Gameplay Impressions of ESO

Without a doubt, the most rewarding portion of the Elder Scrolls Online press event was the opportunity to sit down and play the game. We were given around 5 hours with which to delve directly into the world and see the core gameplay concepts in action. Ultimately playing the game is the only way to really see Matt Firor’s stated pillars of gameplay in action, and it was this experience which convinced me that ZeniMax Online can deliver the product they claim. I’m excited to share the details of my own experience with the Tamriel Foundry community. Click through to read all about my personal experience and ask any questions that I’m sure you have about the game!

As a prerequisite disclaimer, we were privileged to play what ZOS termed as a “pre-alpha” build, therefore the following mechanics and game features I discuss may all be subject to significant change. I was a bit alarmed to hear that the label of “pre-alpha” applied, so I requested clarification regarding ZeniMax Online’s interpretation of the stages of development. “Alpha” begins at the point that all core game systems are complete and implemented. Hundreds of QA testers and developers are playing TESO on a daily basis, so the game is very much playable, stable, and (in the areas that we saw) polished. However, some major systems like crafting are not yet implemented, explaining the use of this terminology.

Our hands-on demo was set during the early storyline for the Ebonheart Pact. At character creation all three races were selectable. There were no distinct racial bonuses evident, but the ZOS staff did not confirm that none would exist at launch. Character creation was very robust by MMO standards, although not as intricate as the level of customizability provided in Skyrim or Oblivion. The game allowed scaling of body proportions as well as detailing of facial features and identifying markings. We were permitted to select between two enabled classes for the demo. The Dragonknight is a traditional warrior archetype with a natural fluency in two handed weapons or dual wielding. The Templar resembles a classic Paladin, utilizing defensive abilities mixed with restorative magic. Also displayed, but not selectable were the Sorcerer, an offensive spellcaster, and the Warden, a more defensive mage. Finesse based characters are currently being added, with only a temporary Rogue class displayed at selection. The total number of playable classes at release was not confirmed; however it seems logical that there will be at least six, with both an offensive and defensive variant of each primary archetype.

These classes provide a general mold for progression, but players can specifically tailor their gameplay experience by selecting a combination of weapons and armor chosen to fulfill a specific objective. No other permanent character choices were required; we know that the role of star signs will be filled by Mundus Stones within the world itself, while the selection of primary skills is tied to class selection. The full array of Elder Scrolls skills is not explicitly present; rather each class receives a variety of abilities from various martial disciplines or magical schools which are appropriate to the player’s base class. By selecting from this set of provided abilities you can tailor a character towards your preferred style of gameplay. Also absent is the original set of TES attributes: strength, endurance, agility, etc… There are five primary stats in TESO: health, stamina, magicka, armor, and power. Additionally, the game featured a range of derived attributes such as magical resistances or critical hit chance. Lastly, due to the megaserver technology, characters require both first and last names, where only the combination of names is uniquely reserved.

As a disclaimer, the remainder of this article will contain minor spoilers regarding the first several areas of the Ebonheart Pact storyline. If you wish to be completely surprised by the opening events of the game, your only option may be to cancel your internet subscription until sometime next year.

I chose to play a Dunmer Templar named Atropos Nyx, and began my journey on Bleakrock Isle, a Nord outpost just off the coast of Skyrim. At release, the game will start with a dramatic sequence during which the player is defeated by Molag Bal’s minions and taken prisoner in Coldharbour, the Daedric Prince’s plane of Oblivion into which he seeks to absorb all of Tamriel. With the help of several allies, the player will escape in a sequence serving as both the game’s tutorial and an introduction to the primary threat to the safety of Tamriel. After escaping, new members of the Ebonheart Pact wake up on Bleakrock Isle and face a less supernatural but equally dire threat in the form of an imminent attack on Bleakrock Village from a ship of Daggerfall Covenant soldiers.

