Saturday, 8 March 2014

Elder Scrolls Online (PC) Beta - Part 3 - Guest Post

Welcome to the final part of an epic early look at the latest Elder Scrolls game, where guest poster Jihaus reveals his experience of the game from a MMO player's point of view. I explained why we're both writing about the same game in back in part 1, and if you want to see the game from the perspective of an Elder Scrolls fan, you might want to read what I thought about it in part 2 as well.

Today we get to take a different look at the beta of the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, because this is going to be the first Elder Scrolls game I'll have played in my life. I have a passing knowledge of the series from various friends, but otherwise the series is new to me. I have however played other MMORPGS, with World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV clocking the most hours, so that's the perspective I'll be coming from.

This being an MMORPG it's a slow burn experience, so you'll be seeing a lot more time compression in this article than you're used to from SAG. Ray and I played this beta for about three days, which for an MMO is actually not far in at all.

We begin of course by logging in, which comes after the lengthy installation and setup that precedes most any MMORPG. I'm greeted by a short placeholder video that consists of text on a slideshow that tells me that my character is some poor schmoe who gets taken to an underground ritual site and carved up, and then wakes up without a soul in Oblivion, which as far as I know is hell. Then we get to see what our soulless protagonist looks like.

(Click the screenshots to view the 1024x786 resolution originals.)

Elder Scrolls online race selection
Ah, character creation, the bane of my existence.

There are nine races available, three for each of the three factions: the Daggerfall Covenant, the Aldmeri Dominion, and the Ebonheart Pact. However I can't tell too much about what the strengths, weaknesses, or special abilities each race has from here other than what's on the general description so it's a bit of a shot in the dark and I couldn't decide what I wanted to pick at first. There are four classes you can roll as - Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, Nightblade, and Templar, which reads to me like "magic melee, mage, thief/rogue, and healer warrior".

Elder Scrolls Online character generation
The amount of customization you can do is ridiculous, and there's a page like this for the body as well, with all kinds of sliders. I was still indecisive so I decided to start hitting the Randomize Appearance button. Ray and I decide to play as the Daggerfall Covenant, and after randomizing up a couple of Solid Snake look-alikes I happened to land on an Orc who looked a lot like actor Danny Trejo and thought it was too amazing a coincidence to pass up. I touched up the features a bit and decided to roll a Dragon Knight, because it looked like the most hurty and least mage-y out of all the classes.


We are thrown immediately into the hell jail sans intro and given full control with the merest "use WASD to move" message to guide us. The first thing I've noticed is that the mouse is tied to the camera, rather than being a cursor you can use to click on things, telling me right away that this is a different kind of MMO.

A ghostly character called the Prophet gives me direction as some random prisoner breaks me out of my cell, and I proceed to join what looks like a huge prison break. With no idea what's going on I run in the direction of everyone else and eventually get to choose a weapon from various weapon types. Surprisingly I didn't go for the giant two hander this time and picked dual axes.

You can see the attack controls on this shot, and they are surprisingly straightforward. This is definitely different to the MMOs I come from where you can't attack unless you have a hostile target within the appropriate range, and the attack button is a hotkeyed hotbar skill.

Another thing I've noticed is how minimalistic the interface is - this is completely new to me as other MMORPGs I've played or seen usually had interfaces ranging from busy to overcrowded.

World of Warcraft (PC)

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC)
For comparison, here are shots from World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. These both show brand new characters but a large part of the screen is already devoted to the interface. Out of context these two might look too busy, but the buttons and maps and quest trackers and whatnot are there for the sake of convenience. Elder Scrolls Online doesn't seem to have the same flexibility with the UI, so we'll see as the game progresses whether that's something I'm going to wish I had or not.

After knocking over a couple tutorial skeletons I run into an actual flesh and blood NPC who seems to think I'm quite fleshy myself. The dialogue with NPCs in this game definitely feels more personal as they're facing you and engaging you in a one-on-one conversation, and there are more choices and things to talk about within conversations as well. Instead of trying to take advantage of this jailbreak I stand there and waste time asking her questions, which she answers patiently to my surprise.

I proceed to the next area, where generic fleeing prisoner names are replaced with goofy fleeing player names heralding the end of the tutorial tunnel.

