The Elder Scrolls Online’s beta phase rolls on, and Dave Cook’s been partaking in some PvP combat across Cyrodiil. Does it improve the overall package or is it still lacking?
I wrote an opinion piece on my time with The Elder Scrolls Online beta last week. Long story short; I wouldn’t pay for a subscription. It just feels too similar to Skyrim, a better game that I already own and one that doesn’t ask me for more money every month.
Skyrim’s the superior game of course but it doesn’t have PvP, so I decided to stay my verdict until I least gave the MMO’s competitive element an old college try. I’ve done that now, and while I’ll concede that there’s the making of an interesting concept in there, it too is muddied by strange design choices and a steep learning curve that punishes the uninitiated to a savage degree. As such, I’d argue that PvP is Zenimax’s endgame, rather than a side attraction.
The Elder Scrolls Online places a firm line between its PvE and competitive modes, but experience carries across both methods of play. The latter takes place in Cyrodiil, and the idea is that the game’s three major factions; the Daggerfall Covenant, Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion are waging war for control of The Elder Scrolls themselves. They are the great ‘MacGuffins’ that all PvP players endlessly fight for; always switching hands, contested forever.
The scrolls are held in keeps found dotted across Cyrodiil. The map looks like this:
This play-space is massive and so very, very dull. Now; this was a beta trial and clearly not representative of potential server population once the game launches in April, but I fear that Zenimax has made the map too big without giving proper consideration for the lay of the land. It doesn’t feel like an Elder Scrolls environment, and compared to Oblivion’s Cyrodiil; it’s tragically moribund.
It largely consists of bland fields, odd rock formations, the occasional patch of trees, and it suffers from a notable lack of wildlife. Remember trudging through the snow fields of Skyrim, watching glow bugs dance on the night’s breeze by some trundling corn mill, illuminating the darkness with their warming, yellow haze? Nothing here comes close to that joyful sense of whimsy. This is a dull environment.
You could say that concessions have been made because the Cyrodiil quotient is focused on server-intensive multiplayer battles, rather than the nomadic solo endeavours of the core PvE quest-line, but that sounds like a limp excuse to me; pilfered from the early ’00s textbook of poor sandbox design. Open world developers have bettered themselves over the years to fill their play-spaces with interesting sights. By contrast; this environment feels like a step back, and even on high settings (‘ultra’ ran like a dog for me during the beta test), it looks poor.
”The concept of a mass war taking place between jostling factions comprised of human players isn’t new in the MMO space but it still makes for a compelling experience.”
At the risk of being chewed up here; I’ll make clear that I’m getting this major grievance out of the way now because like I said at the beginning, there is potential within The Elder Scrolls Online’s weak PvP sandbox. The concept of a mass war taking place between jostling factions comprised of human players isn’t new in the MMO space but it still makes for a compelling experience after all, and while it’s not going to spawn the same incredible tales of subversion and espionage seen in Eve Online, this could still prove a fitting stage for many memorable battles.
After entering Cyrodiil and completing a base tutorial, you’ll understand the art of deploying machines of war – ballistas, catapults and trebuchets – how to repair keep walls and structures, and get a feel for how the vast Transitus fast-travel network operates. It’s a quick tutorial, but I found myself asking a lot of questions in chat to better-understand exactly what was going on, and how the world functions. I wasn’t alone in reaching out to others, so greater clarity in the lessons would certainly be welcome come full release.
The idea is that your alliance must capture all keeps surrounding an Elder Scroll temple in order to gain access to the prize, then the scroll must then be taken back to one of your side’s empty keeps and hung on the wall to count as captured. This isn’t easy; in fact, it’s a colossal effort that requires plenty of bodies and immense coordination. Running into the fight sword-swinging as a lone wolf will see you killed repeatedly. This is where the PvP appeal starts to set in.
After learning all the different firing arcs of Cyrodiil’s war machines and buying some ballistas of my own for a pretty penny back at base camp, I grouped up with a big band of warriors and set out into the world. We saw in the chat window that Chalman Keep was contested in the west and that Dominion forces were repelling our attempts to breach its walls. Our Ebonheart Pact allies needed help so we started running towards the battle.
We kept running, and running, and running. Again; the map is huge and it really does make each sprint back to the battle after death a lesson in tedium. You can buy a horse at camp for around 17,000 gold, but you’d have to play the core PvE quest or PvE for a long, long time before affording that luxury. I also got savaged by sneakily concealed lions on the way to the fight, which sent me back another five minutes.
You can use the Transitus network to fast-travel between areas, but only those claimed by your alliance. After teleporting one ‘space’ away from Chalman on the map, it was still a minutes-long sprint to the fight and my patience was starting to wear thin rather quickly. To spare you the hassle, any one of your group can buy and set down a Forward Camp – which works the same as a Tac-Insert in Call of Duty – giving you a quick respawn point should you fall in battle. These also cost money and can be destroyed by enemies if unguarded.
”You must first quick-slot the repair kit and then kind-of hurl it at the wall to patch it up. Perhaps this was a place-holder animation, but it felt a little odd. It’d be like throwing a campfire at a pig in Rust to turn it into a hog roast. Delicious? Surely. Sensible? Not really.”
After a while we managed to get a short jog away from Chalman Keep and the sound of clanging swords and screaming catapult volleys actually made for quite a tense atmosphere. War machines are the only way of penetrating a keep’s wall, so our alliance cleverly set a row of artillery on a rocky ridge nearby and unleashed hell on the structure. Occasionally; some Dominion footsoldiers would break away from the fire and try to kill our troops, but we quickly sent them packing.
Annoyingly however, there were a lot of level 50 players already roaming the battlefield and they killed me in seconds. This is what I meant when I said Cyrodiil should be considered The Elder Scrolls Online’s endgame. If you haven’t put the time in and levelled up often then you’re going to get slaughtered in PvP. There’s no low level areas or anything like that, just a harsh stalking ground for maxed-out players. All else is fodder.
I was no good on the ground so I tried to set up my ballista in the heat of battle and found it to be needlessly awkward. First; you need to set the machine to your quick-slots in the inventory, then open the radial to select it, then hit Q to deploy. Once you’ve done that you’ll see an environment marker on the ground.
In theory you just pick a spot and drop the device, but no; I was told for ages that the terrain wasn’t flat enough, I was too close to other war machines (despite being several steps away), and received countless ‘Too far from target’ errors that I couldn’t make any reasonable sense of. I was fumbling; fumbling around with HUD markers with an army of bastards breathing down my neck. I wasn’t having fun.
Repairing stone walls and wooden doors is also odd. The process is the same in that you must first quick-slot the repair kit and then kind-of hurl it at the wall to patch it up. Perhaps this is a place-holder animation, but it felt a little odd. It’d be like throwing a campfire at a pig in Rust to turn it into a hog roast. Delicious? Surely. Sensible? Not really.