Following the extensive media coverage of the Elder Scrolls Online press beta last weekend, I am thrilled to announce that Tamriel Foundry has been granted permission to contribute our own coverage and impressions of ESO. When I started this website a year and a half ago its primary purpose was to serve as a haven for discussion amongst serious and mature gamers. Tamriel Foundry has evolved substantially since that date, but our mission has not changed. In the coming weeks we will have a steady stream of articles, videos, site features, and more which provide you all with what we hope will be a clear picture of the systems, features, and mechanics you will encounter in ESO. It feels strange to be granted permission to talk about my (now extensive) experience with the game following such a lengthy period of non-disclosure that I almost don’t know where to start. The articles that will follow this one will each have a specific focus, taking a close look at a specific gameplay system. To get the ball rolling, however, I want to start with some honest reflection on what The Elder Scrolls Online is as a game and what it realistically offers to the countless gamers who are looking forward to it.
My first exposure to ESO was in October, 2012 at a limited media event where I was able to play a game that was much less polished and refined than the version which will be going live on April 4, 2014. Despite the relative rawness of the game at that moment in time I saw the tremendous potential of ESO to achieve what I (as a dedicated MMO gamer) have been missing in the genre for the past several years. I try to be a realist. I don’t think any MMO is going to be perfect for me, just as I also don’t think that my perfect MMO would be one that many others would enjoy playing. I do think, however, that ESO does a good job of offering something new and unique mixed with something tried and true. Getting the formula right for a game that is supposed to bridge the gap between the Elder Scrolls franchise and the MMO genre is a daunting task. I try to avoid sensationalism, but there’s a good reason fan sentiment is divided on ESO ranging from predictions of disaster to outrageous success. The best I can do is provide you with what I hope is a fair assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the level 1-15 experience in The Elder Scrolls Online.
It’s worth opening this section by stating clearly that The Elder Scrolls Online is a massively-multiplayer online rpg with Elder Scrolls elements blended in, rather than a traditional TES game with multiplayer elements. While this won’t please everyone, I think it’s arguably the only way that a MMORPG can survive in the long term is by putting the needs of the multiplayer game ahead of the single player experience (see SWTOR). ESO does some things very well, with deficiencies in others. In this article I’ll provide some of my general thoughts on where ESO stands, and give you the opportunity to ask me any questions you have in the comment section below!
Enjoyable Combat – The first place to start when complimenting the job ZeniMax has done is to mention the enjoyability of the combat system in ESO. Following the trend set by other modern MMOs, ESO employs an action combat system that engages players with combat tools that are more responsive and interactive than traditional ability-centric combat rotations. The active combat tools of blocking, dodging, bashing, escaping crowd control, and switching weapons give the player a toolkit for keeping fights fun and fresh without getting repetitively as quickly as other games.
Aesthetic Quality – While some reviewers may disagree, I think The Elder Scrolls Online provides a truly excellent visual experience. The level designers and environment artists at ZeniMax have done a fantastic job of creating realistic and yet surreal fantasy environments that are thoroughly enjoyable to explore. The game does a great job of walking the line between the hyper-realism of (a modded version of) Skyrim and the painted aesthetic of games like Guild Wars 2. I think the decision to slightly exaggerate the character models in ESO was a good one, and the art style is one that feels comfortable for a video game while retaining the gritty realism that is such a joy of the Elder Scrolls series. I know this is a feature that appeals differently to different gamers, but I personally am so excited to have a beautifully rendered game like ESO coming out instead of the cartoonish alternatives offered by WildStar and EQ Next.
Emphasis on Exploration – The words “theme park” and “sandbox” do a poor job of adequately describing the full range of possible MMO design patterns, but they are the vernacular most often referenced by the genre. In that regard, ESO is much more theme park than sandbox, with level-dependent zones that are intended to be progressed through in a structured (and ordered) manner. This is actually very common for MMORPGs, and within that conventional pattern ESO does a fantastic job of incentivizing player exploration. Each zone has a main quest which will direct you to some of the more prominent locales of the area, however a vast majority of the game’s content is encountered purely by venturing off the beaten path and letting your compass and curiosity guide you. Experiencing the game will be more fulfilling for players who are intent on finding every Skyshard, lorebook, hidden treasure, and explorable dungeon. This is an underlying feature that ESO clearly shares with its single player TES brethren.