Elder Scrolls Online menu screen
Here's a shot of the menu, where my character kindly turns around and faces me as it opens. Here the mouse behaves like a proper cursor but the menu is otherwise minimalistic and straightforward as well.

Leveling up gets me an attribute point which I can spend on one of the three "bars" here, and a skill point. Skills are handled differently from what I'm used to - there are skill categories specific to weapon types and armor types as well as categories inherent to the class I selected. It seems I can pretty much use most any weapon type or armor type I want with any class, which sounds like a lot of awesome character-building to me.

The next area is wide open and full of enemies so I get lost for a bit, killing skeletons and ghostly things in the process. This early in the game I don't really have any skills to speak of so I mostly run up to enemies and mouse click them to death, which is a fast paced and fun experience so far. You can see the battle UI in this shot which is still quite minimalistic. I have 5 hotbar slots bound to keys and my MP/HP/Stamina bars come up as I need them.

I'm used to having a lot more slots on screen, but this limitation adds an interesting dynamic to the game where you have to choose your skills (and consequently your build) wisely, since you can't just fill the screen with buttons.

Eventually I proceed to bust out the Prophet and am confronted by this enormous image of a Daedric prince who insults us by calling us insects and then drives the insult deeper by throwing down a pathetic excuse for a "boss" in front of us. Evidently he really thinks we're weak and is blowing us off, but I was getting tired of the place anyway, so everyone wins. Once my shattered ego is healed the prophet and I jump into a giant floating light pillar and find ourselves warped out of the hell jail at last.

Fresh out of hell, I wake up in the hold of a pirate ship. The Prophet apparently woke up elsewhere, telling me via long distance ghost dialogue that I should try to help out the pirates since they're pretty cool folks, and he'll try to figure things out in the meantime. I was instead more concerned with the rat hanging around there and proceed to fillet all the vermin in the hold and loot their guts, which are apparently used for fishing. When they were all dead, I proceeded to ransack the barrels and crates in the ship to find various food and cooking materials. I suppose the absence of refrigerators means that people have to put their food in crates, barrels, and dressers instead.

I exit and find myself in an eastern-looking port city on an island zone at night and decide to meet up with Ray.

Here's a shot from after the sun's come up, revealing that Ray seems to have picked up one of the Snake look-alike faces I passed over.

We didn't do a whole lot in the beginning and mostly explored the town, looted boxes, and attacked not-so-defenseless mudcrabs. I am also introduced to zone chat, which is constantly full of whining and boasts a general lack of maturity. Unfortunately this is very familiar territory with regards to MMORPGS.

An awesome thing I discovered based on the two zones I've been in so far is that everyone gets their own instance of environment loot, so Ray and I could loot the same unconventional hiding places if we wanted to without fighting over or racing for loot. To sweeten the deal, there are plenty of books and general text like this to be found everywhere, and sometimes they even give you levels in skills! I like this idea, it incentivizes exploration and ransacking of homes since you know there's always going to be something in a place you haven't been.

Not that I ever needed an excuse to ransack a house in an RPG, but the incentive is much appreciated.


Somehow in the process of goofing off we manage to complete and break out a guy or two out of jail and fix some problems here and there. Otherwise we are still mucking about without direction and hitting things while trying other activities to further our bromance, such as fishing, climbing things, and long walks on the crab-ridden beach.

I'll be honest, my initial misgivings and awkwardness have been mostly forgotten and I'm having a blast. I like how wide and open this zone is and how we're encouraged to look around and explore, even by quest giving NPCs who are apparently too lazy to give us more quests. Granted we're stuck on the same zone which is a giant island, but there is a lot of things to find and see within this one zone.

The scenery is quite nice as well, and contrary to my screenshots, there's actually quite a bit of fighting here, made more fun now that I have skills to use. I just find myself having trouble getting decent battle screenshots due to the fast pace. Considering that I tend to walk away from a game with thousands of screenshots, the fact that a game could make me forget to take them is definitely a good thing.

We spend a good several hours in this island engaging in various activities such as doing quests, failing at doing quests, wearing disguises, failing at wearing disguises, and all the exploration and fighting in between. We don't really feel the hours pass as we're moving more on our own pace rather than any pace dictated by the game.


