Playing With Elder Scrolls Online At E3

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Will Skyrim’s Single Player RPGers Embrace New MMO Format?

Editor’s Note: Lisa Campos got to play extensively with The Elder Scrolls Online at the E3 Expo trade show. As a huge Elder Scrolls fan, she was quite critical, and asked many important questions to developers as to why this MMO would be different from others out there. This is her report.

In my opinion, one of the things Bethesda has always done exceptionally well is to create fabulously nuanced appearance customization systems for playable characters. You can spend many hours finely crafting a face for a character in a Bethesda game. I have done so. This reached its apex in my painstaking three hour facial construction tour de force that was my dark elf character in Oblivion. I enjoy appearance generators in every game in which they appear, but that dark elf really stood apart in the history of my creations.

And then I plunged into the gameplay of Oblivion itself, and was reminded of one of the things Bethesda can do that drives me absolutely crazy – which is to allow you to create fabulously customized characters whose faces you then never see in the course of actual gameplay. You are relegated to compulsively bringing up your inventory menu to remind yourself that you actually do have a face, which you spent hours lovingly fine-tuning, and with which you so badly wanted to identify this gameplay experience. If you’re lucky maybe you’ll get some VATS replay with an occasional glimpse, but for the most part your glorious face is faceless. The tragedy!

Those of you who may have felt even an inkling of this should be as happy as I am to learn two things. First, that the appearance generation system in Elder Scrolls Online is up to Bethesda standards in terms of nuance and fine crafting. Second, that you can actually see your character! Full on rotate the camera around, get that screenshot, show off that armor, waltz around like a badass in front of the entire online community see your character. Sweet, sweet payoff!

The potential for variety and customization involved in this aspect alone already sets Elder Scrolls Online apart from other MMOs, which will be coming next year to the PC, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One platforms.

Instead of a world of familiar visual pieces adding up to familiar roles all combining to make a sea of generalized sameness in which only those who are intrusively obnoxious manage to stand out, with Elder Scrolls Online there is a real opportunity for a community of characters who can be as varied, and as interesting, as a community of living people. It isn’t just about a variety of appearances – though in a video game, which is after all very much about what you’re looking at, this is no small feat. It’s also about other things, other areas for potential nuance, for which Bethesda is similarly known.

Like other Elder Scrolls games before it, Elder Scrolls Online features skills that will level up with use, rather than by purchase, and which are not restricted to a class. Want to make the heavy armor-wearing, sneaky, lock-picking archer-mage? Feel free. Play your preference, walk your talk, and you can give your character that nuance.

Allowing players that sort of freedom means that many of the typical roles we’re used to seeing in MMOs become less relevant, if not irrelevant altogether. Want to do a little bit of healing and tanking both? Feel free. Want to party up with your friends, but everyone’s a healer? That’s fine. The developer who so patiently answered my questions as I fiddled around with my demo opportunity insisted that Elder Scrolls Online was completely playable without adhering to the traditional strict party makeup required by many MMOs. As long as you and your party of all tanks can manage to make your characters as they are meet the challenge… then they meet the challenge. Or they do not. My heavy armor-wearing, sneaky, lock-picking, archer-mage managed to close all those Oblivion gates through the power of alchemy (otherwise known as the gift of invisibility potions) and that was a delightfully personalized experience. The fact that Elder Scrolls Online is making an effort to deliver even a fraction of that potential in an MMO is impressive. And what impressed me most about the demo was that it appeared they may have had some degree of success.

Although you pick a very basic starting class upon character creation, this seems mostly to be a function that exists to provide the minimum amount of structure required to create something from nothing. In the same way that you pick a class at the beginning of other Elder Scrolls games, but can then fine tune and patchwork that into a Frankenstein much more your own, ESO offers you something akin to a standard warrior, rogue, mage option to begin with. Further nuance is created through some other starting class selections, then mix and match options as you level up, and finally through actual gameplay.

But even here we are not totally free from some staple MMO fare. You have a hot bar, to which you assign specific abilities chosen as you level. They have cool downs as you might expect, and their standard animations. Missing, however, is any form of auto-attack; you better swing that sword if you want to swing that sword. You better block if you want to block. And you better make sure you’re taking facing into consideration. These elements keep the gamer a bit more on their action toes. And yes, developers confirmed that there will be a first person perspective option for ESO, although this was not ready for the E3 hands-on demo.

Just as emphasis has been placed on the fact that ESO is bringing some of that Bethesda character customizability to the MMO experience, we are also being emphatically assured that some of that open world wonder will be delivered too. We are told there are rewards to be had in Elder Scrolls Online for wandering off the beaten path and exploring what might lie over that horizon. In fact, my questions about how long it could potentially take a player to play all the way through the main storyline of their chosen faction were met with an answer not unlike what one would expect for any other Elder Scrolls game: if you don’t explore that vast world, it won’t take you much time at all. But the vast world is there for the exploring!

Just how vast that is may be a different story. Can they really pack a Skyrim eternity into an MMO? Are you ever really likely to wander those hills and not see another player soul? Aren’t we all just going to congregate in Daggerfall like a bunch of pixilated magnets unable to break away from the force exerted by multiple vendors all in the same place?

