Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elder Scrolls Online Impressions

 About two months ago I started playing Elder Scrolls Online for the first time.   I have a bad habit of only playing games that are more than a decade old (as should be obvious from my posts) .  ESO is on a list with Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV and a few other more modern MMOs that I have long intended to try.  ESO has been out for long enough that it isn't exactly the latest hotness any more. But even old is new to me if I've never been there. 

The package I bought came with the Morrowind expansion.  I have fond memories of  "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" from back in 2002.  It has been fun to revisit my old stomping grounds in a different time period, and with more than a decade of progress on the graphical fidelity front.

On the balance I quite like ESO.  I have long been a fan of the offline Elder Scrolls games. I've even posted about Morrowind a few times as an example of a sandbox done right.  ESO is not a true sandbox like the offline games.  However the freeform character development system, along with optional activities like becoming a vampire or master thief, are definitely nods to the offline games.  The quests in ESO are also exceptionally well written and presented. I don't think I have enjoyed storylines I was playing through this much since I was playing the Secret World.  I like the setting and the worldbuilding, which are enhanced by the lush graphics.  Lots of work is put into little details like the flora and fauna of different zones. I am about as far from a graphics snob as you can get, but this is one case where the visuals alone really help the world come to life for me. ESO looks like it could be a real place.

The crafting system is extremely well done.  Crafting writs are also pretty much the only way I have found to easily make money at low levels.  One writ will easily net you 300+ gold, and you can do seven a day (one for each crafting profession).  Very few items that mobs drop, or even that you can steal from NPCs and fence, sell for anywhere near what you get from a single writ. 

I also really like the crafting system.  It's incredibly flexible.  You make a base piece of equipment like a sword or helmet of whatever level you like.  You can then separately create an enchantment that you place on the item.  That means you can make anything you need.  For example, if you want to craft yourself a level 14 pair of leather armor gloves that add to your magica stat, it's really easy to do so.  Further, when you make the gloves you can choose from a with a wide variety of appearance options. When you are done you can further customize them with a really solid dye system.  Not only will items you craft be functional, they also will definitely go with your outfit!  Appearance options come from knowing how to craft equipment in different styles, which are learned from crafting motifs.  For example, finding a Dark Elf crafting motif teaches you a whole slew of new appearance options for everything you can craft.  Finding a new motif is always exciting, and they can drop just about anywhere. My understanding is also that I'll be able to craft gear with set bonuses eventually.  The last time I enjoyed the crafting in a game this much was probably in Everquest II ten years ago. 

Another benefit of crafting writs is that you often get maps to the locations of crafting caches.  These are treasure maps of a sort, that lead to spots where you can gather a large amount of crafting materials like iron ore or cotton.  I find them an enjoyable excuse to explore new zones.  While I am there I can pick up new way-shrines (quick travel points) and look for shards that give my character skill points. ESO gives you tangible rewards for simply exploring zones, and I quite enjoy it

Unfortunately, there are two factors work against everything I like about ESO.  The first is the mildly annoying monetization.  The game is only "buy-to-play" in the strictest sense. You basically need to pay for a sub if you have any intention of crafting, or even looting most objects that can be looted.  There are tons of random urns, barrels and chests to dig through in the game, which is a lot of fun. Occasionally you will find something really nice like a new crafting motif or a magic item, so you do have a strong incentive to peek into everything. However, mainly you will find tons of random crafting ingredients.  Unless you have a crafting storage bag, these items will quickly clog up your inventory.  You can't buy a crafting bag from in-game merchants or the item shop, the only way to get one is to sub. It feels like an inconvenience created for the express purpose of selling us a solution.

I am really impressed by how much work went into making the wilderness environments look natural.  Even this scene with giant mushrooms and some kind of wolf creatures is believable.  A big part of it is how much time they spend modelling plants.

However, the need for a crafting bag is merely an annoyance.  The sub is overall a decent value.  It comes with a decent stipend of currency for the item shop and access to a lot of content you need to buy otherwise.  I would be tempted to sub with or without the crafting storage.  For me a more serious problem is the combat system.  It combines all the bad aspects of action combat and tab targeting.  You can't tab target foes, for your attacks to work you have to keep the mouse cursor pointed at them.  However, the combat is still based on mashing hotbar keys to use attacks that often have somewhat slow casting times. It doesn't have any of the fluidity of a true action title like DDO, TSW or most shooters.  Weapon attacks feel a bit more fluid, but those do something like half the damage of an attack with one of your abilities (and even that is only if you are using a very good weapon).  

Inside the audience chamber of a local deity. 

The net result is combat that feels like a clunkier-than-normal tab target system, save that if you get distracted and let your mouse cursor drift off of your target all of your attacks stop working.  Making this even worse is that any object or NPC can block your line-of-sight. In big fights very often a random NPC will get in the way of your target and disrupt any combos you are trying to execute. To my tastes, the combat somehow manages to be both overly simplistic and stressful.  On top of that, most abilities do very similar damage, so unlocking new attacks in your skill trees doesn't tend to feel very rewarding.  My main is up to level 26 now, and my normal attack rotation has barely changed since I was level 10.   

The main story line has been pretty interesting so far. Shown here is a random scene from my second trip to hell.

I don't intend to come across as overly negative.  On the balance I think ESO is great, and I am having a lot of fun there.  I will certainly take at least one character up to the level cap, which already puts ESO well above an average MMO for me.  I never see the level cap in the great majority I try.   If ESO had better combat (to my tastes), I think it would end up being one of my all time favorite MMOs.  The kind I play most days for a year or two straight.  Even if ESO isn't quite at the level of instant classic for me, expect to get a solid few months out of playing through more storylines and exploring the world.