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The Elder Scrolls Online: is it just Skyrim with co-op, or much more?

Friday, 30th August 2013 08:55 GMT By Dave Cook

The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO extension of Skyrim’s first-person template. VG247′s Dave Cook goes hands-on and speaks with Zenimax Online Studios general manger Matt Firor to find out more.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Developed by Zenimax Online Studios, The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO heading to PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2014.

The game is monetised by monthly subscriptions currently priced at $14.99/€12.99/£8.99.

It will also feature microtransactions for in-game items and discounts for those buying game time in batches.

Bethesda is currently pushing Microsoft to allow Xbox One owners to play The Elder Scrolls Online without an Xbox Live Gold subscription.

There seems to be a bubbling concern that The Elder Scrolls Online knifes its parent series in the back and abandons the key elements that made it such a runaway success. I’ve seen a wide range of complaints from gamers so far that cover everything from ‘the palette is too bright’ to ‘I just want Skyrim with co-op’.

It’ll never please everyone, but after spending an hour with the MMO at gamescom last week I came away feeling that The Elder Scrolls Online is a true extension of Skyrim’s template, and in turn it feels more like a core entry to the series with embedded multiplayer, rather than a complete rework from the ground up.

So if you feared that this game might have become World of Warcraft in Nord’s clothing then worry not, it’s very much an Elder Scrolls experience and a vast one at that. My concern then, is that the game isn’t different enough to warrant the recently-confirmed monthly subscription fee, but that’s for the paying individual to decide. I’ll return to that issue later on in this piece.

Regardless, this is a big undertaking for both all concerned, as Zenimax Online Studios general manager Matt Firor explained, “Zenimax Media hired me to start Zenimax Online, make the studio, work with Bethesda Game Studios and it was all centred around the idea of making an Elder Scrolls MMO.

“The early days were all about setting, how the PVP system’s going to be integrated into it, how do the factions work and a lot of technology stuff too. In terms of the idea a lot of the early days were figuring out how the game worked in the timeline of the world.”

It’s set around 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim so given the density of The Elder Scrolls lore out there right now, Firor and his team had to regularly consult Bethesda to make sure all the strands fit. He added, “We had to go through all the books from the other games and take out all the new ones, the ones that were less than a thousand years old because they were obviously anachronistic.

“Then we had a lot of fun writing a lot of new books, a lot of them pre-staging things that the players already know happened because they’ve played the other games, and we got to talk about things that will happen later and things like that. It was a lot of fun.”

It’s important to stress that the team doesn’t view this game as a mere cash-grab, MMO hatchet job, but that it’s a large project designed by and for fans with the series legacy and lore firmly in mind. If the studio can’t keep in-line with the expectations of veteran players, then the whole thing breaks apart. It’s lucky, then, that my hands-on session confirmed the game’s quality.

The section I played was set on Bleakrock Isle, which is part of Skyrim itself. Aesthetically, it’s similar to Bethesda’s last outing with snow-capped mountains, ancient ruins, meandering wildlife and delicate orchestral strings fluttering on the icy breeze. The HUD and controls are also near-identical to the core series, which basically allowed me to start hoovering up quests without first needing a tutorial. It’s familiar, yet the sheer scale of the world is inviting at the same time.

While I was assigned to a party of four, there was no obligation in this early area to group-up and tackle chores as a unit. I ignored them and went on my merry way to Skyshroud Barrow in search of the undead lurking there, and to rescue a scout named Darj. Battling skeletons came naturally, with left mouse for attack, right for block and everything else just where it was when I last played Skyrim.

“It’s mostly, you realise that the multiplayer thing is kind of intertwined into the Elder Scrolls game, not in your face. So you could play the first many, many hours and never access any multiplayer feature at all if you wanted. That was one of our goals; that you should be able to play solo.”

The key difference, however, is in the way enemy attacks are sign-posted. It’s a simple touch, but some enemy attacks are flagged up by a visual effect that signifies a stun chance. Block the incoming blow and your attacker is frozen to the spot in a daze, allowing for brutal follow-up strikes. Enemy attacks with any sort of area-of-effect are also painted in red on the environment, so it’ll always be clear how to dodge incoming arrows and other moves.

