The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions | Better than Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls Online may very well be the perfect combination of the Skyrim and MMORPG formulas. The world is huge. There’s always something to do. Random players are there to help out and buddy up with. It’s actually a little scary how well the mix is. Peanut butter and chocolate would be jealous of this relationship.
I’ve never been that big of a fan of the Elder Scrolls series. After 30 or so enjoyable hours of Oblivion, my Xbox decided that it would take 2 minutes to load each new area. There didn’t seem to be much pulling me back into the world anyway.
I loved Fallout 3 to death – it’s easily one of my 10 top games of all time – but I was unsure about Skyrim because of my feelings about Oblivion. While Skyrim fixed a lot of the issues I had and made an extremely impressive world to explore, there was still something missing. I’m quite torn on if Skyrim is amazing, terrible, or overrated. In fact, I’d argue for all three. Skyrim is a master of one thing, the open world, and it is truly an achievement. Everything else, the storytelling, AI, quests structure, enemy variety, combat, is flawed and has been done much better in other games (see: Dark Souls). Still, despite all my rambling complaints about Skyrim, I spent over 100 hours in its world exploring every nook and cranny.
So, it was with apprehension that I approached The Elder Scrolls Online. I’ve never been a fan of MMOs because I find the combat boring, the quests uninteresting, and the whole idea a less than proposition compared to a single player RPG. Still, I understand the appeal and was nearly sucked into FFXIV: A Realm Reborn last year.
TESO is a lot of fun. Bethesda really has taken the best of Skyrim and MMOs and smashed them together. It’s so shocking how well the two fit that I almost feel like going back to Skyrim would be disappointing.
That being said, if you aren’t a fan of either component this isn’t likely to change your mind. If you are a fan, prepare to get sucked into a Plane of Oblivion called: Addiction.
Before I say anything else, on the third day of the beta, I rigged the keyboard and mouse controls to work with a 360 controller and never looked back. This is how the game should be played. I was back in Skyrim but with all the improvements. There’s going to be a lot of PC purists saying that that is crazy, but I had a lot more fun with the game set up like that. Console players and similarly minded PC ones will be in for a treat. Hopefully they add in official controller support though.
The typical MMO quest lines that lead you around an area, showing you everything that has been made for the game, work very well here. Add in the new collectable crystals that give you a skill point for every three you find and the game has changed. I love exploring but now there is actually a reason to go crazy with it.
This exploration has always been a large focus of TES games but here there is a noticeable difference: the enemies don’t scale. Bethesda’s past games have all used a system by which, once you arrive in a zone, the monsters are leveled appropriately based upon your current level. If they want a cave to be difficult/normal/easy, it’s just a simple dropdown menu. That’s gone now. You can wonder off in a direction and run into a herd of level 20 Flying Demon Monster Evil Jellyfish. Basically, it’s more akin to a traditional MMO. As someone who typically loved immediately running to the far corners of the map, this was interesting in a surprisingly good way.
There are simply so many places to go and see that the previous method of exploration wouldn’t work at all. Now the player can be guided on a more focused adventure. The problem of forgetting what the quest was talking about way back in ‘that one town’ won’t happen because there are paths to follow. Entire story arks show off each area and then move on. Sure, the later game quests will still get all jumbled up but the early game content set a nice pace and that is something Skyrim didn’t have in the slightest.
An additional improvement over other MMOs is that quest givers are all over the place as opposed to just in a town. Furthermore, the next quest in a line is often smartly placed in front of where you are instead of back at a basecamp somewhere. That’s where the nice pacing comes in and allows you to just enjoy the experience.
However, it does make you want to only go somewhere if there is a quest there because otherwise you’ll end up having to retread an area.
The story is very well put together and seemed interesting but… I never really cared for anything that was going on with it. The main problem is that a lot of these scenes are so boringly executed. It’s 2014, story moments don’t need to be told by a character awkwardly standing there with a giant text box next to him. Whenever I did stop and pay attention, it was compelling and well put together but everything else about the game is so much more exciting that I didn’t care. Please, just give me my next quest so I can continue being an awesome adventurer.
The best part of TESO is that the combat is vastly improved over Skyrim. This is largely because you can finally have more than just two things equipped at a time. You have your main weapon and 6 skills that can be used. This makes mages actually make sense (in Skyrim they felt odd because of only having a skill for each hand) and gives weapon based character some actual skills to use. This is exactly what needed to happen. Combat in Skyrim devolved into a giant mess of swinging axes and hurling fireballs. This, with the addition of competent skill trees, makes it feel relevant and also a lot of fun.
