With the ever-increasing number of massively multiplayer online games moving to free-to-play, The Elder Scrolls Online stands against the crowd with a traditional subscription payment model. The question that remains is if the Elder Scrolls title can convince gamers to support what most consider a dying payment model. Fortunately, ZeniMax Online provided members of the press with an extended look at The Elder Scrolls Online beginning Friday, January 31. During the full weekend and partial week of gameplay with my Wood Elf Dragonknight character, I developed a love and hate relationship while exploring the vast lands of Tamriel. In this article, I'll discuss what I ultimately think worked and what didn't work quite as well during my adventures.
Most importantly, The Elder Scrolls Online feels like, well, an Elder Scrolls game. Ranging from its presentation style to the narrative and its quests, the game incorporates enough elements from past games to be recognizable while also introducing new gameplay concepts. The fan service is ever-present from completing quests for the Fighters and Mages guilds to the instantly recognizable voice work of past actors from Skyrim and Oblivion. The quality of the game's narrative and its quests in particular were surprisingly well designed and unique from one another, most of which move away from the genre traditions of fetch-these-items or slay-those-monsters quest types. One quest in particular had me solving a murder mystery by collecting evidence and questioning other characters. Even though the traditional genre quests still exist in the game, the portions of the narrative that I've played thus far repeatedly introduced new locations and objectives that kept the gameplay continually interesting.
Also in the tradition of past Elder Scrolls games is the in-depth customization of player characters. All of the series' traditional races are included with returning customization options such as hair type and face tattoos, while also introducing a batch of new sliders ranging from full body tattoos to head adornments. The high level of customization should solve the common issue that plagues other MMOs in that most characters running around the world look awfully similar to one another. Another aspect of the game's character design that I found refreshing was that player characters blend together well with the non-playable characters that inhabitant Tamriel. Even higher-level characters with fancier armor never looked as if they seemed out of place standing among non-playable inhabitants. This in part can be contributed to the well-designed armor and clothing pieces that are especially lore friendly.
While most MMOs suffer from information overload in their various interface and menu elements, The Elder Scrolls Online fortunately takes many cues from Skyrim in employing an interface that only contains the necessary components. Nearly every element of the menu is easy to use straight from the beginning without much tutorial explanation. Skyrim veterans (PC players who use the SkyUI mod in particular) will feel right at home as everything is simple to use and scales well to specific resolutions. The simplified menu system also makes locating group members a quick and painless process as the world map always indicates their current location. Even with the game's fast travel system, I opted to travel by foot for most of my quests to discover new locations in the world. The map interface can also be switched between various zoom levels that range from the entire continent of Tamriel to the detailed area view of a particular region.
Combat in a MMOs can either be an entertaining gameplay feature or simply serve as another tedious function for progressing in the game. Fortunately, The Elder Scrolls Online incorporates an assortment of elements into the combat system from light and heavy weapon attacks to blocking and interrupting enemy attacks. I had to break away from the genre tradition of simply standing in one spot and repeatedly clicking the attack button as my character would quickly die during enemy encounters. The timing of both attacks and blocks are crucial in battles especially when various spells and special attacks are added into the mix. I particularly enjoyed the Dragonknight's special class attacks that included a fiery chain that could pull enemies toward my character and another that temporarily added dragonscale armor for increased defense. I'm looking particularly forward to experimenting with the game's character classes and their personalized attacks and spells.
What Didn't Work
While the press weekend for the beta contained a far fewer amount of players than there will be with the game's upcoming launch, it was obvious that many gameplay aspects still require extensive amounts of balance and difficulty revisions to ensure an enjoyable experience for both solo and group players. For my initial hours with the beta I felt confident in completing the various quests, but soon had to seek the help of groups to overcome a few tougher boss encounters. This issue was made worse with the odd balance of my character's leveling progression in relation to the amount of available quests for earning experience. I hit an experience road block on a few occasions in which I wasn't able to locate additional quests that were tailored to my character's current level. I'm hopeful that upon the game's release there will be a wider selection of quests as well as a better balanced progression of character levels.
Recent Elder Scrolls games have included the option to instantly switch between first and third-person views, both of which have their groups of advocates for the use of one perspective over the other. The addition of a first-person view to The Elder Scrolls Online was announced at a later date in the game's development as many fans advocated for its inclusion. Unfortunately, the current first-person view is best described as clunky and impractical during actual gameplay. This really didn't come as a surprise when considering that the MMO genre has always preferred the third-person view due to more dynamic and unpredictable gameplay elements. While not to say that the first-person view is completely useless, it just makes for a far more constricting view of both your character and the gameworld.
Some of the bugs I experienced on a few occasions ranged from falling through the ground to unresponsive combat and certain sound effects that would stop playing. I also experienced some odd timing of enemy mob respawns that often seemed inconsistent and unexpected when enemies would randomly appear on top of my character. Fortunately, the game is still in its beta stage and hopefully with more testing these issues will be solved before release.
Ultimately, I am optimistic for the launch in April after my experiences from the game's current beta stage. While there is still an array of features that require additional polish or further revision, the majority of the content is on par with past Elder Scrolls games in regards to both the gameplay and narrative. The Elder Scrolls name after all is simply a title and won't be able to solve gameplay issues on merit alone. One true indicator of any game, especially in regards to MMOs, is the urge of returning to the game and progressing just a little bit further. The Elder Scrolls Online was no exception as I found myself continually wanting to further level my Wood Elf character as well as explore more of Tamriel, which above all else is the core selling point of the series. Check back next Friday, February 14 for part two of our Elder Scrolls Online coverage which will cover the game's player-versus-player content.
The Elder Scrolls Online will be available on April 4 for Windows PC and Mac, and later in June for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
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