Character Development – The skill system in ESO does a great job of setting it apart from the rest of the current MMO genre. The flexibility and long run depth that can go into developing a character is really impressive. Speaking as a completionist and character maximization enthusiast I love that ESO will really challenge players who want to master a variety of combat and crafting roles on a single character. ESO is not a game where you need to have several alts in order to feel like you have access to all facets of the game. The respec options that we will have available coupled with the flexibility offered by the skill system can enable you to dedicate your game time to the long-term development of a single character. This is furthered by the ability to experience all of the game’s content from the perspective of each character you create through the 50+/50++ advancement systems. I think this is a feature that many MMO fans will find appealing.
Crafting - The crafting system that ZeniMax have redesigned (there was a previous iteration that was nowhere near as involved) is really special. Crafting enthusiasts will spend countless hours trying to research the variety of item traits and upgrade the quality of their existing equipment. The enchanting system of glyphs creates a more complex itemization problem than had previously existed in ESO, giving players flexibility to tweak their character’s performance to perfectly suit build objectives. Not to mention the wide variety of interesting consumables (both in alchemy and provisioning) that can enhance your characters effectiveness and connection to the world. Crafting in ESO is far less derivative than in many other games, and becoming a master craftsman feels rewarding and is a process more involved than simply spending a lot of time standing in front of a workstation.
Limited Exploration of a Static World – While I mentioned above that exploration is heavily emphasized, and a positive feature of ESO is how the game rewards you for venturing off the beaten path you can only venture so far. Players coming from a single-player TES background will miss the ability to climb mountains, bypass obstacles, and set a course for the distant horizon in a true open-world context. ZeniMax could have created a game with these true open-world and sandbox features, but ESO would have taken a very different shape than it currently does. The technological requirements to create a massive open environment without structured areas for guided progression would almost certainly have limited ZeniMax in other ways and ultimately they chose to sacrifice some of the essence of TES in favor for a more conventional MMO game structure. In a further divergence from the modern Elder Scrolls experience, the world of ESO feels fairly static. In towns, NPCs have no schedules, they simply stand around all day waiting for the player in fixed locations. The day/night cycle has no affect on the world apart from an aesthetic overlay. The player is unable to choose how to creatively react to various NPCs and situations, and can only choose whether to accept their quest or not. For players who typically play TES games “by the book”, completing quests in the expected way and progressing normally through their stories, this may not be a huge deal. However, for the cohort of gamers who love Elder Scrolls games for their nonlinear compatibility and creative problem solving the rigidity of ESO may come as an unpleasant shock.
Shallow MMO Systems - ESO was designed to be an MMO first and foremost, and yet it has managed to forego some of the fundamental systems that gamers will expect. Character advancement is a flexible and enjoyable aspect of the game, but the underlying RPG system of attributes, equipment itemization, and relative lack of meaningful combat indicators may cause ESO‘s systems to feel obscure and clunky. Furthermore, your engagement with other players in a multiplayer space is limited by the lack of expected MMO features like nameplates, guild tags, titles, and more. ESO does a good job of not forcing you to be in competition with other players while undertaking PvE tasks such as killing monsters or collecting objects, but the difficulty of a vast majority of the game’s challenges is such that your fun level is reduced when other players are in the area. Having multiple people around while questing seriously reduces the difficulty of completing objectives, and leaves you without much sense of accomplishment. In this (and several other mechanics) ESO seems to be caught between two minds. The game could have been made harder with certain notable enemies tuned to require (or at least scale) for multiple players, however this would have frustrated players used to the single-player experience as well as MMO players who have been spoiled by solo-friendly gameplay. Alternatively, more content could be phased or instanced to preserve the challenge of questing alone, but this would further detract from the sense of connectivity in a multiplayer world. It’s a difficult challenge, and one that most games struggle with, but the sparsity of group content in ESO causes its multiplayer systems to be less fulfilling than perhaps they should be.
