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.

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