ESO: Isarii’s Comprehensive Review

I sit not on a throne of lies, but of liars.

I sit not on a throne of lies, but of deceased liars.

If you’re reading this, then the NDA has been lifted, which means it’s time to give you all my comprehensive thoughts on The Elder Scrolls Online – and I do mean comprehensive; get comfortable now, because this is going to be a long one. I will undoubtedly talk about some stuff you don’t care about in this review. That is to be expected, but I would encourage you to at least skim those sections, because you never know when I’m going to talk about the design of core combat mechanics in a section on immersion and roleplay (I actually did this).

About the Author

I’ve always been a fan of reviews where the author is transparent about where they are coming from, so I’d like to start out by doing exactly that. I consider myself a fan of both The Elder Scrolls games and the MMORPG genre, but must admit that I tip ever so slightly in the favor of MMORPGs, where my background is much more varied. From my beloved sandbox of Star Wars Galaxies to most of the generic themeparks that have arisen in the wake of World of Warcraft‘s success, I’ve seen quite a few. Noticeably absent from my gaming resume is Dark Age of Camelot, which I sadly was unaware of in its prime. I have tried other RvR focused MMOs, but never managed to find the opportunity to experience the apparent master of the field. I would consider myself to be more PvP focused than PvE, but usually partake in a fair amount of both. My Elder Scrolls experience has been limited to the two most recent entrants into the franchise, Oblivion and Skyrim. I found myself enamored by their open, dynamic worlds, and drawn to the deep and murky lore those worlds are based on. The Elder Scrolls single player games seek to attain what I consider the pinnacle of MMO design – being a dynamic virtual world -, and manage to capture that incredibly well for a single player game. The MMO player inside of me recognized this at the time, and I always found myself reflecting on the world design and thinking what a perfect MMO the franchise could make. If you are one of the people who has been against an Elder Scrolls MMO from the beginning, I’m sorry. It was my fault.

In this review I will set out to give a comprehensive look at every aspect of The Elder Scrolls Online that I have experience with, and that is quite a lot. I have been participating in the weekend betas for over nine months, and the long-term beta for several months as well. I have played all of the alliances and classes in some capacity, reaching 50 in the Ebonheart Pact with my preferred class, the Templar. I have completed the main quest and progressed into the brave new world of 50+ content. I have seen most of the normal-mode dungeons in the game, but have not yet experienced a veteran dungeon. I have PvP’d as a scaled up player and as a level capped player, and have done so as the underdog and as the populous horde, the strike-team and the zerg.  Now, finally, I have the opportunity to write about it. 

To state the obvious – I like this game. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be working on a fan site for it. Not everyone likes the things though, and that’s ok. My goal here is to help people be as informed as they can when deciding which they are.

Character Creation

The Least Stealthy Rogue

I guess my Nightblade won’t be using stealth then.

Character creation brings with it everything you would expect of an Elder Scrolls game. After choosing your alliance, race, gender, and class, you are greeted by a myriad of sliders allowing you to fine tune the components of your characters bodies and face. At the top of both screens you will find a large, triangular slider . For the body, this moves between muscular, large, and thin, while the face slider shifts between heroic, soft, and angular. The individual sliders below grant access to the individual features of your character, and move within a range dictated by your position on the triangular slider. In some games, the triangular slider is merely the lazy way of moving the individual sliders, but in ESO, this is not the case. Presumably, this is a smart feature intended to prevent the creation of ridiculous looking characters; a logical idea given ESO‘s focus on providing an immersive experience.

Another limiting factor in a similar vein is that your character will always  be recognizable as a member of their race, regardless of how much you tweak the sliders. Although there is a height slider, you will not be able to make a short Nord, or adjust his facial features to make him appear the same as a Breton. I am in favor of this feature, as differentiation is important in a game where four out of its ten races are human. Each race also has access to a few race specific character creation options to help further set them apart.

All things considered I find myself more than satisfied with the character creation options available in ESO. While fans of more outlandish characters may find themselves put off by immersion-preserving limitations, I think most players will find more than enough to satisfy themselves as they begin their journey to Tamriel. 

Immersion

The world of The Elder Scrolls Online is truly impressive, with a staggering attention to detail the likes of which I’ve never encountered in an MMO. The graphics are visually stunning, and even after 9 months of playing I haven’t gotten over the god rays shining through the fog, or the grandiose stonework in the city of Wayrest. The landscape and the architecture themselves aren’t where the immersion comes into play though; that comes from the little things. It’s when the dynamic weather begins to rain, and you notice that the sound changes when you walk under a bridge, with yet another sound when you walk into a building. It’s when your group-mate stops to check his inventory and you see him shuffling through his pack. It’s when a trebuchet fires on a keep in Cyrodiil, and you watch the rope slack as it completes its rotation instead of stretching like a rubber band. There’s even when puffs of snow fall from the snow-covered roofs in Windhelm. And maybe, just a little bit, it’s the fact that there aren’t giant, oversized pauldrons with flaming spikes on them.

Roleplayers in particular will be thrilled with this aspect of ESO, but may find themselves put off by some of the heavy phasing used in the game’s narrative experience. More than once I found myself in a perfect, idyllic little town perfect for the RP department of my guild to claim as home, only to find that completing the local quest would leave you trapped within a phase where the village would be changed to a battleground. The worst offender was a small town in Skyrim, where the town was saved, but the main hall was left strewn with corpses of would be assassins. Maybe the truly obscene amounts of emotes in game will help to make up for it.