Open Alliances – I will not continue beating on the dead horse of the ESO pre-order bonuses, but the removal of alliance restrictions from the game adds further blandness to a system that had already been watered down within the game itself. In ESO you can communicate with members of any alliance, trade with them using mail, guild banks, or guild stores, and even have players of enemy alliances in your guild. Alliances in ESO were originally designed as bitter enemies, fighting each other to the death for control over Cyrodiil in spite of the overarching threat of Molag Bal and his Daedric incursion. As the game has evolved, barriers between alliances in ESO have grown increasingly soft, to the point that the Ebonheart Pact, Daggerfall Covenant, and Aldmeri Dominion are more “frenemies” than actual rivals. I believe that in the long run this lack of meaningful faction delineation will harm the game and reduce player’s incentive to care about the storyline and the success of their own alliance.
User Interface – While many of the previous points I feel confident categorizing as either a strength or weakness of the game, there are some areas in which the player reaction to ESO may diverge wildly, the user interface being the most obvious example. ZeniMax has worked to create an extremely minimalist user interface that enhances the immersiveness of the game world by removing all of the UI clutter that accmopanies most games. The world, its inhabitants, and combat encounters are all placed at center stage without the flashing lights and blinking buttons that prompt players of most games to action. Many players will love the ESO default UI, but many will equally despise it. The lack of real-time information can make gameplay feel confusing. The absence of MMO standard features like nameplates and a minimap can cause you to feel lost or disconnected. Thankfully, ZeniMax has integrated an addon API into ESO that will allow for the creation of modifications to the default UI. Hopefully the data accessible through that API is such that players who are not fond of the default interface can have the fine-level of control they desire over the information shown on-screen, while avoiding some of the pitfalls from past games where addons have changed the way the game is played.
Guild and Economic Systems – The economic systems in ESO are strangely designed. While I am pleased to see that relatively few magical items are “bound” to your character (at least not until you equip them), exchanging goods between players is strangely difficult. The guild store system promises to alleviate some of this hassle, but it is a very strangely designed mechanic. The guild stores in ESO seem as focused on allowing players to sell items to their own guild members as to other players, and their incorporation into Cyrodiil campaigns (about which I cannot yet comment) will be a barrier to trade. How the guild stores will eventually work in the “live” server with thousands of players using them remains to be seen, but I am nervous about ZeniMax’ attempts to reinvent the wheel when it comes to economic systems rather than using the more conventional “trading post” that was originally intended for the game.
Alright, aside from the obvious impact of PvP and Cyrodiil (which I am personally hugely passionate about) I think this adequately summarizes my thoughts on ESO. It is very difficult for me to objectively review the state of the game, having seen so many evolutions of its development. I would like to conclude that I think ESO is a wonderful game that has a lot of enjoyment to offer almost anyone who loves RPGs or MMOs. I think that whether or not it becomes a long-run contender or juggernaut of the genre will depend entirely on where ZeniMax goes from here. The addition of adventure zones, further progression lines, and engaging gameplay extensions like crime and morality systems have the potential to evolve The Elder Scrolls Online into an incredibly mature and polished MMO. Despite some of my aforementioned reservations, I absolutely cannot wait for launch day and I cant wait to share more specific gameplay experiences with everyone in the coming weeks.
The most exciting thing for me about the partial lifting of the NDA for Tamriel Foundry is my ability to now engage you guys in discussion about ESO and its game systems. So please feel free to ask any questions that you would like me to address. During the next week I will be responding to as many questions I am able. As a reminder, I can only talk about content accessible from levels 1-15, and cannot go into specifics about the PvP systems of Cyrodiil just yet (although we will soon). Aside from that caveat, please fire away, I can’t wait to start talking ESO with you all!