Originally published on GameInformer.com August 24, 2015, at 9:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 8/27/15.
6,165 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
My name is Voorhyym Serpensmyde, and I was the victim of a mudcrab. Truth be told, I also perished over the edge of a cliff, tackling a public event privately, and attracting mobs of angry mages/spiders/humans etc. Despite that, I love The Elder Scrolls Online. The game has distracted me from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (no small feat) and so far has kept me from playing my copy of Batman: Arkham Knight.
What makes the game so addictive? Well, it's an Elder Scrolls game. In appearance, setting, characters, gameplay, etc., there's no mistaking the world of Tamriel that Bethesda Softworks has once again brought us to courtesy of game developer ZeniMax Online Studios. To its credit, ZeniMax has expertly crafted familiar lands of Morrowind, Skyrim and more, all encountered with gameplay that, likewise, does not stray far from formula.
For the record I am playing The Elder Scrolls Online Tamriel Unlimited on PS4, and comparing it to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on Xbox 360 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on PS3.
Players begin with the same robust character creation tool that has typified past titles in this series. Body build and facial features are still adjusted via forms of sliding scale that allow for a range of shapes and colors. In fact, the feature set is deep, allowing for a wide degree of latitude when sculpting one's own creation. For anyone who likes to add that personal touch to their gaming experience, this tool is a feast of customization.
Curiously, it does add fuel to the fire for detractors bothered by the presentation. Jagged lines, dull textures and a dearth of detail are more pronounced in this tool early on, especially, though the same can be said of the in-game environments as well. However, the more one progresses, the presentation does eventually impress. Whether due to updates or by design, the game overall compares favorably with its predecessors.
Role playing elements have featured prominently in the Elder Scrolls series and they are still front and center in this online version. I do miss the intuitive and engaging menus in Skyrim, however, those on display here are simple enough to navigate. Of note this time around is the option to purchase supplies or abilities in the game store so, for instance, the ability to craft or enchant can be bought and upgraded more easily.
Playing the Templar class I have skills such as Dawn's Wrath, which is comparable to the fire-based spells in Skyrim, which I was fond of dual-wielding with a sword. Applying points earned on one's journey, you can access different skills and upgrade them. Such skills can then be mapped to face and shoulder buttons. At present I rely on two-handed melee weapons or staffs, a special melee attack, soul consuming spell, a restoration spell and a couple fire-based spells.
As in prior titles, players can wield a variety of weapons and spells regardless of class. Indeed, my warrior relies so much on spells that I've applied most of my attribute points to magicka (whereas in other games including in this series, I usually buff health alongside mana). I believe my current allocations are about seven magicka points, four health points and maybe one stamina point. Enchanted armour and jewelry add further boosts to my health and magicka.
Environments might not always impress with their level of detail, however, there is often a great deal of creativity and distinction to set apart each area and also distinguish this title as an Elder Scrolls game. Each area I've explored to this point has its own flora, fauna, topography and color palette that impress and entertain in their own way, whether the coast, islands, volcanic wastes, marshes, caverns, etc.
Animation is also integral to establishing each setting and the overall atmosphere, and in the case of this game it is fluid and detailed. This applies to lava flows, water surfaces, flames, particle effects, body movement and facial animation. Such movement effectively brings every setting to life. Considering how important exploration is to a series like this one, and how expansive this MMO is designed to be, such design is key to a successful experience.
Upgrading one's character with skill or attribute points as mentioned before can expand on combat, but the mechanics have to be solid in the first place to create a meaningful and entertaining experience. And as with its predecessors, the action in this version is well implemented. Perhaps most impressive is how responsive the controls are and how fluid the combat is online regardless of the level of activity.
Melee combat is strong whether wielding a one-handed or two-handed weapon, and controls are thoughtfully mapped to controller buttons. If I recall, on the PS4 attack is R2 whereas block is the opposite L2 trigger button. Holding both can interrupt special attacks. Combined with special attacks or spells that map to the shoulder and face buttons, and a helpful HUD showing these and their cooldown, combat works like a charm.
It's this ease of use that has convinced me to cast spells routinely during combat. In most RPGs I rely on brute force due to the complexity associated with conjuring, whether navigating menus, relying on alchemy or learning which spell to cast in a given situation or against a certain class of foe. Granted, potions and context play a role in Elder Scrolls, but conjuring is only as deep as you want to go. Accessibility is a welcome element that returns in this title.
