Elder Scrolls Online – Beta Weekend Impressions – 28.02.2014-02.03.2014
My dear friend Jarenth and I decided (well, I decided, and dragged him along) to play The Elder Scrolls Online beta this past weekend, because Bethesda were nice enough to send me two keys. We also joined with our other friends, Jami and Mike, for a bit.
First thing’s first when dealing with an MMORPG: Is it just another World of Warcraft? And I can say quite confidently that no, it’s not. But is it any good? That’s a more complicated answer, and what I hope to explain in this post, with some help from Jarenth himself, who provides his own words after I’m done.
I think it will be easiest for me to go through this by category.
I was quite impressed by this part. There are nine different races to pick from, with different racial abilities, a vast range of customisation options and loads of sliders. Even a couple of triangles. It’s fairly certain you’ll be able to create a character to your liking. Even just hitting the Randomise button will more often than not produce interesting results. Most of the characters I saw, both NPCs and players, looked fairly distinct, and I can appreciate that.
Here’s the flipside. When the nine races are spread over three factions that aren’t allowed to play together, only against eachother, it doesn’t seem like so much. The only race that’s allowed to pick which faction it wants is Imperial, and you can only get them through getting a special Imperial Edition of the game. Essentially it’s the Collector’s Edition that all these games get. At the very least each faction has at least one cool race, but as someone who doesn’t really play Elder Scrolls games at all, I must admit I don’t really get why it’s all as it is. I’ve heard there’s supposed to be a fourth ‘evil’ faction that are the antagonists of everyone, so why can’t we band together with friends who maybe would rather play a Khajiit than an Argonian? I will admit I do find it cool that each faction have their own starting areas with distinctly different feels to them. It’s not a bad game to look at.
Considering this is what you’ll be spending most of the game doing, aside from just running around, this part kinda needs to be solid, or at the very least engaging (or inoffensive) enough that you don’t mind it.
And it kinda falls short. It’s not bad. I wouldn’t say that. But it is kinda… dull? Not engaging, at least. The tutorial tries to run you through the finer points, like blocking, interrupting and dodging. But all of them feel rather clunky and not worth it. Typically fights devolved into casting a few spells, then using your regular weapon attack while waiting for mana to recharge if the thing wasn’t quite dead yet. All four of the classes currently in the beta get several ranged spells to unleash, and not much in the way of weapon-based skills. You can find those under the weapon skill trees, but they seem to be typically very uninteresting compared to the magics from your class skill trees.
To top it off you can only equip five regular skills at once, along with a sixth ultimate. Jarenth and I seemed to agree that this typically meant that after you have your five first skills, and you’ve leveled those up a bit and gotten used to them… you don’t really feel a need to get more and swap them out. I guess you can then invest the skill points in passives, or upgrading your current skills, but there are so many active skills. And it all just kinda makes me think “What’s the point?”.
This was another point that impressed me. I don’t think we did a single “kill x amount of mob” or “collect x amount of bear asses” quest. While a lot of murder was typically involved, as things stood in our way, the quest objectives themselves tended to be more interesting stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s quite up to the standard of The Secret World, but it’s certainly ahead of most other MMORPGs I’ve tried. The big problem was that it didn’t seem like any of us managed to get invested in *why* we were doing these quests. I think Jarenth read a little bit more than me, but even he told me that the story just wasn’t grabbing. We just did the things because they were there to do. It was hard to care about the world, the people and what was happening. And I’m the one who reads everything in FFXIV.
Is this typical of how Elder Scrolls crafting works? Jarenth will have to field that one. I can just give you my impression of it. This is a crafting screen:
You may notice there are several buttons in the top right. Those are to switch categories: Creation, Upgrading, Extraction, and Research. You can also switch between weapons and armour just underneath, because I’m doing woodworking. And it works, though it’s a bit cumbersome. You have to scroll through to the type of thing you want to make, the type of material you want to use, the style you want to make it in (that you also need a consumable item for) and finally if you want a special trait for it, that you need to have researched first. You can add extra materials to up the level of the item. Styles are unlocked through random drops, and might be bought somewhere, though we didn’t find a merchant for that yet.