I can only assume that the entire maintenance and janitorial staff was killed in the attack.

I can only assume that the entire maintenance and janitorial staff was killed in the attack.

As excellent as the world design is, one must, however, go into this expecting to see an MMO and not a TES game. While ESO performs admirably at introducing the Tamriel we know to the MMO environment, certain design philosophies need revising. Intractability with the world itself is an obvious casualty of the the transition, and city boulevards may end up just a tad bit wider and grander to accommodate the expected increase in the world’s population. Even with these slight changes, I feel ESO has done an excellent job at integrating the two styles into a single game. 

The focus on immersion itself is not limited to simply the world design either; no, one of the key features of The Elder Scrolls Online is its immersive combat experience. When ZeniMax set out to the bring The Elder Scrolls into the multiplayer, a top guiding principle for them was to preserve this part of the Elder Scrolls experience, and when transitioning to a genre where players often pay more attention to their user interface than the actual game world, this would surely prove a challenge.

Meeting this challenge, which ZeniMax certainly has, required a rework of a lot the rules of combat that MMORPG players have become accustomed to. The most notable of these is the removal of cooldowns from the combat system altogether to focus entirely on resource management, a departure from previous limited action set action-combat MMORPGs like Neverwinter and Guild Wars 2, which opted to remove the resources with cooldowns being the only limiting gameplay factor. I was initially incredibly skeptical of this. Five ability slots? No cooldowns? Won’t this be a spamfest? The answer, apparently, was no. Abilities in The Elder Scrolls Online are all utility oriented. Where MMORPGs of the past would have many abilities that served no purpose other than to deal damage, ESO has removed this by giving each ability a unique utility, and making resource costs strict enough to prevent the spamming of abilities even if someone were to try. Generally, ability use is very situational.

I could not be happier with the result, as even shortly after picking up the game I found that I would never look at my action bar except when checking the status of my ultimate ability. Through these changes, ESO has completely succeeded in creating an immersive gameplay experience that feels more like Skyrim with depth than another MMO. To put how minimalist the UI is in perspective, I disabled it to take a screenshot for this article, forgot about it, and then spent the better part of a minute running into a door wondering why the prompt to go through it wasn’t showing up.

User Interface

The prime casualty of this design choice has been the user interface, which in its many iterations has come to display less and less information. MMO veterans will more than likely find themselves searching the settings in vain for options such as scrolling combat text, buff/debuff icons, and health percentages as they attempt to better inform themselves regarding their combat performance. These features are missing from the game, but can and have already been created as a mod by Tamriel Foundry’s own @Atropos in the form of Foundry Tactical Combat, which will be available here come launch. There will be a few features that we won’t be able to introduce through modding, but there should be enough modding flexibility to keep even the most die-hard MMOers happy.

The minimalist UI in action, as opposed to the consolitis UI’s inaction.

While I consider the above UI deficiencies to be value-adding because of their relation to the immersive combat experience, this cannot be said for all of them. The user interface is, for the most part, perfectly functional and agreeable to look at, even when not the most informative. However, there are a few irritating instances of non-value adding barriers to functionality which cannot be explained by anything other than the console port. Input boxes often require you to click outside of the box to remove the typing cursor before pressing E to submit, as if the enter button is a thing which does not exist. There is no way to interact with the grouping features by right clicking on the health bars, as you would in other MMOs, and you instead must open up a separate party menu similar to the friends list to exist a group. While these are hardly deal-breakers, they are  slightly annoying inconveniences that I would like to see addressed before launch.

Starting Experience

A lot has been said about the starting experience in the last week or so, as numerous members of the press have been thoroughly underwhelmed by it. In my recent Reddit AMA, I was asked a fantastic question by one of the subreddit’s moderators about the game’s first impressions, and I would like to share my response again here.

My first impression was the better part of a year ago, but if reviews released today are any indication, the experience hasn’t improved much since then. I remember putting in my first 6 hours and coming away disappointed, but resuming the next day to a much more enjoyable experience. I’m going to try to tackle this in a few different sections to stop myself from rambling all over the place.

Not All Starts Are Created Equal

One of the benefits of having been in the beta for such a long time is that I’ve seen how it plays out from each alliance’s perspective several times, and one of the biggest things to point out here is that there is a big discrepancy between the experience each alliance has immediately after leaving Coldharbour; specifically, I am referring to the zones Stros M’kai and Betnikh for the DC, Bleakrock and Bal Foyen for the EP, and Khenarthi’s Roost for the AD. A lot of the reviews we’ve seen today come from people who have only seen one alliance’s content, and if they picked the wrong one, their reaction is pretty understandable. One notable example of not doing that is the crew at MMORPG.com, who have made the very same observation I am doing now (in general I think I agree with almost everything said in Bill Murphy’s impressions video).

One of the biggest differences astute readers may have noticed is that I listed 2 zones for the EP and DC, while listing on 1 for the AD; this was not an accident. This makes a huge difference in the quality of the AD starter experience for the better. The larger island leaves players feeling more freedom to explore, and lends itself to a longer, more engrossing storyline as well. The first 8 levels of the EP and DC feel much more cramped, and a lot more linear because of this. It doesn’t make matters any better that Khenarthi’s Root is visually amazing, while Stros M’kai and Bleakrock are two of the most visually disinteresting zones in the entire game.