The ability to easily learn and upgrade spells, and wield them in one or both hands by default, is a welcome feature carried over from Skyrim. The fact that essentially the same format has been adopted for combat online helps maintain the same entertainment value present in past titles. Frankly, I don't recall if specials/spells could be mapped to all buttons in the past, but I take advantage of this configuration online and -- like in Mass Effect -- often exhaust each special/spell.
Foes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and strength, and also pose different risks based on their level. This is where my mudcrab misadventure came into play, as I was repeatedly killed by some powerful little crustaceans. The problem, in part, is that the game doesn't clearly identify quest levels when you consider or accept them. So if you accept a quest then follow HUD indicators, you might find your level 2 character at the mercy of level 10 mudcrabs.
Of course part of the fault is my own, as my emphasis is on exploration instead of questing, so I'll take on quests as I encounter them. And perhaps I should be more aware of character level versus enemy level. Still, it might save players the trouble of pursuing high-level quests by having such details be more accessible than buried in a menu. That said, enemy encounters are often entertaining given the myriad foes you'll face.
Some attack with ranged weapons, spells or powers, some in close quarters with melee weapons or without, and some individually or in numbers, whether hanging back, advancing, darting or charging. A sometimes fatal weakness of mine was attacking solo, which on occasion resulted in my being overrun by enemies. I will also take on public events (a favorite here and in Destiny) alone if there are no other players nearby, a practice that also can be fatal.
Unique to this title, and other MMOs, is the enjoyment of taking on challenges with other gamers, whether story or side missions, random encounters or public events. Fans had long hoped to explore Tamriel with others, and the opportunity now is not wasted. An example that made me laugh was when a player screamed "Heeeeelllllp!" as he raced past me on low health and chased by a persistent enemy. I helped him vanquish said foe and he went on his merry way.
NPCs are a colorful lot as well, likewise featuring a range of inventive character design. The dialog and voice acting maintains the series' renown for interesting encounters, even if characters most often serve as quest instigators. They are varied enough (at least earlier on) to avoid a sense of deju vu either in appearance or voice, and the stories they relate are at least interesting and sometimes entertaining.
Dialog choices do not appear to have much consequence, but do provide another layer of interactivity with the world of Tamriel. The give and take thankfully is authentic enough, and one always has the option of cutting the conversation short if others overstay their welcome. I, for one, was pleasantly surprised that these interactions for the most part do maintain the Elder Scrolls' focus on an engaging experience.
As mentioned, the worlds of Tamriel appear to be faithfully recreated, and offer a huge, beautiful and rewarding land to explore, whether above ground or below. And while the overall design provides the basis for an epic experience, such an ambitious and expansive creation certainly has its share of issues that can sometimes detract from the fun but don't necessarily undermine it. Some of the issues unsurprisingly involve travel and navigation.
Your character will start off on foot and, if you're like many players, will remain grounded for some time. The problem is, unless you're a horse thief, acquiring a mount is prohibitively expensive. Of course, for a free to play title, this is not unexpected as it encourages gamers to purchase one with real world money. In the meantime, expect to travel the wide open world at a relative snail's pace, a practice that's reportedly most inconvenient in the player vs. player mode where large scale battles will leave you behind.
Compounding your mobility is the stamina meter, which will force you to walk once it is depleted by sprinting. A mainstay of many RPGs, and an element that should stay if only to enforce more strategic encounters, it nonetheless slows your progression. Likewise nettlesome are location markers on your HUD that sometimes confuse more than inform, as they can point you in one direction one moment before turning you around on a dime.
Again, however, such issues are more nuisance than obstacle, especially when you consider how much the game gets right. Besides being a solid Elder Scrolls game, the opportunity to play with others including friends elevates this title above its brethren in the series and the genre. What helps in this regard are stable servers that can create seamless chat and fluid action with little lag or connectivity issues to drag down the experience.
In my experience, questing with friends like LouBattle (above) is a pleasant pastime due as much to the technology involved as it is due to the company of such friends. Joining each other's games is easy, communicating is clear and consistent, and gameplay remains responsive and fluid. There might be the slightest intermittent lag when in a crowded hub town or city but it's rare. Plus the ability to create guilds and share loot via guild banks is appreciated.
