Hands-On with The Elder Scrolls Online
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 didnt really paint a very clear picture of how TESO would work as a viable MMOG in todays 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 Ill explain why thats 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 werent 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:
Core Combat Systems in The Elder Scrolls Online
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 its 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 werent 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 youll 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. Youll 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 its a skill youll 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 youll be able to slot an ultimate ability. During combat, you will receive a finesse rating based on how well youre doing. The points gained will then directly fuel your ultimate for usage. So while your other combat abilities can be used as often as youd 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 dont 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 youll 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 its intended to be more of a tactical approach to combat, even if it is presented in an action-gaming wrapper. That isnt necessarily a bad thing, but something to be conscious of nonetheless.
While it wasnt 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 arent as accustomed to traditional MMOG key mapping.
According to Zenimax creative director Paul Sage, theyre aiming for the ballpark of 150 hours of gameplay for most players to reach the level cap of 50. That said, character advancement offers so much more depth than your basic level progression system, and it would be an injustice to bring too much attention to basic leveling as a result.
Dont get me wrong; character levels will obviously matter in the grand scheme of things. Each time you level you earn one point that can be placed into Health, Magicka or Stamina which in turn helps shape the strengths of your character in combat. For example, placing points into Magicka on my dragonknight would have allowed me to use my skills more often, or begin shaping my character into more of a hybrid role.
Instead, I opted to focus on being a bit more of an avoidance tank so initially focused on Stamina. That allowed me to block attacks more often, and even quickly unlock a passive ability that let me move 20% faster while using sprint.
While character levels are a great means of marking overall progression in an RPG setting, Zenimax made the extremely smart decision to hardwire a form of alternate advancement into the game right from the word go. As you gain experience not only will it directly impact level advancement, but it will also allow you to progress your combat abilities.
As a result, TESO neatly combines the best of both worlds in terms of being both a level- and skill-based MMOG. Since you can ultimately equip and use any armor or weapon in the game, that means youll be able to continue refining your characters combat style and role well beyond the level cap. And since that advancement is linked to active usage, it also means the system wont feel like such a flat, arbitrary decision between cookie-cutter builds that more traditional talent tree systems ultimately devolve into.
The Elder Scrolls Online Class Previews
While there will be plenty of other classes to choose from in the live game, for our hands-on session we were given the choice between the Templar and Dragonknight. Since Jeff opted to pilot a templar (his thoughts on the class are included below) I went with a dark elf dragonknight.
For the sake of full disclosure here, I almost always play a caster as my main character, though have certainly done my fair share of tanking over the years. In particular, Ive spent the bulk of my MMOG career playing necromancers (or the closest equivalent) in any game that has them. As such, the Elder Scrolls series always tends to crack me up in the sense that Im already an outcast in that setting before ever taking my first steps in the world.
As for my first steps as a dragonknight, the combat style it offers will largely depend on the decisions you make for your equipped weapons or armor. For our demo time I mainly stuck to wielding a two-handed sword which transformed my character into a viable tank through the use of crowd control or other manipulations. With one skill I could pull enemies towards me and briefly stun them, and from there I had the option to either block larger incoming attacks, or use another stun to interrupt my target instead.
As such I rarely took very much damage, and could keep enemies pinned down with minimal effort. The charged attacks from my 2-handed sword certainly didnt lack in the damage department either, so it was easy to feel like a total badass most of the time.
Bear in mind that players will have a lot more options to consider in the live game, so the dragonknight you end up creating could just as easily pick up a fire staff and equip light armor, playing out more like a caster than an in-your-face melee powerhouse.
TESO's Templar is the rough equivalent of a Templar in EverQuest II: a heavy armor wearing hybrid healer perfectly at home in the thick of melee combat. As only the Ebonhart Pact races were in the game (and due in no small part to a love of race / class irony), I chose the Dark Elves over the lizardlike Argonians and the brawny Nords. As the first NPC I met commented, the Nords are the arms of the Ebonhart nations, the Argonians are the beating heart, and the Dark Elves... well, the dark elves are the brains of the operation. And to be an effective healer, you've got to have brains.