We go back to town to clear our bags and I take this opportunity to try to craft stuff. Crafting is pretty straightforward in this game - you make whatever it is as long as you have the materials and the appropriate crafting skill level, and the appropriate crafting table/campfire/etc. The materials are found scattered all over and you don't seem to need a specific gathering skill or class to grab them. I like this kind of simplicity much like Orc Trejo seems to like whatever he's cooking here - crafting doesn't feel like a job or separate profession so much as an opportunity to put the stuff you find to good use.

Eventually, Ray and I run out of quests and things to do on the island so we decided it was time to do the last quest and leave. Interestingly, some of the quests we did contributed to the final one, which was a nice touch. Completing this got us on a boat off the island and onto the next area.

We're in a heavily forested island now, with the main settlement being an Orc city. Our goal here is to convince the local Orc population to join the Daggerfall Covenant, probably through the time-old practice of solving their problems for them. This island seems to be just about as large as the last one, and Ray and I once again decide to head off in random directions and do things.

I generally skirt the edges of the island beating up crabs and wolves and trying in vain to search for treasure on a treasure map I found, completely disregarding the reason I'm really here, while Ray is probably off somewhere else being a proper hero and fighting actual enemies. Probably.


We finally decide to get together like a proper party and do some quests, finding ourselves in a number of underground areas including this one. The interesting thing is that I haven't seen a single instanced dungeon yet - there are entrances and loading screens but otherwise everyone shares the same dungeon zone, which sometimes results in crowded situations. In other MMORPGs this could be a problem loot-wise, but everyone gets a copy of the loot off of a monster they hit, without having to be in a group with them.

This results in a surprising phenomenon - you actually want to help random people you see fighting because you have nothing to lose by doing so. One may think this is a silly notion, but because of shared loot and looting rights and the mechanics in place to enforce them in other games, often people just ignore each other because they see it as wasting time with no reward. Some of the detractors of WoW and its peers argue that MMORPGs are devolving into solo experiences, and this issue is one example of that, one that this game is doing a fine job of bypassing so far.

The downside with our decision to do quests was that we ran into a bugged one that prevented us from continuing, and thus getting to the next zone. Nothing tells you something is wrong in an MMORPG faster than seeing players piling up in one spot jumping around, standing deathly still, spamming chat, and/or taking off their clothes.

I haven't mentioned bugs much because betas exist to fix such things, but out of the ones we've encountered this was the first to truly stop our adventure cold. Thus, we decided to make characters belonging to another faction.


We now play members of the Ebonheart Pact, and since I made one ugly orc the first time I decided to balance it out by making a pretty elf lady. Unfortunately she is a dark elf which meant that while I got her looking pretty enough, I couldn't get her to not look like she wanted to murder me horribly. This time I rolled a Nightblade, which is a more rogueish class I suppose, critical hits and sneaking and whatnot.

We blow through the same prison from the first time and jump into the pillar of light with Prophet in tow once again.

Well that is different from where we started last time. This time we start on an island off the coast of cold, snowy Skyrim, which I recognized immediately just from all the screenshots I've seen of the game of the same name. Worth noting too that all the loading screens come loaded with pretty concept art like this and from what I've seen they do a decent job of translating it into the game.

Yep, we're definitely there.

I meet up with Ray who's now playing a more mage like character and we carry on as we did before - wandering around and murdering things aimlessly while occasionally overlapping on quests. The same non-linear structure applies to the overarching story quest here, and this new class plays as comfortably as the last one. I tried the bow at first but found myself preferring melee again because let's be honest, I like to carve things up. Thankfully I was able to switch over without any real harm, but since I haven't seen any respecialization opportunities yet, I can see that being a problem later in the game.

We didn't spend as long of a time here though, because it got late and I couldn't stay awake.

DAY 2.

I get online on my Orc to check if the quest was still bugged and meet up with my brother who also went and made an Orc. Looks like you can easily fast travel to the first zone for a small cost using the map, and there are free fast travel shrines within each zone that you can use as well, so that's always a good thing. After some goofing off I get back to where our adventures stopped and sure enough, the quest was no longer bugged. Ray got back online and we went and finished up.

At the end we're confronted with a choice of whether to destroy a relic that the antagonists of this area used to raise the dead, or take it and send it off to the Daggerfall Covenant as a possible weapon of opportunity. This definitely caught me off guard as I wasn't expecting outcome choices to come up in an MMORPG. Seeing as how the relic was completely whack I decided to destroy it, which succeeded in pissing off the pirates who I've been helping all this time, the same ones the Prophet asked me to help. Oops.

I don't know how much of an effect this is going to have, but the orcs join the Daggerfall Covenant as a result of me making the right choice in their eyes so that works for me. We get a ticket off the island to go report the news to the bigwigs at Daggerfall, hilariously on a ship full of the same pirates I recently pissed off. That had to be a really awkward naval voyage...

We land in the city of Daggerfall, a huge European-looking city loaded with stairs, towers, bridges, npcs having picnics during pouring rain, and random assassins that jump you in the streets. While Ray got out of town sooner to go be a big damn hero, I spent a lot of time exploring, ransacking, and doing a surprising amount of non-combat quests in town. After bungling about, talking to drunks and weirdoes, saving the king, and losing count of random assassins attacking me I figured it was getting way too stuffy in there and decided to have a walk.

There's forests out here as far as the eye can see, and based on the map I think this place is as big as the two zones I've been to on this character combined. I leave town and find Ray halfway across the world getting killed by nasty things so I decided I'd head in that direction and try to help.


Except I found myself in a completely different place hunting harpies and staring at beaches while an Orc NPC follows me around, completely sidetracked from my original intentions by quests I found on the way. I never actually meet Ray out there, instead we meet back in town after some time when he managed to pick up far too much heroism for even him to handle, and I got tired of insufficient inventory space messages.

We decided, this far in, that we might as well try the third faction, the Aldmeri Dominion. Thus, we did the requisite 10-20 minutes or so in character creation followed by running through that hell jail a third time and got on with it.

We start in a tropical island with a bit of a Southeast Asian look to it, with both Ray and I rolling Khajiit (cat dudes) this time. By sheer chance my character (fat cat on the left) looked related to Ray's, so we figured it was his long lost father. This time I was playing a Sorcerer which I had a surprising amount of fun with, considering that I usually find magic classes a bit dull. I felt pretty powerful, but then I realized that was probably just the rare staff I found on my Orc that I sent to this character via the shared bank.

Elder Scrolls Online Mistral
We decided it may be better to act like a proper party this time and stuck together more often. The scenery and atmosphere was quite nice and relaxing here, complete with bard music and all. The cat folks are pretty chill and amusing, and elves were not as haugty as snob elves generally were, at least here. I found the fact that the elves had British accents amusing, considering that the people of Daggerfall were called Bretons and sounded completely American.

Our goal here is to bring the local Khajiit population into our alliance, much like we did with the Orcs when playing our other characters. Naturally there's a bit of a problem with the Sea Elves (better known to some Elves as Fish Elves) trying to act like the mob and extorting the catfolk, so I guess something has to be done with that. This cat lady is the leader of the local population and is a bit on the fence about the whole thing. Looks like it's up to our heroes to diffuse this difficult situation.

Or we can turn to more pressing concerns, like jumping off things or testing if the wildlife is fireproof.

It's worth mentioning at this point too that the game is fully voice acted. Even the most random bystander has voice acting. It's nuts.

We do get our act together eventually and beat up some Fish Elves before the main quest escalates to said Fish Elves actually attacking the city. Naturally we beat this back, but this quest chain caught my attention because prior to all hell breaking loose the chain had turned into a political intrigue type of situation where I hardly did any fighting. The variety is quite nice.


We get the problem on the island sorted out and take a ship to more Elfish lands. Much like what happened in Daggerfall with my Orc, I found myself doing lots of quests without even leaving the city and eventually preventing the assassination of the Elf queen. For a bunch of aimless heroes who don't seem to care much about solving other peoples' problems we sure find ourselves in the right place at the right time too often.

I looked around and saw that the sun had come up so I figured it was time to call it a night.

