Love And Hate Revisited: A Second Look at the Elder Scrolls Online
When I was given a free review copy of The Elder Scrolls Online, I wasn't sure what to do with it, since I had already bought the game and was intending to use my own copy for the purposes of writing about it. Instead, I offered the review copy to the other staffers at TenTonHammer.
The first respondent to my email was none other than Lewis B. Naturally, I was nervous about giving it to him since he had been so displeased with the game in an earlier beta event. He wouldn't even listen to reason when we went head-to-head in a debate about the game. However, I sent him the key anyway, hoping he would be won over by the product at launch, and it wasn't long after that Lewis began eating his words in his Twitter feed. Obviously, I wanted to gloat, but we both felt that a more in-depth analysis of his newfound appreciation for the game was in order.
GUNKY: So something has obviously changed between your first impression and now. What is different?
LEWIS B: I honestly can't put my finger on why my feelings towards ESO have changed- the combat hasn't improved (though it's so much better post 15), animations are still poor in comparison to the competition and some dialogue is awful. But - and this is a big but - something, somehow, has clicked for me. No Elder Scrolls game has ever captured my imagination or attention because on a personal level I could never overcome the buggy mess that most of them are. With ESO, I've reluctantly modded to fix many things and have found myself playing the game for the story and the world: I want to see what's around the next corner.
I probably sound like a walking contradiction at this point but I'm enjoying the fact I can lose myself in the world and to a large degree ignore all the things that irritate. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot that does (lack of dyes, lack of cloaks, lack of an auction house, poor guild functionality and poor chat systems to name but a few) but it's not stopping me having fun through the leveling process.
On that topic, leveling in ESO is a lot of fun - a genre first for me to really enjoy quest text. Not only that but to not have a million quests at once is a joy as you actually concentrate on what you're doing...
GUNKY: I'm actually finding ESO to be a little more challenging in terms of immersion, for a number of reasons - mostly because I am being constantly reminded that I'm playing a MMO and not a single-player game.
For example, all previous Elder Scrolls games used strength-based weight limits to manage carrying capacity. When you were over-burdened, you couldn't run or swift-travel. ESO uses slots. You can carry 50 iron breastplates and still have room for 20 greatswords, and run and jump and roll around without hindrance.
There's also the ceaseless stream of rude idiots one encounters in every MMO - the gold-sellers, the node-ninjas, the corpse-jumpers, the advice-trolls, etc. Normally, these people don't bother me and they don't prevent me from enjoying a game because I've grown to accept them as par for the course. But they do serve as a constant reminder that my character is one of literally thousands, all embarking on the exact same journey. That never once happened in Skyrim or Oblivion.
I actually followed your advice and tried a couple of mods. At this point, most of them seem kind of pointless or cheat-y, but I like Wykkyd Framework. It has the auto-loot notification and a bunch of other minor tweaks and things - essentially, it supposedly has the tools to remedy the few problems I have with the game. Not perfect, maybe, but my needs are few and simple.
Have you noticed that combat feels more responsive now than it did back when you hated the game? Enemies react to being hit now!
LEWIS B: It's funny you should mention that, as I've been playing ESO as if it's a single player game and just when I'm getting into the story or a particular quest I'm doing, some idiot decides to jump about in front of my cutscene or kill the important enemy I needed before I arrive. It's unavoidable (without instancing everything of value) but it's heightened by the fact it's so close to launch. If we were to wait a week or two you wouldn't really have that problem.
The thing that has royally pissed me off though, on multiple occasions, is the phasing. I'm not keen on phasing, but I can live with it. Elder Scrolls is a lovely looking game so one can expect some measures to be taken to reduce latency and frame rate issues and yet I feel ZeniMax Online have been hugely conservative in the number of players they permit and worse - failed to provide a functioning interface to tell me what phase I'm in and what phase my friends are in. My friends and I wasted hours trying to meet up without success. Would it be so hard for ZeniMax Online to tell us what phase we're in and just allow us to swap to a different one like Guild Wars 2 or Age of Conan? (if you can do this, please tell me how!).
On the subject of playing it like a single player game - I've yet to group with anyone once. Is that not a big problem for a game supposedly multiplayer? I might as well be playing Skyrim.
Oh and yes, the combat feedback is MUCH better - enemies actually react now which resulted in me rejoicing when I saw it the first time.
GUNKY: This just means that ESO is following the current trend of MMOs - a solo leveling experience with optional forays into group content along the way, and then changing horses and offering mostly repeatable group content and PvP for endgame. This isn't really a terrible thing - obviously it works well enough that essentially everyone is doing it - but I would have liked to see this game break the mold.
