Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fun With MMOs: The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls Online is one of those MMOs that was built on an existing (and wildly popular) video game property. Unlike other well known properties turned into MMOs, The Elder Scrolls franchise is strictly a video game property, as opposed to the broader scope of the properties behind MMOs such as LOTRO, SWTOR, Neverwinter, etc., etc.

But that's not a bad thing. After all, the biggest MMO out there, WoW, is a video game property. As is Final Fantasy XIV, for that matter.*

The Elder Scrolls Online was developed by Zenimax and published by Bethesda, and after a reported seven years in development was released for PC on April 4th, 2014. In June 2015, ESO released for the PS4 and XBoxOne.

And I'll freely admit that when I first heard of ESO, my first thought was "Why?"
This never gets old.
From all over the internet, really.

After the WoW-killer failure of Rift and SWTOR** as well as the tremendous success of Skyrim, it seemed very foolish to tempt the MMO gods by creating a huge MMO for the Elder Scrolls franchise. Additionally, the release date in 2014 didn't really have the same buzz for ESO that another 2014 release, Wildstar, had. Wildstar was also getting a lot of press because it was moving in the direction of "old school MMO" in a way that most major MMOs had long abandoned, such as heavy grinds, really tough raid bosses, and tons and tons of attunement. When ESO was mentioned, one of the first items that you'd typically see was "oh, it's a subscription only game, just like Wildstar". Not exactly the sort of hype you want to see in an upcoming game.

However, the year is now 2018 and ESO is still adapting and thriving, while Wildstar is about to be shut down. ESO has moved into the buy-and-play model of GW2 with a cash shop and an optional subscription, and with that move along with several critical major updates the game is chugging along quite nicely. The developers at Zenimax must be doing something right, so it's time to login to The Elder Scrolls Online and find out.



***

Part I: Presentation and Background

You'd think that The Elder Scrolls Online wouldn't need much of an introduction, but from my perspective I'm only really familiar with Skyrim, and not really that familiar at all. The mini-Reds have played far more of Skyrim than I have, and I realize that Skyrim is only a small part of the continent of Tamriel. Therefore, I had to rely upon numerous Wiki pages to supplement my Elder Scrolls' knowledge.

I'm not going to go into too many details here, but let's just say that the weirdness surrounding the Elder Scrolls' timeline is kind of strange at best and downright bizarro at worst. To accommodate the multiple potential endings of Daggerfall, for instance, Bethesda created a weird time confluence to allow a particular item (sorry, no spoilers) to show up at six different locations at the same time.

But all that is water under the bridge. To play ESO, here are the basics:

The world of ESO is continent of Tamriel on the world of Nirn, and there are several alternate planes of existence that were fashioned out of Oblivion (think of it as "The Void" and you've got a good idea) that are adjacent to Nirn. These realms are ruled by the Princes of the Daedra, the so-called demons or "false gods" of the Elder Scrolls universe. Of course, the reality is a bit inaccurate, and if you play through questlines you'll see that there are "good" Daedra and "bad" Daedra, and they are closer to your average Celtic or Nordic or other ancient Pantheon than anything else.

There's also an "official" pantheon of the ESO universe, the Aedra, some of which are the ancestors of the elves***, and there's also the three "Living Gods" of the Dark Elves: Vivec, Sotha Sil, and Amalexia, which figure heavily in (surprise surprise) the Morrowind expac.

Like WoW and many other MMOs, there are multiple factions that you can play. Unlike those others, there are actually three factions, not two: The Daggerfall Covenant, The Aldmeri Dominion, and The Ebonheart Pact. There's also a non-playable Imperial faction, but the empire is currently without a leader and the three factions (nominally) fight over control of the Empire.

The Daggerfall Covenant: Mainly human driven, composed of Breton (Human), Redguard (Human), and Orsimer (Orc).

The Aldmeri Dominion: Elven dominated, composed of Altmer (High Elf), Bosmer (Wood Elf), and Khajiit (Cat People).

The Ebonheart Pact: Everybody else, composed of Nord (Human), Dunmer (Dark Elf), and Argonian (Lizard People and ex-slaves of the Dunmer).

A player can play any of these factions and any of these races/species. Additionally, there's an Imperial faction that players can't belong to, but a player can play an Imperial player for any of the three factions.

***

Part II: Character Creation

The thing that surprised me the most about character creation in ESO is that you have to pay attention or you'll end up creating a character before you're ready.
The selection grid is very compact and
straightforward, but you have to pay
attention to that top row.

If you're used to the standard progression of "Select a Faction -> Select a Race -> Select a Class -> Customize Your Appearance/Name" of most MMOs (and, I might add, Skyrim), ESO moved in a completely different direction. You might miss the icons at the top of the grid, but those are your main customization options.