Please remember that I am only referring to the experience in the first few zones, and not the alliances as a whole. The next zones – Stonefalls, Glenumbra, and Auridon are all pretty equal in my eyes.

A Lot of Normal Content is Not Present

A lot of the staple features of later zones is not present in the early zones. You have quests, three skyshards, and one of the small public dungeons (small referring to it being scaled for a single player to be able to complete, and not one meant for groups). That’s about it.

In the later zones, the game opens up a lot more in terms of what you have to experience. There is a main quest that leads you through the zone, with a lot of its quests rewarding you with skill points upon their completion. In addition, there are a lot of optional side-quest hubs, where you can find other quest chains to help you progress; if you look at the map and see an area you haven’t been to, odds are something is there. There are many more skyshards (16 for each of the zones), and a lot of small public dungeons (each housing a skyshard to encourage you to do it). There is a large public dungeon that’s geared more for 2-4 players, including a quest, a skyshard, and a ‘group challenge’ boss (usually summoned in a special way detailed in the achievement) that will reward a skill point for its completion. You have points of interest around the world that will give you significant XP for their discovery, and world bosses and anchors (as seen in the recent developer playthrough PvE video) that offer challenging events to encourage players to group together. There is one instanced group dungeon with a quest that gives you a skill point. Finishing that dungeon unlocks waypoints for the corresponding dungeons in the other alliance territories, allowing you to do those as well. In addition to all of this open world content, you gain access to the Mages Guild, Fighters Guild, and the Main Story, all of which draw you in with a continuing story arc and skill line of their own. The Mages Guild introduces Lore Books, another item that you can discover around the world to progress your Mages Guild skill line.

To put it short, there is just a whole lot more to do in the level 8-15 zones than there is in the beginning ones, and they’re a lot more open. The combat starts to get more interesting as you go from fighting one mob at a time to two, and then to three. You start morphing your skills and unlocking new ones. Crafting becomes important, and you find reasons to actually group with other players. PvP and weapon swaps get introduced. It’s a world of difference.

Is This a Problem

Looking at the number of reviewers who didn’t make it past the first few zones? I guess it is, but I appreciate that ZOS did not want to overwhelm new players with the full force of the content available in the game. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure there’s any way to fix it at this point, and I’m grateful for the reviewers who took the time to slog through the beginning levels to get to the meat of the game.

Combat

I am Iron Nord!

I am IronNord!

The combat of the game is, aiming mechanics aside, truest to the experiences found in previous Elder Scrolls titles. Whipping out a two-handed sword in ESO and having a go at some bandits will give you an experience that feels very similar to the experience in Skyrimand less like other action MMORPGs like TERA or Neverwinter. The combat pacing is slower and more deliberate than in those MMOs, with the animations focusing on realism and immersion instead of over-the-top effects. This design philosophy is partially but not wholly responsible for complaints that combat is floaty or weightless, which are true to an extent. The combat feedback is satisfactory to my tastes, but there is definite room for improvement; in particular, improvements to the melee attack sound effects would go a long way, as the current effects almost never sound as if you’ve actually made contact with another living being. 

The actual mechanics of the combat are enjoyable. Beyond the immersive qualities mentioned earlier, the inclusion of fleshed out reactive combat elements like blocking, dodging, and interrupting (all of which have offensive benefits by putting the enemy off-balance, as well as the obvious defensive benefits) helps to keep the player engaged. The reactive combat and utility based abilities are a big draw for me, but fans of rotation-based MMO combat may question if they’ll themselves out of place in ESO. While there is a certainly a logical progression to your ideal engagement, there are many situations and builds that require a much more dynamic approach to combat strategy than is found in your typical MMO. That’s not to say it will be completely foreign; no, far from it. MMO veterans will find all the familiar trappings of ability mechanics from past games, and will have no problem building more predictable characters working around the maintenance of status effects or burst combos if they so choose.

Due to the high resource costs associated with skill usage that is necessary to prevent spamming in a cooldown-free combat system, players will often find themselves using their light and heavy attacks as a source of damage. This is both fine and expected, and I believe the current ability costs are ideally set to strike a perfect balance. Players seeking more abilities and less weapon attacks are able to do so by creating builds with strong resource management passives and actives, whereas players seeking the opposite can also find active abilities which augment their light and heavy attacks. There’s a lot of build variety available in The Elder Scrolls Online, and I believe the vast majority of players should be able to find a character that is right for them.

Character Progression and Development

This brings me to perhaps my favorite area of ESO, its character progression and development systems. This should come to no surprise to long time readers, as my very first article on Tamriel Foundry was an overview of those very systems. As that article turned out to be surprisingly accurate, I’ll pass on doing a recap of the systems covered within it to focus on my experiences with those features.