I haven't done any "official" grouping yet, either, but I have taken part in some group-required open-world content - taking out the Daedra at the anchor sites. I actually really like those fights. You can more or less just wander in by accident and help save the world without having to submit to the collective will of a bunch of strangers by joining a group. You can earn assist XP without having to belong to a group. I liked it a lot when they introduced this concept to The Lord of the Rings Online with the Riders of Rohan expansion - they call it "open tabbing" there, and it was so successful in Rohan that they added it to everywhere else in the game as well. I can barely remember how we got by without it for so many years.
Of course, LotRO has the phase-switching button that ESO lacks. So does Star Wars: the Old Republic - you can see which shard you are on and how many shards exist on the map, and which shard your group-mates are on when they talk in group chat. You can transfer to the group's shard as soon as you join via a pop-up, or you can hop between shards via a drop-down on the map.
These other games have gotten me used to private dungeons, though, and I still find it weird running into a dungeon and finding people already fighting the dude I'm in there to kill. It's not so bad when I can get a few shots in and throw out enough heals to get credit for the kill, but I'm not keen on standing around waiting for the respawns.
LEWIS B: The thing is, Elder Scrolls Online is straddling a weird line between group and solo play. With the exception of dungeons (which I'll get to shortly) there is no necessity to ever group - heck, even the bosses out in the game world I've been able to solo without trouble because enemy AI routes are so basic. Perhaps it's easier as a bow-user. The lack of an auction house leaves only the physical dungeons for a need to interact with other players.
On the subject of dungeons, I'm very disappointed in them so far. They're incredibly linear with no tactics other than tank and spank and as a result they feel incredibly old fashioned. Although I've fallen in love with the game world and my character, it all feels very "thin" as though ZeniMax Online have got the very basics - and only the very basics they can get away with - before shipping the product and only then with the intention of fattening up the game's depth.
I didn't realise until this morning that there were so many Soul Shards in the game - doesn't that entirely undermine the Skill Point system of making difficult choices as to where you spend your points? My guild and I recently spent an evening getting every Soul Shard in AvA which transpired to be 45 in total (15 extra skill points). Combined with 50 from leveling and another hundred or so from the zones you level in, you literally can Just have everything - I find that a little annoying.
GUNKY: Considering that these character builds are more narrow in scope than a standard Elder Scrolls character, the ability to "just have everything" kind of makes sense. You and I tend to play games a little differently than the average gamer, and getting everything like that takes a kind of focus that not everyone has. Also, you still need to exercise some kind of skill-point economy in the lower levels, because there are a lot of different skill lines. If you spend your points on, say, the crafting skill lines early on, or you do things like buy the next-tier Soul Trap way before you can realistically use it, you end up being somewhat ineffective elsewhere. I discovered this during my first beta experience - I spread my points out too thin and couldn't do stuff at level 10 that my next character, which was a more focused, economical build, could do several levels earlier.
You're exactly right, though: Elder Scrolls Online straddles a weird line. For some players accustomed to one type or the other, that's going to feel alien and off-putting at first. The MMO bits they added to the single-player game may not be the most complex or original bits, but they are generally the most fun bits. Linear tank-and-spank dungeons have been around for a long time because they work. I don't mind a challenge now and then, but sometimes it's good to get back to the basics and not have to Google a bunch of belligerent forum posts and YouTube videos to figure out the mechanics for one boss fight.
To be honest, I kinda like the idiosyncrasies. The weird hybrid really makes the game feel unique. Most other games I've played over the past few years, I can say "well, it plays like X with a dash of Y." I feel that, even though it draws heavily from a number of different sources, ESO defies this kind of simple comparison. It plays like The Elder Scrolls Online.
LEWIS B: I think you're totally right there - because it has the name of Elder Scrolls, comparisons are inevitable. People just aren't willing to let it be its own spin off. I appreciate that's more difficult than it should be considering it shares many similarities to the likes of Skyrim. Overall I think its a good stab at attempting to make a multiplayer Elder Scrolls and while I've had fun (mostly in AvA) it feels too thin and too buggy at this present time. If players stick around there's every chance I'll be where it needs to be, but in the mean time I still think it needed another 6 to 12 months of development time to apply much needed fixes and to implement a variety of things the game lacks.
GUNKY: The game has changed a lot since your terrible first impression, and it has the potential to mature very quickly. In the end, would you call yourself a convert?
LEWIS B: I wouldn't call myself a convert, I'd say my dislike of the product has lessened. It's so heavily flawed that it's a game I could never love, but I have found limited enjoyment from certain areas of it. Hopefully in the months to come it'll iron out some of the issues and be a stronger product. For now though, I think WildStar is leagues ahead in terms of polish and content.