DAY 3.

I start this session by playing my Dark Elf character in Mini-Skyrim and find that the situation is much more grim here. The Daggerfall Covenant attacks with an NPC army and lights the town on fire, forcing everyone to retreat to the ships. The quests end with what few NPCs who survived that mess abandoning the island and the Covenant winning, a very different story from what happened on CAT ISLAND: ASSAULT OF THE FISH ELVES.

We land close to a village off the coast of mainland Morrowind, the land of Dark elves, Giant mushrooms, and cliff racers, the notoriety of the latter very known to me thanks to friends who have played the actual Morrowind game. Fans of that game may find this zone a bit too familiar, as in one case the damn birds were just circling over a town squawking constantly. None have come down to attack me though, so that's good.

Despite the resemblance to a crazy prehistoric fungal China, this place does look pretty nice at parts. Constant cliff racer squawking aside, things do continue to be pretty grim as our Skyrim refugees now have to fight off the same jerks who kicked us off our frozen island. It ends with another choice of where I should go to defend, and I read somewhere later on that the NPCs I chose not to defend are dead for good. Damn.

Regardless, with the beta coming to a close, I decided to spend more time looking around than doing quests.

The farther west we go, the more gloomy and volcanic things get. Meanwhile this unkillable cliff racer hangs out here, presumably to troll Morrowind players and welcome them properly to what looks very much like hell right now. Given these living conditions, no wonder Dark Elves are such gloomy folks. Fearing that I might fall into the abyss or run into an eldritch horror if I kept going west, I find a nearby town and log off.


With the drastic change in scenery, Ray (left), my brother (right, center), and I (fat cat with the green dress) spend the last few hours of the beta on our Aldmeri Dominion characters. We got quite far in those last few hours, and did a few quests, but unfortunately it became too obvious that the beta was ending. Quests started breaking left and right and in time we had nothing left to do but take photos or in my case, get killed by bears.

But not for long!

The game had been pretty easy so far but here at the end, at around level 9ish, difficulty started to creep in and I was actually dying to things other than bosses, so that was a good thing. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the game shapes up, and if you'll be forced to rely on allies to get anywhere good. There hasn't been any pvp either since we didn't get to level 10 where it unlocks, so I'm not sure how that's going to work here.

It was a great run though, and we had some good fun.


So, as a guy new to Elder Scrolls but used to MMORPGS, what do I think? Personally I enjoyed the game and want to see more of it, and this beta has gone a long way towards dispelling my misgivings about it.

Coming from the aforementioned big MMORPGs, it definitely plays and feels differently. If you're going into this game from a competing MMO, you should be prepared for some changes, and perhaps even the loss of some conveniences such as with the UI issues I mentioned. You're not categorized into tank/dps/healer type class roles here and are instead given skill categories to mix and match. The combat system feels a lot more like a hack and slash game rather than a WoW-like with cooldowns and skill rotations and whatnot. Things like cosmetic enhancements are nowhere to be seen at this time too, which I know is unacceptable for some. There are no instanced dungeons yet - they are instead open, shared zones, which could have a problem with crowding.

However, if you are able to look past that and enjoy the game for what it is, there is plenty to love here. I feel this game is good at what it's trying to be, which is not a World of Warcraft clone. That's why we end up not really needing a huge UI or instanced dungeons or super-linear road map quest chains, because this feels more like a cooperative hack and slash game in an open world than a big structured MMORPG. I enjoy the pace of the battles and the fact that characters classes don't follow tank/healer/dps templates. I definitely love how deep and detailed the world is, not just from NPC dialogue, but from all the exploration you can do and the little things you find here and there. Hell, I see other players in this game as possible allies and fellow adventurers, not strangers, obstacles, or enemies, and that's huge.

So yeah, if you're open to something different, by all means try this game. Even though we don't know how the late game will be, I can at least say with certainty that what I played was damned good fun. If you're coming from something like WoW you should be prepared to check some things at the door. Step inside though, and you may just find plenty to love in return.

You can also read my own opinions on the game from the perspective of an Elder Scrolls fan, if you haven't read them already:
Ray Hardgrit plays the Elder Scrolls Online Beta.

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