There has been a lot of conjecture about The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) since it was announced. Would it work as an MMO? Would it feel like an Elder Scrolls game or would it be just another bog-standard MMO with a well-known name?
Speaking to Game Director Matt Firor and other devs at ZeniMax Online, they didn’t feel that they had completely assuaged concerns with their presentations and messaging so far.
Walking around ZeniMax and hearing the passion felt by all concerned on the project, there is little doubt the team feels very strongly that they have something special on their hands.
So confident are the developers in TESO, they decided the best way to get people to understand what’s in store for the game is by letting it speak for itself.
I’m happy to say I was among the lucky few to get a solid four hours of gameplay with The Elder Scrolls Online — and it certainly left an impression. The game is still in pre-Alpha stage but there was enough there to get a good feel for the world and its systems, including combat.
Them’s Be Fightin’ Words!
Firstly, yes there is first person view with the signature targeting reticule to quickly settle Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind fans into this new expression of their beloved world.
The controls also feel like slipping on a pair of comfortable slippers. Left mouse for weapon attack — held for power moves — right click for block is close enough to Skyrim et al to feel immediately familiar and engaging. Holding right mouse and quickly tapping the left button initiates an interrupt on casters; all of which becomes second nature incredibly quickly, thanks to the NPC character animations and telegraphing employed on all mobs, giving a clear indication of when to attack, when to block, when to move — to avoid incoming AOE or cone abilities — and when to go for the kill.
Timely attacks and efficient strategies are rewarded by the Finesse system. Well chosen moves to destroy the massive array of creatures give a Finesse rating which awards percentage XP bonuses depending on just how splendid you are.
As you level through the game toward your destination of 50, you unlock Ultimate abilities. These powerful hotbar attacks aren’t dependent on Magicka or Endurance like other abilities; instead they are replenished with Finesse. Slaughter your foes like a clumsy oaf with banana fingers and it will take a while to unleash that shiny Ultimate again.
After getting a feel for the cut and thrust — or crush and flambé — of the combat style, I was soon pulling off combos to block power moves from enemies which put them in a vulnerable state — again telegraphed by a character animation and an additional iconic prompt — then let rip with a charged up finisher. Execute your foes with maximum precision and you will get a slow motion kill animation — to give you enough time to marvel over your ninja-like skills.
Speaking of ninjas, fans of Sneak in Elder Scrolls will be happy to know that a very similar ability is available to all characters. Hit C and you crouch, turning your reticule into an eye with an initial 3 second cool down before you are fully stealthed. As you move, you use up Endurance, to encourage strategic choices of when to pause and look around shiftily. Detection is shown through the iconic widening eye deployed so memorably in the single player RPG predecessors of TESO.
As not all of the classes were available and armor type is locked in at this point, my light magic wielding, heavy plated toon wasn’t exactly born to backstab. A dev told me that it was much tougher to pull off effective stealth finishers due to my clanking pants.
Still, though it certainly wasn’t always easy, I did manage to execute some sneaky kills utilizing a main hand dagger — poisoned, naturally — with forethought and careful choices of approach.
In a Q&A later in the day, I asked the team if Sneak would have its own tree or whether it would rely completely on armor ability unlocks to enable players to live out their Snake Eyes fantasies. I was told that was one of the aspects of the game currently under discussion; whether to further add to boons — like Endurance when stealthed — that are expected to be unlocked through armor “leveling,” by having a separate, specific Sneak tree.
The level of customization for each player and style is certainly a core tenet of the design philosophy of the game.
There is a hot bar with abilities numbered 1 to 6 which are populated by the skills earned from using weapons. The more you use a weapon, the more abilities you unlock for it until you hit a branch in your tree called “morphs” where you can specialize, to choose one of two paths. Any class can use any weapon, there are no restrictions — something not yet available for armor in the current build, but a definite for the future.
Want to play a caster in heavy plate, wielding a two hander with all the chaotic glee you would imagine a battlemage to have? Go for it.
As Matt Firor stated, “giving everyone access to everything brings balance,” and the potential for customization, due to the many options through all the weapons, each weapon tree, the three armor types — light, medium and heavy, naturally — and their respective ability paths, is very intriguing. In fact, once you hit level 50, you can continue earning XP and unlock every branch of every weapon and armor type in the game.
It’s easy to see how your preferred style of play will lead you into certain combat approaches and yes, as I’m sure you were wondering, the Holy Trinity is alive and well in The Elder Scrolls Online. Roles you will be able to practice in places such as public dungeons, Crows Rock being the first for the Ebonheart Pact, which seemed very open and great for fans of exploration.