In many ways, I walked away from the ESO demo with a feeling that the game looks like it’s going to fall half-way between other examples of the MMO world, and only time will tell whether or not that is a good thing.

The game will feature instances, which are familiar MMO fare. But without (supposedly) the requirement of a strict party make up, it remains to be seen if instances can be made practically functional without the guide of party roles to allow total strangers with varying degrees of tactical sense to come together into any sort of cohesive group. Will the middle ground here be a happy one? Or does this open things up to a whole lot of infuriating bickering and flaming, effectively isolating players who wanted to get creative in their builds from ever being able to ‘fit’ into a group?

All NPCs in ESO are fully voiced, setting it apart from much of the rest of the field. Your character, however, is not voiced, which puts ESO half-way between something like Star Wars: The Old Republic and most other MMOs. The world feels more real, but do you?

Similarly, interacting with these fully voiced NPCs in ESO happens through a dialogue selection interface, again, setting it apart from most of the MMO field. But fundamentally these dialogue selections boil down to only two options: a single pre-determined question that keeps NPCs talking on a pre-determined script, and ‘goodbye.’ It is only an illusion of intractability, in the same way you blindly accept quests in other MMOs without the need for any real input. So is there really any benefit to be had from such an interface, or does it just suck up time?

I was left wondering whether or not the game was really trying to sell itself as a story you were supposed to have power in shaping. Is this primarily a story experience? Primarily a tactical experience? Primarily a community experience? There is always a danger, when something promises to be a little bit of everything, that it ends up being not enough of any one thing at all.

There will be moments in ESO when you are provided with more than just “Tell Me More” and “Goodbye” options; moments of real choice. Help, or don’t help? Let live, or deliver death? When I asked if the game would be incorporating the use of phased terrain to allow the player the illusion of a changing world, I was told that although there will be some use of phasing, the effort was to make this minimal. Which again begs the question: just what sort of experience is the game trying to achieve? If, in an earlier portion of a quest chain, you convinced NPC X to join the military, you may meet him in uniform later, and he may help you. But if the buddy you are partied up with did not nudge NPC X down the military path, you will see and hear NPC X but your buddy will not. Will this make for a great personalized experience? Or will it ultimately defeat the purpose of trying to share an experience online to begin with?

Final judgment is, as always, up to the individual player. But there are some fronts on which ESO appears unquestioningly poised to succeed.

The game is stunningly beautiful, just as one would expect, and hope, from an Elder Scrolls world. Exploring should be a delight here as much as it is in the single player experiences.

Insomuch as replay ability is a factor in MMOs, you can rest assured knowing that you’ll get some of that in ESO too. After completing the main storyline for your faction, you then have the option to take your character and play through the main storylines for the other factions too, essentially ‘toggling’ the game world so that the other factions (or at least their NPCs) perceive you as one of their own. This does not functionally change your allegiance. Rather, it is meant to allow you to see what those other factions had to offer, for those, I suppose, who just don’t want to create alts.

Three key areas do seem to be ESO’s strongest points: customizability, variety, scope.

Customizability: Character appearance, Malleable class builds, The ability to switch emphasis mid-stream, Freedom from strict party make up restrictions

Variety: Three player factions instead of the typical two, As many types of characters to interact with as the players who play them

The option to wander off the beaten path and (hopefully) still feel like you’re accomplishing something

Scope: PVP being primarily an open world function allowing for hundreds of players to engage in the same battlefield

A large world that benefits from all the lore, richness, and depth many years of Elder Scrolls games can bring to the table.

There are many things to find tantalizing about Elder Scrolls Online. But after the demo, and tormenting as many developers as I could corner with as many questions as I could muster, all of the detail and flash and possibility filtered down in my mind to the following.

If you are a long time fan of the Elder Scrolls games, you will want to play this one.

If you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls games, but have never liked MMOs enough to get hooked on one, this is the MMO you will want to try. You have a very, very good chance of liking it an awful lot.

If you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls games, but absolutely hate MMOs, then Elder Scrolls Online, despite all that seems to set it apart, is probably not going to be different enough from other MMOs to overcome your distaste of the genre.

Alternatively, if you absolutely love MMOs, and few things give you as much satisfaction as crunching those tactics to achieve that perfect role synergy required to beat that tricky boss, then ESO may not be for you. Those who appreciate a clear structure to follow and clear goals to strive for may not find either here.

If the minutiae of RPG mechanics have always sort of irritated you, and you do not have the patience to pay careful attention to every piece of equipment you use, every skill point you assign, and every nuance of your gameplay, then ESO is not the game for you any more than the single player Elder Scrolls games are.

Basically, if you are an Elder Scrolls fan, you will like this game. You may not, however, love it.

The nuanced single player experience is fundamentally different from what can be achieved in an MMO. Bethesda may manage to achieve a happy medium, but it’s just as possible that they will have concocted a blend that will please neither the single player fan nor the MMO fan at either end of the spectrum – and given how quickly and how dramatically the winds of fate can shift when it comes to the survivability of MMOs these days, trying to achieve the middle ground might be a risky proposition.

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