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The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Hands-On: Part 1

Goddamn Molag Bal. Causing trouble, instigating shenanigans and generally being a bag of scum. Though as the Daedric prince of domination, vampirism, corruption and slavery, what can you really expect? In The Elder Scrolls Online, the new MMO from Zenimax Studios (a subsidiary of the Bethesda parent company, though not directly affiliated with Todd Howard’s core team), Molag Bal is the primary antagonist and gives you ample opportunity to come to terms with his scum doggery. I got the chance to take a dip into the beginning of the game during this last weekend’s Beta period and came away suitably dipped in magic and civil war.

The gist of the game is this, take what you love about Elder Scrolls games: the beautifully crafted world, interesting characters, malicious Daedric princes and the powerful feeling of being a hero, and play it with friends. It seems almost a no-brainer, how fun would Skyrim be to play with others?

I started the game as a Dark Elf (Dunmer) Sorcerer. There are three factions with three races in each but the Ebonheart Pact appealed to me the most. The stoic and moody Dunmer are a proud and powerful race but their alliance with the Nords and Argonians is contentious at best. The Nords think the Dunmer are “milk-drinkers” (Nord slang for pansies) and the Argonians resent the aloof elves for years of enslavement. Yet these three races must put aside their differences when faced with the greater threat of a Daedric hell on Tamriel and the ever present machinations of the two other factions. The interaction between the races is one of the more interesting aspects of an Elder Scrolls game and the tension is well represented in the quests of ESO.

Regardless of your race, you begin the game in Coldharbour, Molag Bal’s frankly terrible holiday destination. Things look bleak until “the prophet,” an enigmatic, elderly wizard appears to you and facilitates your escape. After you free him from his prison you return to your physical body in whichever starting area you chose. Being a Dunmer, I found myself on an island off the coast of Ash Mountain (an area many will remember from Morrowind). Any starting area of an MMO is going to follow a similar formula: kill ten of these peasant beasts and get a robe of eternal averageness. Still, the quests already begin to be more interesting than your average MMO. Though those collecting quests are still there, many of them endeavour to be more interesting than that. Asking you to make a choice about which area of a town you help defend means the one you don’t help will be massacred, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Some quests don’t even ask you to kill anything, and are all about conversation and decisions. These moments are when ESO really shines as the quests are akin to their single player counterparts. That’s not to say that they’re as good as the best of Oblivion, Morrowind and Skyrim, but they do carry over the Bethesda sensibility of murky morality.

On the subject of quests, which is the majority of what you’ll be doing, ESO does a great job of breaking the gameplay loop of collecting a billion animal skins. Many quests ask you to solve quests through dialogue or decision making, which breaks the pace up in interesting ways. Sadly though there never seems to be a way to fail a quest or complete it in a less rewarding way. For example, I found an Argonian quest-giver who asked me to help him lure a Dunmer woman to seclusion so he could kill her for the years of abuse and torture his family suffered when they were slaves. You have the option of telling the woman she’s walking into a trap and helping her fight off her attackers.

This felt right as the Argonian had already killed every other member of her family, yet after helping she claims she’s waiting for the pact to fall apart so she can go right back to enslaving lizard people. I appreciate the moral decision, but being rewarded the same for helping a potential slaver survive felt like my input made no real difference. I was still rewarded but the outcome for the quest is essentially the same. One of the great things about Bethesda’s games is that you can completely make the wrong decision and ruin a quest-line if you’re careless or callous. From an immersive experience perspective, this gives your decisions much more weight which I found the quests in ESO to be a bit lacking in.

This being said, ESO gives you a far more in-depth idea of the world of Tamriel. All the main race’s homelands are well represented (except the orcs, but that fits with the lore) and you see far more of Tamriel than ever before. Though there’s an interesting dichotomy in the landscapes. Many of the areas, regardless of giant mushroom density, feel very barren. The world is huge, but much of it is populated by very little. On the flip side, some sections are pitch perfect for the world. Within a few hours of play, you will find something that makes you stop, go into first person view, and just look around. In the Dunmer starting area, some of the lava-clad temples are a delight to behold. Even when you’re whisked away to another dimension, as is fairly common in Elder Scrolls, these areas are beautifully designed. A lot of effort has gone into faithfully recreating the world of Elder Scrolls which makes the bland sections seem all the more average. I found myself forgiving these parts as when the game shines, it shines with the light of Azura.

