you to lose all items involved, including the one you were trying to improve.
First-person gameplay was only added only after fans demanded it, and it shows. In the current iteration of the beta, it was sometimes difficult to tell if your character was immobilized, knocked down, or had some sort of status affliction — all information that is easily conveyed while in third-person view. Additionally, due to a relatively narrow field of view, it can be tough to see the tells of massive enemies or see enough of the ground to tell when they're casting a spell template at your feet. Even with these drawbacks, the first-person mode works really well but could still use some improvements. Fans of other Elder Scrolls games will likely prefer it as their default viewpoint.
Our first weekend with The Elder Scrolls Online left us impressed with the adaptation and execution of an otherwise single-player-only franchise into an MMO. As an MMO, it doesn't feel very typical, but much remains to be seen, especially in terms of guilds, raids, and dungeon grouping. One weekend is hardly enough time to delve into any MMO, but check back next Friday for our take on the game's PvP combat.
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