Defeating enemies rewards players with experience, and the old ‘learn by doing’ format of attribute levelling has returned – your one-handed proficiency will raise as you dish out more one-handed damage, absorbing attacks will progress your armour stat and so on. The same goes for new abilities mapped to your skill-bar, which improve as they are used.

It’s a tried and tested mechanic, so I’m glad Zenimax Online hasn’t mucked about with it too much. That said, I did feel that trudging across snowy fields in search of runes and captive NPCs felt a tad over-familiar, because in all honesty I’d done most of these things in the past year and half while playing Skyrim. That’s brilliant if you want more of the same experience, but I felt a little bored during some of the more basic side-quests.

When it came to online features I found myself being hammered by some tougher, named creatures but luckily other players came to my aid and helped me take them down. The neat thing here is that you all get the same loot and spoils for your trouble, so it definitely pays to be nice. Once that was done however, I went back to solo play for the rest of my session.

After my hands-on, I asked Firor if he and his team were aware of the the danger that The Elder Scrolls Online could end up being a subscription-based Skyrim with optional co-op. He replied, “I get that question asked a lot and the simple answer is, ‘hey it’s an Elder Scrolls MMO’. The more deep answer is, you can’t just say ‘Elder Scrolls MMO’, you actually have to do it, put in the features that make it, and I think that’s really what we’re bringing to the table.

“You sit down and play it for two hours or an hour and it’s like, ‘hey this is an Elder Scrolls game’. But then you start to realise, ‘hey there’s other people here’, and then you see a friend system, and then you see a group system, you see a guild system, but it’s not like right in your face. The UI is not screaming at you, there’s not 40 toolbars and things flashing.

“It’s mostly, you realise that the multiplayer thing is kind of intertwined into the Elder Scrolls game, not in your face. So you could play the first many, many hours and never access any multiplayer feature at all if you wanted. That was one of our goals; that you should be able to play solo.”

Firor confirmed that players would be able to experience what he called “The Elder Scrolls parts of the game” completely solo, and that includes levelling, exploring, going through your alliance’s main story and more. He added, “There are parts in the upper-reaches of the game like the PvP system where yes, technically you can solo but you’re going to want to. We’re going to have some higher-level PvE stuff we’re working on now that is much more group orientated. No one’s going to force you to group when you’re just doing normal Elder Scrolls things like playing the core quest-line and exploring the world.”

On top of this, there are public dungeons that can be tackled solo – although chances are you’ll be ganked on sight – and high-level areas that really do demand a group effort if you want to survive. Like Bungie’s approach with Destiny, it’s somewhat refreshing to see multiplayer and online participation offered as an option, rather than a mandatory style of play. However, this is a paid-MMO we’re talking about here, so it seems a little off that players will be expected to pay monthly for what is essentially a solo campaign with optional co-op.

Either way, Firor confirmed that his team is playing a long-term strategy with The Elder Scrolls Online, and that there is a five-year roadmap currently in the works that will see new content added to the mix regularly.

It’s impossible to ascertain an MMO’s true value based on a single half-hour play session so please do bear that in mind, but if both Bethesda and Zenimax Online Studios want this game to survive for years in the heated MMO space, they need to deliver a solid prospect worthy of monthly fees, as well as a compelling online content stream to keep people coming back.

It’s a tall order, and right now the MMO-noob in me is pleased that there are options for solo players. I’m simultaneously concerned that people won’t want to pay regularly for something that doesn’t go ‘all-in’ on the true MMO front. This all depends on what you want from the experience; Do you want the biggest Elder Scrolls solo campaign in existence with co-op, or would you prefer a fleshed out MMO experience through-and-through?

Let us know what you think below.

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8 Comments

  1. viralshag

    I am very interested to see how this turns out. I’m not a die-hard ES fan but I like the series enough to drop significant hours into it.

