Combat in The Elder Scrolls Online

Combat in ESO features a simple and intuitive control scheme that relies heavily on situational responsiveness and an action combat system to keep the game from becoming overly predictable or repetitive. Perhaps the most significant contribution of this system to the MMO genre comes through the adoption of the fundamental action combat system that has been featured in the most recent single player TES games. This installment of our Hands-On With The Elder Scrolls Online series goes into elaborate detail regarding the control system, combat abilities, and group synergy employed in The Elder Scrolls Online.

A standard feature of many MMOs is requiring players to spend a majority of their time toggling mouselook, while occasionally utilizing the mouse pointer only for specific interactions. ESO evolves the genre by integrating mouselook navigation by default, using a simple reticle for both targeting and interacting with the world around you. Facing towards an enemy engages a soft targeting system, which highlights the target’s profile with a red outline. Alternatively, the player can hard lock onto a specific target in order to focus their attacks on a critical foe. Fans who has played Skyrim on the PC will be immediately familiar with the basics of combat. Left clicking activates your basic melee attack, while holding the left mouse button charges a power attack. Power attacks do not cost Stamina to use, however they are slower to execute. Additionally, they feature some context sensitive elements, inflicting additional effects depending on your target’s state. Holding the right mouse button engages active blocking, slowly draining stamina in order to intercept enemy attacks with a weapon or shield. While in active block mode, the player can shield (or weapon) bash by left clicking to interrupt enemy spell casting or to break free of crowd control effects. Interaction with the world and its many objects is equally simple and familiar. As in Skyrim, E is the default interact key, enabling the player to loot, communicate with NPCs, and open doors or containers. Stealth also works in a very similar way. Pressing C initiates sneak mode, allowing players with sufficient skill to bypass nearby enemies. Similarly to blocking, sneak slowly drains the player’s stamina while engaged. The five hotbar abilities offer an additional dimension of tactical flexibility in combat and are not restricted by an artificial cooldown. By abolishing cooldown contingent combat, ZeniMax has done away with a “rotation” based system in which there is an optimal way to complete each encounter. Instead, ESO features a combat system with heavy emphasis on situational responses to enemy actions where careful management of your combat resources (Stamina and Magicka) is key to victory.

Groups of enemies in ESO are designed to be “more than just speed bumps”, requiring players to be attentive or risk becoming overwhelmed. By properly reacting to enemy attacks, the player can generate opportunities for debilitating counter-attacks and crowd control. Blocking an enemy’s power attack will stagger the foe for a brief time. If a successful block is followed by a heavy weapon attack before the stagger expires, the opponent is knocked sprawling. Similarly, if an enemy spellcaster is bashed while channeling a spell they suffer a short stun affording the player time with which to freely attack the incapacitated mage. Enemies frequently deploy deadly area of effect attacks. The player is forewarned of such hazards by a red ground outline depicting the impending attack’s area of effect. Players who avoid these dangers continue to move and attack freely, while those who react slowly are frequently staggered or otherwise debilitated in addition to suffering the raw damage of the attack itself.

By correctly handling each of these challenges in combat, the player accumulates “finesse”, a combat resource which provides several key benefits. The amount of finesse acquired during an encounter increases the rewards from the fight’s completion. A basic level of finesse grants a minor experience bonus, but finesse rewards increase proportionally to the complexity of the fight. By flawlessly completing an encounter against a group of foes, players earn additional gold or valuable magical loot. In addition to these direct rewards for tactical acumen, the accumulation of finesse fills a resource meter which, when full, can be spent to activate a powerful “ultimate” ability. The player’s choice in ultimate abilities ranges from deadly attacks, to powerful summons, or amazing defensive feats of resilience. Additionally, the finesse cost of each ultimate ranges widely. You could choose a low cost and effective ability that can be frequently relied upon, or you could gamble by slotting something more dramatic which will require substantially more finesse to activate.

A key part of character advancement and differentiation in ESO stems from your character’s ability to use any armor and weapon combination which you desire. This allows for characters of the same basic class to embark on completely different routes of growth. As you achieve combat success using a particular type of weapon, you gain experience in the associated weapon tree. As your weapon expertise grows this unlocks alternative light and heavy attacks, as well as upgrading to improved ranks of existing abilities. In addition to the two mouse attack abilities which are conditional on your current weapon type, the player can choose five class specific combat abilities which range from spells to melee attacks to helpful utility skills. Just as you accumulate expertise in a weapon type, these combat skills can also rank up as the player uses them successfully. Your five class skills seem designed to supplement, rather than replace, normal weapon attacks.

As mentioned before, your skills are not restricted by a cooldown timer, but they do cost Stamina or Magicka to activate. Combat becomes more tactical because the player must manage when best to use their arsenal of hotbar skills. By unloading many abilities early in a fight, you can render yourself incapable of responding to dangers as a battle wears on. Lastly, each player has a potion quickslot allowing them to quickly drink a potion mid-fight. Potion usage does feature a cooldown, preventing the chain-chugging of beneficial potions. For players that seek an extra edge in combat, there are certain potions and foods which provide longer term benefits that can be consumed preemptively to assist with tough encounters.

Tactical responsiveness in combat also extends to group play. The Elder Scrolls Online incorporates a system of synergy abilities which allow multiple players to complement each other on the battlefield. Unfortunately for aspiring adventurers, many social enemies throughout Tamriel are also capable of employing group synergy against the player. Nick Konkle, Gameplay Lead at ZeniMax Online demonstrated many of these abilities in a live demo of Crypt of Hearts, an incredibly atmospheric instanced dungeon. Melee classes can drop an oil slick which on its own acts as a field of crowd control, but spellcasters can further exploit this ability by setting the field ablaze with a destruction spell, dealing massive fire damage to any enemies engulfed by the flames. Conversely, a Sorcerer can deploy an AoE lightning field which strikes nearby enemies for electrical damage. When entering a friendly Lightning Splash, a Dragonknight is presented a screen prompt to use the synergy ability called Conduit, which channels the lightning through his weapon dealing additional damage to nearby foes. Synergy abilities can produce defensive complementarities as well. The Dragonknight has an ultimate ability Chosen Ground which plants a standard which emanates an aura granting the Dragonknight dramatically increased defensive resilience for a short time. A nearby ally can leverage this opportunity and activate United We Stand, allowing him or her to share the standard’s defensive benefit. Certain enemy types have unique synergies which are equally dangerous. Dwemer constructs have the ability to become “overcharged”, granting increased damage, speed, and an explosive AoE on death. Dwemer Spiders will deploy as a charging turret, generating an electrical field which nearby Dwemer constructs will enter in order to get charged. Supercharged constructs illuminate beautiful blue runes covering their frames that warn of their enhanced state. A Dwemer Centurion which is allowed to overcharge becomes a frightening foe, indeed.

Collectively, these features overlap to prevent combat in ESO from becoming routine or repetitive. Success in combat relies on dynamically responding to the actions of friends and enemies alike, while managing your resources of Stamina, Magicka, and Finesse. Additionally, the action style control system will both excite MMO veterans as well as relieve many concerned Elder Scrolls fans. For a more thorough breakdown of combat in my own hands-on experience be sure to check the next article in this series, Gameplay Impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online. Alternatively, head back to Hands-On With The Elder Scrolls Online homepage.