Hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online: the evolution of Bethesda’s fantasy realm
Instead of bringing The Elder Scrolls VI to the gaming world, Bethesda has opted instead to transition their fantasy universe into the realm of MMO’s with The Elder Scrolls Online. The game has been in a closed beta for months now, and Bethsoft is busy chipping away at the game and refining it’s massive and considerable content for an open beta and an eventual release.
Bethesda has also recently announced that The Elder Scrolls Online will be making its way onto next-gen consoles as well, and will see a release on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (as well as PC).
At E3 2013, we had the opportunity to go hands-on with Bethsoft’s new adventure and create our very own character and start from the very bottom.
ESO offers a huge variety of customization options, mirroring the options that were major features of the previous titles in the series. With ESO, Bethsoft has completely re-modeled their stance on the game, introducing a huge variety of dynamic new features that are seamlessly integrated into gameplay.
Not only can you customize your character’s appearance, but ESO offers an incredible range of versatility by way of skills. With the title’s new skill system, players can mix and match a plethora of passive and active abilities, offering a new range of class hybrids–like stealth-based mages or even staff-wielding tanks.
While Bethsoft has re-defined the game in terms of mechanics, longtime TES fans will find tons of recognizable in-game features that mirror the franchise as a whole. There are many shades of previous Elder Scrolls titles that are prevalant throughout gameplay, and the game also has Bethsoft’s distinct brand of humor that infuses the game with hilarity.
Now, without further adieu, let’s jump into The Elder Scrolls Online.
Character Creation: Skills, Classes & Starting Locations
ESO starts off just like any MMO, with a character selection screen wherein players can customize their character’s class, race, facial features and more. Since the demo was in alpha stage and isn’t a finished product, there were only a few classes and races available for play.
I opted in for a Breton Templar of the Daggerfall Covenant because the class itself is quite versatile: not only do you have restoration abilities to heal yourself and allies, but Templars possess unique Sun-based powers that can damage foes with powerful attacks. The idea of being able to heal as well as dish out decent damage is attractive, and has also been a sentiment I’ve tried to recreate in any MMO.
After you select your class and race, you get two attribute points to assign. In a purely surprising move, Bethesda has taken away all of the previous attributes featured in TES games. That’s right: Endurance, Agility, Strength, etc. are all gone, and have been replaced with a neat and tidy set we will all recognize: Fatigue (Stamina), Magicka and Health.
The transition from a series of stats to just three is an interesting move, and personally I found it to be somewhat daunting, as I’m the type of gaming who enjoys stat buffs. Then I heard Bethesda’s reasoning for doing so, and it made much more sense.
Rather than focusing on a balanced scheme of attribute progression and skill progression, Bethsoft has instead opted in for more weight towards the skills and less towards the attributes. Attributes still are extremely important and can be augmented and raised via in-game buffs (enchantments, potions, etc.), yet they aren’t as dynamic as they were in the previous TES titles.
Additionally ESO keeps the traditional usage of Fatigue and Magicka; for example, all magic spells spend Magicka whereas physical attacks use Fatigue/Stamina. This keeps the classic sentiments set forth by the previous titles and keeps things familiar to long-time fans of the series.
After spending your pool of attribute points to either Fatigue, Health or Magicka, you then are given the opportunity to spend Class points. Each class has three Disciplines, and the Templar has the following:
- Sol Spear
- Sun Magic
- Restoring Light
Sol Spear is a tree of useful magical spear attacks, each of which have their own bonuses and proficiencies. Sun Magic is made up of offensive fiery spells, and Restoring Light has a variety of healing spells.
Each of the game’s classes have three main skill trees: Class-Specific Skills (the Templar’s class-specific skills can be found above), Weapon skills (which are unlocked as players level up certain weapon classes), and Armor Skills (these are also leveled up as players get more proficient in the three armor types: Light, Medium and Heavy).
ESO also features a webwork of different weapon types, allowing gamers to mix and match different weapons and master them for their useful abilities. Some of the types include Two-Handed, One-Handed & Shield (Sword & Board), Dual Wield, Bow, Destruction Staff & Restoration Staff. The Restoration/Destruction Staff weapon class gives classes the ability to use elemental and healing type spells regardless of their class, which is useful if your character doesn’t have a restoration/elemental skill tree.
Each of the main skill trees have three different categories: Ultimate Abilities, Active Abilities, and Passive Abilities. Ultimate Abilities are powerful spells that take hefty resources to cast but dish out superlative damage or effects, Active Abilities are your basic casted skill-set, and Passive Abilities are always-active skills that give certain buffs and bonuses.