And oh, the options.
Chest Size, Gut Size, Waist Size...
and Posterior Dimensions???

There's quite a bit of customization available to your character, ranging from "Age" to even "Posterior". The characters on the whole look much nicer than in Skyrim (and even better than Morrowind and Oblivion, from what I've seen online) and I hope that an Elder Scrolls VI continues this progression. In the details, however, ESO gets something completely right: you can create a player with a potbelly to a player as thin as a toothpick. A female player can adjust the bustline through the "normal" bustline sizes of A through D or so; none of this Age of Conan "let's start with a C cup go up through 'holy crap' sizes" stuff. Skin color has a lot of range as well, so you can create a human who looks like you if you so choose.
There's even an "Age" slider, so you
can make your toon look youthful or wizened.
There's a Champion Gear button to see what
your toon would look like with high
level gear...
...and No Gear for when you're in your underwear.

My male Redguard I tried to make as portly as possible, which compared to the "fat" option in SWTOR isn't a lot, but compared to most other toons running around he definitely looks unique.
For my Redguard, I chose the Templar class,
because Templars are the Paladins of Tamriel.

And since I'd seen enough Dunmer through my play with my Redguard, I created a female Dunmer to fit right on in.
Woo, Nightblades!
Have I mentioned how much nicer the
various Elves look compared to Skyrim?


Time to enter Tamriel!

***

Part III: Welcome to Tamriel

Like my previous posts in this series, I'll try to be vague about this part so as not to introduce spoilers.

If you purchased and downloaded ESO recently, it likely came along with the Morrowind expac. This isn't a bad thing at all, given that I found the Morrowind quest writing to be very well done, but with the Morrowind expac there was a completely new intro zone. I, of course, knew nothing of this until later, so I just assumed that the intro completed with me starting on Vvardenfell.
With the Morrowind expac you don't start
as a captive at first. Don't fret, though,
because Zenimax corrects that oversight
really quick.

However, if you want to experience the entire original intro zone, you can board a boat at Seyda Neen and head straight out for the starting zone for each faction. That being said, the original personal storyline (which is the same for each faction, btw) will be engaged at some point once you complete the first major map area, whether it be Vvardenfell or any of the other intro zones.

That does beg the question, how does ESO handle that? Is an entire expac an intro zone?

No, not at all. ESO has a level adjustment built into the game world that is so seamless I'm very impressed. SWTOR and GW2 don't have level adjustments to this degree, and ESO is so confident about the software's internal adjustments that the devs don't even bother with levels on the enemies.

From what I can tell, Zenimax did this as a survival mechanism. I'll talk more about that later.

Anyway, no matter the "first leveling zone" you choose, I found the story to be good overall. Morrowind apparently tugs at the memories of people who played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and the other area I ended up in --for the Ebonheart Pact-- sets up conflict with another faction almost immediately, tugging at the emotions with the events that unfold. There was even a choice granted to my toon from time to time, and while it doesn't have as much of a lasting impact as a single player game would have, it still made me sit and think for a while.

But one thing that I noticed almost immediately was that ESO relies heavily on phasing to an extent that I've not seen since Cataclysm****, but at the same time, it's done so seamlessly that I missed it at first. I've gotten so used to you click on a toon and then go into a cutscene in MMOs that the activity out in the world simply "happening" was surprise. For example, you walk up to talk to someone in Vvardenfell and this happens out of the blue:
Because Daedra making an appearance are
just part of normal life in Vvardenfell.

"Oh!" I thought. "This is actually well done. Why can't other MMOs work so seamlessly?"

***

Part IV: Exploring Tamriel

ESO is very much an open world game, where you can go wherever you want, and you'll always find quests to do. In fact, the world isn't the only part of the game that is pretty wide open.

I discovered pretty early on that my Nightblade (the Thief equivalent) could wear heavy armor. And wield Magicka. And use staves or two-handed swords if she wanted to. And heal.

It was quite disorienting, finding that a Thief could be a healer.

Now, I didn't really try that out, because I chose the Nightblade to stabby stab stab things, but in theory you could do it.

But still, just the concept of opening these restrictions up was very Skyrim-like in that you could go full Mage on people, or you could be a complete Fighter, or a complete Rogue. Or somewhere in between. I'm still pretty sure that the D&D 1e player in me is tied up in a straitjacket, screaming in a dark corner of my mind, but after a short while I didn't care.

It's a good thing I didn't care, because the enemies you fight surely don't.

You have to move around the battlefield in the same way that you find in GW2 or Wildstar, and like both of those you have only a limited set of attacks slotted at one time. At L15 you can swap between weapon sets in mid-fight, so that might get you another 6 attacks (plus one potion slot), but that's far less than the more old-school WoW, SWTOR, and LOTRO with their rows upon rows of button options. There are combos that grant you extra damage, but unlike SWTOR, LOTRO, or AoC, those combos are not choreographed.