Research lets you consume a green or better quality item in a 6-hour process to be able to apply its traits to other items you craft in the future, but only for the exact same type of item. Which just seems unnecessarily picky.
Extraction lets you transform raw materials into crafting materials, and even pick apart old armour or weapons to get some materials back. The way everything is divided into categories feels needlessly complicated, especially considering how small your inventory space is.
I’d also like to say it would be nice if it was easier to get rawhide, because the animals drop vanishingly little of it, while you can reliably find cloth plants, ore nodes and old wood to collect at a better rate.
On the upside you can brew your own booze.
This does not feel very friendly at all. Amusingly (to me) I’d say it’s a slight step up from what I had to deal with in Kingdoms of Amalur overall, but it is definitely worse in certain ways. And there are just certain things I’m used to having in MMOs that don’t exist. Like a minimap. Why is there no minimap? There’s a compass, but that doesn’t help me avoid getting lost much, if at all. And bringing up the big map all the time, and still managing to run in the wrong direction constantly… I used to think I had a good sense of direction.
Other things missing is the ability to actually click on anyone. Even if you bring up the mouse pointer, you can’t select other players to bring up any sort of interaction menu with them. Instead you can hold F while close to a player and pointing at them to bring up a radial menu with a few options. Strangely stuff like Duel or Inspect are completely absent. The Follow command is also nowhere to be found. To manage your party you have to go into a separate Party menu and do everything from there. Quick-slotting consumables also works on a radial menu. It all feels very adapted for console, in an awkward way.
The menus are… how shall I put it… just barely okay. None of them are really fun to navigate, and often feel like they might have a bit too many sub-divisions and awkward scrolling.
Leveling Up And Skills
Gaining character levels seems to be largely standard stuff. Get experience, get ding. This gives you one stat point to put into Magicka, Health or Stamina. It also gives you one skill point to either unlock a new active or passive skill, or upgrade/morph a skill you’ve maxed out into a better skill. I believe this is fairly standard Elder Scrolls stuff, but your skills and skill trees have their own experience bars that seem to go up the more you use them, and also slowly go up just because you have them unlocked. The higher level a skill tree is, the more skills you can unlock, and when a skill is maxed out, you can make it into a better skill. That’s what I got from it. You can also get skill points from finding and using three Sky Shards, that are things you can collect. They make a shiny glow when you use them, and might hurt your eyes. But as discussed earlier, you can only equip five skills…
I like how you can see people pull out books and scrolls when they’re going into menus.
The world is definitely pretty. I’ve watched enough Skyrim that I expected this to be equally washed out.
It is amusing how in the tutorial you run into Jennifer Hale and John Cleese, and you’ll likely never see either again. It’s such a Bethesda thing.
There are only four classes right now in the beta. Which seems a bit few? Though as far as I know, Elder Scrolls games haven’t really had classes as such though… so who knows?
I think that’s it for now. That’s all I can think of, at least. Sadly I don’t think I’m going to be getting The Elder Scrolls Online. It just feels too much like “What’s the point?”. It is not without its merits, but there’s too many misses for me to really care. And while I have avoided talking about the bugs we found, because beta, I did notice that no hot fixes were issued, even for the huge progress-stopping bugs. I will probably check out any future beta events, just to see if any of my issues are improved, but considering the NDA is lifted, I assume they want the game to be as it is now. Only less buggy, hopefully. It doesn’t seem likely that any big mechanical changes will be instituted from now on.
Heya folks, Jarenth here. Writer, jokester, Twitter user extraordinare. Read Ninja Blues!
I volunteered to write a little bit about Elder Scrolls Online for Varewulf here. I don’t really have a lot to say about it that would be wildly different from ‘yeah, I agree with what he just said’, which precludes writing a full post. But I do have some additional points.
What surprised me more than anything is how well Elder Scrolls Online gets the feel of the Elder Scrolls gameplay right. The decision to implement hack-and-slash combat and both first- and third-person perspectives probably helped, but it’s more than that. Little things, like the bookshelves with skill books, or the fact that you can loot wardrobes in houses or random jars in dungeons for almost no appreciable gain while slowly encumbering yourself, seem to indicate that the people behind this game’s design have played their fair share of Skyrim And Co.