Some people have expressed concerns over the variety of builds available being significantly higher than the number of viable builds available, spurred by previous experiences deck-building games such as the The Secret World, which required rigorous optimization of one’s build and its synergies to even progress through basic quest content. The Elder Scrolls Online has taken a different direction, seeking to balance not by the strength of the build as a whole, but by the merits of each individual ability’s utility in its own right. This philosophy has lead to a meta where, in theory, you can put whatever you want on your bar and be viable. In practice, of course, balance gets in the way. One major concern with the current state of the game is that a lot of abilities are completely useless, with there being absolutely no justifiable reason for them to ever be on your mind. The worst offender is the Dual Wield ability Flurry, which deals less damage than simply spamming your light attacks for the duration. Fortunately, the large amount of skill points available within the game means it isn’t too punishing if you stumble on one of these useless skills; be warned though, skill respecs are extremely costly later in the game, so you’ll want to avoid wasting too many points or choosing the wrong morphs.

Even with that outstanding issue, the variety of viable builds is truly surprising. Want to tank dungeons in light armor? Roll a Dragonknight and put Spiked Armor in your bar, buffing your armor to up to the level of heavy (overcharging, ESO‘s diminishing marginal returns mechanic, makes the skill less attractive to heavy armor users). Want to heal without a restoration staff? The Templar has you covered. If you choose the right race and class passives, you can even fulfill the role of a caster in full heavy armor quite well. I expect we’ll see a level of build variety in game that may be unprecedented in the MMO market.

In addition to the obvious race and role combinations, it is completely true that every class can perform every role proficiently; however, fans that describe classes as simply a starting point are pretty far off the mark; they will easily have the single most significant and permanent affect on your playstyle of any choice you make in the game. Each class comes with its own set of strengths and weakness, and these are what you really need to consider when choosing your class. Here are my impressions of those, but it would certainly be possible for someone else to come away with a different perspective after playing.

My heavy Templar in Windhelm. Within a few minutes, the sun had moved down to the right as it began to set, and the clear skies were replaced with a light snow.

Dragonknight -

  • Pros: Variety of survivability options that can enable tanking without heavy armor, great CC (including the ever popular grapple-pull)
  • Cons: Poor mobility, poor magicka management, standard is basically the only ultimate worth using, few ranged options

Templar -

  • Pros: Good resource sustain options, ability to heal without restoration staff (making off-healing and self-healing a breeze), good mix of melee and ranged abilities, interesting utility spells later on
  • Cons: Poor mobility, subpar on-demand burst potential, efficient healing is vulnerable to interrupts

Sorcerer -

  • Pros: Great magicka management (more so for non-class abilities), highest mobility, great burst, great ultimates, great ranged options
  • Cons: Least versatile self-healing options makes this the squishiest class*, pets are useless for everything but solo PvE

*Note: there is one very powerful self-healing option available to the sorcerer through critical surge, but it more or less requires designing your entire build around maximizing the use of one ability.

Nightblade -

  • Pros: Excellent health and resource management, good single-target damage, good mobility and escape options
  • Cons: Little to no AoE potential, few ranged options, low build diversity (NBs all basically do the same thing), ultimates are lackluster for group PvP compared to other classes

All of the classes in The Elder Scrolls Online are pretty well balanced and perfectly viable, so those factors shouldn’t be a concern when choosing your character’s class. Choose the set of strengths and weaknesses that you feel best compliments your planned play-style and go for it.

ESO‘s endgame progression is tied to an alternate advancement system called veteran ranks, or VR for short. Upon hitting level 50, the player will be granted VR1, and the level on their nameplate will be updated to a shield with 1 beside it. Each VR has a new tier of gear associated with it, so this is best equated with tier progression in previous MMORPGs; vertical progression is achieved by gaining VRs and obtaining new pieces of gear through +/++ questing, dungeons, PvP, or even crafting.

PvE Content and The Open World

With all of that said, let’s move on to the actual content.

Exploration - While not what many would consider actual content, the exploration in ESO is the central component through which all of the other content is found. Each zone contains a main quest (every few steps of which will reward the player with a skill point) that will bread-crumb you around its map, but the vast majority of content is found by searching through the hidden areas of the map to search them out; if you see a spot on your map that doesn’t have a point of interest marked on it, I can almost guarantee you will find something there if you go looking. So what can you find? A lot of content, which I’ll cover below. Discovering any of the content hubs listed below will also reward the player with significant experience, as well as additional points of interest around the world which only exist to reward exploration with a hefty experience gain.

Quests - As we all know by now, the game starts you off in a Coldharbour dungeon as a prisoner of Molag Bal, and leads you through a quick quest chain to escape back to Nirn. Once dumped out, you find yourself on an island  dependent on your alliance choice, and find yourself tasked with helping its citizens through their respective crises. ESO‘s quests are story driven, with almost all of them being guided by a narrative that spans several steps. There are a great many quests hidden throughout the game’s zone, which are augmented by the major organization’s chains that span the length of the leveling experience – the main story (which rewards players with a skill point for each quest), the Mages Guild, and the Fighters Guild. It’s not an amazing questing experience, but it’s true to The Elder Scrolls experience and miles ahead of the experience found in most other MMORPGs. While the narrative focus goes a long way towards engaging the player in the questing experience and the world it takes place in, it does bring with it some problems caused by the phasing supporting it. Players attempting to quest together will often find credit not being shared, or that they’re unable to enter the same phase (as there is no system in place to join another’s quest phase). Questing in ESO is decidedly best as a solo experience, which, while disappointing, is somewhat mitigated by the variety of other content forms present in the leveling zones.

