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DoubleTake: The Elder Scrolls Online

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Posted on February 7, 2014 AT 07:00am

/dance /dance revolution

Josh This should be an interesting one. I’m basically an MMO novice, though having played both Oblivion and Skyrim for more than 100 hours apiece, I’m rather invested in all aspects of The Elder Scrolls franchise. You, on the other hand, have played just about every important MMO under the sun, but you’ve expressed, on several occasions, that all fantasy universes, TES included, are worthless piles of trash that should choke on their own pointy Elf ears and die. You might have used less kind words than that. I’m paraphrasing. But still, pretty clear line of delineation here. I’m coming into The Elder Scrolls Online interested to see how well it can keep my attention as a continuation of the series and its lore, while you’re basically asking the mechanics to put up or shut up, and that’s the bottom line. I think I know where I stand on my side of things, but I’m curious to know what your impressions have been so far. Is Tamriel winning you over?
Yes and no. I mean, I can’t deny—as you pointed out—how utterly banal I find most fantasy worlds. It’s all so very samey, and a lot of of Tamriel looks a lot like Middle-earth or Azeroth or Norrath. I don’t blame ZeniMax for that, but rather Western fantasy at large. But that’s a whole ‘nother rant. I do recall this one time, in a desert area, when we raided some tombs that had clockwork robots of some sort. That was cool. For one fleeting, fetch-quest moment, I was genuinely interested in the world around me. I will say that, even in our admittedly brief adventures, I think we saw enough diversity that ESO never felt tiresome to explore. Character progression–guided exploration took us from obligatory dank dungeons to desert towns to deciduousness at a clip that kept me from getting bored by my surroundings. Chris
Josh Yeah. I think the one the best decisions ZeniMax made was to include the entire continent in the game—or at least a diverse set of chunks from the whole thing. It’s worth pointing out that we were both in the same faction—the Daggerfall Covenant—so we’re limited to one-third of all the areas in the game. Even still, though, we got to see a decent amount of variety. As an outsider, I feel like most MMOs go out of their way to have those different environments, but as someone who does care about the lore, I appreciate that the world of ESO feels so lived in. They’ve had 20 years to establish that these races and these monsters and these animals live in these areas, which have these types of architecture and traditional dress and cuisine. Because of that built-in history, I feel like the locations just kind of work. Nothing feels particularly like it was built or designed just for you—except for, of course, the fact that whenever you walk into town, there’s a good chance someone runs up to ask you for help. I like that idea. The landscape feels just as organic as a single-player Elder Scrolls game, and that tricks me into thinking my exploration is unintended and emergent, even if I know it’s all by design.
If you say so. It all just sounds like so much British-accented fantasy jargon to me. Lots of unnecessary Ys in everything. Tree worshippers and the like. I will say, however, that one thing ESO really won me over with was its character customization. My M.O. in any game with character creation is to build this fictional character of mine, Naphtali Archeron, who is a black woman. Unfortunately, very few games give supply you with enough options and variety to make anyone who doesn’t fall within a white male or white female camp. In ESO, Naphtali is darkly black, and—more notably—sports a hairstyle that suits her, as opposed to some 1960s housewife ‘do. It’s just something that really, really impresses me. Much like your own innocent-in-intention, wildly-inappropriate-in-eventuality choice in character design—made possible through ESO‘s deep customization options.
Chris
You monster.

We promise you this wasn’t in poor taste when Josh made it.

