PAX Prime 2013: The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on
Co-op Elder Scrolls has been something of a rallying cry for fans of the series for a while now, even if the games have all been carefully crafted, immersive single-player experiences. The idea of exploring a world as richly detailed as Skyrim, but with friends, is incredibly appealing – and for the first ten minutes, that’s what The Elder Scrolls Online was starting to feel like. As I ran around the starting area looking at all the mugs and candles and scraps of paper on tables in first-person, I started to get the Elder Scroll bug. I had to see everything.
“I started to get the Elder Scroll bug. I had to see everything”Talking to NPCs and even exploring the world all feels very Elder Scrolls. Zenimax Online has nailed the overall feel of the classic RPG series. The compass looks like Skyrim‘s compass. The movement feels like Skyrim‘s movement. The music, which sounds like series veteran Jeremy Soule’s work, sets a familiar tone. The combat feels like Elder Scrolls combat. This is where things started to come apart at the seams a little.
The Elder Scrolls is lauded for many things, but combat is not one of them. Similarly, MMOs haven’t exactly been romanticized for their action lately – most games succeed despite playing like every other MMO released for the past ten years. With The Elder Scrolls Online, the dull thrills of Skyrim combat meets the rigid rotation of old-school MMO design, and it becomes a bit of a drag. The early quests on offer during this demo all involved retrieving items from areas infested with skeletons, skeletons that took a few too many sword swipes and hotbar-cast lightning bolts to go down. Stronger enemies are exercises in exploiting the simple block-and-attack mechanics. Skeletons (and a wolf that chased me across half the map) charging a power attack emit some shiny particle effects, which cause them to stagger if blocked. This opens up a window to charge your own power attack, which… doesn’t do too much damage. It’s all being balanced out, I’m sure, but everything felt like it took about twice as long as it should in this demo.
“Everything felt like it took about twice as long as it should”The world is at least fun to explore. The area on display was a chunk of Skyrim, complete with cool Nordic ruins and beautiful tundras. Running around the world is immediately reminiscent of the simple pleasures of exploring an Elder Scrolls world, and I’m really interested in seeing other areas come to life again in MMO form. The quests, despite being typical fetch objectives, at least had a very Skyrim flavor – at one point I was collecting crests bearing the same whale-eagle-etc-etc animal symbols used to open doors and crypts in Skyrim. If the writing is there to back the game up, it could woo players less than impressed with its MMO trappings. Experiencing that kind of thing with other people around could be a ton of fun.
There are some other quirks that made themselves apparent during the demo time, as well. I had grouped up with another writer testing the game, but our quest paths diverged within the first twenty minutes. Apparently quests are instanced per-player based on dialogue choices or which NPCs involved are alive or dead (which, I assume then, is also instanced per-player). Perhaps if we had coordinated on every possible choice presented to us, we could have experienced the same quest, but we were each offered NPCs and dialogue options, so we both took our own paths – not realizing it would cause such a split. At one point, my partner was having a conversation with an NPC ghost I couldn’t even see, and had entirely different objectives I couldn’t help with. At that point it seemed silly to even be grouped up in the first place. This could also have all stemmed from some key information being left out to us by the demo givers, but if splitting off into completely different questlines is this easy to do by accident, it would have been nice to know.
“It hasn’t quite grabbed me yet”Between that and getting stuck in walls and having to log out and log back in three times, I left The Elder Scrolls Online feeling conflicted. The game has a fantastic coat of Elder Scrolls paint over the top of it, but from what I experienced (which, granted, is still an alpha build) I’m not sure I enjoyed the game underneath. Maybe it’ll flourish into a better combination in the months to come. As someone with a love of The Elder Scrolls and an interest in multiplayer RPGs, it hasn’t quite grabbed me yet.