More on those skill trees: they are a huge step up from Skyrim. Now there are a lot more interesting things to choose from. As in, there are actual skills now. Just like before, most aspects of your character have their own skill levels. You can still focus on two handed weapons, or light armor, or a class specific area if you so choose. As you’d imagine, these class based skill trees are where most of the skills can be learned but everything else has a few moves to learn or at least some passive skills. There are a lot of choices here even if some won’t quite fit your character build. Furthering the character customization is the ability to morph a skill into another one after leveling it up enough. You’ll get to choose one of two mutations of the previous skill to suit your playstyle. Example: Choose between a two second stun or a damage bonus based on the distance to the target. It makes it feel just a bit more personalized.
All these improvements are nice but once I had my five go to skills, I didn’t see any big reason to try the next skill in a line. For some, the damage values were much higher but others looked to be more like alternatives rather than the next obvious choice.
Back to the combat, using all of the various skills and their effects makes the combat a lot more in-depth than before. Enemies felt like they were appropriately difficult and the game encourages the usage of all of your equipped skills. At this point I’m still a bit iffy on the sixth skill slot though. It is reserved for ultimate moves which essentially makes it a ‘oh crap’ button. These ultimate moves work on a type of cool down where fighting more enemies will unlock it for use again. The first one I picked to try out seemed effective but only really useful for large mobs or a boss because on anything else it would have been overkill.
Being an MMO, crafting plays a pretty big role. It’s not too complicated but the way it is presented makes it seem like it is. There are a lot of submenus and hidden sections; it can be very daunting. Once you start getting the hang of it, it has potential. I could have seen myself really getting into crafting and all that it provides if not for one thing: storage space. Crafting materials stack in your inventory but if you want to gather a lot of different types or craft in different areas (woodworking, potions, etc.) at the same time, you’ll need to place these items in the bank.
The bank could have been a bastion for these many items but instead it is just as limited and hampered as your own character’s inventory. In a game like Skyrim, which is known for breading item hoarders, can we at least have the crafting items take up zero bank space? This wouldn’t be such a big issue if there wasn’t, for example, a different stone for each style of armor in addition to all the other needed items. Then there are gemstones, flowers, monster parts… there’s a lot. I’d like to imagine that at some point in TESO you get a house and can put everything in one drawer just like old times. Even if that is the case, there needs to be a solution earlier in the game. When I reached the bank storage limit, the gold required to upgrade the storage was 70% of the total gold I had made in the entire game so far. That’s too much.
You might be thinking, “So that’s just progression and how getting further in the game works.” You’d be right but why is expanding the bank even a thing? I’m not storing all the epic spoils and loot I’ve collected along the way; I’m just trying to unload some ore and daffodils. Of all my complaints with TESO, this is the one I’d really like to see fixed and also the one that I think will most likely undergo zero changes between now and launch. Oh well.
I only had the ‘pleasure’ of fighting one boss in my time with TESO. It was clearly not designed for solo players. This boss would walk back and forth between two lava pools that would heal his HP. You can probably see where this is going. I would damage him 40% of his health and then he would go and heal 35% of it all back. It was war of attrition and was easily the worst thing I played during my time with the game.
Sure, I was probably supposed to have a party but this is where it would be smart to balance things out for situations like this. Oh well. As long as all the other boss fights aren’t like this, they should be a lot better. Here’s hoping…
I was pleased to find out that there are dungeons in the traditional MMO sense and also in the Elder Scrolls sense. Both are fun little distractions from the usual open world gameplay. Indoor areas like caves do seem to be a lot smaller than most were in Skyrim though. The more typical MMO dungeon I ran into was clearly balanced for a group but I luckily ran into some fellow adventures. We make quick work of the place and it was a lot of fun.
We completed the area and then went our separate ways. It was a great experience and showed off what could be possible later in large scale PvE/PvP settings. But it also brings up another issue: sometimes you just want to be alone.
The solitude of Skyrim, the feeling that it was just you against the world, that is completely gone. Even in this limited beta test there were people running about in a way that made the world feel alive. But if the real game will have a lot more players in the world, it’s going to get cramped. I don’t want to climb a hill and see people in every direction. I want the world to feel new, unexplored. Never being alone is going to make the world feel decidedly un-Skyrim.
I hope I’m just overreacting though.
So why was my intro so positive? Because despite these complaints, I had a lot of fun and wanted to keep coming back. The Elder Scrolls Online is a diamond. It may be flawed but it’s also a freaking diamond.
There is a lot to this game and I came away feeling very positive about it. Despite the problems or little nitpicks I had, I was still having a ton of fun exploring the world and fighting random creatures. It may not have been on my radar before but it is now. It was simply a lot of fun and that’s what games should be.
It’s a bit silly to applaud a game for changing things about itself to become more like other games in the MMO genre but the mix of the two is a huge draw. And The Elder Scrolls Online has truly found a really great mix. It’s not going to convince the non-believers but fans of either would be crazy not to give it a shot.
For even more Elder Scrolls Online information check out the podcast we did about our time with the beta: