It was a mission playing The Elder Scrolls Online Beta this weekend for a variety of reasons. In the end, I managed to log a bunch of hours with my awesome Red Guard character, but is this the next big thing or will the hype train pass us by on this one?
To begin, there were a load of technical issues with the beta. Granted, this is sort of what a beta is for – find the problems and fix them before the game officially launches. That said, the expectations for our patience and willingness to test broken code was rather frustrating. I was actually unable to download the 22GB client – my downloads kept crashing or breaking and the speeds were abysmal. Others managed to download 21GB before a file became corrupted, forcing players to download the whole thing again. So, this preview is only possible because of our amazing community member, BacchusZA, who left the comfort of his home to meet me for food and drink and file transfers.
Elder Scrolls games in general have a standard starting formula – throw a ton of lore at the character, put them in a prison as a tutorial phase, and then release them into a large, open world with more quests than they know what to do with. The MMO mostly follows this. You begin as a prisoner of Molag Bal with the standard “talk to this person, then this one, and then kill this guy to escape” routine, heavily padded with Elder Scrolls lore. Once free, you begin in your faction start area – an open world environment that is more reminiscent of the cloistered start areas from World of Warcraft than the expansive and intimidating open world of Skyrim.
The large download was certainly focused on all the assets in the game – there is no denying that it’s a very pretty MMO. You simply can’t compare it to the older games like WoW or Warhammer Online – the textures, environments and character models are worlds ahead. I particularly appreciated the ability to change perspective; a simply scroll of the mouse wheel had me moving from first-person to third-person perspective, making the game much more playable for me. However, my motion sickness from first-person did highlight the fact that the animations and uneven frame rates are not what they should be – I have mostly cured my first person-induced nausea but it returned with a vengeance until I zoomed out to third person.
While the game is pretty, it is lacking in environment and NPC animations. Sure, the game is still in beta and maybe that will be turned on when the polishing is done. However, it made the pretty textures seem redundant when the world was so stiff – it would have been nice to see more environmental effects and maybe even some better NPC interactions. Additionally, some clipping issues combined with the clear lack of substance of enemies (yes, even clipping issues with enemies that proved they were immaterial) undermined the overall visual quality of the game.
My favorite part of TESO was the leveling up system. The game allows you to fully customize your character; despite playing as a Red Guard, I chose to still follow a Damage per Second, rogue character build despite playing as a Tank race. The skills I used leveled up accordingly, allowing my character to grow in the direction I wanted her to. You can allocate attribute points to generally improve health, damage or magic, while skill points can be used for passive or active skills in a variety of trees. Should you choose, you could spend all your skill points in crafting as opposed to fighting skills – it depends entirely on your unique play style. Skills can also level up as you play and use them – adding to the feeling that you are actually improving at specific tasks rather than a generic leveling up “ding”.
While The Elder Scrolls Online was a fair amount of fun, it falls victim to the usual MMO traps. I spent most of my time looking for quest markers and then running through the laundry list of activities instead of paying real attention to what was going on. There were some story/plot quests, but for the most part they were just activities to help players level up without it feeling like pure grinding. At least the quests avoided the usual “kill x number of enemies” formula – I rescued some NPCs while disguised as a pirate, went into dungeons while searching for items and cured one man of insanity. However, in the grand scheme of gaming, it ended up feeling like an inconsequential series of tasks – I can only hope that these activities pay off or have some impact later on in the game.
Sure, The Elder Scrolls Online is massive, and there is some impressive voice acting and vision in the game. However, most fans of The Elder Scrolls games love it because of the expansive, single player experience. While running around in Tamriel this weekend, I didn’t see anything that truly differentiated this game from an experience possible in Skyrim, Morrowind or Oblivion. Yes, it is pretty and fresh and new – but it seems to lose out on the joy of a single player game without adding in anything special in multiplayer. Considering that the game will require a monthly subscription, I just don’t see the added value in paying for this MMORPG.
It’s important to realize that this was just a beta – I won’t even complain about server issues or login queues; they are doing the beta so that these issues can be resolved in time for launch. However, I’m curious about what The Elder Scrolls Online can bring to the table to make me want to pay to play it every month. Sure, I’ve already become attached to my character, but I can replicate that experience in any good single player RPG.