However, if you're patient and maneuver around, that maneuvering will also grant you extra damage, even to non-Nightblade classes.

Moving away from exploring and combat, crafting is very much a thing in ESO. However, there's no true auction house like that found in almost all other MMOs. There are Guild auction houses, where you can trade with guildmates, but nothing like a true universal auction house. Given that I don't really use the auction house that much --at least not since Cataclysm in WoW, anyway-- I'm not directly affected by it, but that just seems rather odd and limiting for things to be done this way.

***

Part V: Perceptions of Tamriel

ESO is very much an MMO that has a foot in two worlds: the world of the traditional MMO, and the world of The Elder Scrolls.

For the traditional MMO, the movement and attack are very similar to two already existing MMOs, Neverwinter Online and Guild Wars 2. Like Neverwinter, the movement is done by keyboard while the basic attacks and blocks are performed by the mouse, and like GW2 the special attacks are all lined up in buttons 1 through 5. Like Neverwinter, there's an Ultimate attack that charges up over many attacks and is invoked by the "R" button, and there's also a "quaff" button "Q" to drink a quick slotted potion (typically healing).

Like Skyrim, the attack and other abilities get better over time the more you use them, and there's no requirement that you "must" perform certain functions. If you want to be a Nightblade healer, more power to you. Not optimal, perhaps, but the option is there for you.

The similarities to Skyrim don't end there. The visual presentation is Skyrim-esque, with the compass at the top and the option to be in both first and third person view. As I've expounded upon quite a few times in this blog, first person view gives me headaches, so having the third person view is critical for my enjoyment of a game. Nevertheless, it's comforting to know that the classing Elder Scrolls first person view is available for those who prefer to play that way.

Attack and defense is very much in both the GW2/Wildstar (and Skyrim) mold, so that combat feels less like "tank and spank" and more like "have to keep moving". Having played Rogues/Thieves/Scoundrels for several years now, this feels right at home.

And the visuals...

Well, lets say that Zenimax has really improved on the character design from Skyrim (just like Skyrim improved on ES:Oblivion and ES:Morrowind), and the graphics are really well done. When I left Vvardenfell and ended up in the rest of the world, my performance took a bit of a hit, so I rolled it back from the best settings to "good", and my performance returned to normal.

The scenery is amazing in spots.
I've seen many a winter scene, with
the sun shining through the frozen trees
and houses, like this one at home.
No Nords, however.

The view from the opening in the cave
caught my eye.

Add a few tentacles, and Trion would be
saying "Hey, that looks like Rift!!"

Oh, and yes, while there are some custom outfits you can wear that are pretty revealing, it's nowhere near as bad as TERA or ArcheAge was. It's not as strictly functional as Neverwinter, for example, but I'm really happy with how the outfits look overall. In addition, you can have an "outfit" you can wear that hides whatever gear you're wearing at the time. This comes in awfully handy if you want to appear less risque and more, well, like you've been out adventuring in Tamriel.

My Nightblade in her costume she found
impersonating some raiders. I kind of like
the way it looks, so I've stuck with it.

The toon outfits can get far more risque than this,
but you don't see NPCs in such clothing.
This is about as revealing as it gets in Vvardenfell.


***

Part VI: Miscellaneous Thoughts

To be frank, Zenimax did what I thought to be impossible: stabilize a bad situation and return a game to the reputation that fans expected.

It's not like it is the only dev house to stabilize a bad situation (see Bioware and SWTOR), but every time Bioware posts something about SWTOR on FB or other social media there's a collective crapton of comments about how "this game sucks" and "Bioware sucks for ruining Star Wars" and "All we want is Knights of the Old Republic III and Bioware should stop shilling this shitty game and work on that instead". ESO doesn't have that level of vitriol out there, so I count that as an additional positive.

But it's not like Zenimax had an easy time of it.

Subs were dropping since launch, and ESO was suffering from the "same old, same old" syndrome that had been afflicting MMOs. Even going to Tamriel Unlimited, which dropped the sub requirement, didn't help the bottom line much. Zenimax came up with a daring solution, the One Tamriel update, in October 2016.

One Tamriel allows players to be automatically leveled to any zone they cross, so there are no level restrictions. Players still grow in strength by leveling, but that doesn't impact your ability to enter into any zone.

Speaking of zones, until the One Tamriel update, players were locked into the zones controlled by their faction, kind of like some of the original planets on SWTOR, and you were restricted in PVE grouping to toons close to the same level as you. With One Tamriel, however, you can go anywhere in Tamriel, play with any other player you wish in PVE, and items scaled in level to wherever you're at.

