The Elder Scrolls Online Review In Progress Part 1
ZeniMax Online Studios
Released: PC/Mac 4/4/14; PS4 & Xbox One June 2014
Reviewed on PC
By Joseph Bradford
As I sit to start this review my mind wanders back to the original announcement back in May of 2012. Game Informer released the image of their upcoming cover and fans of The Elder Scrolls held their collective breath. Was this a game made with the original fans of the series in mind, or a simple remake of a popular franchise with no regard to what made the previous games such a success? If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that ESO has been a pretty fluid game in terms of it’s development.
From the first introduction the world had via their closed beta, to the last event before launch, ESO has morphed much like the skills within Tamriel. As feedback started to roll in players started to notice a pretty interesting phenomenon: ZeniMax was listening, and they were not just listening but changing aspects of the game. For the better in a lot of cases. From an awful minimap that became a Skyrim-esque compass to guide your character by, to the inclusion of collision detection with NPCs to make the combat feel more visceral and physical, ZeniMax has proven, at least in my mind, that they are a company who actively takes feedback from their community and enhances the game with it.
That’s not to say the game is perfect. It’s not.
Bugs still abound throughout the game, phasing issues and other grouping issues still plague the game and crashes happen when there is just too much to render on screen. Those issues aside, The Elder Scrolls Online shines above the entrants in the MMO space. It’s fresh take on the class system, the active combat system that relies more on skill than simply rotations, and the simple, minimilistic UI set ESO apart from other games in the genre.
These games are simply to big to review quickly. Hours upon hours need to be poured into these to test each system. This will be part one in a four-part series on the game, each review breaking down a separate aspect of the game. At the end of the final portion we will list our score. Also note that due to the nature of the game, our typical review guidelines will not be used in this case. For those who will be playing ESO on the console when they launch in June, we will be doing separate reviews for the Xbox One and PS4 versions as well.
As you start your journey into Tamriel, every person needs to create their character. A hallmark in the Elder Scrolls series, character creation is a way to really make yourself stand apart in the game from other players. Each detail is poured over to make your character feel wholly unique. From the angle of your character’sd face, the size of their hips and backside, the scars on their bodies, and the color of their eyes, ESO does not lack for options. There are even some options that are only specific to certain races.
Speaking of races, ESO offers one of the largest pools of character races to choose from to date. Nine races are originally available and if you purchased the Imperial Edition you are afforded the option of choosing to play the previously locked Imperial race. Each race has their own benefits you can use as a guide when choosing your playstyle. Tanks may favor the Stamina regen the Redguards offer, while healers might enjoy the racial benefits of an Argonian. Regardless of your choice, those racial skills only serve as a starting point, and can be ignored wholly. For instance, I made my character (Eldalye) an Imperial Templar who specializes in Restoration Staff and Restoring Light skills. None of my racials benefit me in this playstyle, but I am able to play my character how I want, and play him pretty well I might add.
In addition to the bevy of design options, those who just want to hop in game can choose to have the game randomize their appearance. Once you’ve decided on your appearance, you can choose between 4 different classes: The Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer and Nightblade. Each class has their own unique set of skills to make each one feel and play different, but none are more powerful than the others. In addition, they are not a requirement of how you play as well. You can choose to forsake your entire class skill lines and focus only on your weapon skills if you’d like and make it completely viable in the end. In addition to the class skills you also have your guild skills from the Fighter’s and Mage’s Guild, skill from the Alliance War in Cyrodiil, World Skill lines such as Soul magicka and Vampire skills, and so on. Long story short, there is no shortage of combinations to work with in ESO.
The Combat of The Elder Scrolls Online
Once you create your character, choose your alliance (if you have the Explorer’s pack that is, otherwise the game slots you in your race’s default faction), name yourself and choose your class, you begin your quest in a way every Elder Scrolls vet will recognize: as a prisoner. This time though, instead of being a prisoner of the state (such as a prisoner to the Empire in Skyrim and Oblivion), you are the prisoner of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal. You were killed by his servant, the Necromancer Mannimarco, and your soul has been taken to serve Molag Bal’s purposes. This lack of a soul is how ZeniMax explains your innate ability to respawn upon death.
