Sunday, March 9, 2014

ESO - review pt 1: Introduction

Object: Elder Scrolls Online - Beta version

Reviewer profile: nox
I am a TES fan since Morrowind, but I won't hide that I am more interested in modding than gaming. TES appeals to me for its unique and deep lore. ESO was a first MMO experience for me. I was already angry over the little I knew about ESO lore (mainly the composition of alliances, and Mannimarco serving Bal) but I was still looking forward gameplay mechanics.

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - How is the gameplay?
Part 3 - What does it look like?
Part 4 - Aldmeri Dominion visuals
Part 5 - Ebonheart Pact visuals
Part 6 - Daggerfall Covenant visuals
Part 7 - Story, quests and NPCs
Part 8 - How lore-friendly is it?
Part 9 - Conclusion

When Bethesda Softworks worked on Skyrim, they thought of it in matter of experience, and they blended the new gameplay mechanics (Word Walls, revamping of magic, etc) into the lore, expanding it (Dragon Cult, CoW...) but in respect of what existed already. Zenimax took no such care, with the idea that gameplay mechanics are superior to lore, trying to fit new bricks into an already existing wall for the sake of fitting them in. The video below illustrates this with humor.

This is obvious calculation, and this is what you will see all through playing ESO. Everything is obvious. Everything has a single purpose.

Because you have been patient enough to maybe read this, I will first answer the question you might be wondering about most.

Would I recommend you ESO?

If you like TES for its deep lore: NO.

If you like MMOs: NO. It's not worth the price, nothing here that a free MMO doesn't offer.

Todd Howard said:
"We can do anything, we can't do everything"
ESO aimed to please everybody: both TES fans and MMO fans, and is likely to end up pleasing nobody.

In which case would I recommend ESO?
Only if you really want to play an MMO that looks pretty, with poor story design, but has Skyrim Tamrielic playable races and locations reminiscent of TES games more by their name than a real "feel" of them. You might also not care a second about character naming for immersion, and meet Nyanknight, LastDragonborn, Lmao Twoplate or D'aeros Csha'alan. Some players might argue that ESO is such a rip-off of Skairym.

ESO - review pt 2: How is the gameplay?

How is the gameplay?
The gameplay of ESO isn't bad in itself, but it has absolutely nothing in common with any TES game you've played.

Character creation
After a little introduction scene, you get to create your character. You choose your race, your class, and you start modifying the appearance of your character to make it more unique. Actually, the sliders in this system reminded me of a mix between Oblivion's character generator and the Sim's, but without potato faces. If you want an ugly character, you must really want it hard, because everything aims to the pretty and cool. Note that elves lost their eyebrow ridges and sharp facial features, and Bosmer, for some reason we don't understand, can have horns. Yes. I said horns. Dunmers are not limited to red eye colors (Daedric curse isn't a big deal), and Redguards can be fair skinned.

Sorry, wtf?
There are 4 classes: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Templar and Nightblade. They all have magic and specific abilities, such as growing spikes on your body, grabbing your enemy with a big magic chain, plundering it with magic spears, etc. In fact, the only skill that seemed lorefriendly to me, was the conjuration of a Scamp familiar, for the Sorcerer class, that you can later morph into a Clannfear conjuration spell.
The class system is a total casualization of the gameplay, so MMO players can feel more at home, but for TES players it's very disturbing. Like Magnus and Julianos disappeared and were suddenly replaced by a honeycomb and a guar. Wtf?

These are the 4 available classes
At some point you can get a Clannfear in spite of a Scamp

The crafting system is both simple and complex. Simple, because obviously it was designed to be easy to use. Complex because so long as you don't understand, you don't understand, because you need items that you have no idea how to get!

  • Cooking: To make food you need to find recipes, and use them to learn them (like spell tomes in Skyrim) and then, if you have the ingredients, you can cook. Pretty simple. However, for some reason, you have to create meals only one by one, and it can take very long to make a full batch, given that the creation process takes a few seconds. Click. Click. Click. ...I don't really see the point, honestly.
  • Smithing, tayloring, woodworking: To make weapons, armors and clothes, you need materials that you must refine (like ore into ingots, jute into linen, wood into wood). Once you understand this, it's pretty cool. At higher level you can access more styles (Altmeri, Breton, Orcish, etc) and it requires components that you can find randomly all the time, or buy. However, to improve an item (which is more interesting at low level since you can't access styles) you need items that might pop up randomly when refining materials or extracting them from existing items. Honestly, I got only one of those items and it wasn't even the one I needed to make the first basic improvement.
I never found Hemming. How frustrating >:(
  • Alchemy: You need waters and plants to mix into a brew. Given how rare plants are, and given that you can't buy them, I managed to brew 4 potions during the whole beta, and only one was successful. I mixed things completely randomly since I found no recipe or whatsoever to help me out at that. Very waste of place in inventory in my opinion so far.