Josh I guess at this point I should stop and explain. When we started playing a week ago, I decided a good test of the customization options would be to model my character after a real-world person. I picked an actor I really respect with a distinctive look—Philip Seymour Hoffman—who tragically passed away two days after I started roleplaying him. The news broke while I was connected to the server. People started giving me funny looks. It went from lighthearted tribute to mockery of a recently deceased man without my even knowing—and I unfortunately didn’t have nearly enough time to relevel a new character before the servers shut off. So, yes, I am a monster, and I’m stuck being one for the foreseeable future. FML, as I believe the kids would say. But that’s a weird coincidence and not ESO‘s fault in the slightest. If anything, it’s a testament to the depth of the customization that I was even able to create a facsimile of a real person that was accurate enough to be offensive.
Now that I’ve been publicly shamed, I’d like to talk about the combat. I can’t know for sure, but I feel like there’s been a strong emphasis on making the game fairly readable and comfortable for hardcore MMO players. Would you say that’s accurate?
I was going to say something about the first-person perspective tripping me up, compelling me to play more like I would in Skyrim and be action-oriented, but the truth is the original EverQuest was first-person in perspective, and we all managed just fine in that. I suspect I may have spent more time playing WoW than I’m comfortable with admitting. Or perhaps I simply wandered into ESO expecting it to lean more toward its single-player predecessors than a traditional MMO. I don’t know. So long as you don’t opt to experience the game with the camera pulled back to the third-person, it certainly evokes a certain traditional Elder Scrolls sensibility. In reality, it plays very much like you’d expect a conventional MMO, with the illusion of action masking the roll of die in the background as you and a reanimated skeleton take turns beating each other over the head. And, honestly, this doesn’t bother me that much. Perhaps I’m just used to it. But I will say that I find it silly to constantly click the left mouse button to attack when in any other MMO, I’d press a button once to engage rhythmic combat and spend the rest of my time twisting powers and spells and abilities and whatnot. And I know I could press and hold the button, but that’s not any better. Chris
Josh See, I did try to play it like Skyrim—for quite a long time, too. I feel like the option to use a first-person perspective—and the fact that the game largely seems built around that—is important, but I can’t put my finger on why. I just feel more connected to combat, even if I know I’m still juggling a skill bar and most of my attacks are more about lock-ons and guaranteed contact than actual hitboxes. For the most part, I’d say it’s a convincing enough charade to satisfy the Elder Scrolls fan in me. But I think that means I get thrown more when something doesn’t work out the way I’d expect. Playing as an archer, I was routinely frustrated that I’d aim a long shot perfectly, only to have it amount to nothing, because the game arbitrarily decided I was too far away to be able to hit an enemy. Or I’d retreat backward, firing arrows, and suddenly the enemy would reset to full health and run back to where they were hanging out. I eventually adjusted and learned to have fun with the game for what it is, but it took a while to come to terms with the fact that my stealth marksman build in ESO would have to play drastically differently from my stealth marksman build in Skyrim.
The first-person perspective does, somewhat, hurt one thing that really stands out to me in ESO—powers and abilities. It took you pointing out, at some point, how badass I looked after using this defensive ability that caused molten spikes to grow out of my character for me to realize it was even happening. Now, I sometimes slip into the third-person perspective during combat just to be rewarded by cool effects when using abilities. And I think that’s another area ESO stands out in—character progression. I mean, it’s fundamentally the same recognizable skill tree arrangement we’ve come to know and love from lots of games, MMO or not, but with a twist—morphing. Morphing really gives players three pathways to take: the binary options when choosing to morph, but also the continued path un-morphed. Plus, there’s a whole, complex series of loose class parameters that you’re working in but can mix and match depending on your preferences. There’s a lot of choice, really, is what I’m getting at. Chris

Yep, this is definitely still a Bethesda game.

Josh I just wish I had the same level of choice when it comes to my gear. You got up to level 10, and I nearly doubled that, but I couldn’t help but feel like you were drowning in useful items while I had almost nothing to work with. To date, I’ve gotten exactly one useful bow as a quest reward or random drop. To keep competitive, I had to routinely spend 1,000 gold—a fairly stupid amount, considering I’ve only amassed 11,000 total and I’m on the verge of level 20—to get a decent weapon. I wound up using the same level 5 bow I purchased until I hit level 15, at which point I had to buy another one, because my damage output was stupidly low. I really hope that’s something they can tweak between now and when the game launches, because it’s not fun to have to consistently buy expensive weapons from a vendor.
Something else I’d like to see addressed by launch? The bugs. I know this is a Bethesda game, so we’re bound to see some funky stuff, but I’ve had a few worrisome problems. I failed a main quest by not talking to someone immediately, and the game didn’t make it immediately clear that I’d be able to pick it up in the next city. I had another quest that was impossible to complete because my objective disappeared. I’ve seen enemies get stuck in trees. You and I both got trapped behind boxes in one of the first areas and had to contact an admin, then kill ourselves to get out. A little bit of bugginess is all well and good in an offline Elder Scrolls game, where I can use console commands to fix whatever’s wrong. In an MMO, not so much.
Maybe all the very best weapons and armor are in all those crates that lit up like we could open them, but no matter how madly I clicked the mouse, they never opened up. I never know how to feel about bugs when it comes to MMORPGs—on the one hand, we’ve been trained to expect them leading up to, and even during, launch. It certainly doesn’t help that ESO is, y’know, a Bethesda game (more or less). MMOs rarely hit their stride short of two years in. But there’s a lot of headless-chicken moments in The Elder Scrolls Online—like that quest you failed for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Honestly—and I say this as a fan of the actors themselves, but also as someone who just a few paragraphs ago admitted to finding fantasy almost always awful—but I’d rather the time, effort, energy, and money spent on securing every notable British comedian and former Monty Python star still alive instead be put to use ensuring ESO launched with the least amount of wrinkles possible. Chris
Josh Yeah. Thankfully, three months can be an eternity in terms of polish on a videogame, and Bethesda has been beta-testing this thing for quite some time. I’m optimistic that things will improve dramatically by the time the game’s out, but it really needs to. Not only does ESO need to make a colossally good first impression to attract people to an MMO in this day and age, but they also need to deliver an experience that’s up to par with the otherwise stellar production values, like you said. So much effort appears to have been put into the voice acting, the narrative complexity of the quest lines, and even the visuals that it’ll just feel a little silly if the lack of polish takes you out of it.
I can’t say with any certainty whether the broader gaming population will warm up to The Elder Scrolls Online, but I personally can’t wait to hop back in and play more, warts and all. I’m not just saying that because we’re expected to look on the bright side in a preview, either. Scout’s honor. Even as someone who detests WoW and its cheap psychological tricks, someone who abhors the idea of spending 100 hours in a game so I can earn some digital status symbol, I really want to go back to Tamriel, save up a few thousand more gold, and buy my very first mount. Look at me. I’m already hopeless. Next stop, 3 a.m. raids and an all-ramen diet.
Well, I’ll miss you. Just keep your socks on your feet where they belong. Chris

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