After you’ve picked your proficiencies and set your skills to your hot-bar, you’re ready to jump into Tamriel. Since I was a Breton Templar of the Daggerfall Covenant, I spawned in High Rock (or perhaps that was the only area that was featured in the demo).
Welcome to High Rock: Questing, NPC Interaction & More
Right off the bat I was impressed with ESO’s fluidity: it felt like any other MMO in terms of controls and interfaces, but it quickly set itself apart by introducing that distinct signature flair that’s found in all Elder Scrolls games. The environments were incredible and truly brought out a sense of mythical majesty associated with the fantasy series, and it was clear right away that this game was right for me.
Like many MMO’s, players can sprint at the cost of their Fatigue as well as jump and roll about. This presented a myriad of tactical strategy whilst in combat, as players could evade out of the way quite quickly.
Navigation in ESO is flawless and easy, which is greatly attributed to the game’s extremely useful mini-map. The map itself reminds me of a highly detailed and expansive version of the one featured in ESIII: Morrowind, with on-screen indicators and blips and structural outlines for every nearby building.
The mini-map is your lifeline to navigating both towns and huge environments, and it’s essential to understand where you’re going–and where you’ve been.
After a quick run through the town of Daggerfall in the province of High Rock and exploring its impressive medieval flair, I was ready to get my first quest.
Right away a dog with the affectionate and quirky name of Giblets came up to my Breton, with a quest indicator floating above his scruffy head. After a brief conversation with Giblets, we learn his master is in trouble. This sets off the first questline that ultimately showcases ESO’s dynamic quest progression: what started off as a simple conversation with one Mr. Giblets ends up with thwarting an assassination of King Casimir of Daggerfall.
The NPC interaction may not be as intimate and incredibly defined as the console titles, but ESO keeps that one-on-one conversation dialogue between gamers and an NPC that the series is so famous for. Every NPC has their own quirks and facial expressions and personalities, and what the NPC’s say is often attributed to their culture. Orcs, for example, often praise Malakath, whereas the Captain of the Guards will often say things like “By the Nine” or “By Mara”, injecting quips that can be easily noticed by any fan of the universe.
The dialogues can be skipped as well, and as players click on certain responses and questions via dialogue choices, their journals are instantly updated. The quest progression is very much akin to that of the previous games, with NPC’s unearthing certain clues to various quests.
Interacting with the environment is also quite fluid and easy, and the loading screens were pretty fast. The demo was held with a traditional keyboard and mouse control scheme with the PC being the star of the demo, with the controls being the basic layout that one would expect for a MMORPG for PC.
The lore was prevalent throughout gameplay as well, and as players explored Daggerfall, they were treated to an experience that’s akin to a real-life legend playing out before their eyes. Even the more tedious quests and objectives were enjoyable and had that epic feel to them: in ESO you really feel as if you’re in a faraway fantasy realm that’s infused with magic where anything is possible.
Combat, Armor & Weapons
ESO’s combat is excellently executed in real-time, featuring certain strategic elements to help players out along the way. To be most effective in combat, players will need to drag-and-drop their unlocked skills and abilities to their on-screen hot-bar so that they can use them in combat.
By default, all characters can attack and block with any weapon–whether you’re using a bow or staff, you can block to reduce and mitigate damage. Of course, it’s best to block with a shield, which has the most reduced damage per attack. Defending isn’t the only way to make sure you stay alive: players can roll and jump to dodge incoming attacks–but this doesn’t always work with special skills or magical attacks.
As a Templar, I was able to use my Sol Spear skill to knock down enemies and stun them, and while they were down I hacked away at them with intermittent basic attacks mixed with some Sun Magic spells. If things got to hectic, I’d block a few times and cast some resto magic to refill my HP.
Blocking as a defensive measure is balanced. While it does mitigate damage, it also takes away a smidgen of Fatigue for each hit that’s blocked, and it seemed as if the more damage that’s blocked the more Fatigue would be taken away. Balancing your Fatigue usage in combat is essential, and you don’t want to evade or block too often so that you can attack.
Overall players have to make key decisions and balance out their usage of all three attributes–Fatigue, Magicka and HP–in combat. It’s important to remember that you can take a few hits here and there to your HP in exchange for Fatigue regen, and weigh the pros and cons of certain attacks and their spent values.
HP will regenerate over time out of combat as well, and Fatigue always regens whether you’re in-combat or out.
