Sir Paddy Investigates: The Elder Srolls Online / 13th of March 2015
I suppose it's a testament to The Elder Scrolls Online that I've forgotten to even start writing about it at least two times now, but I'm a little bit enamoured with Bethesda/Zenimax's MMO baby. I'm gripped in ways that Oblivion and Skyrim never really managed and there's a bunch of good reasons for this too.
Here are a few important points before I start to gush like a pre-2006 Gary Glitter fan:
1. It's not out yet on consoles, that's coming June 9th
2. It no longer requires a subscription (coming March 17th, so if you pick it up for PC now then a week’s worth of packed in game time will get you there)
3. The majority of the major changes for the subscription model change are already in and enhance the game massively.
4. The "Crown Store", an optional in-game cash purchase shop has not yet launched, but if the prices from the public test servers are anything to go by, it's surprisingly reasonable. Purchasing the game gifts 500 Crowns off the bat, roughly the amount of some of the better, though still cheap, utility items.
Right, now that that’s out of the way, it’s on with the show then.
Like most MMOs you start in an average tutorial that treats you like a bell-end who doesn't know how to swing his sword, I guess it's sort of important here as ESO has no automatic attack. Like Skyrim, along with Morrowind and Oblivion, you click to swing. Unlike all of these, however, you have a small hot bar, the size of which is very important, as it explains the core appeal of the game. The hot bar holds all your non-standard attacks, all of your special spells, and, in all honestly, choosing just six spells (later upgraded to twelve at level fifteen) is surprisingly freeing. It makes your build choices very meaningful without being entirely locked in, as any time out of combat, you can change what's on this bar provided that you’ve unlocked the skills you want.
There are only four classes in Elder Scrolls Online, but there are dozens of ways to play each one. Your class gives you three specific skill sets, but that’s the ONLY restriction they hold you to, and every type of weapon brings it's very own skill set. You can be a sorcerer with a gigantic sword, or a knight who specialises in shooting fire from a staff. You can become a vampire or werewolf, each with their own special abilities and every class has access to these. It's a really, really interesting system and the most intricate one I've seen since Turbine's very wonky - but charming in its own way - Dungeons and Dragons Online. There's a great deal of variety on offer, capable of allowing you to vastly change the way you play in a few seconds, and if all else fails, it's fairly simple to re-spec all your stats and start over.
Elsewhere EOS can, at times, impress you with seemingly high production values, it's not exactly Crysis 3, but they've done a lot right with a limited technical budget. The recent patch gives a lot of textures that ‘next-gen’ polish and there’s some very pretty vistas to look out over. Taking place over the entirety of Tamriel means there's a lot more to see than just the snowy wastes of Skyrim, though a big chunk of that area is in there for people who like their environments to be a bit dreary. It all looks very nice and while it's certainly not perfect, it's one of the better MMOs I've seen whilst the aesthetics are fairly faithful to the Elder Scrolls series.
As with any Elder Scrolls game questing is very much the name of the game. They’re a mix of predictable fetch quests such as hunting for ten bear arses, and epic sweeping assaults on Daedric princes. Quest phasing (the art of placing two MMO players in one area at the same time while making different events happen for each of them) is used sometimes terrifically, but it can also be a bit shoddy to say the least. It does at least do an okay job of making you feel as though you’re the true hero of the story, even if your immersion is occasionally shattered by some max level bell-end who's on the same stage of the quest that you’re on, one-shotting the supposedly all powerful boss.
Every single line of dialogue is voice acted, although it's the same kind of quality as Skyrim, so expect lots of awful Norwegian accents, terrible Arnie impressions, and plenty of Khajiit mumblings... and one cheerful nutter with a chamber pot on his head and voiced by John Cleese.
Each of the three factions in the game has an overarching adventure running through their various lands. All of them can participate in the (primarily single-player) main quests for both the fighters and mages guilds, along with the primary story quest of defeating the villainous Molag Bal, the dastardly evil doer who has not only laid claim to your soul, but wants to conquer the world. Knob.
These factions are part of a three-way, player versus player war, which is totally optional to your enjoyment of the game, and thankfully hasn't stooped to requiring two different sets of gear like Blizzard's rival MMO eventually did. I honestly can't speak much on it, but fans of Guild Wars 2 will recognize the model, a big area where tonnes of people vie for land for their factions. You can even become the Emperor of Cyrodil, a nice touch, but I'm not likely to get it done anytime soon.
As a side note, after the completion of the main quest, and once you're at level fifty, you can move on to doing the faction quests for a completely different group. Unfortunately however, this is not selectable, you just get sent to another zone as if you're only just starting out. Smartly though, Bethesda have decided to make these separate phases of each area and scales their difficulty for veteran players. So far I'm very much enjoying seeing the story play out elsewhere, without having to start an entirely new character.
As for the factions themselves, each one has three races assigned to them, and so you cannot cross faction without buying some DLC. For PC players, this DLC is available for about £2 if you shop around, and it should be available in the Crown Store once it goes live. The tenth and final race are the Imperials, and they can also cross faction. While I kind of begrudged paying for this, I love that it's an option, I love being a cat man running round molesting small insects in Morrowind, the usual questing zone for Nords, Argonians and Dark Elves.
All in all there's a heck of a lot of game here for the money, and while much of it is grinding nonsense, it's the most fun that I've had at that type of thing in ages. Some of the stories are genuinely compelling - at least, more compelling than I found Skyrim's flimsy plot to be – and there are interesting choices to make that effect how quests play out (it's not quite The Witcher 2, but I did get to pick who dies and who lives more than a few times. You can even learn the ‘persuade’ and ‘intimidate’ skills, which allow for a whole bunch of quests take different paths.
Right, I’m away back to it, the newest update added ‘pick pocketing’ so I'm off to be a sneaky thief cat. That’s a real thing, honest.