The game thrusts you along a path in Coldharbour under the direction of a specter ominously named The Prophet. As you make your way through the prison you are able to choose a few weapons off a table and defend yourself from the enemies in your path. The game does a good job teaching you the basic mechanics of combat, leveling up and selecting skills and attribute points, and interacting with the world itself. The combat is basic enough: left click on your mouse attacks. Hold the button down to do a more powerful charge attack. Keep an eye on your stamina bar as you do this though, the more charge attacks you do the more stamina you use. This stamina pool is also used for blocking with your right mouse button and using weapon skills. You can slot up to five normal skills at once and one “Ultimate” skill. These skills can be all offensive, defensive, or a mix of the two. Basically whichever suits your play style. Want to do some DPS and provide some off heals? Slot a few damage skills and a healing skill then. Full DPS? Slot some weapon skills and class skills that do damage with minimal resource depletion.
Resource management is a key in battles. Skills don’t have a cooldown, which means you can use skills for as long as you have Magicka and Stamina. Spam too many heals and deplete your Mana? Your teammates will be pretty mad at you once you all respawn. Keeping tabs on your resources and giving them time to regen is how you survive. You can use potions to quickly gain a small well of health, but those do have a cooldown.
Skills also have a tendency to help other players out as well, even if you aren’t exactly popping healing or buffs. The assault line in the Alliance War skill tree has many skills that make the assailing of a keep much easier such as speed buffs and protection from being snared by other players. Because of the public nature of the dungeons and monsters in ESO, Healing works differently than other games in the genre. There isn’t too much direction healing, but rather there is more AoE healing, and it works splendidly. It is so much easier to set a heal amongst the people around you rather than having to target them specifically. This allows you to completely focus on where the enemy is rather than clicking a name on your party list.
The ability to morph skills adds even more variety to an already diverse skill system. As you gain experience with a skill you will eventually unlock the ability to morph that skill. As you morph the skill you have the choice between two different paths. Each path morphs it a specific way, and you can choose which one to follow depending on your playstyle. For instance, while playing my Templar on the PTS, I was able to morph the 1H & Shield skills named Defensive Posture. The skill reflect the next spell projectile at the attacker. It also increases block mitigation and reduces block cost when slotted. The morphed ability either gave me the option to absorb the attack instead of reflecting it back giving me 100% of the damage as a health gain, or I could give the reflected attack the ability to stun the attacker in addition to dealing the damage. I choose the reflect skill since I was having an issue with being able to combat multiple enemies at once, so this added crowd control was vital. The skill became one of my most used skills as I found tackling a group of casters was a lot more manageable with them stunned continually.
Combat mechanics remained largely unchanged throughout the beta until the end. For most of my time with the game I felt that the combat was “floaty” and the sensation of actual solid strikes was lost. The addition of the screen-shake and NPC collision detection cleared that up nicely. I also feel like the collision detection really adds a new element in terms of planning your fights as well. Gone are the days where you could dodge through an enemy to escape being encircled. Now you have to fight intelligently to make sure you don’t get encircled and flanked from each side. This adds level of difficulty and skill that was absent in the game until that point, and really made the combat finally set itself apart for me.
I also think the restriction of your skills to simply five slotted at a time (ten once you get your weapon swap at level 15) makes the combat a lot more strategic and interactive. I don’t rely on a simply 1-3-4-2-5-1-etc skill rotation, but I am actively engaged in each battle. Your healer will no longer be watching YouTube videos while popping heals (ok, maybe they will still be doing so) but an active participant in the combat itself, as while they wait for magicka regen they are attacking. I really find myself much more engaged in each battle, whereas in my other MMO experiences I could zone out and still help the group. Even with all the flaws in the combat, such as some choppy animations and mild lag between strikes, the combat stands above the rest in the genre.
So What Do I Think So Far?
As I bring this to a close, I want to end this section of the review thusly. The Elder Scrolls Online promises to be a deep MMO experience, rife with well-crafted storylines, a beautiful world to explore and a strategic and engaging combat experience. Each time I find something I don’t like about the game, I find two more things I do like. While the launch experience has been anything but smooth (especially if you were like me eagerly awaiting the servers to go back online during their 12-hour downtime), the game itself begs to be played, the every nook and cranny to be explored, for each character to be given a life of their own. As I am only level 11, I find myself moving from place to place in Auridon seeking out new quests, monsters to kill, people to save, crafting materials to gather, and places to explore. The game doesn’t want to be put down, and I’m more than happy to oblige. That said, the game has its share of issues, which I will detail in Part Two of our Review in Progress.
Until that time, let us know what you think so far in the comments below, or send us a Tweet at @ElderScrollsOTR or @QuestGaming with your thoughts! Thanks for reading!