The player’s main objective throughout this starter zone (levels 2-4) is to round up missing villagers, and assist the outpost’s commander, Lieutenant Rana, with evacuating the survivors. There are fifteen possible villagers who may be rescued if the player completes all the available quests on the island. The completion of this feat awards you with an achievement. Because of the hubless questing system in TESO, finding the means to rescue all 15 citizens is not so simple. Locating the beginning of several quests requires thorough exploration of the island and its several dungeons. The first quest tasked me with obtaining a disguise to infiltrate a bandit encampment guarding the mysterious mine of Hozzin’s Folly. The disguise allowed me to bypass several groups of sentries, but roaming guard dogs were alert to my presence, although careful use of stealth facilitated my infiltration. This quest culminated with the discovery of a mysterious Oblivion portal deep within the mine. Another memorable dungeon on the Isle was Orkey’s Hollow, icy caverns which had become the malicious playground of a deranged hermit mage. An elaborate Nordic ruin, Skyshroud Barrow was incredibly reminiscent of Skyrim. There I assisted the shade of a long dead Dragon Priest by preventing a Daggerfall Covenant necromancer from defiling his tomb. Several dungeons included dangerous traps, some of which were disarmable, while others posed permanent hazards. After successfully rescuing all 15 missing villagers, Lieutenant Rana prepared the town for evacuation. At this point in the quest, I encountered the first example of world phasing. The Daggerfall Covenant ship landed, and its soldiers invaded Bleakrock Village, setting houses aflame and forcing the villagers to flee for Last Rest, an ancient barrow which afforded a potential escape route from the attack. Only other players on the same stage of the quest would experience this version of the island, the first example of how the player’s progression through the story can change the surrounding environment. After a harrowing escape, I set sail for Bal Foyen, a village on the coast of Morrowind.

I focused on health and stamina improvements for my Templar. At each level-up you have the opportunity to allocate a stat point, which at certain thresholds will unlock an additional passive ability. For example, after increasing my health by three points, I gained a small chance to heal myself by a moderate amount when successfully blocking a power attack. In terms of equipment, I predominately stuck to a sword and shield fighting style with heavy armor for defense. My own power attack provided a short duration buff to my physical resistance which I later had the option to replace with an offensive snare (movement speed debuff). My most frequently used ability was the melee range spell Sun Strike, which dealt high damage and granted a self-heal over time. I had two other spells, Sun Fire, a ranged nuke with a chance to snare the target, and Rushed Ceremony, an area of effect group heal. Additionally I received an active melee ability, Reckless Attacks which cost a substantial amount of Stamina, and dealt bonus damage based on my current Stamina pool. My final ability was the ultimate Focused Charge which became unlocked around level 6 or 7. This allowed me to cash in my finesse to perform an AoE cleave dealing high damage to all nearby foes. Due to my class and choice of heavy armor my proficiency with stealth was unremarkable; however I was able to execute occasional sneak attacks which seemed to be relatively effective.

After reaching Morrowind and the village of Bal Foyen, I set about exploring the farmlands of Ankledeep Marsh. Much like Bleakrock Isle, this region had come under attack from Covenant forces, and my efforts were dedicated towards assisting the beleaguered community. The vegetation and architecture was familiar, and many iconic creatures like Guar, Netch, and Nix-hound were on hand. During this zone’s storyline, I was forced to choose between saving two groups of Ebonheart Pact citizens, a company of soldiers cut off from reinforcement at a small garrison, or a group of fishermen who were trapped at the docks by the Covenant invanders. This was the first example of the permanent story choices which ZeniMax Online have built into the game. Whichever group you decide to save will return to feature later in the Morrowind storyline. After liberating the trapped fishermen by the docks I pushed on, resolute to experience the game’s first public dungeon before the end of our session. In Stonefalls, the second Morrowind zone, I located the entrance to Crow’s Wood, a spooky and mysterious plane of Oblivion. Essentially a supernatural haunted forest, Crow’s Wood presented me with more challenging groups of enemies and several quests within the dungeon to complete. I had the freedom to explore the area and complete these tasks in any order which I preferred. This dungeon is intended to challenge players between levels 5 and 7, I had achieved level 9 by the time I reached it, so was able to handle its challenges without assistance. I acquired several pieces of gear during my adventures within Crow’s Wood which seemed substantially better than the quest rewards I had received thus far. To my dismay, I lacked sufficient time to complete the final bosses of the dungeon before our session ended, but the portions which I did explore were extremely atmospheric and enjoyable.

