What I think of The Elder Scrolls Online
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 March 2014, 4:18 am
So after downloading the huge client twice and following instructions from the forums on how to prevent the launcher to uninstall the game every time you close it, I managed to play The Elder Scrolls Online for about 8 hours. Enough to form a first impression. Enough to see the potential of this game, which is undoubtedly there. And enough to see many of the serious flaws the game has.

In many ways The Elder Scrolls Online reminds me of Everquest 2 when it came out, a month before World of Warcraft. And given how much Wildstar resembles World of Warcraft, that is like sitting in a time machine to go back a decade. It also gives us a good estimate on how this will end, as history tends to repeat itself. Personally I would still make the same decision I made back then, and go for Wildstar.

One good reason for that decision is that Wildstar (which I played too, but the NDA only dropped recently) is technically in a much better state than The Elder Scrolls Online. TESO is a buggy mess, from the broken launcher, via the bugged quests, to the ESC key to quit the game sometimes not working. I once was stuck in a quest and asked in zone chat whether that quest was known to be bugged, and was told that no, it worked perfectly, provided that I logged out and back on repeatedly on the spot until the script started. That is pretty much the TESO definition of "working perfectly", you need to know all the tricks and workarounds.

The need to know stuff to be able to play brings me to my problems with the gameplay. I love exploration. So I should be happy about the various exploration style content the game has. But even I start to think that TESO is overdoing it. Exploration is only exploration if it is voluntary. In The Elder Scrolls Online much of that exploration is mandatory. For example you really, really wouldn't want to miss the skyshards distributed in every zone, as three of them give you one skill point. Between getting all the skyshards and not getting them is a huge power difference for your character, which makes searching for the skyshards mandatory. Or, as most people will do, following a map from a third-party site.

The skyshards I could still live with, but what I absolutely hate is having to search items and containers in every room. If you see a screenshot of a room, you would not be able to tell which of the items on it you can interact with, and which of them are just decoration. So you need to go through the room and move the cursor (which is stuck in the middle of the screen, so you basically need to move the camera) over every bloody item in the room to find out whether you can do something with it. And if you can interact with the item, most of the time you just find a crafting ingredient. If you are lucky, a recipe. So for a craft like cooking you would be forced to really search every item in every room, which gets old very fast.

Many people believe that quests are quests, and that is all there is. That is why you frequently hear it said that World of Warcraft didn't do anything innovative to the MMORPG genre, because quests were there before WoW. But what the actual invention of World of Warcraft was, was how the quests guided you through the game, making sure you were in the right zone at the right level and so on. The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't do that. It has tons of quests, heavily scripted and using lots of phasing, but every series of quests stands on its own and doesn't lead you to the next series. Instead you see the icon for a quest-giver on your compass (and then over his head). As there are not really "quest hubs" like in WoW, it is easy to either miss quests, or to follow a quest line to an area which is too high level for you. For example you end the tutorial at level 3 and get dumped into a city with a suggestion in a text (but no quest) to go to the docks. As you can't get to the docks without encountering other quest givers, you easily end up doing level 5+ quests and missing out on the place with the level 3 quests that the docks would have sent you to. I even managed to do some quests where the quest reward item was too high level for my character, and I had to level up to use it. With your quest tracker only holding a single quest, it also isn't all that easy to keep your quests sorted by location, so you might very well do a quest in one location and then follow that quest series away, only to later find that you had another quest nearby.

Otherwise the quests aren't much different from quests in any other MMORPG. There are less quests that ask you to kill a specific number of monsters, but quite often you do have to go to a specific list of locations, each of which has monsters. Or, due to heavy use of phasing and scripting, the monster appears when you go somewhere. The advantage of that system is that if somebody else killsteals that mob, it doesn't hurt the progress of your quest. Even killing a specific quest end boss can be done in a group. Only the person initiating the attack gets the loot, but there is very little loot in this game. For many levels most mobs you kill will have exactly 1 gold piece. With a level 3 item costing already hundreds of gold pieces, your gold and gear will come nearly exclusively from quest rewards.

So what about the auction house? Well, there isn't one. Instead there are guild stores. So you will need to join a big guild with a big store if you want to buy and sell items or materials from / to other players. TESO is the first game I've seen that has "forced guilding", unless of course you don't want to participate in the player economy and crafting at all. The crafting system appears to be highly complex, with elements like "traits" being found by disassembling items, or special crafting stations allowing research that takes hours. And there isn't much in the way of a tutorial or explanation for it, so other than refining some jute I didn't do much crafting in the beta.

Combat in The Elder Scrolls Online is kind of weird. While you do get the choice between 4 character classes, they end up playing not so much different from each other. Your sorcerer will kill his first skeleton with a sword. At level 2 he will learn his first spell, but even then he can run out of mana quickly, and will still use a weapon. If you choose "veteran gear" to show on your character creation screen, you'll see your sorcerer in heavy plate armor with a big weapon. I haven't found a good reason yet why somebody would wear light armor instead of heavy one, but maybe there is some light armor in the game with big bonuses for casters. At the lower levels I played my sorcerer and my templar played basically exactly the same. Weirdly the templar's first healing spell didn't work on himself, only on others, and I read on the forums that xp distribution for healers in groups had issues. Not sure if that is a bug or a feature. Anyway, there was no reason to group in the levels I played. As others have reported, in combat you don't get much feedback whether you hit or missed your opponent. I suffered some lag (because to get the launcher to work I had to play on the American servers), and the system to block and interrupt the enemy attacks didn't work all that well for me. So basically most combat for me was casting spells until run out of mana, and then flailing some heavy weapon wildly and approximately in the direction of the enemy. Sometimes I got blocks or interrupts to work, but that felt somewhat random. So overall I didn't enjoy combat that much.

As I said before, I can see the potential of The Elder Scrolls Online. Some people will enjoy the game holding their hand less, and the complex sub-systems of gameplay. This is a game where reading up on what you should do in many areas is probably needed to do well. If you think that all information about a game should be contained in the game, TESO is probably not for you. On the one side The Elder Scrolls Online is pretty and complex, on the other it is full of bugs and annoying design choices. Personally I am not going to buy it. I assume that TESO will go Free2Play in a year, and that it'll take at least that long to get the most serious bugs out of the game, so I'd rather wait and play this for free in 2015, if at all.
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