Important Stuff!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

[ESO] The horse is dead, long live the horse!

At the risk of becoming a broken record I'm going to address ESO only one more time, and only because the NDA has come down so I am safe to share my beta experiences. Far be it from me to deride a game without at least explaining why, much less giving it a fair shake. So I participated in a weekend stress-test beta and got a chance to formulate my thoughts. For the purposes of full disclosure I ended at level 12 (or thereabouts) and did the Daggerfall Covenant area.

Floating Combat

The problem with the combat is that everything takes place in what feels like slow motion; your character draws a bow or casts a spell painfully slowly and the spells creating a feeling of disconnection with my character. Not to mention that the ranged attacks have incredibly short range. My inputs would have a notable delay and never felt like they had much impact. At least WoW displays numbers, which are notably missing from ESO, to show you when things connect. That feeling of responsiveness was notably lacking and made it feel less like I was connected to my character and more like I had a puppet on rubber strings.

Despite being billed as having more action oriented combat I never felt the compulsion to move much. I am sure at higher levels dodging out of attacks is important, but I found the dodging clunky because it seemed to be only allowed at certain times and the broadcast of "incoming bad stuff" was extremely difficult to see. Given that ESO’s main competition, WoW, GW2 and Wildstar, all typically feature clear markers for "bad stuff" the absence of any clear marker in ESO was particularly noteworthy.

All in all it was some strange hybrid between GW2 and WoW but with the worst of both. Abilities target semi-automatically and while you can use abilities with no target the edges of hitboxes are unclear. I look back at its predecessor Skyrim where accuracy with bows was paramount and melee combat felt heavy and visceral, ESO has neither. The combat in ESO looks like Skyrim on the surface, but is not. Do not be deceived, left click just becomes an auto-attack and you use abilities exactly like you would in any other MMO.

We’re all snowflakes!

Like any Elder Scrolls game you're a special snowflake. You learn this almost immediately when Dumbledore The Prophet appears in your cell and tells you that you're going to be released. He sends you off to find someone named Lyris Shepard* Titanborn. Female Republic Trooper Voice and she guides you through Molag Bol's party city on a series of simple quests that function as a tutorial.

But let me tell you, despite the game repeatedly mentioning how special you are (wouldn't be an ES game if the protagonist was just some random person) nothing kills the feeling of being "special" like having twenty other people gathered around the same quest mob. Sure they did hide the NPCs of other players (so I only see my version of Rosalind Lutece Lyris) but it is quite obvious that everyone else has the same dialogue ringing in their ears. The only instanced portion is when Leah Lyris McGuffin Titanborn has to sacrifice herself to save the Prophet, but by that point the illusion of uniqueness has long been shattered.

Making molehills out of mountains

I can give ESO some positive comment because at least its quests involve more than murdering ten or so bandits twenty yards from the quest giver. That unfortunately is the end of my praise. While the quests typically do send you off to find something or kill someone, they did not feel very inspired or epic, often because the location is within sight of the quest giver. Furthermore, the descriptions never felt very involved and I couldn't seem to invest myself in what was going on. My character literally woke up in the middle of this place and suddenly was everyone's go-to-Breton for getting things done. Even when I did make hard decisions they did not seem to echo into the story; like most MMOs the decision was forgotten by the world almost as quickly as it was made. Additionally, because this is an MMO I can’t actually change the world.

The feeling of being one of a million heroes that I spoke of above became laughable shortly after the tutorial when I was tasked with infiltrating a prison to rescue someone. Well, as it turns out, so was everyone else and the prison was not instanced. The only people in need of saving in that prison were the prison guards who were summarily slaughtered upon spawning by the two dozen players running amok. As if I was not already well aware, that particular experience cemented my feeling of being just another random murderous adventurer.

Putting the PvP in "Single Player RPG"

I find it strange that an IP that historically has been so focused on single player PvE is suddenly being pushed into the realm of mass group PvP. I mean, there are people that enjoy it but the leap from one to the other is where I found myself befuddled. Though in hindsight it’s obvious why, just look at Zenimax’ pedigree. As it turns out their upper level developers hail from Warhammer Online and Dark Age of Camelot, both games known for their PvP. The latter sounds very similar to ESO in terms of its three-faction war. It is likely that someone at Zenimax decided they needed to make what they knew. Still, I think there might have been better IPs for this idea, especially because the alliances feel a bit forced given that in preexisting lore people who are now allied have often had major wars and bad blood between them (Argonians and Dark Elves being chummy? Really?). If Zenimax got a hold of the Carebears IP there would suddenly be three factions trying to Carebear Stare each other to death.

