Monday, February 17, 2014

Elder Scrolls Online: My First Impressions

I had the opportunity to participate in a beta test weekend (Feb. 7th through 10th) as part of the stress testing for the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online MMO RPG (massively, multi-player online role-playing game). This posting will give you all an overview plus my first impressions of the game.

Jump To It - The What, When and How Much
First off, I should point out that the game will be released by ZeniMax Online Studios on April 4th of 2014 for PC and a few months later for consoles (Xbox One, PS4). The game will allow players of the Elder Scrolls franchise (Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim) to participate in the game world not as a solo player like before but along side with friends both old and new. It allows you to team up with others on a grand adventure that sprawls the entire world of Tamriel.

The cost of the game starts with purchasing the software for your platform. After that, there is a standard monthly $15 subscription fee which goes towards upkeep of the game servers, full staffed customer support and a continued cycle of additional content being added to the game world. Also, because it is an online game, you will need an active Internet connection to log into the world.

If you pre-order the game now, you will receive a number of additional bonuses including a five-day early access, the ability to play any-race/any-faction, and more. For more details, you can click here.

So you might be asking, is this worth it? I had the same question before I saw the game for myself. The answer, for someone who has put in hundreds of hours in on Skyrim like me, was a resounding yes.

Let’s break things down a bit.

Who Are You? - Character Creation
You begin with creating your character for the game in the usual manner: you pick a race, a gender, a name, and all the various aspects of how your character will look. The developers have given us an incredible amount of options here with sliders for as many aspects as you can think of.

When you chose your race, you also get to chose one of three factions in the world. That faction choice will help determine the path of your game play as well as your alliance in a growing war (more on that later).

The first character I rolled up was a Bosmer (wood-elf) nightblade named Hunter Greenwood. I played him for the first few days of the beta (about thirty hours).

The second character I rolled up was Breton sorcerer named Sage Spellsword. I started him on the final day of that beta (played him about ten hours).

The nice thing is you will be allowed to have multiple characters on the same account, which encourages you to try different races and classes. That really helps to extend the life of the game and give you a variety of ways to experience the content.

Where Do We Go From Here? - Story Line
Players start out in a tutorial area called Coldharbour where you find out you are a prisoner (a standard starting place for all Elder Scrolls games to date). But this is a prison like no other! You must find a way to escape and to prevent a great evil from destroying the entire world.

Based on that faction you chose, once you do escape Coldharbour you will find yourself in one of three starting environments.

Hunter ended up in Khenarthi’s Roost as Bosmer are part of the Aldmeri Dominion along with the Altmer (high-elves) and Khajiit.

Sage ended up in Stros M’kai as the Breton are part of the Daggerfall Covenant along with the Redguard and the Orsimer (orcs).

The third alliance is the Ebonheart Pact which consists of the Nords, the Dunmer (dark elves) and the Argonians.

Each island environment has its own story line elements that fill the player in on the perspective of their faction, all the while teaching you important game aspects like combat, crafting and more. Also, each environment has climate, floral and fauna differences that further help you feel like you are in a different part of a larger game world.

It is not at all difficult to find quests to perform. Just as in other games in the series, many are provided by talking to the various NPC’s you encounter in the world. Just talking to folks will add adventures into your journal (and everyone I encountered was full voiced). And, like Skyrim, you will have a familiar marker in your overhead display to help point you in the direction of your currently active quest.

In each area, there will be a main storyline as well as a variety of side-quests as well. You as a player can decide which to follow and how you want to do so. I love doing quests and often found they helped me further explore the world around me.

While each of the starter areas I played through had similarities in principle, the stories and the quests were very different. One area had a strong focus on combat while the other had me focusing more on stealth to get the job done. However, a player can adapt their own play-style to how they addressed the problems with varying results.

There are also dungeons scattered through out the countryside. Some are easily completed as a solo player. Others are more challenging so you can benefit from grouping up with other players to fight a common foe or achieve a common objective.

Grouping up is really easy to do - just click on another player character, begin to interact with them and quickly you can group up. During the beta, I worked with a number of players I did not know personally. I even added a few to my friends list (in case I wanted to group up with them again in the future). That is one of the strengths of an MMO - because it is a multi-player game you can find folks to work with in the game. If you have friends who play, you can group up with them too. And folks can form their own guild if they desire, with added benefits for doing so.

How Does It Feel? - World Immersion
Since we are talking about exploring, here is a good place to talk about the game world itself. First off, it is gorgeous! I have played a few MMO’s over the past year or so in preparation for Elder Scrolls Online and this one easily tops the list as far as appearance. If you have played Skyrim, you will see a very similar art style. This made the transition to the new game very easy to get into. Everything looked and felt right.

Carrying over too is the music that we have come to know from the solo-player series. Again, the score is very familiar and yet also new. You can also arrive in a village and hear minstrels performing familiar songs to a crowd gathered.

One of the little details that I just love is when my character leaves temporary footprints in the sand or snow. The first time I saw that I really smiled. It is a little touch that goes a long way for role-players like me.

Control - the User-Interface
The controls on this game are very intuitive. Many of the keyboard commands are already familiar from the games in the franchise that came before. You have your standard movement keys, etc. You can, though, customize these to your own personal preference.

Unlike a number of other MMO’s I have tried, many of user interface visuals cues will fade off when you are in non-combat situations. That allows you to really get absorbed by the world around you. When they are needed, they fade back in.