Interestingly, ZeniMax chose to have healing ride on the Stamina attribute, which makes the decision each level harder for the Templar than perhaps any other class. More tankish templars might opt to put their points in Health to increase their survivability, while endgame Templars acting as alternate healers might with to increase their healing pool with points in Magicka. I opted to go all in with Stamina, hoping to unlock the first progression ability five points in, which simply augmented my healing. That came in handy when working both in a group and solo. The Sun Strike ability acted as a self-heal plus melee damage, and the level 6 burst AoE heal easily kept nearby groupmates off the ground. The other early ability I unlocked with the sword-and-board weapon set was a medium range direct damage ability, useful for short-range pulls, closing on archers and other ranged units, and building aggro.
The Templar might lack an early signature skill, such as the Dragonguard's Scorpion from Mortal Kombat-esque "Get over here!" grappling hook. What the class lacks in panache, it makes up for in utility. And, while I couldn't prove this for sure in the time alloted, the built-in self-heals seem to make for a bigger finesse bonus than otherwise. Finesse is a rating you get for each fight - a rough measure of damage sustained vs. damage given per encounter - with a corresponding bonus for fighting efficiently. Whether because I had a one-handed sword and shield equipped, or because I naturally kept myself topped up on health, I seemed to get "Excellent" finesse ratings more often than other folks around me.
Out of Phase
Back when instancing first reared its head in the MMOG space, players and developers alike quickly took to the concept as a means of allowing massive numbers of players to share the same experience, but without constantly stepping on each others toes in the process. Over time, the overuse of instancing ended up creating segmented communities, and in the current era of the industry most gamers would prefer it be kept to a bare minimum.
And then came phasing.
When the concept was still new, it was put to great use for things like the Death Knight intro sequence in Wrath of the Lich King. However, just like instancing before it, overuse of phasing in Cataclysm did a lot of damage to the social aspects of the game, to the point where it might as well have been a fully instanced co-op game in some areas.
For better or worse, TESO makes prolific use of phasing. On the one hand, it helps individual players feel like their every action or decision matters, but that doesnt negate that it is a fundamentally flawed mechanic in social gameplay settings.
Jeff and I were grouped up for the bulk of our hands-on time, and at various points the phasing created a major disconnect between even a two person group. Even when working on the exact same stage of the same quest, we had no way of knowing if an objective had been completed for the other player. In one instance, Jeff stopped and asked if I had helped a nearby NPC. I was a bit confused by the question since I could see her husband and dog sitting right next to her; a fact that Jeff had no way of knowing unless he stopped playing to ask me what I could see on my end.
Much of the time the phasing didnt make a huge difference, though a quest bug on my end led to Jeff being in one version of an area, while I was stuck in another. We could see each other on the mini-map, but were quite literally separated in time and space and could no longer actively play the game as a group until I caught up to him.
The developers may need to tone down the phased aspects of the game in a major way if TESO is ever going to have a healthy in-game community. Shared experiences are paramount to the success of an MMOG, and I personally feel that even if phasing is used, it should account for groups as a social unit working on shared objectives.
Deciding what to highlight for our first hands-on experience with The Elder Scrolls Online is an admittedly daunting task. There is a lot to the game that simply couldnt be covered in a single article, so be on the lookout for additional coverage from the event later this week.
In the meantime, if I were to impress any one thing upon you based on my hands-on time with TESO it would be this: the game works as both an Elder Scrolls title and an MMOG, and will no doubt appeal to gamers from either background. That said, dont expect that TESO is going to be exactly like Skyrim only with more players on the map, nor will it be exactly what youd expect from your standard AAA MMOG. Instead, it represents a true marriage of the two.
Once you factor in the extremely smart design decisions behind the world PvP system (think another worthy successor of DAoCs RvR), a robust character creation system, and overarching objectives like the mages and fighters guilds, The Elder Scrolls Online has all the makings of a game youd want to spend time playing over a longer period. Im excited to see how development progresses and well be keeping you up to speed all things TESO related in the meantime.
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