The part that truly made me nervous was their billing ESO as having a "seamless" transition between PvE and PvP. What I hear is "our abilities will work the same in both modes" which is a minefield I think most games would do better to steer clear of. I understand the benefit of having consistency, but it also presents a balancing nightmare wherein abilities that are just fine in PvE end up nerfed into the ground due to being overpowered in PvP and vice versa. I won't claim to have all the facts on this particular issue but from what has been presented it leaves me concerned.

Even then, the mass group PvP doesn’t even look good or play well. Every video I see looks like a revisit of GW2 with less interesting combat. There are just globs of people that pick away at each other with automatically-hitting ranged attacks until one gets the advantage and then sweeps over the other.

Character Creation

The character creator is another point of simultaneous joy and disappointment. While you can make some very interesting characters, your options are somewhat limited resulting in most Nords looking similar, most Bretons looking similar, etc. I always found this odd given that these human peoples have integrated in various arrangements for thousands of years and yet apparently there are still rigid ethnic lines. The exception to customization being the myriad of colors available to Argonians and Khajit. The problem with those two is that they went from velociraptor and tiger inspired looks in Skyrim, to what look more like the Geico gecko and a house-cat respectively. Syl's ESO post discussed this in more detail and I suggest you take a look.

Meanwhile the advertised “customization” was barely there. While each character can use every weapon and armor type, your “class” is chosen at creation and clearly primes you for a specific role. Furthermore, while my Sorcerer can wear heavy armor it is clear that I would be hamstringing myself by doing so. I have no doubt from what I saw that at higher level play people will fall into the same old trinity and anyone who cares about their mana pool will be wearing cloth. When players heard that they could use any weapon or armor we did not expect it to be disclaimed with “But you’ll suck.”

In Conclusion...

I said it before and I will say it again, this is not an Elder Scrolls game in anything more than name. It’s closer to the crappy game-accompaniment to a major movie release. The kind that tries to coat-tail on the fame of an IP but is nothing like its predecessor. All the elements that made the series great, the open-ended customization, the feeling of getting to tell your own story, the ability to truly do what you want, and the feeling of being unique are all shattered by the way they chose to design this game.

And a quick snippet on the “But you only just got past the tutorial!” retort. ESO decided where I started they game, they decided that I needed to go through a tutorial and 2 tutorial zones before getting to Daggerfall and frankly it did not improve much once I got there. With so many good games already out there I do not feel like there is any reason for me to stick to a game on the promise that if I just put a few more hours in it will get better.

Maybe when it goes F2P I’ll give it another run.

*No offense intended to Jennifer Hale, I love her work but these days she is in EVERYTHING. It's like when you tell someone you like chocolate so that's all they ever get. Yes, we love Jennifer Hale, but please developers STAHP! You're overdoing it.


  1. So are you saying that you don't like the game?

    Apologies for the sarcasm, after three posts it's pretty clear what your thoughts on TESO are. I for one, am pumped up for this title, and I'm looking forward to sharing Tamriel with my friends. I put my friends onto the Elder Scrolls series, and they liked it, but it's not the same as playing WITH them as opposed to playing the same game as them and merely comparing stories and choices (we like playing cooperatively).

    Out of interest how would you provide "the feeling of getting to tell your own story, the ability to truly do what you want, and the feeling of being unique" in an MMO? Is it possible? Or do you think Tamriel can only be done as a single player experience, since the main hook of these games are that you are the Hero of the Age, the Nerevarine, the Hero of Kvatch, or the Dragonborn?

    In other words, are you arguing that the Elder Scrolls can be turned into an MMO but Zenimax just botched it (meaning they didn't do it according to your tastes), OR that the Elder Scrolls as a title/world/environment is simply incompatible with the whole concept of MMO games?

    1. I think the former; I do think it is possible for an MMO to make the player feel like the special snowflake in the setting, but that Zenimax's design choices do not support that. In addition, I do think it is possible for an Elder Scrolls game to be in an MMO, I'm one of those people whose always wanted to share and adventure in Tamriel with friends, but what Zenimax delivered just does not feel like it.

  2. haha.. that Jennifer hale bit. I'm kind of the same, Yay.. awesome, cool female voice actor. WE GET IT but does she have to be in every freekin major release these days. I actually think it ruins the engagement towards characters she plays because you're more thinking of that voice and all the other characters she's played rather than what this character is saying