In the last decade massively-multiple player role playing games (MMORPGs) have become nearly as ubiquitous for PC gamers as first-person shooters are for consoles. Every year adds a dozen new releases to those previously published, with most of these games following the formula of making a character, joining with others, and then grinding away for hours in order to get better abilities and gear and utilizing a free-to-play structure which counts on gamers becoming emotionally invested in the games enough that they are willing to financially invest in them as well.
Even many of those games which begin as pay-to-play experiences (Star Wars: The Old Republic, Aion, Dungeons and Dragons Online) have eventually moved into a free model granting its supporters a premium status. Thus when a new MMORPG releases with a monthly subscription, it needs to promise something special. That’s exactly what The Elder Scrolls Online does.
ESO arrives today with much fanfare and expectation. Previous games in the series have become legendary, with its most recent installment, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, heralded by many critics and gamers as 2011’s Game of the Year and the greatest game of the previous console generation. In many ways Skyrim played as the best of both the off and online gaming worlds: the deep customization and story progression of single player, the free exploration and (computerized) companionship of multi-player. Thus the series stepping into MMO territory is no surprise, but still a tremendous risk.
Upon starting ESO for the first time I was very pleased to find that much of the customization which contributed so much to Skyrim remains intact. While there may not be the same glut of options as the single-player experience, there is still more than enough to make a character that truly feels like your own. Besides, how many people really put that much thought in how wide they want the bridge of their character’s nose to be anyway? Between the number of races available and the face and body options, chances seem very slim that Elder Scrolls characters will have the same doppelganger effect that many other MMORPGs do.
The first major obstacle in my initial game experience came when selecting my character’s class. The brief descriptions provided a good enough idea of the rough archetypes (Dragonknight is a fighter, Nightblade is a thief, Sorcerer is a wizard and Templar is a paladin) without influencing my decision too much. While this was a bit difficult at first, the lack of exposition made me feel free to follow my own instincts toward the character I wanted, a welcome departure from the often rigid boundaries of most MMOs.
It was actually this freedom which stood out most when first firing up ESO. While the game was a bit overwhelming with the sheer abundance of newness, kind of like being a chimney sweep handed a sword and shield and shoved onto the battlefield, the control scheme was introduced gently enough that I didn’t feel too frustrated. This is not the standard stand-and-spam control scheme I was used to. Every character, from a heavily armored tank to a dress-wearing magician, can dodge and block attacks, allowing a much more active play style. Luckily for me, who actually enjoys standing toe-to-toe with opponents because I’m not particularly skilled at quick keyboard movements, the games provides enough warning of enemy attacks to promote motion and eventually options open up which make stationary wailing as viable a strategy as strafing and striking. In fact, I’ve been able to comfortably accomplish both on one character.
Unfortunately the presentation of my ESO experience has thus far been a bit stunted as my personal computer, on which I marveled at Skyrim, had a hard drive failure the day before ESO early access began, forcing me to play on lower quality than I otherwise would. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that ESO is overflowing with life. The game resides on the realistic end of gaming graphics rather than cartoonish or overly idealized. Although I’ve only seen a few early levels, it appears that clothing and gear as well adheres more toward functionality than style.
The main cities (those I’ve seen in the starting zones of the Ebonheart Pact and the Daggerfall Covenant) don’t vary as wildly as those of other MMORPGs but definitely have a different feel in their structure. The island zones encountered in the first few levels, Stros M’Kai with Daggerfall and Bleakrock Island for Ebonheart, leave very different impressions: the former being an open, sand-strewn desert and the latter a thick-walled, frozen tundra. The zones which follow, although similar in being more tropical, have their own distinct looks in terms of color palette and native species. No matter the level of graphics available on your system, it’s clear that zones are abundant and alive, from other players and active NPCS to birds swooping overhead and even lightning storms coming in.
Presentation also remains high for the voice acting of nearly every character encountered as they relate their personal dilemma for the player to navigate. Some pretty high profile actors including John Cleese, Malcolm McDowell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Gambon and Lynda Carter (of Wonder Woman fame) provide the voice talent here.
Although I initially skipped much of the character narration, there is a surprisingly sophisticated storytelling in ESO’s early levels. Of course, there are a few gather/kill quests, but they serve a higher purpose in advancing the story which often ends with my character having to decide the fate of an item or NPC. I have yet to see if these decisions will mean anything later, but it’s still nice to feel as though my actions have consequence, an illusion further developed by having guards bow as I pass or the town crier extoll my exploits. I haven’t seen much of the main story, but many of the side stories have been just as rewarding.
Thus far ESO has impressed with its staggering level of refinement both large and small. Little things like NPCs reacting as I pass, running through thunder storms and finding stale bread in scattered crates make the whole world seem more living than the often static environments of other MMOs, while big things like not being stuck in cookie-cutter character design or class builds have me eager to see what unique and deadly combinations my avatar is capable of. It may be early in the game, but I can’t envision ESO becoming the gear chase that many of its contemporaries do. At least not while there’s still so much to develop about what’s in my character rather than what‘s on it.
Expect part 2 of this review sometime next week, hopefully on my own computer with higher settings. Until then, I’m going to continue exploring Tamriel, and all the wonders within it.