Dark Anchors – Dark anchors ESO‘s equivalent of a dynamic event, but it would be a stretch to call them one. These anchors are the machinations of Molag Bal, sent from portals to Coldharbour to pull Nirn into his realm. Their arrival and departure are visually spectacular; if you’re near one, you will know it. These Anchors spawn at fixed locations throughout the world when triggered by a player passing too close, and once started, will rapidly spawn daedra for the players to dispatch. They are tuned for 3-4 players, and should definitely be done in a group. They’re a fun little diversion, but I wish these had been designed to be more in line with Rift‘s, well, rifts, or even some of Guild Wars 2′s larger dynamic events. I find them to be woefully static with virtually no replay value, which is a shame for something that had the potential to be so much more. Where these could have presented a real threat to the zone if left unchecked, they are merely another little PvE encounter that you need a group for.

Also they sound like reapers from Mass Effect.

Also they sound like the Reapers from Mass Effect. Can’t miss ‘em.

Dungeons – Throughout each zone in The Elder Scrolls Online, there are a plethora of minor dungeons scaled for about 1.5 players. They can be soloed without too much difficulty by skilled players, but some will find trouble with some of the bosses if they are alone. Each of these dungeons includes a skyshard, which I will discuss in further detail below. These dungeons are open to the public and analogous to the minor caves and forts found in Oblivion and Skyrim. I wish these dungeons were larger and more varied in their design, but the current implementation is passable.

Public Dungeons - Each zone in ESO (aside from the starter zones) contains one public dungeon. These dungeons are scaled for 2-4 players, and are significantly more difficult than the minor dungeons described above. They all contain a skyshard, at least one quest, and a group challenge which rewards players with a skill point. The group challenges are special boss encounters which have to be triggered in a specific way that can be found in the description of the achievement for its completion. In Crow’s Wood, the first Ebonheart public dungeon in Stonefalls, players can summon the boss by killing all of the wraiths in the final area of the dungeon. Public dungeons are the least linear type of dungeon and quite a bit of fun with a few other players. I have frequently ran into other players while completing them during the long-term test even with the low population, so I worry that on the live server they could be overrun with players as they sometimes have been during the weekend tests. Hopefully ZeniMax is able to find a good number to cap the population of public dungeons at to reduce overcrowding trivializing content.

Group Dungeons – These are the instanced four man dungeons MMO players know and love, and we were fortunate to be able to show footage of these recently on Tamriel Foundry. Each zone has one group dungeon, but players are able to access the dungeons in other faction zones by teleportation after they have completed the dungeon in their own alliance’s territory. Each of these has a quest that will reward players with a skill point on the first run, so I couldn’t encourage running these while leveling more strongly. Atropos has already provided a very good analysis of likes and dislikes in the article above that I couldn’t agree with more, so check it out!

Adventure Zones - These are ESO‘s take on traditional raiding, and designed with groups of twelve in mind. Unfortunately little is known about them at this time, other than that one will allegedly be in for launch. If that’s truly the case, I’m hoping we’ll be able to get our hands on it soon.

World Bosses – There are many world bosses strewn about the zones, but before MMO players get too excited, they are scaled for 2-3 players. These are fun little challenging fights that encourage players to group up, and reward them with a quick little burst of experience when they are successful. I am always in favor of nudging players towards grouping while leveling, and world bosses are a decent enough way of doing that.

Think that's the boss? Think again - that's the sorcerer ultimate that enables them to solo the boss.

This is either a world boss, or a sorcerer cheesing the world boss with their incredibly powerful Storm Atronach ultimate.

Vignettes – Vignettes, as the developers call them, are quick little Skyrim-style encounters you’ll find randomly occurring throughout the world and are scaled for one player. These are things like a merchant beset by bandits, or a summoner who has conjured a daedra they cannot control. They add a nice bit of flavor to the zone, but with the exception of a rare select few with interesting rewards, I haven’t really found a reason to justify doing them.

Chests – Much like the chests in the single player games, ESO‘s chests provide the opportunity for some of the best loot around while leveling, so you’ll always want to have lock-picks on you while you’re questing. Along with skyshards, lorebooks, and gathering nodes, they provide an engaging eye-catcher to keep you paying attention to your surrounding while travelling through the zone.

Skyshards – These crystals send pillars of light into the sky, alerting adventurers to their presence and rewarding the successful ones with 1/3 of a skill point. There is one skyshard in the Coldharbour tutorial (which you cannot progress through without getting), three in each of the starter zones, and a whopping sixteen hidden throughout the remaining zones to level cap. Cyrodiil, ESO‘s PvP zone, contains an additional forty-five skyshards for players to find. Suffice it to say, skyshards play a major role in providing the player with skill points, so you’ll want to get as many of them as possible while you are leveling. You can track which skyshards you have found and find hints for their locations within the achievements journal.

Lorebooks – Once the player has left the starter zones and entered the level 8 areas (Stonefalls, Glenumbra, and Auridon), they will begin to find glowing purple books hidden throughout the world that will increase their rank within the Mages Guild, leveling its skill line. There are a slew of them in every zone (including Cyrodiil), and while they do spawn in static locations, many of them can be found in several different locations, though each book is unique and can only be collected once. It’s worth mentioning that you can begin collecting these books even before joining the Mages Guild and still receive the skill line experience when you do. Leveling the Mages Guild skill line is a slow and arduous experience, so it’s highly recommended that you grab all that you see while leveling.