Combat is rather easy when you don't have too many opponents. Targets are auto-detected and locked, so with multiple enemies it can become a bit messy at times. Using your class's skill is done through the use of number keys, so you need to remember what you mapped to which key. Personally, I'm not much used to this so I ended using the same skills most time.
Enemies have different types of attacks based on their race and type: humanoids come as warrior, mage or archer types, and animals have various powers. In example, some wolves can howl to call more of their kind.
Note that sometimes, if you are not extremely focused, you might end up being killed by low level enemies very quickly like wtf? Using potions in combat seemed ridiculously complicated to me, and after using one, I couldn't use any other. Running away is not an option either because once wounded everything feels slower.

Level up
Your skills level up as you use them (or not, it didn't seem completely logical to me), and sometimes you level up, but as completing quests is what gives you the most experience, I would consider level up to be quest-bound (which is ridiculous). When this happens, you can increase either your Magicka, health or stamina, and get a skill point. The skill point allows you to either activate a new skill or enhance one you already have to make it more powerful. Sometimes, you can also use this skill point to morph a skill: you can, in example, choose to make the skill affect multiple targets or to keep a single target version with a bonus effect. This is how you make your character more unique, and, personally, I find it seriously restrictive.

Completing quests is the fastest way to level up

Communication and groups
It's an MMO so you can talk with other players in a chat box. Nothing revolutionary here, and honestly, I found this feature disastrous. You can address privately to someone in the chat by clicking their names, but if you want to talk to more than one person at once, it quickly becomes a hell of scrolling up the log to select the names. You can also send messages, but I was never sure it worked because I never got any reply. Also, chatting isn't a real action, and if you stay "inactive" for more than ~10~15? minutes, the connection is lost and you're good to reload the game. Chance is you'll never meet the people you were talking to again if you didn't add them to your contacts.
The interest of MMO is also to play with your friends, whom you can add as contacts, and create a group with. I managed to meet one friend after a lot of efforts to figure out how to see each other (required to "travel" to other player). We had some fun doing stupid things like jumping uselessly on tables, but questing in town without fights was certainly not much interesting.
Like in other MMOs it's possible to use emotes to make your character play a little animation. It's probably the feature I enjoyed most during this second beta session.

Other things
There's a lockpicking mini-game reminding of that of Oblivion, but completely hardcore. I never managed to lockpick even the easiest lock. There's obviously something to balance there. I don't get why they didn't take the Skyrim lockpicking system back, it is the best!
Oh, and you can't freely go from one area to the other within your faction, this is plot-driven, so you'd better do some quests before moving on, especially since leveling is quest-bound too (and you don't want to end up being stuck as low-level vs much stronger enemies). I wish there was more freedom to move around. I understand the limitations related to level but I really think there were other ways to deal with this otherwise, like having low-level enemies near settlements, and higher levels in the wilderness.

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - How is the gameplay?
Part 3 - What does it look like?
Part 4 - Aldmeri Dominion visuals
Part 5 - Ebonheart Pact visuals
Part 6 - Daggerfall Covenant visuals
Part 7 - Story, quests and NPCs
Part 8 - How lore-friendly is it?
Part 9 - Conclusion

ESO - review pt 3: What does it look like?

What does it look like
Let's face it: it's pretty but very casual. The artists were not just lazy and uninspired as hell, they also had no understanding of the universe whatsoever. This quote from an interview sums it all:
"The buildings of Alinor are said to look like they are "made from glass or insect wings". If the Summerset Isles are traverseable, will we see a design reminiscent of this?
The architecture of the High Elves is fanciful, certainly, but also practical, constructed of real-world materials. Architects can't make buildings out of poetry!"

In a previous review on deviantART, I was very hard in my opinion. But then yesterday I discovered the screenshots taken by felrokker, and I was shocked by the quality of what I saw. Unlike her, I had not dared to max up the visual settings, with things like specular, reflection, shadows, long FoV, shadows, etc, in fear I would get too much lag (I had some time to time and it was horrid). The difference between her experience and mine is simply stunning. Amusingly enough, we took some screenshots that were nearly identical, see below mines on the left, hers on the right:

I think those last two ones show how terrible things can get. I was mad over the fact that the devs hadn't been arsed to make Dwemer metal golden, making it look like some dull cast iron... The difference is just incredible. Worrying even.

Onto the different areas now.
As a general statement, I would say that everything is very small, tiny, even, and nothing seems alive. Even the places with NPCs talking to the crowd or what are just... dead boring. It's lifeless. This is probably partly due to the contrast between AI-controlled NPCs and human-controlled PCs.

Seriously, is has a nice atmosphere (in high resolution only, else it looks ridiculously cartoony) but it does not look like it should a second. It looks like some foggy blue factory and has nothing in common with Tamriel, when it should be a corrupted version of it. And it's full of Daedric typos.
Screenshots courtesy of Felrokker.