The Elder Scrolls Online - The Balanced Path
The Elder Scrolls Online has proven to be a very polarizing game. It is half MMO, half single-player Elder Scrolls game - kinda like Sheogorath, Daedric Prince of Madness, who is half twisted and grotesque and half beautiful and nurturing. Even months before launch, players have formed very strong opinions about it - many without having even participated in the beta. We here at TenTonHammer have participated in the beta, and some of us loved it and some hated it.
Lewis B, our resident "hater," and David "Xerin" Piner, our resident "fanboy," each wrote their own very polarized articles detailing why they felt so strongly about the game after the media beta event. In the interest of presenting a more neutral viewpoint, then, we have a point-counterpoint debate between Lewis B, the "hater," and Gunky, the "realistic fan."
Gunky: From the sounds of it, you're coming from an anti-Elder Scrolls viewpoint to begin with. Of course you're not going to enjoy the Elder Scrolls Online, because it uses a lot of the same systems that you evidently find so flawed, but which fans of the series really enjoy. Like simplified combat, for example - MMO people are probably not going to like that very much at the start, but Elder Scrolls people will. That seems to be the real issue: that this is a MMO for single-player RPG fans, and less so for MMO fans.
Lewis B: The thing is, I'm not anti-Elder Scrolls, I'm just anti-shit. There's little else that makes my blood boil more than fans and media waving over elements of a game that are awful. The fact that Elder Scrolls fans seem to love horrendous combat, AI, bugs and lifeless NPC's (from a multi million dollar product) is maddening. Where is the logic behind this? When did it become acceptable to accept such mediocrity? Part of the problem here is the fact that Bethesda are free to ignore such issues because they know the community will fix them, but unfortunately for us we just won't have that luxury in ESO. The other side of the coin as well, is the fact that ESO is an odd mix for ES fans and MMOG fans. It doesn't really satisfy either side...
Gunky: On the contrary, I personally found it very satisfying. Your assertion that Elder Scrolls fans "seem to love horrendous combat" etc. comes across as very anti-Elder Scrolls. And, in fact, it's simply not the case - the combat is simple, yes, but far from horrendous. NPCs are absolutely not lifeless and their AI is quite complex - in Oblivion and Skyrim, NPCs went through daily cycles of sleeping, procuring food, eating it, working, socializing and so on, and it was very dynamic. In the Elder Scrolls Online, we have MMO NPCs - they have to be in predictable places at all times. ESO uses phasing to move NPCs around rather than radiant AI (which had a tendency to get NPCs killed from time to time), but it amounts to the same thing. A lot of MMOs use that workaround, and I felt that it worked well in ESO.
Lewis B: Ok, perhaps a bit of a generalization but the combat in the Elder Scrolls series is very shallow. It lacks depth and tactics. It's effectively whack-a-mole and that's something I find limiting. Unlike Age of Conan or Zenoclash, there's just nothing there. Heck, the fact melee swings aren't even AOE by default - that's regressive. As far as other areas are concerned, yes the AI have routines (actually quite basic of the ones I've encountered) but when the majority don't work or are providing a false impression of autonomy, is there much value of them being there? Three of my fondest memories in Skryim are as follows:
1. Being asked by an NPC to stay overnight in their home (which I did) only to wake up and have the AI bug, alongside the rest of the village, to pronounce me a thief and chase me out. Returning 20 minutes later, the same NPC once again asked me to stay the night.
2. Entering a pub and falling through the floor forever.
3. Stealing items from a house, in the attic, only to hear an NPC in the basement who happens to be sat by the fire say "Put that back".
These 3 are just a very small selection of my disastrous time with Elder Scrolls games and although ESO had marginally less bugs, it was still very rough around the edges. I'm not quite sure how I feel about phasing at the moment as it creates a weird gulf between players in different stages of narrative.
Gunky: The "regressive" combat is going to be a selling point for some people - how much thought does one really need to put into smashing something until it's dead, anyway? A lot of other games have to have extensive tutorial missions to teach you how combat skills work before they let you loose in the "real world." You get that a bit in ESO also, but they don't need to drill it in that "left click = attack, right-click = block." You don't need to be a character in a Dan Brown novel to figure out a viable attack sequence by deciphering a giant toolbar full of attack skill icons.
The phasing is not really any weirder than it is in other games where similar tech is used. Hytbold in LotRO is a good example of this; you can have the town partially rebuilt and have access to some of the town services, but you'll see another person come bombing in and stop to talk to an invisible NPC vendor you haven't yet unlocked in your phase. And it seems to work fine for solo questing in ESO, which is arguably just as important as any group content in this particular game.
As far as bugs go, what is the last game you can think of that launched bug-free? I can't think of any. Some have come close, maybe, and have felt more "polished," but no game is perfect on day one. And there's no reason that ESO should be any different, especially considering it's the studio's first stab at making the Elder Scrolls into a multiplayer experience. No game is perfect and utterly without flaw, and I actually found the beta of ESO to be fairly smooth in that respect. I ran into one missing-monster quest and found that some UI elements and such needed tweaking, but that's the nature of beta content (even at a late stage like this one), and most of the other stuff worked more or less the way it's supposed to.
I'll give you another point there, though: the vanilla games had a bunch of hilarious and weird bugs. And the player-made mods that address glitches and bugs like the ones you're talking about, and which have made Elder Scrolls games the powerhouse IP that it is, are not going to be available for the Elder Scrolls Online. I think a lot of players are going to miss the option to run hundreds of mods with
nude character models, Anime-themed armor and god-mode weapons bug fixes.
If we may return to one of your original points - it's not so much a matter of glossing over objectionable parts in favor of highlighting good ones. In my case (and I believe also Xerin's), it's a matter of having a vastly different opinion about the "objectionable" things, and finding more about the game to like than there is to criticize. None of us is saying that the game is utterly perfect and without fault, because that would be an idiotic thing to say. We know there are flaws. But we enjoy the hell out of it because it has a lot of stuff we like.
Lewis B: I think to finish off (we could easily chew the fat off this all day) I think it all boils down to compromise and how willing you are to forgive Zenimax/Bethesda for delivering a product that cost hundreds of millions, for the condition it's currently in. I'm not suggesting other MMOG's are bug free and compared to some, ESO is in pretty good condition. But (and it's a big but) I'm simply not willing to compromise so heavily on core elements. It shows a lack of care of Zenimax's part and a complete disregard for the very fundamentals of the genre. I suspect I'll likely pick up the game but it'll be after launch and in the hopes of significant polish. I'm certainly not alone in my criticisms: Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Massively, MMORPG and a variety of others have all had issues on the exact points I make but for the most part, I think it's largely irrelevant.
It's clear from the responses by many Elder Scrolls Fans that they really don't care what condition the game is in. It's an Elder Scrolls MMOG and for them, that's a guaranteed purchase. Unfortunately, I heard the exact same opinions coming from the Star Wars corner and even after my First Impressions piece for Star Wars: the Old Republic where I called it out as a terrible product, I was still called crazy. The Elder Scrolls Online gives me the exact same vibe and (touch wood) I'm usually right. For Zenimax's sake, I hope I'm totally wrong because the only alternative is a free to play model 12 months after launch.
Gunky: Well, I won't comment on the opinions expressed on other websites, except to say that I don't necessarily agree with them, either. It's going to come down to balancing the scales, exactly the same as any other game - hopefully, it will have more stuff you like than stuff you don't. And for the record, I still think SWTOR is a great game, too.