My First Three Hours with Elder Scrolls Online Beta
As I hinted at in a recent angry rant, I got an invitation to the Elder Scrolls Online's press beta weekend, which ran from January 31 to February 4. Unfortunately, due to the enormous size of the game client and my chronically-weak internet connection, I didn't get a lot of hands-on time with the game. By the time the game client was downloaded and installed, the event was nearly over, and I only got about 3 hours' worth of time into the game. And, evidently, I wasn't the only one this happened to.
Three hours is not a lot of time - in general, we prefer to log a minimum of 20 or so hours into a new game before writing about it. You really can't get a lot done in three hours in terms of thoroughly reviewing a game's mechanics and systems, and you certainly can't get a feel for mid- and late-game content. But three hours is enough to build a solid first impression and blast through the introduction. So that's what I set out to do: build as thorough a first impression as 3 intensive hours can provide.
Your first taste of any game is the character generator, and this is where you can start to see the unique hybridization that is the Elder Scrolls Online. On the one hand, it is way more detailed than most MMOs, with a giant array of sliders for body and face proportions and a great assortment of details. You're not just presented with a palette of faces and hairdos so that everyone ends up looking more or less the same. It's more like an Elder Scrolls game, where you can make pretty much exactly the character you want.
The class selection aspect, on the other hand, is very MMO-like. Or, rather, more like the very first Elder Scrolls games from 20 years ago, but with even fewer options. As of the press beta, there were 4 classes to choose from: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Templar. You pick one and play it. That's it - no tweaking ability scores or sets of specialty skills, no gradual introduction to your choices through gameplay.
That's the hybrid. It's an Elder Scrolls roleplaying game mated with a MMO. You get aspects of both things - some MMO aspects will be more pronounced in some areas, but others will retain the unique Elder Scrolls flavor.For my brief introduction, I rolled a heavily-tattooed and bearded Orc Dragonknight. He looked pretty badass.
Some good news here: the Elder Scrolls Online stays firmly rooted in tradition with its new-character introduction. The character starts out once again as a prisoner and must battle his way to freedom while learning the basic mechanics of the game. This time around, the prison is located in Coldharbor, the hellish Daedric realm of Molag Bal.
The hybrid nature of the game is quite solidly established here. Gameplay is simple and dynamic like an Elder Scrolls game - left-click to hit whatever is in front of you, hold it down for a power-attack, right-click to block, both buttons together for an interrupt.
After gaining a level, the character has access to special class powers, which are slotted in an action bar at the bottom and bound to the top-row number keys by default. This is more MMO-like, but reminiscent of newer games rather than older games with hundreds of skills filling row upon row of action bars.
Combat is dynamic and active, somewhere between the simple Elder Scrolls combat style and that of modern action-combat MMOs. Enemies telegraph powerful area attacks, and these can be interrupted or dodged. I didn't get a chance to mess around with a magic-user character, so I can't speak to how that works, but melee characters feel simple and powerful. My Orc Dragonknight started out with a pair of axes, and figured out some basic combat moves against Coldharbor enemies fairly quickly.
It seems like they burned through half of the big-name voice talent for the introduction. And the encounters with these characters feel all-too-brief. It is my hope that the player returns to Coldharbor at some point later in the story and reconnects with the characters left behind there. But, with only a 3-hour session in which to explore the game, I'll have to find out more about all that later on.
After escaping Coldharbor, the Orc Dragonknight found himself on the island of Stros M'kai, off the coast of Hammerfell in western Tamriel. It's unlike anything I have seen in previous Elder Scrolls games, but it has a kind of strangely-familiar feel to it. It's actually a fairly apt metaphor for the rest of the game - the architecture is kind of a hybrid of Arabic and European, grey stone castles with "onion" domes. The art is gorgeous, but it is clearly wrapped around very simple frames.
Characters are kind of the same way. They have richly-detailed textures like Skyrim, but they use simpler, low-polygon-count models like a MMO. Imagine Skyrim textures wrapped around Morrowind models. That's a bit of an exaggeration, of course - the character models in the Elder Scrolls Online are much more detailed than Morrowind's - but it gives you an idea.
Combat animations are interesting, dynamic and relatively fluid, but running animations seem stiff and unnatural. This is not something I'm particularly concerned about, being a beta, but I don't imagine the live game will be that much different, if there's any difference at all. Players expecting a step up from Skyrim graphics - and there are apparently a lot of them - are going to be disappointed. Players coming in from oversaturated MMO worlds will find the Elder Scrolls Online's graphics to be gorgeous. It really is a very pretty MMO, but likely not as breathtaking as The Elder Scrolls VI would be.
Stros M'kai had a very Elder Scrolls kind of feeling to it. Once you've excaped from Coldharbor, you're pretty much free to do whatever the hell you want, apparently. My Orc Dragonknight woke up on a ship, and I didn't try to leave right away - I got the quest from the captain first - but I feel like I probably could have, and that would have been perfectly fine. I decided to focus on questing rather than exploring - I wanted to get some levels in my brief play time, and that's usually the quickest way to do it.
Exploring the island a little bit, I came across a group of dudes betting on a mudcrab fight. This may not be the super-complex AI from Oblivion and Skyrim, where NPCs followed daily patterns of sleeping, working, procuring food, eating and socializing, but it certainly makes the game world feel alive and dynamic.
The Orc Dragonknight graduated from his paired axes to a few different weapons as he ran around the island. This is where the Elder Scrolls Online's hybrid model gets a bit confusing: players get a limited selection of essentially inflexible classes, like any other MMO, but have unrestricted access to any weapons and armor they want to use, like an Elder Scrolls game. There's nothing stopping a player from dressing his big strong melee character in wizard robes and running around shooting bad guys with a bow, or from having his Sorcerer clank around in full plate armor bashing things with a giant mace. Chances are, that kind of setup won't work particularly well in later-game content or in group dungeons and the like, but it's an early option.
Right now, it's tough to say what kind of broad appeal the Elder Scrolls Online is going to have because of this hybrid style. Elder Scrolls fans are going to bristle at the MMO mechanics, and the MMO people who are currently using the impending release of ESO as a reason to point out perceived faults in their current games might not find the mythical ultimate, perfect gaming experience they are apparently expecting.
On the other hand, I personally found the game to be very engaging right from the start. I consider myself to be fairly picky when it comes to MMOs, and when I start a new one I usually end up comparing it unfavorably to the ones I've been playing a long time and really love (e.g. "it doesn't have this feature from LotRO, or this feature from SWTOR, and this other game does this part way better," etc.). But my first three hours of the Elder Scrolls Online left me wanting much, much more.
So I was super-happy when they decided to extend the event. First impressions are good and all, but I'm also interested in things like longevity, immersion and mid-level grind. Luckily, I got the rest of the week to learn about those... stay tuned!