ESO affords a vast range of flexibility in terms of skills, proficiencies and combat. Pretty much anything you’d like to do with a character you can do: if you want to make a bow/magic hybrid, you can. ESO pushes the boundaries and limits of conventional MMO’s and allows gamers to build their very own brand of character; no longer are we bound by the constraints of pre-defined MMO character sets.
Throughout the demo, players will come across a nefarious underground criminal organization who eventually plots to assassinate King Casimir of Daggerfall. After tackling a smorgasboard of baddies in creative and inventive ways–the best way to take out enemies is by mixing and matching various abilities to find which works best for you–players meet a mini-boss that’s somewhat challenging.
The mini-boss slayed my character in the first round–but never fear: if you die in ESO, you can resurrect at a wayshrine or revive in the same area you died for a nominal fee.
With the right combination of offensive and defensive measures in the second round, victory was mine, and I claimed a badass two-handed sword that Casimir rewards us with.
After using my one-hander so often, I was awarded with a level-up in the One-Hand & Shield weapon class, wherein I got to apply a new passive or active skill that’s appropriate with that level. Each of the trees–whether its Armor, Weapon, etc.–has certain requirements associated with each skill; either a level requirement or a skill prerequisite.
After I was awarded a snazzy new two-hander from the King of Daggerfall, I went to look for some new gear at the local merchant. The merchant showed off a range of light armors that displayed the various grades of armor in the game. Based on the merchant’s wears, White Items were in the Normal tier whereas Fine Items were labeled as Fine–Fine being a superior quality and having more protection and such.
I was also told that Elder Scrolls Online will feature a robust variety of armors and equippables: from item sets to magical enchanted gear to the triumphant return of immensely powerful Daedric artifacts.
Multiplayer: Parties, Instanced Events & Adventure Zones
The heart of ESO’s gameplay is its immersive party-based system. While the demo didn’t touch upon many of the more impressive features of ESO’s multiplayer, gamers were allowed to form parties. I invited a nearby Orc to my party, as well as a nearby Redguard…but we didn’t really band together or communicate so much.
Instead the demo was just to really showcase the solo and integral features of the game, including the dynamic and flexible skill trees as well as a brief hand at combat.
I was told, however, that The Elder Scrolls Online will feature a robust series of multiplayer events that include Instanced Events and Adventure Zones, each of which are must-haves for any MMO. When you play an MMO, you want to play with friends and tackle huge monsters; that’s part of the magic of any MMORPG.
Elder Scrolls Online will feature this connectivity and will offer players the chance to join clans as well as parties, and take part in massive in-game events. The Instanced Events are smaller skirmishes that are for parties of four players, providing somewhat challenging objectives–maybe clearing out a certain den with a mini-boss in there, or tackling a group of thieves that plague a village.
The Adventure Zones, however, are the huge sprawling events that encompass 20+ players, and may include the massive battles against enemy factions. In Elder Scrolls Online, there are three main factions in Tamriel: The Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant, and the Ebonheart Pact. Each of the game’s races are split up between these factions, and each are vying for power and warring with one another for dominance.
The Adventure Zones (and Instanced Events, for that matter) may include huge wars between gamers, allowing players to take part in high scaled PvP events that shape and define the world around them.
Wrap-Up & Conclusion
Overall the forty-five minute demo of The Elder Scrolls Online was an amazing experience that did little to whet my appetite for Bethsoft’s distinct flair for medieval fantasy action. I’ve been an ardent believer in an online version of The Elder Scrolls universe for years now, and to see it step into the realm of reality is an incredible thing indeed.
With a huge variety of customizable skills, players can create their very own flexible hero and build them from the ground up. Take part in epic battles against enemy factions or tackle quests that shape the future of Tamriel, gaining loot, experience and precedence in the world around you is just a few of the options available in The Elder Scrolls Online.
Bethesda has created a beautiful and sprawling fantasy world that’s replete with its own brand of mythical lore, and a realm that’s very foundations have been broken open in an all out war that encompasses the entire world. In ESO players jump into the fray, building up their forces with a massive arsenal of epic loot, dynamically flexible skill trees, and the aid of millions of gamers around the globe to take part in an epic struggle for cultural dominance.
ESO will no-doubt be one of the most incredible titles of 2014 and will most likely gain the throne as the king of MMORPG’s, introducing countless fans to a new age of Elder Scrolls that starts with the first click (or button press).
The Elder Scrolls Online is slated for a release in Spring 2014 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and Mac. For more information please visit the game’s official website–and sign up for the ESO Beta if you haven’t already.