If you were worried that The Elder Scrolls Online might end up being just another MMO that you’ve played a million times before, you can rest easy. The team at Zenimax Online Studios have created a game that feels unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, yet not so foreign that you will have to relearn everything from the ground up. And with the goal of creating an Elder Scrolls game that also happens to be an MMO, you’re going to feel right at home during your adventures in Tamriel.
In this article we’re going to look at how Zenimax looked to implement “strategic reactive combat,” but first we need to examine a few other parts of the game that would make top-notch combat worthless if not implemented well. Originally, Zenimax wanted the game to have a first-class first-person perspective and have it feel just like Skyrim, and have quest pickups work the exact same way as well . You talk to a random NPC and they give you the opportunity to do something for them. As of right now the game DOES have a first-person perspective, but it’s similar to the traditional first-person point-of-view you would see in any other MMO, which is less than ideal. During the summit, QGN staff members, as well as other attendees, repeatedly told Zenimax that they wanted a true, functional first-person view, and as the event went on, the company’s reception towards fully implementing that idea seemed to warm. Statements were made regarding the fact that putting in arms and weapons that are currently equipped would be an easy feature to add to the game and wouldn’t require any rebalancing of systems already in place. Quest pickups however, do feel very much as if you’re playing Skyrim, with no question marks or exclamation points telling you, “Hey! You have to come do my quest!” During the playthrough, many times upon discovering a cave or dungeon there would be an NPC outside who would give you a reason to go in, but you’re free to explore any cave you want to, whether you have a reason to go in or not.
So now that you understand that getting around the world will feel very familiar, not to mention unique in comparison to current MMOs, let’s get into how combat works. A little has already been divulged about synergy and the finesse system, but now we know a great deal more about how this is all going to work. But first things first, the user interface.
Rather than having a mouse icon freely move around the screen, wherever you move your mouse you will have a reticle in the center of the screen, just like in Skyrim. You use this to look, aim, loot, and everything else for movement and interaction in the game. There IS a hotbar, but it is not designed to be used by clicking your mouse, but rather by using the number keys. The bar has boxes for hotkeys 1-6, but the primary attack design comes straight out of Skyrim. You use your left mouse button for your primary attack and your right button for either your block or secondary attack. You will be able to swap out skills and abilities in these boxes, however, and that’s done by clicking the CTRL key, which changes the reticle into your mouse pointer and allows you to click and drag skills in and out of the hotkey boxes. You will still, however, be able to move your character around, interact with the world, and see what’s going on, because the screen doesn’t dim or switch to a menu.
Once you’ve switched to the mouse pointer, you can right click on your icons in the hotbar and have it bring up all the different spells that you can use for a particular equipped weapon. You won’t have to search through menus to figure out what you want to use, it will all be right there in front of you.
As you loot gear throughout the game, you may want to see if there’s a better piece of equipment in your inventory. If you open up the character screen, you can hover over an item, right click on it, and easily swap it out (choosing from a list in a small menu that pops up) with another piece of gear in your inventory. Likewise, if you go into your inventory screen you can hover over an item, click the shift key, and it brings up a menu comparing it to your equipped gear. Zenimax was going for a simple approach, so the user interface is very streamlined and has that “barely there” look and feel of a traditional Elder Scrolls game.
One more note about the UI, the compass, which will be a circular tool on the bottom right of the screen, will guide you to quest objectives, important NPCs, and points of interest. You can swap active quests by pressing the “T” key, which cycles through and places an icon on your compass and map of where you need to head next. But Zenimax has focused on distraction-based gameplay, meaning they want you asking, “Which of these things should I do first,” just like in Skyrim, adding hours of endless roaming and wandering. The game was built with this philosophy in mind, and is being inserted wherever possible. As a side note, QGN staff members asked if it was a possibility to include the standard horizontal compass as is seen in recent Elder Scrolls games as an option, and the company said they’d look into it.
COMBAT MECHANICS IN ACTION
So once you have your weapon selected, as well as any spells or enchantments for that weapon, you can dive into combat, and start discovering how this game is different than anything else out there. During the summit, attendees were shown a demonstration where Creative Director Paul Sage and Lead Gameplay Director Nick Konkle entered a Dwemer ruin called “The Crypt of Hearts” to show how every public dungeon is its own encounter with its own set of rules. 100 groups could go through the same area and it could be played 100 different ways. Here’s how it went down.
Nick was a melee character and entered the room on his own at first. He engaged two Dwemer spiders, similar to what you’d see in Skyrim, and immediately upon seeing him the spiders moved to attack. There was no need for “pulling”, they just saw him and wanted to eat him. Once Nick chose his primary target and started to attack, the secondary spider pulled back and began casting an Area of Effect (AOE) for himself. Nick’s primary target then disengaged from him, turned around, went over to the AOE-casting spider and allowed that AOE to buff its armor and attack, meaning that once this finished he was now able to hit harder and for more damage. Nick let the spiders go through this whole routine rather than destroying them on-sight for demonstration purposes, just so people could see the thought process that exists within the computer-controlled enemies. Then Nick proceeded to beat the heck out of the spiders, only to be treated to an exploding spider that did additional damage after being killed, thanks to the AOE that he soaked up from the secondary target earlier.
This is where paul Sage entered the picture. He came into the room as a Mage and Nick took on an enemy that he normally would not be able to take down on his own, in this case it was a Necromancer. Paul used a lightning spell debuff, which on its own didn’t have any threat ability, but then Nick ran up to that mob and used his Synergy skill (we’ll get more into how Synergy works below), which in this case was called Conduit, and turned that non-threatening skill into a damaging lightning AOE attack, turning Nick into the subject of everyone else involved in the fight. So Paul was able to stay safely in the background while the two of them took down all the enemies.
