Version Tested: 1.05
Can you ever really ‘review’ an MMORPG? The games constantly develop, are ever-expanding and always frequently changing, sometimes as much as several times a week. A base review does not even begin to scratch the surface of the developer’s overall plan. In this regard, Expansive is the ideal location to get all your Elder Scrolls Online coverage. Between our initial As We Play and first play of the game, news coverage and going forward with ongoing Patch Reviews and columns, you will get a clearer picture of the evolution of Bethesda’s first major MMO six months to a year down the line, and beyond.
As we’re still not far enough into the game to give you a true technical overview, we are introducing our first TESO Column, basing our coverage on the most recent patch update – the full notes of which can be seen here – and offering our initial observations.
And the good news is that there’s a lot to like.
The First Ten Levels
I’ve always been a fan of the Argonians and the Khajiit. Sorry, but I love everything that looks even remotely like a tiger. I also have a soft spot for weird reptilian looking fin-faces. Naturally, my first character choice was always going to be between them. Or a combination of the two. Whichever comes first. I didn’t care about classes or allegiance, I knew my race and that was always going to help define everything else.
(Side note: When will MMOs allow us to combine races? I’ve always wanted to play the bastard son of a Draenai and a Goblin. Upcoming patch, right?)
I finally settled on Khajiit (the whiskers and brown spots tipped the scales) and figured the most suited class would be Dragon Knight. The class seems like a wonderful hybrid of a Rogue and a Mage. That sounds absolutely delightful to me.
I didn’t dabble too extensively in the character creation tool, but I am hugely impressed by how much flexibility is available and how much of a personal stamp you can put on your character. There’s at least a half hour worth of playtime to be had on the character development screen alone, as you can manipulate everything from eye colour to cheek structure. Maybe when I come to make a Nord and want him to look like my unborn twin. Whenever that will be.
I have to say, it does feel strange working towards a level cap of 50. Even WoW had a cap of 60 to begin with and later this year Blizzard are going to ask players to finally go for triple figures. But I remain encouraged: the game barely launched and Bethesda started talking about end-game content coming the same month. Zenimax and Bethesda already seem to understand the importance of building an end-game. They get that people are going to blaze through 50 levels very quickly, and are going to be hungry for more. Even WoW took a long time to really build its end-game content. In fact, many other MMOs on the market are still struggling to build it. But with a subscription charge attached to TESO, there can be no letting up. Bethesda need to prove to people that they still have to pay £8.99 a month for a good, quality MMO, despite everyone else going the F2P route. These big content updates are going to have to come thick and fast to retain membership. Especially since Wildstar is just around the corner.
But if any MMO can pull this off after the daunting shadow Warcraft has left behind, it absolutely, definitely is The Elder Scrolls Online.
Anyway…to the game…
First in-game impressions: The graphics are mightily impressive. And for perspective, I’m basing that observation on a dark, dingy cell with murky textures. So yeah, impressive. The character models are nicely detailed, the furniture looks wonderfully crafted and instantly, having played at least eighty hours each on Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind, I felt right at home.
The initial stages see you escape captivity in the midst of a jail riot. There’s pandemonium going on in the corridors as floods of prisoners pour out and fight back against those who’ve enslaved them. It’s a frantic opening sequence that introduces you to a few of the main players in your TESO story, not least of which The Prophet, voiced by Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon.
Which brings me to another point that emphasises the quality of TESO. The voice-acting is unlike anything you’ve come to expect from an MMO. It is first-class, Grade A stuff, but then, with such an all-star cast, that’s no big surprise. John Cleese, Bill Nighy. Kate Bekinsale. Alfred Molina. Malcolm McDowell. This is a game that wants to make you care about the plot and its characters. This isn’t just about you moving from location A to location B, gathering a few trinkets and returning them to the quest-giver. TESO is a living, breathing MMORPG and you are at the epicentre of this vast, densely populated environment. This is the next level of open-world from Bethesda and ZeniMax and it is absolutely glorious.
Escaping the prison brings you into the game’s first major city. Here, you can visit alchemists, weaponsmiths, auctioneers, stable-masters and finally pick up some quests and go exploring. It’s just like every other sprawling city you ever encountered in an Elder Scrolls game, but you’re sharing it with real people.
Haven’t I been here before?
The first major questing-area in TESO will feel very familiar to Skyrim fans. The cold, harsh winter snow coats the land, lakes are covered over with ice and there’s a real chill in the air. It’s a clever, sensible way to ease in players who loved Skyrim and want to jump right in to the next big thing. Obviously the areas diversify as you grow in skill and level, but this opening stage makes it a lot easier to come to terms with the lay of the land and the level of expectation that comes from a MMORPG. In fact, it probably does more to introduce a new breed of players to MMORPGs than most other MMOs have managed over the last three to four years. And when the game launches on PS4/Xbox One in a few months, I’m sure many will agree. This is one of the major reasons why I think TESO will do very well when it comes to gaining and retaining subscriptions. Another is that ZeniMax damn sure know how to do a trailer!