Teaming up even with strangers while on missions or during random public events also is entertaining, especially if enemies are a higher level. If I remember, each participant can reap the rewards when undertaking the same mission, even if together by chance and not design. However, when exploring and looting locked chests, for instance, the contents go to the quickest thief as the chest then disappears for a time.
There are plenty of generic helmeted soldiers to fill out fortresses, towns and encampments, however, as mentioned there is an impressive range of other NPCs to provide variation, and an equal amount of attention paid to create unique settings for them to populate. Add to that the deep character creation tool, and a kind of workbench for customizing the color of your wardrobe, and this Tamriel is colorful and alive.
But this world is also alive with glitches that can be at least amusing and on occasion annoying (more on that later). An interesting graphics hiccup exists when other players' characters don't load completely, resulting in shadow figures roaming the landscape. With so many gamers playing at the same time and taking into account their respective online connections, it's a wonder that interactions can proceed as smoothly as they otherwise do.
Sometimes it's difficult to know if a glitch is really a glitch. Bears, for instance, are a common sight whether lumbering around or asleep. On one occasion, however, I saw two polar bears together and they appeared to be, well, mating (above). But the bear below appeared asleep and the one above soon fell asleep in the exact same spot and position (so there appeared to be only one bear). Weird.
As with any robust RPG, clothing one's character can help differentiate it from others. Of course, armor is usually more a factor of protection than aesthetics, with enchantments thrown in for good measure. Thankfully as in past Elder Scrolls games, there is a large variety of pieces to choose from and the interface for comparing items is fairly intuitive. Still considerations are often practical in nature depending on what characteristics one wants to reinforce.
My choices usually emphasize armor strength, though enchantments such as boosts to health or magicka factor in to my decisions also. The same is true of the arsenal I carry, where damage and/or enchantments (flame, frost, poison, etc.) dictate what I carry. And as with my wardrobe, the variety of loot or merchandise allows for a high degree of customization and ensures that likely no two player controlled characters will be alike.
With such latitude in wardrobe/armor selection, it's a treat to watch your character evolve over the course of the game. As in past Elder Scrolls games, obtaining actual armor (in particular heavy armor, especially a suit of armor) is immensely gratifying. And while I've never spent time crafting my own armor, that is an option and I'm sure those that do take pride in their achievement.
Whatever armor one acquires and equips, an extra element of customization is available in the form of a color workbench that allows one to further alter their character's appearance. This is a new feature and one I really enjoy as options seemingly cover the entire spectrum of colors and apply to practically every piece of one's wardrobe. One can't underestimate the value of choice in personal appearance, especially in an online game.
Of course players can't control their environment for the most part, though problems -- whether by design or unintentional -- typically are benign by nature. I can't count, for instance, how many times in RPGs that I've seen characters who appear to pantomime around a table instead of actually sitting or standing around it. Who knew they had a sense of humor and of the surreal?
Regrettably, though not unsurprisingly, I have experienced glitches that did interfere with gameplay and one related game-breaking defect. During one mission, I began to take damage but couldn't see my assailants (whom I presumed were attacking at range). Then I noticed allies who were engaged in sword fights with invisible enemies, and realized mine were likewise imperceptible, except for the injury they were inflicting, that is.
Instead of standing my ground at a clear disadvantage, I fled my attackers and ran toward my objective, which was a character I needed to interact with. Thankfully, my foes didn't pursue the entire distance but their lack of commitment didn't matter as the character I sought didn't materialize. The prompt to speak with her appeared, but she did not, leading to an impasse where my only option to progress was to quit and reload my last save.
My character is currently level 12, I believe, so I've put in more than a few hours. At this point, I can say that despite the occasional glitch, I am very impressed with the fidelity of this title compared with past Elder Scrolls games. The fact that ZeniMax was able to craft such an apparently faithful adaptation for online gaming, and ensure such a reliable experience courtesy of its servers, is an achievement worth celebrating.
Perhaps expectations were low given the original pay to play format and PC-related issues, but given the desire of the Elder Scrolls fan base for a cooperative (and competitive) platform I think gamers at least were hopeful that the experiment would work. And as far as this fan is concerned, the ambitious project has turned out remarkably well. From presentation to gameplay to overall execution, The Elder Scrolls Online is a journey very much worth taking.
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