ESO Beta Impressions

Like the phoenix I rise from the ashes of unproductivity and laziness, ready for the coming flood of vociferous creativity!  And also gratuitous lexical chest-puffery.  Yes, after a long silence I like to break out the $5 words.

Moving on past the odd ways my ego likes to manifest, there are folks in this world who find writing therapeutic when they’re depressed or having a hard time.  I’m not one of those people; when I’m in a tough spot trying to articulate my thoughts is just too exhausting.  But shit is better now, these things happen etc etc etc.  I’m slowly learning to celebrate my successes instead of beating myself up for failures.  For example, instead of dwelling on how I didn’t go to my capoeira class for a few weeks, I’m trying to celebrate the fact I went on Monday.  Its not important that I haven’t been writing before, what matters is that I’m writing now.  Right then.  Here's a picture of my Skyrim character as a bard.

Two beta weekends before the most recent one I received a key to play Elder Scrolls Online.  My theory is they have some kind of social media search algorithm that looks for people who are super desperate because I made with the puppy eyes on Twitter and ended up with a beta key.  Whatever the reason, it turned out I didn’t play that much on my first beta outing, nor in the second.  I did play enough to decide that I liked the combat - it’s far less clunky and inconvenient than Skyrim combat (I say that with love, Skyrim).  The addition of MMO-type action hotkeys makes battles much more dynamic and fun rather than something you have to do so you can take the person’s stuff.  Personally my Skyrim playstyle is to avoid outright conflict altogether, either by stealth-murder or casting Frenzy spells at large groups so they thin each other out and thus I have fewer enemies to deal with.  This is partly because I am an honor-less p’tahk and partly because I find combat so cumbersome.  But I quickly found myself wanting to get into combat in ESO so I could see what my abilities do.  I also like the fact that your default attack is bound to mouseclicks instead of constantly cycling through a cooldown.  Although I quickly found that spamming clicks doesn’t make your character move faster.

On the flip side of that, the presence of other people in the game quickly made me realize that my normal sneaky habits were not going to be as useful.  Sure, you can try to sneak up on that flame atronach but chances are someone else is going to clomp in front of you and beat them to death while you’re still quietly approaching.  In fact, lets talk about other people for a second.  I’m not going to lie, when I first started playing I was mightily annoyed that there were all these idiots in my Tamriel disturbing the heartbreakingly gorgeous landscape.  After playing for a while I was still annoyed but resigned, and I have to admit playing ESO with a friend is quite fun.  If I have to deal with feckless strangers so I can play with a group of people I actually like, I am ok with that.  All the Elder Scrolls games have been partially social experiences for me - when I was playing Morrowind in college my friends and I would drink beer and talk about our conquests (and the hilarious bugs we encountered) for hours.  Same thing with Oblivion and Skyrim - talking about playing those games is almost as fun as playing them.  So actually playing an Elder Scrolls game with friends to me is worth the trouble of dealing with the faceless hordes.

The question is, then whether or not ESO is truly an Elder Scrolls game in the way the single player games are.  What is the Platonic Form of an Elder Scrolls game?  Open exploration, random awesome occurrences (I once found a ghostly headless horseman in Skyrim.  No quest, he was just riding around.), memorable locations, great lore, fun sidequests, and I suppose I can stop there though I could probably go on.  Possibly to the NPCs who are pretty much identical to The Silence - once you’re not looking at them anymore you completely forget they even exist.  They exist only as “That Guy Who Wanted Me To Do That Thing” and possibly not even that.  Seriously, the only Elder Scrolls NPC that ever stuck in my mind was the vampire who was the count of Skingrad.  Anyways.  The exploration is definitely still there - I spend half my time doing quests and the other half just picking a direction and running just to see what was over there.  I was rarely disappointed when I did so, although I did wander into some zones that were far above my character’s level.  The towns don’t have quite the same amount of sticking power to me that the single player games do, but they’re still pretty.  The lore is definitely still there - there are lorebooks hidden around the world that makes exploring more rewarding, and a lot of the sidequests are made richer the more you know about the world.  For example, I did a quest that involved some Argonians who believed the Dark Elves were trying to poison their Hist tree.  Seems pretty simple, but having knowledge about what the heck a Hist tree is and the history between the Dunmer and the Argonians made it much more interesting.  Although that quest bugged out for me at the end so I couldn’t complete it.