Before we get on to the negative, I have one more surprising pleasantry that the game provides. Unlike other games of this ilk, you can pursue any and all crafting professions as you see fit. Not only this but, much like Skyrim, you can wear any armour you like and wield any weapon. This is fantastic for an MMO and allows far more experimentation for players before they decide which character build is for them. I started using destructions staves (as any discerning sorcerer would) but soon found myself using a combination of magic and two-handed weapons.

The hand-to-hand combat in ESO is very simple and surprisingly deep. A combination of attacks, blocks and counters can make the difference between a respawn and a thrilling victory and adds a level of satisfying tactical combat to a genre that has never been known for it. This means I ended up as a sorcerer clad in heavy armour wielding a two-handed sword I crafted, just swanning around being a badass. It’s a pleasant change from other MMO games where you’re limited to a choice you made before you knew its full implications.

Though I hate to say it, my beta experience wasn’t all rose water and hugs. While there were frequent glitches of varying degree, this is to be expected as the game isn’t finished. So I won’t comment of those but several vital gameplay systems seemed either untweaked or oddly designed. The most obvious of these is the scarcity of money. Almost every enemy drops only one gold, with quests (in the level 1- 20 area anyway) rarely giving more than 60 gold. This seems fine until you consider than traveling to a wayshrine, the ESO equivalent of fast traveling, usually costs around 40 gold and repairing your equipment can cost upwards of 400 gold. There seems to be many odd choices regarding prices but possibly this is a purposeful gearing of armour and horses toward later game players. That might be true, but the cost of the second bag upgrade is prohibitively high and throwing away crafting ingredients to make space for a new weapon is frustrating and all too frequent.

My only other complaint, and the one that could be a real detriment, is that the cities don’t feel as epic as they should. When you walk into the Dunmer capital city of Mournhold you’re treated to a few merchants wandering idly and a smattering of adventurers. This could be changed when the servers are open to the public but the design of the cities suggests this is their final form. It’s not a game-breaking problem by any means but I was somewhat disappointed to find that Mournhold was not much bigger than the towns that surround it. Still, Elder Scrolls have always had the problem that their cities never seemed as vast as the game implied but an MMO version was a perfect opportunity to rectify this. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have happened.

Regardless of these fairly middling elements, ESO fits very snugly into the Elder Scrolls lore. It was a wise decision to set it in a period of civil war and before the previous games. You still feel like you have a stake in the world without retconning any details from the other games. Another nice nod that didn’t need to be in there is the many, many books available to read. For fans of reading the often brilliant books from other Elder Scrolls games, you’re in luck, every bookshelf has one book to read and you will see a lot of bookshelves. Though they’re not as long as what you might be used to, there is no dip in quality. There is a brilliant selection of funny, sad, poignant, informative and self-referential content to keep the fans interested. This all ties into an obvious love of the universe on the part of Zenimax and they should be praised for recreating it so faithfully.

At the end of the day this is a beta preview so I can’t comment on the final quality of the game. Though, I can comment on how the beta period felt to me. It ultimately comes down to one thing: would you pay a subscription for this game? Even though the game is in beta and many tweaks will be made before release, I would definitely put my money where my mouth is. I had a lot of fun questing on my own and occasionally grouping with others, though a dedicated team of adventurers would’ve been far more satisfying.

The brief moments of annoyance or generic MMO systems were far out ruled by the enjoyment I got from traversing Tamriel. When the game really shines, mostly in story quests or the culmination of a quest chain, it stands alone as a damn fine Elder Scrolls game. As we can assume the world will be inundated by new players when the game releases, I don’t see why this game couldn’t be one of the better multiplayer fantasy games. All it needs is more players, some epic DLC in the future (the possibilities are vast) and great high level content, which I didn’t get to experience. If we get that, I don’t see why The Elder Scrolls Online couldn’t stand with the heroes of yesteryear in the meadhalls of Sovengarde.

Stay tuned next week for the second beta where we’ll get a taste of the PvP side of things in The Elder Scrolls Online.

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