When Bethesda revealed plans for an MMO built on its acclaimed RPG franchise, the response from the established fanbase was a mix of ‘awesome!’, ‘oh, god no’, ‘wtf, why?’, and ‘hmmmm’.
As a long time consumer of the brand myself, I fit into that last category, with concern that hamfisted cramming of Elder Scrolls lore into a different type of game could sour the series, but also cautious optimism that maybe the developers could actually retain enough of the essence that I’ve loved about the classic RPGs from Arena through Skyrim, and deliver an MMO that’s more palatable to me than the genre has generally been.
I play a lot of videogames, but not many MMOs. I’ve tried quite a few over the years, but never really felt compelled to stick around for more than a month or so. I love good storytelling with rich lore, and exploring intricately crafted environments, but in contrast to the freedom offered in single-player RPGs like Skyrim, Mass Effect and The Witcher, the persistent nature of a massively multiplayer game necessitates a framework of stricter rules and constraints that generally made an MMO experience less enjoyable for my tastes.
With that context out of the way, I’m currently 13 character levels into the The Elder Scrolls Online beta (public test server), and still roaming the wider starting locality of my chosen alliance, The Ebonheart Pact, as a Nord Dragon Knight, focusing on dual-wield weapons.
I haven’t done much of anything social or multiplayer yet -- no grouping, or trading or player vs player (PvP) -- so I can’t comment on the value of bringing persistent multiplayer to an Elder Scrolls game, but I can absolutely share some thoughts on how much of the game’s ingredients have managed to recreate the spirit of an Elder Scrolls game so far.
Aesthetically The Elder Scrolls Online has already very successfully captured the look and feel of the traditional Elder Scrolls games, specifically the most recent, Skyrim. From the environments and colour palettes, to the user interface icons and conversation camera, at face value the game appears very familiar.
The first person viewpoint option offers further familiarity, and for the most part it feels well executed with combat animations, but it’s presently let down by a claustrophobic FOV, with no apparent way to adjust it. Such a narrow field of view might be fine for playing in the lounge room on the upcoming console versions of the game, but as a PC gamer sitting at a desk, the extra immersion of first person in it’s current limited form, is not a worthwhile tradeoff over the rear-vision advantages of the MMO-standard third person camera.
The lore, races and bestiary of The Elder Scrolls seem like a fine fit for an MMO, and the ancient-prequel concept (it’s set 1000 years before the events of Skyrim) works well at building on but not overly disrupting the canon of the existing games. There’s enough variety in creatures and the abilities of non-player characters that I’ve never really felt like I’ve been battling with too much of the same thing so far, and it feels like I’m still just scratching the surface there.
The openness of the world is similarly well represented too. After leaving the initial introduction area, the available world opens up quite a bit, and although outdoor areas aren’t as contiguous as we’re used to in Oblivion and Skyrim, reasonably vast areas of Tamriel’s countryside can still be traversed without loading screens, and have been well-populated with places of interest and fast travel points.
Item crafting is another feature that translates quite well from the offline Elder Scrolls experience. The availability of raw materials and time cost of production is inflated to suit a persistent online game’s economy, but the techniques and methods available are all pleasantly familiar. Much of the game is like this; you can perform a lot of the same things you could in Skyrim; it will just take a bit longer and won’t let you get too powerful.
Pacing has been pretty good so far too, and I haven’t had to do any kind of grinding. As long as you’re vanquishing enough foes along the course of your quests (and not just sneaking around them) the level progress seems to track quest availability quite well in the early game. Whether that concentrated content will continue into the later levels remains to be seen.
Playing from Australia on North American servers is the standard trans-pacific MMO experience, and the biggest detracting factor versus a single-player RPG. Movement outside of combat is generally well served by client prediction and most of the user-interface is client side and unencumbered, but the tyranny of distance lags every other interaction with the game world. I don’t think Bethesda has officially confirmed server hosting locations, but my own crude tests appear to be pointing at Dallas, Texas, which means 200ms on a good day from our part of the world.
For every crate and barrel you press a key to loot there’s that momentary pause, just long enough to be annoying, and although there seems to be some manner of client prediction at work in the PvE combat, the delayed hit registration seems much clunkier than I can recall experiencing in Diablo 3, for example, and pales in comparison to a smooth offline RPG experience. The netcode is presumably dialed further toward the game integrity/server security side of things at the expense of us high-ping players for now, but perhaps that will be ironed out somewhat as development continues.
It has also been frustrating embarking on a quest labelled suitable for my character level, only to reach an encounter clearly designed for a group of multiple players. As far as I can tell, the game doesn’t currently have any way of indicating which challenges are ok for a solo melee player. I’m not sure if this a common thing for MMOs or just an oversight?
In terms of bugs, I can only speak for myself here, but I have been incredibly surprised at how few issues I’ve encountered. Combining the notoriously bugger Elder Scrolls heritage with the ambition of an MMO seemed like a sure-fire recipe for a perfect storm of volatility, yet the only crashes I’ve met have been on initial sign-in to the game. Quite amazingly, I actually have not experienced a single moment of active play time interrupted by a client crash or server drop out
Over 50 quests in, at level 13 there hasn’t been anything other than minor anomalies. Just things like the odd NPC rubber-banding or teleporting to catch up where the game intends them to be, or forgivable immersion-breaking stuff like being attacked by a frenzied Clanfear in the middle of a bunch of supposedly allied warriors that just stand around completely oblivious as you’re being eviscerated.
There’s still a whole lot of game left to explore, but at this point, I really have to tip my hat to Zenimax Online and the QA team at Bethesda for their apparent vigilance in bug-squashing a game of this complexity. Hopefully it’s not because the rest of the game has been horribly neglected.
I was skeptical going in, and remain somewhat so about the rest of the game, but so far so good. The Elder Scrolls Online is not Skyrim with multiplayer -- the freedom is constrained, there’s latency and no hope of the kind of glorious community modding we’ve enjoyed with Bethesda’s offline games-- but it feels like just enough of the familiar elements of the series have survived the genre translation to keep it authentic. As a long time Elder Scrolls fan I’ve been happy to discover that the game so far has been a worthy delivery mechanism for new tales of Tamriel.