The game’s environments are artistically rendered and appealing to explore. The user interface is extremely minimal by industry standards, and ZeniMax Online has certainly taken steps to enable the player to “play the game, not the UI”. The interface fades naturally while the character is exploring and relevant combat or interaction prompts are all provided through on-screen queues. Conversations with quest or story NPCs are fully voice acted and framed in a first person cinematic presentation. Non-critical inhabitants of Tamriel also often have something interesting to say, these lines are triggered by activating the NPC. The player is not presented with quest or conversation pop-up boxes which further divorces TESO from reliance on a cluttered interface. Individuals who offer quests or provide other relevant direction for the player are surrounded in a golden glow, denoting their importance. Other NPCs feature an intuitive IFF system, with friendly characters glowing green when targeted, while enemies glow red. Quests are tracked through a simple toggle tracker in the top right corner, and the player’s currently active quest is highlighted as a gold dot on the minimap compass. Exploration is further enhanced by the in-game map which offers a beautiful texturized presentation of every zone and dungeon. Discovered points of interest across the map feature familiar icons which are recognizable from past Elder Scrolls titles. These icons are revealed on the compass when the player nears a POI, encouraging players to investigate these locations.

My overall impression of The Elder Scrolls Online at the end of our hands-on demo was very positive. I was greatly impressed with the game’s ability to merge traditional TES story and exploration elements with MMO style gameplay. I also found the combat system refreshing; replacing rotation and repetition with a more reactive and tactical approach has reduced the grind and monotony of killing “trash mobs”. I also enjoyed the simplicity of the game’s presentation and how the intuitive combat controls allowed me to focus on the action and not on the interface. As a completionist in games, I found exploration to be rewarding, both for the pleasure of encountering scenic areas and the reward of finding quests and enemies in unexpected places.

In the interest of balanced coverage, there were some game elements which concerned me as a devoted gamer. The absence of technical stat and skill dependent advancement systems from previous Elder Scrolls games simplifies TESO as an RPG. It remains to be seen to what degree stat allocation, perk choice, and weapon selection suffice as rich character advancement mechanisms. I also felt that, as with so many modern MMOs, the rate of experience gain was far too generous. By exploring each area, completing quests as I found them, and accumulating finesse bonuses from combat I swiftly outleveled the game’s content. I achieved level 7 before leaving Bleakrock Isle, which was intended to carry players to level 4. Even after skipping several quests to reach Crow’s Wood before the end of the event, I found myself at level 10 facing level 5 and 6 enemies. Hopefully ZOS increases the resistance of their level curve otherwise I fear that players will not only achieve maximum level in a short amount of time, but will also dispel much of the game’s natural challenge by dramatically outpacing the game’s content. As a final point of concern, enemy attack tells were very generous, and low level combat was incredibly easy. I am confident that this is a deliberate move to gently ease players in to what will be a new control system to many gamers. In terms of higher level content, however, I hope the lethality of enemies is improved and the margins for player reaction are narrowed.

My prevailing opinion of ESO is undeniably positive; I am thrilled to say that I believe many doubters of ZeniMax Online’s ability to create a true Elder Scrolls game in MMO space will be surprised and pleased with the feel of ESO gameplay. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about my own gameplay experience in the comments below, or you can catch the next article in this series, Developer Interview: Matt Firor and Paul Sage at the Hands-On With The Elder Scrolls Online hub.

83 responses to “Gameplay Impressions of ESO”

  1. Profile Photo
    Asguard

    Apprentice

    Total Posts: 25

    Nord

    “Lastly, due to the megaserver technology, characters require both first and last names, where only the combination of names is uniquely reserved”

    So if I get you right, you can name your character whatever you want as long as it has a first name and a surname  and isn’t the same name as anyone else’s?

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    Atropos

    Administrator

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    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    Yes, its the combination of names that is reserved and must be unique. So I could name my  character “Atropos Nyx”, but someone else could name themselves “Atropos Poser” or “Wannabe Nyx”.

    You could, of course, have entire families of characters who all share the same last name.

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    Guildmaster of Entropy Rising.

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    redguard83

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    Redguard Dragonknight

    I feel better knowing I can use the names I want without fear of them being already taken.

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    Sheograth

    Adept

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    Altmer Sorcerer

    Well leveling system seems cool and if I don’t fall in love for anything else in the game I will fall in love with the game for the first name and last name thing .

    The only thing bothering me is the classes . They didn’t choose good names for them . ( IMO wardens seem to be more of a melee class )

    ”I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among the sheep. Men will tremble at your approach, and you will never fear death again.”―Harkon

    ^He’s lying vampirism makes you weak against sun light and you will get blood thirsty after a while . I forgot to say this , bite someone and you will get attacked by guards .

    Me mad ? Haha, I’m not quite sure about the meaning of insanity cos I didn’t play Far Cry 3 like you did, but I’m sure that doesn’t include moon sugar and Skooma.

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    Lordshayne

    Grandmaster

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    Breton

    Agreed.

