Posted Mon, Oct 22, 2012 by Sardu
When The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO for short) was first revealed during E3 2012, many were left with more questions than answers. While Skyrim had been out for a fair chunk of time by that point, it was also the freshest point of reference many had to draw upon. As a result, much of the press coverage out of that event didn’t really paint a very clear picture of how TESO would work as a viable MMOG in today’s rapidly changing climate.
Last week, we had the rare privilege of being invited to be amongst the first to get some hands-on time with the game. To get one of the more obvious questions out of the way up front, the first thing you should know about The Elder Scrolls Online is that it absolutely works as both a game worthy of flying the Elder Scrolls banner, and as an MMOG built for the modern era of our massive corner of the gaming industry.
Throughout this article I’ll explain why that’s the case on both points, share my thoughts on core gameplay systems, and provide some insights as to why the character advancement system in TESO should have MMO gamers excited.
It should be noted up front that the game is still considered to be in pre-alpha at this stage of development. What that means is things like the new player tutorial and intro cinematic weren’t in place yet, and graphics will no doubt pop quite a bit more as Zenimax gets further down the development road. At present the graphics do have a slight flatness to them, but you can see a side-by-side comparison of Skyrim and a similar area in TESO below:
Had TESO come out even five years ago, the combat system would have given traditional MMO gamers more than a few moments of pause. Within the past couple of years, however, the industry has made an aggressive shift towards action-based combat, to the point where it’s quickly become the norm. And thank goodness, because I shudder to think what TESO might have become had Zenimax opted to cram a dozen hotbars with pointlessly inflated skill lists into the game.
Instead, combat in TESO is going to feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played Oblivion or Skyrim, and makes effective use of a minimal amount of active skills at any given time. In fact, when not in combat the hotbar elegantly fades from view, driving home the point that combat is about action and not just another variant of boring whack-a-mole skill rotations.
We weren’t able to take any screenshots of the current in-game UI (which is said to still be a work in progress), but the control scheme works kind of like this:
The left mouse button will be your primary weapon attack. Quick taps will deal lower damage, while holding the button down will let you charge the attack for more damage. The tradeoff is that charged attacks are more easily interrupted or blocked; something that will no doubt be something you’ll need to take account if you plan on participating in much world PvP.
The right mouse button can be held down to block incoming attacks. You’ll be able to instantly recognize charged enemy attacks, so they can be easily avoided; at least they were in the lower level areas. A successful block will not only negate the incoming damage, but temporarily stun your enemy, so it’s a skill you’ll want to master early on.
The only downside is that, having spent so much time actively dodging attacks in Guild Wars 2, blocking attacks in TESO really slows down the pace of combat by comparison. I often felt like I could have popped off a few additional attacks in the time it took the charged blow to land, and would love to see the charge times reduced a bit. Otherwise, the pace of combat does tend to suffer a bit as a result.
Right-clicking on any of the 1-5 keys will bring up a list of any unlocked skills you can add to your hotbar. These will change based on your equipped weapon, so even on a single character you can radically alter how you approach combat.
The number 6 key is where you’ll be able to slot an “ultimate” ability. During combat, you will receive a finesse rating based on how well you’re doing. The points gained will then directly fuel your ultimate for usage. So while your other combat abilities can be used as often as you’d like provided you have sufficient resources, ultimates will take some time to charge up between uses.
The R key is mapped to an open hotbar slot where you can place health, magicka, or stamina potions for quick access during combat. Since I never really ended up needing to use health potions, I ultimately slotted stamina potions which allowed me to block more during combat, or sprint for longer periods while out scampering around in search of quest objectives.
Holding down the shift key plus one of the directional movement keys allows you to sprint. Doing so is going to slowly deplete your stamina though, so you don’t want it to run empty before jumping into combat. Investing a few points in the stamina line when you level can help, especially since it will allow you to quickly unlock a passive ability that lets you sprint 20% faster.
The net result of this streamlined combat interface had the exact impact you might expect. It not only allows you to master a smaller selection of skills very quickly, but also means that you’ll rarely – if ever- spend any time looking at the UI during combat. In fact, after about the first 20 minutes of playing I barely even noticed the hotbar during combat at all, and only really focused on it when a new skill was unlocked or I decided to tinker around with different weapons.
That said, even though TESO does have a decidedly active combat system, the pace of combat may feel a bit slow to some. I got the sense that it’s intended to be more of a tactical approach to combat, even if it is presented in an action-gaming wrapper. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something to be conscious of nonetheless.
While it wasn’t directly discussed during the gameplay presentations or our hands-on time, I did get the sense that TESO could very easily be played using a gamepad, at least during combat. I greatly abhor wading through game menus with a gamepad, however, but do feel that it could work for combat which is good news for Elder Scrolls fans that have largely only played the series on consoles and aren’t as accustomed to traditional MMOG key mapping.