Tamriel Foundry and fellow Legend Gaming member Rhem and I taking selfies in a Draugr tomb.

Tamriel Foundry user and fellow Legend Gaming member @Remh and I taking selfies in a Draugr tomb.

Gathering – Finally we come to gathering, the method by which players acquire crafting materials. There is no skill required to gather, but players attempting to hoard materials for every profession will quickly find themselves short on inventory space. Dedicated hoarders can invest in bag space increases and a horse that they are feeding to level it up with carry capacity as its main stat, allowing them to carry quite a bit around at once.

50+/++ Content - After completing the main quest, players can also venture into 50+ content, a challenging upscaled version of the other alliances’ zones, gaining veteran ranks, gear, and skill points from quest rewards and skyshards. Upon reaching 50+, I was shocked to discover that it was a significant step up in difficulty from the normal leveling content – shocked and thrilled. If you miss a block in 50+, you are probably going to die, and because of that, it’s a whole lot of fun. There are currently six veteran dungeons (best equated with heroics) in game, progressing in difficulty in the same order they do in regular content. The first three veteran dungeons are scaled for VR5, with the second three being scaled for VR10 – the current VR level cap; presumably, the adventure zone will be scaled for VR10 as well, but reward players with increased quality gear. I couldn’t be happier with the current implementation of veteran content, and really hope that we won’t see it nerfed to accommodate less skilled players.

PvE Wrap-up and Concerns - As you’ve no doubt concluded, there is an incredible variety of things to encounter exploring the world while leveling and in the 50+ zones. While I am wary that we still haven’t seen adventure zones, the current offering is already fairly substantial and should be suitable to entertain players for sometime, though I know enough to never underestimate the rate with which players can devour content. In general, I think the PvE in the game suffers from a severe lack of replayability of any kind; while there is a ton of content in any given zone, there is no reason whatsoever to return once you have done it, and in fact, the phasing typically makes it difficult to do so even if you wanted to. Worst of all, this applies to group dungeons, where experience granted is almost negligible in comparison to the experience gained by pursuing other PvE activities. I wish there were more reasons to group with players, but do recognize the need for a game like ESO to cater to its fan base of single-player gamers, and with that in mind, it has done a pretty good job of allowing them to progress solo, but encouraging them to group with other content along the way.

PvP Content and Cyrodiil

Many consider the alliance war in Cyrodiil to be the crowning feature of The Elder Scrolls Online‘s gameplay – a position I find myself more than willing to agree with, but it’s important to note that the alliance war is not all that Cyrodiil has to offer. Cyrodiil houses many of the exact same features listed above, from dungeons, to a plethora of skyshards, to quest hubs housing the most rewarding quest content in the game – in repeatable form! The hubs in Cyrodiil are different from those found in the PvE zones, eschewing story-driven narrative for quick radiant quests that players can repeat to their heart’s content, so long as they can stay alive without another player killing them. I expect these to be popular among players looking for quick injections of experience, but with popularity comes risk, as more and more gankers will be attracted to those areas in search of a quick kill. I am slightly disappointed that there were not any one time only quests in Cyrodiil with story-driven narrative to ground the player in the conflict within the zone, but I suppose it could be rationalized as a means of making sure players are never occupied in something so time consuming as to prevent them from taking part in the PvP going on nearby.

I'm including this purely because I suspect I counted the keeps wrong.

I’m including this purely because I suspect I counted the keeps incorrectly.

And players will want to take part in that PvP, because it is nothing short of glorious. The premise is simple; there are 18 keeps, the inner 6 of which are hotly contested as the prerequisites to crowning an emperor, which conveys significant buffs to reigning title-holders. The Emperor is selected based on alliance points gained since the last emperor was crowned. Alliance points are the PvP currency, earned primarily by killing other players, but also by capturing points; kills are intentionally more rewarding so as to not encourage keep flipping, and to keep the emphasis focused on actual player vs player combat. Elder Scrolls, provide alliance-wide bonuses to the controlling faction, providing a much sought-after edge on the battlefield. They are most securely stored in the scroll temples near the border gates (see as the round building on the map), but when one faction is greedy and has stolen them all (as the AD has in the map above), they can be stored in any keep that the alliance possesses. A more in depth guide to Cyrodiil is a little bit outside of the scope of this already obscenely long article, but I promise you will be able to find something of the sort soon here on Tamriel Foundry.

I have been very impressed with the PvP experience so far and really can’t get enough of it. Zergs will always exist (though not marking them on the map with shiny blue triangles certainly helps), but ESO discourages such tactics with the enormity of the map and the fact that, well, they just aren’t that effective to begin with. A small, coordinated group will crush a large disorganized one any day of the week, which really helps to set ESO apart from its modern competitors on the RvR scene. One of the most interesting aspects of the PvP is the way in which small groups are useful even in large scale sieges, where they can occupy themselves by contesting the minor objectives that provide buffs to their respective keeps (lumber mills, mines, and farms), or by flanking large groups in the midst of sieging and attacking their back lines, quickly killing off the unprepared and burning their siege in surprisingly effective hit and run warfare.