     

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    Rial

    Moderator

    Total Posts: 2773

    Argonian Sorcerer

    Do you, by any chance, know if the last name is obligatory? With all the Ra’Darris and Eats-The-Mushrooms, obligatory last names would be a bit of an inconvenience.

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    Atropos

    Administrator

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    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    @Rial, yes, both first and last name are required. I’m not sure if apostrophes or hyphens are allowed, but hopefully they will be since many TES lore appropriate names use them.

    Personally, I would love to see them allow the separator between first and last name to be customizable. Make it a space by default, but allow players to alternatively use a hyphen or apostrope, so you could choose between:

    • First Last
    • First-Last
    • First’Last

    All of which would be valid

    Founder, creator, and developer of Tamriel Foundry.

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    Blade

    Grandmaster

    Total Posts: 1608

    Bosmer

    Names of classes are things that can change easily, so if that is something that bothers you, just wait and see what their called when the game releases. :)

  9. Profile Photo
    Sheograth

    Adept

    Total Posts: 116

    Altmer Sorcerer

    Nobody said anything about the class names :D I am always like this other players complain about completely different things when I complain about the things non of the gamers around the world complain about Lol .

    ”I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among the sheep. Men will tremble at your approach, and you will never fear death again.”―Harkon

    ^He’s lying vampirism makes you weak against sun light and you will get blood thirsty after a while . I forgot to say this , bite someone and you will get attacked by guards .

    Me mad ? Haha, I’m not quite sure about the meaning of insanity cos I didn’t play Far Cry 3 like you did, but I’m sure that doesn’t include moon sugar and Skooma.

  10. Profile Photo
    Redguard King

    Master

    Total Posts: 739

    Imperial Dragonknight

    Shehai

    I have a question in regards to the environments. It sounds as if ZOS has decided to divide the different provinces into zones, of which are separated into level difficulties. Is this correct? Not really sure how I feel about this (although it was expected) as I’m accustomed to really determining my own direction and exploration in TES games.

    Shehai Clydus

    Looking for a mature and experienced AvA guild? Click above and join the guild that led the charge in Cyrodiil and crowned an emperor three times! ~ Imperator Clydus

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    TWD26

    Expert

    Total Posts: 287

    Dunmer

    great read I can not wait for the game.

    ”For the blood of my forefathers and my sons, I have sworn to protect Morrowind.”-Vorro Rayden

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    tenton111

    Journeyman

    Total Posts: 74

    Dunmer

    That world is huge… I was hoping the landscape and the size of the world wouldn’t be underwhelming. I’m not disappointed; even with all the players on one server, there would easily be enough room. Tamriel is a continent, so I’m relieved to see the developers spent some time on size. And it’s so full of interesting things. The landscape is breathtaking. The thing about Daggerfall was that yes, it was a big world, but it was pretty boring. Skyrim may have been smaller, but the sights were breathtaking. Good job, as usual.

    By the pricking of my thumbs,

    Something wicked this way comes!

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    Scar-Tail

    Journeyman

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    Argonian

    Skyrim might have had too much, actually. Anyway, I totally agree tenton. I couldn’t stand to see an underwhelming ES game, let alone the MMO for it.

    Our resolve is glacial, our might is forged in fire, and our courage cultivated by the beasts of the jungle.

    We are Ebonheart. We are as one. And by this, our victory is assured. -Jorrun the Skald-King

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    Druco

    Apprentice

    Total Posts: 35

    Breton

    I also felt that, as with so many modern MMOs, the rate of experience gain was far too generous. By exploring each area, completing quests as I found them, and accumulating finesse bonuses from combat I swiftly outleveled the game’s content.

    Hopefully ZOS increases the resistance of their level curve otherwise I fear that players will not only achieve maximum level in a short amount of time, but will also dispel much of the game’s natural challenge by dramatically outpacing the game’s content.

    After reading your article I share some of the same concerns. For me, getting to max level should take a while and be something not so easily accomplished. Many new games strafe from this by making the journey way too short, in my opinion.

    Did you happen to find out what the max (numerical) level was?

    Did it feel as though they are taking the traditional approach, making each level take progressively longer to obtain? Or did it feel like they took the GW2 approach, making the time between each level almost the same?

    As a final point of concern, enemy attack tells were very generous, and low level combat was incredibly easy. I am confident that this is a deliberate move to gently ease players in to what will be a new control system to many gamers. In terms of higher level content, however, I hope the lethality of enemies is improved and the margins for player reaction are narrowed.