Though the roles might be set, from what I saw of the progression system so far, there will be many choices in how you choose to fulfill them. The claim made by the team that you can make a character that isn’t quite like any other, has been made by many games companies before, with few of them succeeding. TESO might just pull it off.
Of course, the immediate concern is that cookie cutter power builds will quickly rear their ugly, well-worn heads. The only answer, of course, lies within the long road of testing ahead for the game — in the impressive and ever growing studio, which currently houses 350 members of staff — but the flavor of the weapons and the styles of play they engender ensures a sense of differentiation even at this early stage.
The World as We Know It?
Anyone who has marveled at Skyrim‘s snowy peaks while chuckling at any mention of an arrow to the knee knows that it is the contrast between thrilling grandeur and the joy of the comically mundane that gives Elder Scrolls games their distinct flavor.
After character creation, players will run through a tutorial which explains the basics and introduces the story of your character and the world. The evil villain — well he’s hardly going to be a charity worker — is Molog Bal, a Daedric powerhouse who has stolen your soul in his bid to dominate the world through demonic sorcery. It’s your task to reclaim your soul — and return the funk to your dancing, no doubt — and save the planet in the process.
The tutorial wasn’t ready for consumption, so I began my journey at level two on Bleakrock, a noobie zone situated in the Skyrim area.
The terrain is immediately recognizable and the small towns and dwellings are like returning home for more than just the stoic architecture. There is plenty of personality wherever you go, thanks to the well-designed NPC interaction.
Hang around after completing a quest, or just walk through town and you can hear NPCs mutter mournfully or trade barbs comically in a very deft variety of spoken dialogue routines. The characters are all fully voiced in a way that is focused on cementing immersion, with large helpings of personality.
Before the quest dialogue-phobic among you go running for the hills, ZeniMax has made a smart choice in how the player interacts with the chatty NPCs. As with the single player RPGs, quest givers — in TESO, signified by a green aura around them and a circle on the map in areas you have explored — have lip synced dialogues that are accompanied by quest text. Want to skip through? No problem, there’s a handy quest tracker to show you where to go, or tell you later what you didn’t bother finding out in the beginning.
If you like to get the character flavor with the quest, you can listen and watch and then be on your merry way. If you like even more immersion, there are additional dialogue options that will give a deeper glimpse into the life of the character, the area or the overall world — including plenty of things to make a Tamriel lore nerd happy.
You can dip in and out of the story of the world around you as often and as deeply as you wish, not just in the aspect of the main story and sub quests, but in the levels of content embodied in the NPCs.
LIGHT SPOILER WARNING
For example, one of the main threads of Bleakrock is that the invading Daggerfall Covenant forces are threatening to overrun the Ebonheart Pact inhabitants. You can tell Lieutenant Rana — leader of the defense of Bleakrock that it’s time for the town to make a run for it immediately, or try to find the 15 missing townsfolk first, ensuring they are not left stranded.
Being the obsessive completionist that I am — seriously, it’s an illness — I rescued all the poor missing miscreants. This meant that when I returned to the town, all those NPCs were there, coming to terms with what happened to them in often entertaining ways, as well as showing their appreciation for my heroic awesomesauce.
When the inevitable attack on the town came, it added impetus to my actions; I wanted to slay the would-be murderers of the charmingly antagonistic couple I had rescued earlier. And I did so with a surprising level of urgency. Immersion working as intended.
Choosing to save those characters turned them into recurring characters that were a part of the next adventure and who retained a continued presence as I ventured onward. Matt Firor went on to state that certain characters would be intertwined in the overall story depending on how you made your way in TESO, reflecting the dev team’s intent that choices would matter throughout the game.
SPOILER OVER, YOU CAN LOOK NOW
Are We Having Fun Yet?
To offer a room full of hungry games journalists a free lunch can usually be compared to the running of the bulls. But on this occasion we were all too busy happily questing, slaying and stealing the contents of the town folks’ rooms to bother for a while and then only to bring our food to the computers so we could munch away while we continued playing.
As time was running out on the play test, I was urgently wrapping up the Bleakrock content, as not only did I want a look at the next area — Bal Foyen, located in Morrowind — but I genuinely wanted to find out what happened next in the story.
It’s certainly still early days and of course some things need work, such as some combat animations and a need to add more heft to the feel of some attacks, but those four hours flew by; which is something I’ve not been able to say about some games’ new player experience even at launch.
There’s plenty of ambition and vision at ZeniMax for their game — for my take on that, read my overview of the studio tour and the revelations about more of the games’ systems later today — but from what I experienced hands on, rest assured that their MMO is distinctly The Elder Scrolls.
(Story originally published at ZAM.com)