One Tamriel is credited with saving ESO from oblivion (or is it Oblivion?), but I have to admit that just about every single MMO I've ever played should take a serious look at what Zenimax accomplished with this update. I realize that some games, such as WoW, would have major issues basically eliminating the level restrictions throughout Azeroth --imagine what'd happen to the entire ganking industry if everybody were the same out in the field-- but group bosses would experience a surge in interest. Admittedly, some design choices Zenimax made at the outset --blocked zones chief among them-- were pretty boneheaded, but Zenimax didn't have to make all of the quests in all of the zones available, either. It's not like I could take Quintalan down into the Wetlands and perform some Alliance quests there. But in Tamriel, I can. (I've done it, quite by accident when I ended up at the Summerset Isles*****.)

I wasn't embarrassed to have the mini-Reds see me playing this game, which is a big plus in my book. Even the oldest, who just turned 20, would have rolled her eyes and made me feel sheepish if she saw how people run around and play Age of Conan, for instance. She might be an adult, but she still holds me to a higher standard, as I am her father, after all.

***

Part VII: Final Thoughts

Through my playing time, I kept an eye on world chat but never bothered to engage in it. It seems that idiots are pretty much universal in MMOs these days, which in its own way makes me a bit sad.

However, if you ignore world chat, I didn't feel like I was being harassed by other players in game. I also didn't feel like I had to hide my game playing from anybody else (like when I played TERA or ArcheAge). On top of that, a lot of the quest givers, area commanders, and other NPCs are female, so there's plenty of representation all around. There's even LGBTQ representation in-game, but it's presented as such a normal thing that you'd likely miss it if you weren't paying attention.
I could have chosen Captain Rana from
this story as an example of a woman in charge,
but Aera's story is about the very
personal cost of war.

I think that's the best way of describing ESO: it presents as "normal" events that would potentially be momentous or worthy of a cutscene in other MMOs. Events in ESO simply flow naturally without any undue external cues. Sure, there are the omnipresent "Kill Ten Rats" style quests, but the quest composition and storyline move quickly enough and keep you moving from location to location without lagging. Although the main story seems a bit bland, the side and region quests are well done and worth exploring. I found myself wanting to continue the "other" quests rather than keep going on the main story, because I wanted to find out what happened in the region.

And John Cleese voicing a character is
a nice bonus.
The only major detraction from the game is that there's an extensive amount of DLC for questing purposes that you must purchase unless you've a subscription --akin to LOTRO, in fact-- but I've not had to worry about paying for any DLC yet.

Would I recommend ESO? Yes, absolutely. If you want a more open world adventure than what TERA or ArcheAge provides, definitely go with ESO. It may not be a Neverwinter or LOTRO F2P game, but as competition for a B2P game such as GW2, ESO definitely delivers a good experience.





*For some strange reason, FF XIV shows up in ESO's world chat more often than other MMOs. I guess FF XIV is ESO's own personal bugaboo in much the same way you'd find WoW creeping into world chat in the more "traditional" MMOs of LOTRO, SWTOR, and AoC.

**I still consider Rift and SWTOR successful games, but neither proved to be a WoW-killer. In fact, the only thing to truly have a chance at killing off WoW is WoW itself. Sure, WoW isn't as popular as it was in the pre-MOBA days, but it is still the 500 lb gorilla of the MMO genre. However, the one thing that limits WoW's reach is that you have to play it on PC, whereas other MMOs (such as ESO and Star Trek Online) have successfully branched out into the PS4 and XBoxOne consoles.

***Or so the Elves claim. I've not played through Summerset yet, since you have to pay for it right now as a separate expac, but I'd imagine that this lore is explored in that expac.

****I don't recall as much phasing in Mists as Cataclysm, though I also never played the ending portions of Mists either.

*****Not Summerset itself, mind you, which is behind a paywall.

3 comments:

  1. Good overview of the game. Hard to say if the Warden or Dragonknight is tougher, I go back and forth.
    Somehow I went from logging my Warden in daily and playing a little to get the 100k login reward to playing seven characters, crafting, exploring, delve diving. I am liking the crafting system, though having just the right ingredients is hard, though my bank is always full. I came close to subscribing this week because the rewards for doing so would give me much of what I want sooner.
    People play so much more cooperatively here, on the fly.
    The Guild stores are an awful way to make goods available. Prices are nothing like you’d see in an open economy.
    I’m loving the game for the first time anyway.

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    Replies
    1. Oh yeah, I meant to gripe about the lack of a true auction house, but I missed that on my notes. I've not done much in the way of crafting because I've been conditioned to avoid it on other MMOs, like WoW, who defeat the purpose of crafting gear by quickly outstripping whatever you can craft by finding better gear in the wild.

      Delete
    2. Ah, there we go. That's what I get for commenting before logging in. (Or having coffee.)

      Delete