Adding credence to that idea is the fact that a lot of the environments are gorgeously fanservice-y. The starting areas of the Ebonheart Pact are a particularly good example: they start off in Skyrim-esque northern wastelands, before moving to Morrowind-style giant mushroom-swamps. Hell, you can get to Ebonheart, Winterhold and Riften! The other two alliances — the Daggerfall Covenant and the Aldmeri Dominion — are maybe less immediately recognizable, but still pretty in their own right.
And the main PVP hub for Elder Scrolls Online is Cyrodil! So if all you want out of this game is the ability to revisit familiar locations, go nuts!
For the rest, however…
As Varewulf mentioned, the actual combat in Elder Scrolls Online isn’t great. In fact, I’d call it ‘dull as hell’. No single fight we’ve been in felt interesting, or challenging, or even tense. You just spam one or two of your five/six abilities, you kill your one or two enemies, and you regenerate to full resources immediately.
I can’t really describe the depth of the mechanical skill system in Elder Scrolls Online without using the word ‘gutted’. Sure, Medium Armor makes a triumphant reappearance — the fact that light, medium and heavy armor now map to spellcaster, rogue and tank is probably not WoW-inspired at all. But the system as a whole feels incredibly simple, and lacking much of the breadth and complexity of the single-player game.
Consider this. There are four classes right now: melee/spellcaster, melee/spellcaster, rogue/spellcaster, and spellcaster. Each class has access to three unique skill trees, each containing five active skills, five passive skills, and an ‘ultimate’ active skill. Each class can use every weapon style, and every weapon style has a similar skill tree sans ultimate. Then there’s a few armor passive trees, a racial passive tree, and whatever’s going on with the soul trap thing.
Fifteen unique abilities per class. And they’re all combat-oriented, of course, because this is an MMO.
It’s such an odd departure of what Elder Scrolls players know. Destruction and Restoration are staff-bound weapon skills now, only usable through the medium of wooden stick. Mysticism has been reduced entirely to Soul Trap. Sorcerers use Conjuration for Daedra Summoning, but nothing else, and I guess Nightblades use Illusion for invisibility? But that’s really it.
On the flip side, you find a plethora of weird, unexplained super powers. Nightblades can teleport, I guess? Sorcerers have the familiar Daedric Summoning, but also ‘Storm Calling’ and crystalline ‘Dark Magic’, whatever those are supposed to be. Templars summon the power of sunlight and ethereal stabby spears, and they heal through some process that’s apparently not Restoration Magic. And I’m not even sure what’s going on with Dragon Knights, except that they get magma rock armor and an almost literal Scorpion-esque chain pull.
Crikey, this is already getting longer than expected. Let me just say this: the combat is unsatisfying. Enemies die so quickly and so impactless to your spells that they might as well not bother. An attempt has been made to incorporate more active Elder Scrolls-style melee fighting and blocking and dodging into the whole thing, but the lack of granularity inherent in the lag-heavy MMO format combined with the incredibly powerful spells means you’ll never need to bother. At least, not in the early game.
The crafting… the crafting I actually like, for the most part. It’s definitely more involved than earlier games. You select what item you want to make, what material you want to make it from, just how powerful you want it to be, what visual style you want it to be in, any special modifiers… and you can actually make cool and useful gear for yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s also plagued by a particularly awful Korean MMO-inspired design choice. See, you can ‘improve’ your gear by using special items. Pitch for wooden stuff, grinding stones for metal, that sort of thing. You apply the upgrade item to the equipment item, and the equipment item becomes more powerful as a result…
…if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky — expressed as a percentage chance based on how many upgrade items you put on the equipment item — your equipment item isn’t improved, but destroyed forever.
And each equipment item can be improved like three times this way. Can you see the microtransactions in the future?
Alright, I’ll stop now. Bottom line, I agree with what Varewulf said: Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t really seem to hook me right now. The pricing, the dull combat, and the good-in-theory-bland-in-practice quest design — ‘Hey, let’s make our players obey the whims of a hundred NPCs, all of whom get more world impact and actual credit than they do! — serve to make it an experience that’s interesting at first, but that quickly loses lustre and appeal.