 

Pay no attention to the alliance indicators on the keep. This was definitely not shamelessly staged in the middle of writing the article.

Pay no attention to the alliance banners on the keep. This was definitely not shamelessly staged in the middle of writing the article.

Creative use of siege is another important factor in ESO‘s PvP strategy. Multiple rows of trebuchets shooting both the outer and inner walls at the same time can be done at a few keeps, though this may not be intended. Siege equipment can also be purchased with a variety of different damage types, some of which are specific to their respective equipment types. Firepot trebuchets cause significant burn damage to enemy players and structure, while iceball trebuchets can be used to ensnare wide swaths of players in a single hit; lightning ballistas can also ensnare players. Meatbag catapults inflict severe disease damage to affect targets. My personal favorite is still flaming oil, which can be placed over just about any ledge to seriously injure any enemy who is unfortunate enough to be beneath it. Siege equipment in ESO is definitely not only for attacking buildings, and you should expect to see defenders setting up ballistas and catapults along their own walls to fire upon the enemy attackers.

True to its form, ESO‘s PvP ranks highest on the immersion factor as well. The sound effects and animations of siege equipment are nothing short of top notch, and the combat feels the most realistic out of anything else I’ve experienced, though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I cannot more highly recommend the PvP experience this game has to offer.

I can't describe Cyrodiil's scaling without making air quotes.

I can’t describe Cyrodiil’s scaling without making air quotes.

The said, it is of course not perfect. The core PvP formula is rock solid, but there are still some changes and additions I’d love to see. Currently, scaling is what I hope to the deity of your choice is a placeholder mechanic. Currently, every player levels 1 to 49 is adjusted to the exact same stats upon entering Cyrodiil, irrespective of the effects of both passive and active abilities, rendering core build mechanics completely useless for pre-level cap players. This makes build experimentation for PvP completely impossible until one has reached level 50.

Compounding the problem, the stats these players are scaled to are far below those possessed by even fresh level 50 characters. For example, my heavy armor Templar went from the standard 600 armor at level 1-49, to 1700 just from leveling up. A few press participants in the PvP event mentioned being torn apart by VR players, and with numbers like those, how else could it turn out? I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy every second of being one of those level VR players, but the uselessness of low-leveled players is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. The potency of the NPC guards truly brings this deficiency into focus; they are still challenging for VR players, but an ideal amount of challenge. When you’re a low-leveled player, they’re near impossible, and can wipe entire groups of players with AoE two-shotting insta-gibs. I hope this iteration of scaling is a placeholder feature and I cannot imagine that ZeniMax would even consider launching with the current system in place, but just in case they are, I wanted to mention it while I have the chance. Low-leveled players should not be as good as VR players, but they can do better than NPC fodder too.

The community features in PvP are also lacking, with no way to identify what guild a player belongs to other than by memory; in a PvP format that so greatly benefits from rivalries and alliances, this is a serious problem. Allowing player to represent a guild in a manner similar to Guild Wars 2‘s and adding that guild’s name to their nameplates when targeted would go a long way towards remedying the problem. Another option would be a visual representation, such as the ever popular guild-cloak suggestion, and to ZeniMax’s credit, they have expressed an interest in implementing something along those lines in the past.

While hardly an exigent need, a Darkness Falls dungeon would also be a welcome addition to the Cyrodiilian landscape, adding a new form of PvPvE content while adding a new PvP objective beyond the emperorship and the Elder Scrolls. In essence, DAoC’s Darkness Falls was a dungeon an enormous, labyrinthine public dungeon, to which access was granted by control of several PvP objectives in the PvP zone. The dungeon increased in difficulty as you ventured deeper into it, with rewards increasing correspondingly. The twist is that when control was lost, none of the players inside would be removed, requiring the newly controlling faction to forcibly remove them from it. Fortunately this is a feature that the developers have expressed interest in several times, so the inclusion of a Darkness Falls inspired dungeon is considered much more an issue of when than if.

Players seeking to level exclusively in Cyrodiil may want to revisit the PvE section of this article and take note of all of the different ways you are rewarded with skyshards for doing it. Even with Cyrodiil’s impressive amount of skyshards and PvP ranks granting additional skill points, I cannot honestly condone plans to level exclusively from PvP; you will find yourself woefully far being in build options fairly quickly. At the very least, dedicated PvP players will want to complete each zone’s main quest, skyshard discovery, and bother group and public dungeons while they are at the appropriate level range.

A newly crafted set of Breton armor for my Nord, courtesy of a guildmate.

A newly crafted set of Breton armor for my Nord, courtesy of a guildmate.

Crafting and the Economy

I love the crafting in ESO. It is the best crafting I have ever seen in a themepark game. You know what I hate about it though? I spent a very long time telling people that crafting would be worthless at endgame just like in every other themepark game, and today I have to eat those words. I was very wrong.

Back in November I authored an article titled ESO and the Resurgence of the Social Economy in which I speculated, based on the perceived uselessness of guild stores as a means to hawk one’s wares to a substantial market, that The Elder Scrolls Online could usher in a economy based on social interaction similar to those found in older MMORPGs. At the time, it was a largely speculative article based on little hard evidence, and essentially one of the last vestiges of my sandbox pipe-dreams. Now that I have hands-on experience with ESO‘s crafting system, well, I might actually have been right.