Questing is exactly as you might expect. If you’ve played an MMO before, then you’ll be pleased to know there’s plenty of fetching, finding and fighting. However, the quest delivery is a lot more thorough than the usual paragraph you get from characters in World of Warcraft and others. Characters will almost always explain the purpose for you actually doing this ‘favour’ for them; they’ll give you incentive by sucking you in with their sad stories and charm you with their biting wit. They’ll even make out that you’d be doing yourself a favour by doing them a favour. Sneaky lot. But it’s definitely refreshing and it certainly adds a layer of motivation, making the experience less about the grind and more about discovery as well as learning and familiarising yourself with Elder Scroll lore.
One thing I’m confused and slightly disappointed about however, is that the Good/Neutral/Bad conversation system in Knights of the Old Republic Online doesn’t play a part here, therefore not allowing you to give much of an identity to your character outside of a cosmetic gleam. You can’t put skills in charm in order to win over a particularly stubborn character and you can’t really change the outcome of a quest much beyond the way its set out. It seems like so much effort has been put into giving humanity to NPCs that the developers forgot to offer flexibility to the player. You seem bound to the mission structure, forced to get through its beginning, middle and end, merely choosing to either accept it or not accept it. The occasional challenge pops up in dialogue, but it has no noticeable ramifications on the end-result. Admittedly, this type of conversation system isn’t a major part of any of the The Elder Scroll games, and so it makes sense not to see it here, but for TESO, it would be a wonderful fit. Having quests with multiple outcomes and giving actions consequences just makes sense considering the narrative depth we’re already enjoying at this early stage. Sadly, this area of development seems to be lacking and is definitely something we’d encourage/like to see made more of in future updates.
It’s not Dark Souls…but…
After taking on some quests, i’ve started to get familiar with the flow of combat. But i’m not going to lie, it’s tough. Where most MMOs request you press about 50 buttons in order to execute certain actions, TESO seems like it will only offer you a limited number and it expects you to do the majority of your work through strikes and blocks. Yes, blocks. And they are crucial to survival.
You’re going to have to determine when an enemy will strike, block to deflect and disorient them, then exploit their defenses by holding in the mouse button and unleashing. Initially, your powers will be limited, so you’ll be confined to sword-strikes, but the more abilities you get, the easier things become as your DPS output can overwhelm an enemy before they get in a killing-blow. But to begin with, you should prepare yourself for death, because it will come at some point.
There are three trees within the game, the Ardent Flame, Draconic Power and Earthern Heart. Ardent Flame is all-out DPS, whereas Draconic Power makes you more of an offensive tank and Earthern Heart is a more-defensive tree with buffing capabilities.
You’ll earn some nice abilities to begin with, including Dragon Armor which will make you more resistant to attack and more resilient, but you still only have 6 slots, one of which is reserved for an Ultimate Ability. Ultimate Abilities are like full-force power-attacks that can produce a lot of damage but have a lengthy cooldown time, unlike your standard attacks, of which you can generally output a few per fight.
But as a DragonKnight, i’m all about DPS with my dual-wield weapons. I have developed some areas of defense with improved parrying, blocking, as well as more resistance to damage, but i’ve also tried to balance that with outright power. Gradually, I started to see the effects as I approached level 9 – 10, but prior to that, I was a victim to the game’s ruthless difficulty curve more often than not.
I cannot emphasise how important it is to learn to block, at least to begin with, otherwise you will be punished again and again and again. If you’re coming into this from WoW and have limited MMO experience in-between, you may be shocked at how different everything feels. Without question, it’s closer to any other Elder Scrolls game you may have played than it is other titles in the genre and that’s immensely to its credit. TESO feels very fresh, both with its strong focus on story, taking advantage of the extensive lore opportunities available, but also the ability to switch between first and third person which affects the flow of combat.
Outside of combat and story, there are other major differences as well. You can take on any quest at any time and aren’t bound to specific story-conditions – outside of the game’s initial prison break sequence . Of course, there are quests recommended for your skill level, and I cherry-picked these so they matched – or were slightly below – my skill-level, yet I still found some of these to be punishing in the early stages. TESO doesn’t just allow you to switch off and coast from quest to quest in its opening stages. The learning curve is actually pretty steep. In fact, I died more in my first ten levels with my Khajiit Dragonknight than I did in WoW during my first forty levels (outside of dungeon-wipes) – It’s no Dark Souls, but don’t expect to dive in and feel right at home from the very beginning.
You’ll also earn skill points when completing certain quests or achieving a certain amount of experience per level, meaning you don’t have to wait until the end of a level in order to spend some points to further develop your character.
Oh, and TESO will allow you to join up to five guilds at any one time. Just imagine that convoluted chat-log!
There are still a few issues with quest carriers and finishing missions, and a few times I was actually locked out of combat, meaning I had to wait until I was killed in order to respawn and proceed. Sometimes, NPCs will also get stuck in endless loops, especially when they’re fighting against mobs, and there is a bug where you can fall endlessly from the sky. Generally, however, the launch of the game feels very smooth. ZeniMax are updating like crazy as there are a few specific quest-issues, and the update-log is already up to 1.0.5, so they’re very serious about making this the best game it can be.
Expect regular columns, a technical overview of the game when we’ve waded through a bit more of the content and patch reviews when there are significant content updates.
Basically, if you want Elder Scrolls Online coverage, stick with us!