When you encounter a locked chest, you have the chance to open it if you have lock picks. This mini-game is modeled after lock picking in Oblivion - the five pins that have to be pushed down correctly. The kicker here is that it is a timed exercise. So, you have to really master this skill if you want a chance at picking up some good random loot. Personally, I was much better at the locks in Skyrim so this is an area I will need a lot of practice on to master.

Players also have the option of playing in a third-person (over the shoulder view of their character) or a first-person view (where you only see your hands and weapons before you). This flexibility allows players to go through the game in a style that is more comfortable to them. I liked the ability to change views as the situation dictated. There were times when I was battling multiple enemies that I found third-person to be more beneficial - I tend to stink at combat so can use all the assistance I can get.

Speaking off…

Fight For Your Right - Combat and Armor
Combat is also very easy. On the PC, it is mostly handled by your mouse. Movement allows you to target an enemy (they will outline in red when you have your focus on them). Left click handles an attack while right click does blocking. Even if you have a two-handed weapon like a staff, a bow or a great sword, you still are able to block.

Like other MMO’s, you can progress with your weapon to get stronger and varied attacks. These you can map to your “hot bar” and they can be triggered by a number key (1 through 5). This allows you to customize how your character fights further.

The more you use a particular combat skill, the more it levels up. As it levels, you can learn more abilities in that area. If you improve a skill to its maximum, you can morph that skill to one of two different effects. Lather, rinse and repeat - your attack skills can continue to branch down trails to continue to tweak your character further.

With Hunter, I experimented primarily with a bow as a weapon. While this was good for long-range combat with single foes, it did prove to be more challenging with multiple enemies and close-up.

With Sage, I took to using destruction staffs (fire, ice and lightning types). I had a lot more fun with those as I was able to blast enemies long range and smack them back with the staff itself when they got close up. This was definitely a better combat style for me and something I want to explore further when the game launches.

Not only do you improve your combat with usage, but you also improve the type of armor that you are wearing. This can help you further specialize in your defenses. Your character has a choice of wearing cloth, light armor, medium armor and heavy armor. You can even mix and match pieces based on your preference. With a variety of slots (head, necklace, torso, gloves, pants, boots, and two rings), there are a lot of options.

Another big aspect of the game, one I did not get into yet with the beta play, was PVP (player-vs.-player) combat. ESO offers a nice spin on this with a central combat area just for PVP. As noted earlier, the game is divided into three factions. Each of these factions are vying for the capital city in Cyrodiil. If you played Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, you know this area well. This part of the game takes in aspects of strategy and war-gaming, done on a scale with hundreds of players at a time. If this is something that appeals to you as a player, you can jump into the battle as soon as you hit level 10 for your character.

Making It - Crafting
One of the things I enjoy doing in Elder Scrolls games is crafting. This goes from making my own armor to mixing potions to cooking up food to enchanting. ESO allows you to do any and all of these as a player.

The nice thing is that by simply exploring, in both towns and the countryside, you can find materials used in crafting. If you pass by barrels and crates, check them out to find water or food stuff (and gold!). If you are traipsing over a hill, you can encounter flowers to pick for potions, ore to mine or wood to chop. Personally, I have discovered that I have an innate talent for picking out jute in this game; for some reason it just pops for me (jute is used for making cloth).

Just as with armor and weapons, you can also allot skill points to your crafts. Want to make stronger potions or food that has a longer effect, you can apply a skill point in those areas. Want to be able to pick out crafting items in the wild easier, you have that capability too. The game offers you the flexibility to do exactly what works best for your play style.

The other thing I like is that crafting allows you to break down things as well. Did you find an iron dagger that you don’t feel like using as a weapon? Rather than sell it for a few measly gold, you can break it down into iron ingots. The same is true for pieces of armor, etc.

The crafting aspect of the game really rewards experimentation and discovery. It is something I see myself doing quite a bit of over the long haul.

What I really like about ESO is that you are not limited to just a couple crafting skills. If you want to dabble in all of them, you can. And doing so will help you to level up as well. On Hunter, I got my Provisioning skill (making food that helps to restore health, stamina or magic levels) up to 8 in just a few short days.

My only quibble at this time: the amount of bag and bank space a player starts out with is not conducing for an RPG hoarder like myself. I like to pick up everything I find. When I play ESO, I will need to be more conscious about selling off (or breaking down) things I don’t need. You can expand both your bag space and your bank space by increments of ten slots each, but you need to do so in town and have enough in game gold to do so.

Wrap It Up - Final Thoughts
This is running a bit long - I could easily go on and on about this game.

This will be my first MMO that is not free-to-play. The monthly subscription (which is standard in many MMO’s) though is an investment in the game for the long term - future content, features and more. I look at it as the price of a single soda a day (even less than that, given inflation). If I can get an hour a day, on average, in each month, then it will more than justify the cost. The best part is that I won’t have to spend money randomly to purchase content, items, and such like I have seen in other games. I also won’t have to spend money to get access to certain aspects or storylines in the game. The subscription will cover it. ZeniMax has already indicated that there will be major content coming into the game every couple months, funded by the subscription fees. That means the game will continue to grow with new things to experience.

For me, what I was looking forward to primarily in Elder Scrolls Online is a game that allowed me to explore and interact with the game world - much like I did when I play Skyrim, Oblivion or Morrowind. From what I saw on a beta test weekend, on that front ESO delivers. This will be a game I can find myself easily getting lost into for hours at a time.

I am very excited to play it when it comes out in just a few months.

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