    I can understand combat being a push-over in the early stages. Perhaps even necessary for the learning curve some people will have with an unfamiliar combat system. However, I agree with you on all levels that the combat should get significantly harder, later on.

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    Atropos

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    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    Hey @Druco, the max level in TESO is 50. There is also an alternative advancement system in the form of Alliance Points which allow you to progress through realm ranks similar to those in DAoC.

    XP to level definitely felt like it was on a slight upward curve, so I don’t think they were using a uniform distribution for “time-to-level” as GW2 did.

    We’ll see how the challenge of combat scales at higher levels…prolly have to wait till closed beta for the answer to this one ;)

    Founder, creator, and developer of Tamriel Foundry.

    Guildmaster of Entropy Rising.

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    Druco

    Apprentice

    Total Posts: 35

    Breton

    Thanks @Atropos

    Fantastic news. I was crossing my fingers that they stick to the tried-and-true method of making each new level take longer to obtain.

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    Atropos

    Administrator

    Total Posts: 3070

    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    Hey @Redguard-King, sorry I missed this. It slipped through the cracks earlier when we had our huge traffic blitz.

    You are correct, provinces are separated into regions, which are in turn separated into zones. Each zone caters to a specific intended level range of player. It’s a very traditional system and is one of the ways in which TESO actually fails to innovate.

    For a themepark MMO though, I guess its not really a broken system, so I can personally live with it. In past TES games (Morrowind and before) if you venture away from civilized lands too early, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by nasty high level enemies, so this approach isn’t entirely inconsistent with the Elder Scrolls tradition, although it’s certainly not at all sandbox-y.

    Founder, creator, and developer of Tamriel Foundry.

    Guildmaster of Entropy Rising.

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    Malferas

    Scamp

    Total Posts: 2

    Dunmer

    I have a question on exploration.  Are there lots of Points of Interest like in the singleplayer games? Also, when you left the island and wen’t to Bal Foyen, was there a loading screen? I’m not a fan of ingame loading screens, I don’t mind them in Skyrim/Oblivion/Morrowind because you only get them when entering buildings, but if we take a game like Fable for example, that system reaaaally takes me out of the game’s immersion.

    So, where my question comes down to; Is exploration in Tamriel seamless like in the singleplayer games, or has it more of a GW2 system where you get a loading screen when you leave/enter a zone.

    Thanks by the way for the information, enjoyed it a lot. best preview so far compared to the others.

    Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man
  19. Profile Photo
    Atropos

    Administrator

    Total Posts: 3070

    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    Hi @Malferas,

    There were quite a few points of interest, on the starting island alone there were 5-6, about the same in Bal Foyen. Unfortunately there are loading screens between zones, but I felt like they were fast and didn’t really detract from my gameplay experience. Obviously how much of a deterrent to seamless gameplay they are will depend on how fast your computer is, but I didn’t find myself irritated by loads during my session.

    Founder, creator, and developer of Tamriel Foundry.

    Guildmaster of Entropy Rising.

    Occasional Twitch Streamer.

  20. Profile Photo
    Redguard King

    Master

    Total Posts: 739

    Imperial Dragonknight

    Shehai

    Certainly. I think it’s also fair to recognize though that Morrowind wasn’t exactly newcomer-friendly and I remember it taking me a substantial amount of game time before I could really kill anything besides a rat or a lowly bandit. In that regard though, you could argue certain areas were closed off, but you still had the ability to explore them nonetheless.

    So far this is probably the biggest disappointment for me that ZOS is not sticking towards the seamless world that TES games have always been known for. I don’t mind the level-based zones as much, but the load screens dividing the zones is a major disappointment for me. Coming of of playing SWTOR and GW2 more recently, I just felt such obstruction to the experience hurt the game and didn’t help it.

    Perhaps ZOS will be able to handle it differently, but I feel load screens between zones is so counterproductive to what MMORPGs are all about. This isn’t a solo game, but an actual MMORPG where the world should be large and persistent. This really continues to reinforce my fear that ZOS is overcompensating too much for the solo experience, as BioWare did with TOR. For now though, I won’t jump to conclusions and I’ll just let the game play itself out.

    Thanks for the reply.

    Shehai Clydus

    Looking for a mature and experienced AvA guild? Click above and join the guild that led the charge in Cyrodiil and crowned an emperor three times! ~ Imperator Clydus

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