We may have found the game changer
I’ve never been much of an MMO gamer. Save for a tempestuous one week romance with World of Warcraft and an intense two-day tryst with Star Wars: The Old Republic, my MMO experiences have been very limited. Since I never fully embraced these worlds, I quickly find myself outmatched by experienced players after completing the tutorials, and I am not a good loser.
I have, however, ploughed many hours into single-player RPGs and none have been more engrossing to me than Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. Unsurprisingly then, when Bethesda announced their plans to release a huge MMO set across the entirety of Tamriel, I became more interested than ever in online gaming. Could Bethesda be the team to finally pull me aboard the MMO train?
Character creation offers as many choices as you’d want to bring your avatar to life, comprising of three stages. First you choose a race, each of which is linked to one of three warring factions in ESO’s campaign. I chose a hardy Nord; known for their weapon prowess and brash offensive capabilities. Next, players choose a class, which will have early influences over the skills that your player is most likely to excel at. Here I opted for the awesomely named ‘Nightblade’ – assassins with an affinity for speed, stealth and combat with blades. Finally players craft a detailed appearance for their character through sliders and pre-set options. Since I personally am about as far from warrior-looking as a person can get, I opted against modelling my character on my own slight appearance and basically just made him look like a Nordic Vinnie Jones. Oosh!
After creation, it quickly becomes apparent that your character is – true to Tamriel tradition – a prisoner. Immediately, a ghostly figure named The Prophet is revealed and helps you make your escape. After a dungeon-crawling combat tutorial and the reveal that your fate is tied to something greater, you’re released into a vast world of dangerous creatures, warring factions and endless possibilities starting in the pleasant familiarity of a small Skyrim village. This location offered a glimpse at how the game’s other small settlements will look. Though no sign of the guilds just yet, there is a small area packed with NPCs who offer insights into the game’s mundane skills such as clothing and provisioning. It’s worth taking time to study these, here, as later in the game players who neglect them may find that their numbskull that can’t feed or dress himself will be swiftly undone by savvier enemies.
At this point the game still limits player exploration to a small area, but there were plenty of new locations to uncover. Each one offered a new activity or task and my quest log quickly started to grow. In this early stage of the story these additional objectives are tied to the overarching task of returning as many scattered citizens back to safety as you can. They include tasks like luring a creature called a ‘deathclaw’ out to aid a hunter in killing it and even following a Lassie-esque dog to its wounded owner’s location. It felt as if the game wanted me to be as thorough as I could, and tying these extra quests to a bigger goal allows players to see the influence they can have here. The NPCs charged with signposting the way through the game’s main story quest offered countless reminders that some of the village’s citizens would be left behind if I chose to press on with the direct strand, and even managed to make me feel guilty enough to reconsider ploughing ahead to save time. I really felt I could not move on until I had managed to save every last one of these unique and well-crafted citizens.
Character interaction was typically entertaining for an Elder Scrolls game. It’s locales are well-populated with interesting characters that react intuitively to your actions. After completing the game’s first story quest and leading the village’s citizens to safety, I was cheered and praised each time I passed onlookers in the next location. The most intriguing NPCs you’ll meet, however, are those you find in quests or off the beaten path. Bethesda have once again been able to draw in some top class vocal talent, with John Cleese and Michael Gambon lending their voices early on.
Other strengths take similar lead from their predecessors. ESO’s combat will be familiar to players of 2011’s Skyrim as they control their characters’ arms with a specific button. Using the unmodified PC setup will have players controlling the right and left arm of their warrior with the right and left mouse buttons. This meant my Nord was equipped with a well-used sword in his left hand and a considerably less combat-worn shield in his right. Basic combat using these buttons is simple, but will get you no further than about level 2, however, as enemies past the level of wolves or mudcrabs require a more tactical approach. Here ESO’s detailed skill system comes in most handy. Each time characters level up, they gain a skill point to be allocated to a perk in one of their class’s skill trees. These skills can be passive and ongoing or you can opt for active, combat-based skills that are hotkey-ed in the game’s HUD. These skills will be the ones that really boost your character’s prowess in combat. My combination of a teleport strike – to catch my enemy off-guard – followed by a heavy blow was admittedly basic by nonetheless devastating when employed correctly.
Strength to strength
The game’s single player potential takes a clear lead from Bethesda’s single player pedigree, but more impressive still is the fact that they are able to apply what they already do so well to the game’s online side. In PVE questing other players can easily assist one another on the same quest without one suffering an inability to progress alongside the other. For me an early quest to protect an NPC from a horde of enemies felt as though it was almost meant to be a co-op mission as my temporary companion and I fought them back in unison. In instances like this quest items load in locations independently within your game and so you’re not forced to wait for them to re-load if another player gets there just before you. This means players who form a brief partnership to defeat an onslaught of enemies do not then become foes again as they race off to be the first one to progress. You really can form long-standing and equally beneficial alliances in this game.
Speaking of alliances, PVP takes its basis from the warring factions of Tamriel that I alluded to earlier. These factions – the Aldmeri Dominion, the Ebonheart Pact and the Daggerfall Covenant – are locked in conflict over who will take the throne as Emperor. This campaign’s arena is Cyrodiil, which players of Bethesda’s ‘Oblivion’ will be familiar with. The entire region is split into three sections that are initially dominated by one faction. This structure works well for the game as, rather than this being a free-for-all, succeeding for your faction requires cooperation and careful planning. I quickly learned that charging around trying to defeat others on my own was a terrible idea and I was being swiftly dealt with by groups from other factions.
After licking my wounds and teaming with other players the true knack to this became clear. PVP in this game is about being on the winning team, and the only way to do this is to play your part. As a Nightblade I made an excellent scout and so I was the first one to approach enemy settlements while my allies waited to sweep in and overpower the enemies’ defences. Securing a new location adds points to your faction’s total, but offers further reward as well. Players are sent random items by their commander to commend their efforts and the faction as a whole can boost their defences or acquire siege weapons to make assaults on bigger targets more likely to succeed.
The elements of ESO combine well enough to encourage players to stick with it all rather than focus on just one aspect. The thrill of aiding my faction and devastating the others was well-balanced by my desire to delve back into the story quests and thwart the Daedric Prince Molag Bol. There are plenty of reasons to explore just about everything it has to offer as an MMO, and it’s refreshing to see that this game still feels a lot like an Elder Scrolls game. Tamriel’s heritage is honoured and enriched in this addition, and the opportunity to explore it even further is more than enough reason to give the game a chance. I can certainly say that ESO is the MMO I’ve been waiting for, and if you’re on the fence I would urge you to leap off and join me on the Tamriel side without a second thought.
All images: Bethesda Softworks