Which brings me to hilarious Elder Scrolls bugs.  While they are a frustrating but endearing part of the single player Elder Scrolls game, I really hope that won’t be true for ESO when its released.  A game that’s played online, where your character and progress are saved on a server instead of your hard drive, with no save files to edit for that matter, simply can’t survive being buggy.  I encountered a few glitches this beta weekend, most of which were resolved by reloading the UI.

Let me tell you a story.  Playing Skyrim the other day with the Dawnguard expansion I came across an interesting bug wherein Durnaviir got stuck in the ground and was flying around like a land shark.  Hilarious, no?  Except then he flew under Shadowmere, broke free of the ground and carried my horse off into the horizon where the poor thing probably fell to his death.  Really funny in a single player game where you can reload a save or open the console and fix it, but this situation would be incredibly rage-inducing if you’d just spent a bunch of non-reloadable gold on a horse only to have it carried away by a stray dragon.

The only real complaint I have about ESO has to do with the story, and its not a big enough complaint to keep me from enjoying the game overall.  At the very beginning, starting in a prison as usual for an ES game, you are presented with your Destiny.  You, and you alone must release a powerful prophet from this hellish prison and save the world.  It is very hero’s journey, and very in line with the single player installments.  But its not a single player game, and its pretty clear that while this Prophet dude is telling me all about my Great and Momentous Task he is telling a gajillion other people the same exact thing.  It really breaks the immersion and feels like all of the players are in their own bubble Tamriel universes that intersect each other only at certain points.  To illustrate - I grouped with a friend and we went to do a story quest that I had already done, but he hadn’t.  When we entered the building where it was to take place he disappeared and I was left behind.  I felt like I was in that Stargate SG-1 episode where Sam, Daniel and Mitchell all get stuck in a parallel reality.  He was walking around in there but I couldn’t see him.  The Prophet was talking to him, but to me he was just sitting in a chair muttering.  It was jarring to the point where I’m hoping at some point in the story we find out that the Prophet can be in multiple places at once and individually interacting with all these people is part of his master plan to raise an army of maniacs.  And when you find out he just shrugs and says “What, you think I was putting all my eggs in one hero basket?”  And then the body of players would become a single protagonist in an effort towards a goal.  But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

However, my gripes are not going to keep me from playing because honestly I don’t expect immersive stories from MMORPGs, so even though the Elder Scrolls factor was in play my expectations weren’t very high.  But it did get me thinking about how one could make a truly immersive and rich multiplayer story, one where the player isn’t a special snowflake (who clearly isn’t special at all) but a part of a whole.  I don’t know if its possible, or if people would even play it, but its definitely something to think about.

In conclusion, I will be playing this game.  I've already pre-bought the Imperial Edition and I'm happy about the early access because I have some seriously cool names I want to lock down.  I think it has the soul of an Elder Scrolls game and it never felt boring or grind-y.  I hope they get the bugs ironed out before release though, or I'll just make sure to stay away from the land shark dragons.

Look! Buttons!

Comments

Elder Scrolls Online made some interesting choices story-wise. Molag Bal as the choice for the big bad was a bold one (considering he's the daedra of domination, torture and rape that's a bit of an understatement). The god's ploy to merge the realms with Coldharbour is ingeniously evil should they pull it off.
It's unfortunate though that it suffers from the same MMORPG problem as The Old Republic: trying to build a WOW Killer. Though you'd think with Bethesda's achievements that an MMORPG would be a hotbed of innovation. How could a popular series with alot of talent and a big budget have a downside? (http://www.youtube.com/watchv=EzkS0mt3B50)

The game industry should be a bit more cautious about sticking too close to formula in light of Irrational closing shop. Being in service to the brand does NOT make a game more marketable.
And that's fantastic!
The failure of headless development cycles and fall-on-your-sword branding tactics of corporate intellectual property is forcing companies to innovate. They're competing with successful indie studios that would love to see homogeneous AAA developers run out on a rail... And if they stick to the old guard they assuredly will.

But then again I'm pretty biased toward the video game industry because all I see is bullshit politics and a lack of connection to people.

Tabletop gaming is just better for me all around because you're physically there with four or more people who are forced to make the game. It REQUIRES audience participation and innovation in both storytelling and game design to even play it. Video games so often feel like gambling in that cold Pavlov experiment kinda way because my contribution is little more than a button push. I don't like it. It feels temporary and isolating and long bouts of it make me depressed.

And as you know it's very difficult to write while you're depressed.

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