THE FINESSE SYSTEM
More than any other MMO out there, Elder Scrolls Online rewards players for being involved in combat, not just playing a game. So this is where the Finesse System comes in. There is NO auto attack. Zenimax wants you to PLAY this game, not sit and mash buttons until an object on-screen goes away. You will be actively engaged and involved in this game at all times, at least, you will be if you want to progress your character as much as possible. Say, for example, an enemy rushes at you and you successfully block their attack. The enemy will be stunned and will allow you to go to town with any of your six hotkeys or charge up an attack (like a power attack in Skyrim) by holding down your left mouse button. The more successful you are at attacking, blocking, and dodging, the more finesse points you will build up. These points accrue on a skill that you’ve designated as your “finesse skill” next to your hotbar (every class has several different skills to swap in and out), and once you’ve built up enough of these points you can use that powerful ability. It then goes away and you have to build up the finesse points in order to use it again. Additionally, the more finesse points you build up, the more experience points you’ll gain when completing a fight, as well as opening up access to more chests to loot off fallen enemies. Something to note, if you get hit by an enemy you will lose finesse points, which encourages you to be more reactive to the situation and do your best to avoid getting hit.
Another exciting possibility that is out there, and while there is not a lot of information yet as it is still in an early alpha stage, there are currently kill-cams in the game. So look forward to potentially being able to follow your arrows right into the eyeballs of your enemy, if that’s your thing.
Moving on to the next major component in combat, Synergy is an idea that Zenimax has worked hard to make an important and unique part of the game. Synergy skills become active when a player in your group casts a spell or wields an attack that meshes with whatever Synergy attack you have equipped at the time. When the ability to use that attack is enabled, a notification pops up on your screen, and if you hit the “X” key, it will use that attack to do crippling, extra damage to the mob that you couldn’t do on your own. Zenimax wants players to play together, and this is one incentive for doing so.
Did you notice I said “Zenimax wants players to “play” together, “not “group” together? As you travel the world and come into contact with other players who are in the same area or doing the same quests as you – this “public dungeon” idea – you naturally begin working together, sharing objectives, loot, and enemies, and all that’s required is to be within proximity of one another. The game has a lot of public dungeons, and the way it’s set up, you won’t have to sit around waiting for enemies to respawn. Just work together with whoever else is in there to take down the enemies, and you’ll all get credit for it. Plus, you’ll get to use those cool synergy attacks that are not available otherwise. That being said, they did mention that they are looking into adding a “Looking for Group” feature to help people who just want to hook up with other players and explore the game together, side-by-side. It’s not currently in the game, but QGN staff members were told by Paul Sage “..we have one ‘specced’ out.”
It’s important to note that computer-controlled enemies are very similar to player-controlled characters, meaning they have a set of skills to draw from and can also work in synergy with each other, just like players can. In a demonstration at the summit, an example was shown where melee warrior mobs dropped oil slicks and their mage companions lit the oil on fire with a spell, causing massive AOE damage. Synergy.
AM I A TANK, OR WHAT?
In terms of getting locked into specific combat roles, that will be a thing of the past with this game. Zenimax has designed ESO so that at any time you can change your role by swapping out weapon skills. The skills you have equipped on your weapon will determine if you are a healer, tank, or DPS-type of player, or even a mixture of all three of those. The more you mix it up, the more variety and unique gameplay you’ll create for yourself, which brings back (parent company) Bethesda’s overall goal with Skyrim, “play the world the way you want to play it.” If anything, the game encourages you to NOT stick to a specific role, and in fact, when asked about character progression, Konkle said he expects that towards the end of the game, players will discover they’ve made their character and it’s not anything like what they started out with. Potentially, the character will be customized to fit the player’s preferences as the game progressed, not staying within traditional roles or styles.
In regards to character progression, characters level up by gaining experience and killing mobs, as well as by raising proficiency with used weapons. Specifically speaking, when you use a weapon it will increase from level 1, to 2, to 3, and so on, separate from your character’s level. So your character could be level 6, but your one-handed sword skill might be level 4, and your two-handed sword skill might be level 2. As you gain levels with weapon types, you gain a new skill, which will be mapped to your left or right mouse button. In addition, once that weapon type reaches level 4, it branches off, giving players the chance to make that skill much more specialized. These specializations will all lean themselves towards either damage, healing, or threat generation-type of bonuses, but remember, you’re not locked into this style of play. At any point you can switch up your weapons and skills and change from a character who has predominantly been a healer and switch to a DPS. This has been made possible by Zenimax allowing any character to use any weapon at any time. In short, there are no skill trees that lock you into a certain play style. You are free to play any way you want.
Also worthwhile to note, while the user interface is not cluttered, there IS an extra icon next to your hotbar set aside for consumable items (like health potions) for quick access during combat by pressing the “R” key.
Zenimax has many more surprises for us in the coming months, but we’ve now seen the direction that they’re taking this game. The combat created for this MMO looks to be fresh and will push boundaries. Traditional MMO players may not be initially comfortable with the setup, but Zenimax is banking on players wanting a more interactive and strategic approach to combat. If you like the sound of being good at dodging or blocking, and want to be rewarded for your efforts, this is the game for you. That said, this is still an Elder Scrolls game, so everything is still your choice. You can play the world the way you want to, and that includes combat. Elder Scrolls fans who are skeptical about this game working in an MMO setting should feel encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. Zenimax has taken great measures to make this one of the best Elder Scrolls games of all time, and it just happens to also be one of the most involved and interactive MMOs ever created.