I have never really partaken in the addiction known as World of Warcraft; in fact, outside of some footage and a few trailers (and Leroy Jenkins, of course), my knowledge is pretty sparse – but from the limited number of things that I have seen, it doesn’t appeal to me at all. One of the games that really took over my gaming time (for quite a while) was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Between the main game and the various chapters, I logged well over a hundred hours running around the open world, completing various quests and simply enjoying the majesty of the landscape. When The Elder Scrolls Online (ZeniMax Online Studios) for the PC was announced a while back (hot on the heels of my Skyrim experience), I was fairly excited at the prospect of being able to go on quests with other people. The touted features were appealing, and I was pretty stoked. My time spent actually playing the game is enjoyable enough, and it does a pretty good job distinguishing itself from everything I think WoW is. However, in my opinion, it can still be improved.
As with the other games in the series (and every other RPG), you have a character creation phase. It is pretty extensive, but easy to navigate, making for an enjoyable start. Regardless of what you choose, you begin the game in a state of death – as an inmate in Coldharbour. That’s right, you’re a ghost, and you’re in jail in the Daedric plane. You are referred to as “soulshriven”, and you have been enlisted by a courageous group to help free a prophet and make your way back to the material world of Tamriel. Once you succeed, you’ll find yourself in the midst of a mission to save the world from Molag Bal, a Daedric prince bent on being a massive jerk-wad. One of the first things that players have to wrap their heads around is that this is not a sequel to Oblivion or Skyrim – it actually takes place long before.
“Take my milk money, you flaming meanie!”
Once you reach Tamriel, you have a lot of options to explore (and many, many people to meet). Some of your choices during the character creation phase will determine where you begin your adventure. Regardless, you will usually begin in a large city with lots to check out in the surrounding areas. Primary quests keep the game flowing while lots of side quests keep things interesting (and help you to attain higher levels). Like Skyrim, you can literally walk wherever your feet can find purchase (you can also ride, if you choose to get yourself a mount), and that style is rewarding, as breezing by places too quickly may result in you missing a quest or perhaps some items that you might like. Eventually, you will discover other cities and places to explore – with more quests to complete so that you can inch your way up the skill chain to become a more complete adventurer.
Various quests can be pursued at the same time, with the current quest objective being displayed in the upper right of your screen and markers appearing on your compass showing you the direction of your active quest as well as those in the queue. One can switch between quests by employing the use of a hotkey, making quest management an easy thing (which, given how much that you can do in TESO, makes life a whole lot easier). The quests themselves were quite surprising. When I played Skyrim, I was pretty happy with the story-driven nature of the tasks. Unlike other adventure games, where you have to basically work your way through collecting a laundry list full of things, TESO’s quests make you feel like they are all connected to the world of Tamriel, and successfully completing them seems to matter. And like Skyrim, you will be able to develop both attributes (your raw stats) and your skills (things you can do based on your stats) in good time.
Working for the Tamriel division of Orkin really sucks.
Combat is a big part of the game, and left me scratching my head why they didn’t implement it the same way as they did in Skyrim. Really, it feels like they took the Skyrim model and scaled it down a fair amount. Sure, you can still block and hit, but the interface is kind of clunky and there are not many quick slot options. I found that I had to approach things a little bit differently than I did in Skyrim, after I kept dying all the time. Regardless of whether you fight one enemy or a few, things can get pretty hairy very quickly. I’m not sure who was in charge of the AI, but they must have been masters of interpretive dance, because enemies flank you like electrons and smack the crap out of you. My recommendation is, until you’re more powerful and have better armour, lure your opponents into an area with a wall or a narrow space, so that you can limit their movement. The other strategy that you can pursue is employing the stealth mechanic, which allows you to slaughter one creature while his friend is standing really close by. Finally, I also noticed a fair amount of latency when I first started playing – but this seems to have disappeared after a recent patch, becoming more acceptable.
The overall atmosphere is pretty amazing, once you learn the ropes – although it can be jarring at first. Initially, the gathering areas of the game seemed slightly comical to me, owing to the fact that people are constantly running around, willy-nilly, with many of them being followed by bizarre pets. It sort of reminds me of the Cantina from Mos Eisley (Star Wars: A New Hope). Of course, this is just my bias talking, as I have never really participated in an MMORPG. Eventually, I habituated to the strange sight, and now it’s not such a big deal. In fact, there have been times when some of the folks have helped me out of a jam (usually when I had bitten off more than I could chew in a fight). A word of warning: it is fairly easy to go it alone early on in the game – be prepared to swallow your lone wolf tendencies when you take on some of the tougher quests. Thankfully, joining a group is actually fairly easy, and rewarding.
The graphics are not quite Skyrim – but there is a good chance of improvement as time goes on.
In terms of graphics, The Elder Scrolls Online is not quite on par with Skyrim. I have a fairly decent gaming PC, and I found that when I turned up the detail levels, I got some nice foreground goodness, but still lots of weird pop-in effects. Lighting is nice, but there are areas and moments where the game stutters, and still others where it is less-than polished. I thought that this was possibly because of my computer – but after some experimentation, I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that the game has to accommodate a very wide range of different rigs. Luckily, the sheer amount of detail within the game makes some of the weirdness easy to forgive. Audio, is also pretty good. I found that there was a great use of surround within the game and it wasn’t hard to keep track of things. The score is awesome and the voice acting is surprisingly good (especially some of the celebrities – John Cleese’s character cracks me the hell up). Still, like the graphics, things felt just a little bit flat. It’s tough to follow a game like Skyrim, though, which is a single-player experience and tailored to your PC (thanks to an endless number of mods); as time goes on, the possibility exists for TESO to look even better than it does now.
It’s important to note that while this title is not necessarily my cup of tea, I think that ZeniMax has given Tamriel a loving treatment and the game is very entertaining. There is a lot of substance to the world, both in terms of the geography and the lore. My biggest issue with the game is that it takes away from the feeling of you being a hero. Even being part of a small band of heroes would be great – but in TESO, everyone is a hero. In the end it boils down to whether or not you like this style of play and whether or not you can get over the fact that you are one of a cast of millions. After spending some time with TESO, I can say that I really don’t think that it is my thing – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it1. It’s well produced and well put-together.
Sometimes, you may find yourself praying that you can finish your quests before your subscription is up.
After you buy your copy of TESO, you will be faced with the decision of which subscription model to use. You can buy time in 30/90/180 day chunks, with monthly rates discounted as you buy bigger and bigger blocks. A 30-day subscription is $14.99 a month while a 180-day subscription works out to $12.99 a month. This might seem steep to some; however, given how much stuff they are putting into the game (with lots still to come), I think it is pretty reasonable. Also, if this is one of the only games you play, you are getting a large amount of content for what is essentially buying a new game every four months2. Currently, The Elder Scrolls Online is also in its infancy, so there is still plenty of potential.