    However, some of my friends are and they’re looking forward to it but with the sub they’re not sure if it’s worth it for more than a month or two. Whereas in comparison they’re still playing Skyrim daily.

    #1 12 months ago
  2. silkvg247

    If they want to charge for the game AND a sub I probably won’t even look at it, tired of that old double whammy.

    #2 12 months ago
  3. TheWulf

    @2

    It’s not that it’s that they’re charging for the game and the sub, it’s that it has levels and a vertical progression surface to clamber up. We should all know what that leads to by now, as it always has.

    What I want to hear from MMOs these days is: The game costs money buy and has cosmetic microtransactions, but has no subscription. There are no levels in the game, and the progression is mostly horizontal in nature.

    This is exactly what Everquest Next is telling me. Which is why every MMO other than Everquest Next has fallen off my radar of late.

    The only other MMO I’m even considering at the moment is LEGO Minifigures Online, and that’s only because it could play like a Traveller’s Tales game, and those games are very, very good (and also purely horizontal in nature).

    #3 12 months ago
  4. fearmonkey

    “Do you want the biggest Elder Scrolls solo campaign in existence with co-op” – yes please!!!

    Seriously, I want to play this game Solo as much as I can, and play multiplayer when i want. The reason I want to play this game is to see all the stuff I havent seen before in Elder scrolls games, all the new locations that future games might take place in. As a long time Elder Scrolls fan, all that history and being around in that time is awesome, and I hope they pull it off.

    Skyrim is just a part of the world, I am eager to see what they other locations are like and revisit places I have seen before.

    #4 12 months ago
  5. TheWulf

    @4

    The only problem with that is that, like WoW, you’ll be grinding levels in order to see the other areas of the game. You’ll likely have paid for anywhere between four to six months worth of subscriptions before you’ve seen most of it.

    I’d rather this in an actual Elder Scrolls model, where I could explore the entire world at my leisure, without being punished for something as completely ridiculous as level. Because you can bet they won’t have scaling in Elder Scrolls Online.

    #5 12 months ago
  6. Hcw87

    And thank god for that (no scaling). Worst part in any game, hated Oblivion because of that.

    ”Hey i’m finally level 50, lets go back to an area i had problems with before and finish up that quest”

    Proceeds and gets killed by the same crab you got killed by at level 2.

    Yeah, that’s a big sense of empowerment allright. You NEED levels and no scaling, or you won’t feel like you’re building a character at all. It’s an MMO for gods sakes, people are expected to play for months.

    #6 12 months ago
  7. Bowser

    #6 COMPLETELY disagree. To each their own, but scaling is a big part of why I prefer Oblivion to Skyrim. With Oblivion, the open world truly felt OPEN. I felt like I could go anywhere and adventure and do things and have the right amount of challenge. With Skyrim, there was too much “oh, can’t play this part yet, enemies will rape you” followed by the even worse “oh, you’re killing everything in one hit, guess you shoulda came here sooner lol” all the time. Also, unless I recall really incorrectly, crabs did not just kill you at high levels at all. Scaling didn’t make old enemies stronger, it meant there were different stronger enemies in areas when you were stronger. It made it so it felt like the world was evolving with you, and on a different playthrough the experiences could end up very different.

    To each their own, but Oblivion is easily my favorite Elder Scrolls (though I admittedly haven’t played 1 or 2) and scaling was a big part of that.

    #7 12 months ago
  8. edzew

    I got to play this game in the open beta a little while ago and i must say i am very disappointed in it. At first I was excited because the customization of your toon was really detailed, but then i got into the game. It was just like Star Wars Galaxies…NGE. View was way to the right, over the shoulder, and if you zoomed in to first person it was just odd. Left click main weapon swing right click block. Granted its still in beta but if you cant move around and or click on things because a stupid NPC is following you around and getting in your way so instead of clicking on the item you click on her and start a conversation, that is just bad and super annoying. I played the game for about an hour until i just couldn’t take it any more and logged out. this game isn’t worth a sub and i wouldn’t pay more than $10 for the actual game. It is very sad because i was so looking forward to this game but it fell flat on its face.

    #8 12 months ago

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