Crafting is an involved process that works slightly different for each profession, though blacksmithing, woodworking, and clothing are virtually the same. I’ll give you an example as a blacksmith. There are 4 sliders you move through when you’re creating an item – the slot, the material, the racial style, and the trait.

  • Slot – This determines what the item is. Sword, two-handed axe, heavy chest, etc…
  • Material – The crafting material (iron, steel, ebony, etc…) you put in. Each material has a set range (say, level 1 to 10) and the more materials you use for the item within that tier, the higher level the item will be (but only within that tier, you can’t make a level 50 item with level 1 materials).
  • Racial Style – This determines the look of the item. This is the only way that the Imperial style is different from the others; it’s purely visual. Note that item appearance also changes with level.
  • Trait – This is the stat put on the item by the crafter. There are several to choose from, such as increasing the effect of the enchantment you place on the item, increasing the armor and magic resist of the item, or increasing experience gained from exploration (as well as several other options).

Every crafting profession requires a skill point investment to invest and improve. Racial styles are learned by finding rare books in containers around the world which teach you how to craft any item in the style with any profession. Blacksmithing, woodworking, and clothing all involve real-time trait research where the time to research increases as you learn more on each item piece (working up from several hours to many days). These unlockable forms of customization and barriers to entry will help to ensure that the finding the crafter with exactly what you want may take some effort, and will not be as simple as finding any crafter with the requisite level to create the item. Crafter specialization should play a large role in making ESO‘s social economy a reality.

But what use is a great crafting system if it’s not relevant? Fortunately, it will be. Crafting’s relevance is ensured by both the amount of customization available to the crafter, and the fact that you really can craft the best gear in the game and upgrade it to the highest quality. This is kept in check with Veteran Rank requirements to equip the top end gear, as well as unique materials that are only found in high level zones.Upgrading gear to the highest quality requires a pretty rare reagent to do so that is different for every crafting profession. These can be found by refining raw materials and deconstructing dropped items, as well as by investing in the hireling passive from the crafting skill line (which sends you mail every day with a little craft-specific bag of goodies). To take an example, let’s say you craft a level 50 sword. This sword will be of white quality. To upgrade it, you will need at least 1 green quality temper to do so, but if you only have one, then there is a high chance of failure (that can be improved with skill points in the crafting skill line), so more likely than not you will want to use several of them. You must upgrade the item to green with green tempers, then to blue with blue tempers, etc… You cannot skip tiers.It’s a pretty involved system that should keep crafting relevant for a very long time; I can honestly describe it as the best crafting I’ve ever encountered in a theme-park MMO. Even as someone who traditionally doesn’t care much about crafting, I can’t help but be excited to do it in ESO.

Brass Tacks

To get down to it, I enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online; I enjoy it quite a lot. ESO is not a revolutionary MMO, and you shouldn’t go into it expecting for it to be one. It does however, have a unique combination of features that I really enjoy, and that I hope a lot of other people will as well.

At its core, ESO is a fairly traditional themepark with several twists. You go through the usual leveling grind, but it’s made up of a lot of different content than just quests, and it’s a lot less guided (once you leave the starter islands) in terms of the game having some exploration elements. Where games like World of Warcraft and SWTOR have almost completely removed any reason to group from the game’s leveling experience, ESO has introduced what they call friction elements that encourage people to group on the way – anchors, bosses, public dungeons, etc… This was a welcome and honestly unexpected design direction; I know I wasn’t alone in my worries that we were getting another ‘single-player’ MMO, and while it’s certainly quite solo friendly, it’s not completely devoid of group content like a lot of recent MMORPGs have been.

Endgame progression is your fairly standard gear progression formula, but they’ve introduced Veteran Ranks (and again, Alternate Advancement is hardly a new system) and tied those ranks in as gear requirements, allowing people to progress however they want – even through crafting – as long as they somehow go out and do the VR grind.

Crafting being a viable form of progression has accompanied the best crafting system I’ve seen in a themepark MMO, and there are a lot of ways in which I feel it will foster a strong social element to the game’s economy. There’s a lot of customization involved, crafters’ names are permanently displayed on gear they have created, and there’s no auction house to dominate the economy. I’m pretty happy with how the economy looks right now.

The biggest thing for me though is probably the progression. It’s open-ended. It’s fun. Sure, a lot of the abilities aren’t exactly compelling right now, but that’s just a balance issue – and even in that situation, there’s still a lot to look forward to as you’re leveling your character and collecting skyshards. It’s addicting.

And this is the best thing about the game. It is addicting, and it’s addicting in a way that I haven’t felt from an MMO in a very long time. No, it doesn’t grab you right away – and that’s a problem we’re seeing from a lot of the reviewers who didn’t get very far – but once the game opens up, there’s actually a lot to like, and that, for me, is the spark that lights my hope for the game’s success.

This merry collection of collaborating carebears took part in a cross-alliance effort to introduce the PvP disinclined to what Cyrodiil has to offer - besides musical companionship I mean. It was a great time.

This merry collection of collaborating carebears took part in a cross-alliance effort to introduce the PvP disinclined to what Cyrodiil has to offer – besides musical companionship I mean. It was a great time.