The Elder Scrolls Online had a PvE press beta this week, and after some eight hours of play, VG247's Dave Cook has decided he probably wouldn't pay for a subscription yet.
I was fortunate enough to play The Elder Scrolls Online for two hours back at gamescom. In the article that followed I suggested that the MMO's PvE component felt more like a single-player extension of Skyrim with optional co-op for those who cared to use it. As such, I had trouble seeing the true value of a monthly £8.99 subscription charge.
I've now played the game's PvE beta for over eight hours and that stance hasn't changed. I'm currently at level ten. Here's the proof:
For many years now; since the dawn of DLC and the monthly subscription model, developers have long-debated the value of a dollar online. What is the correlation between virtual wares and real tender? How much is too much, and indeed, how generous can you be before it hurts the bottom line? This is not an easy question.
When The Elder Scrolls Online was announced as a subscription-based release, we observed many gamers on our ever-ticking social feeds crying foul, suggesting that the days of regular fees were long gone. Sceptics cited World of Warcraft's dropping active user numbers, and the Star Wars: The Old Republic's free component to counter the move, yet the model remains to this day. I'm sure it will be dropped in time.
However; The Elder Scrolls Online starts with something of an intelligent proposition; by first dropping you into an island off the coast of Skyrim. Now, I really enjoyed the fifth Elder Scrolls game - as I'm sure most of our readers did - and the opportunity to return to that part of the world really spoke to me. If you simply couldn't get enough of those snowy peaks, and ice that dazzles under the sky's hazy aurora borealis effect, then you'll really appreciate these first few hours.
You'll find yourself in familiar, reassuring territory as you trudge across the fantasy tundra fulfilling quests and defeating enemies as you go, and pretty soon it'll click that Zenimax has stayed true to the series. This is an Elder Scrolls game through-and-through, right down to the Skyrim-themed HUD, similar combat mechanics and an aesthetic that is simply unmistakable. It has not - as some suggested - been given the World of Warcraft palette treatment.
It's at this point The Elder Scrolls Online's PvE component enters something of a 'Catch-22' situation. When you bought Skyrim you purchased all of that sizeable content for a one-off fee, but in the MMO, you're getting the same familiar quests and mechanics for a monthly charge. It seems strange to type this; but it's almost too familiar to warrant more expenditure. Again, I feel that PvP could be the clincher but we haven't had a chance to try it yet.
Let's dive into what we do know and start at the beginning.
(You can also watch me play 12 minutes of TESO above)
The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't skimp on the character creation front; offering a wide range of returning races and factions to choose from, each with their own unique skill trees and passive buffs. From Redguards and Argonians, to Orcs and Bretons, you can tap into the series' rich history of creeds and crests. I'm fond of those mead-swilling Nords, so I rolled a Dragonknight complete with fire-based abilities.
I won't spoil the tutorial location as it's quite central to the plot, but after arriving in Skyrim you are given the title 'Vestige' by a man known only as the Prophet. He warns you that the forces of Molag Bal are descending on Tamriel, courtesy of a cataclysmic event called the 'Soulburst.' Your role in the sticky situation has been pre-ordained by the Elder Scrolls themselves, but you learn that your fate can most certainly be re-written. So begins your quest.
Furthering Bal's cause, Covenant Forces quickly sail upon Bleakrock, and it's up to the Vestige to round up as many civilians as possible then escort them to safety in Morrowind. Getting people to safety involves fulfilling the same vein of fetch quests and 'go here, kill this' goals the series is known for, but here they feel by the numbers. There's no shortage of tasks and plenty of NPC dialogue to add context to the chores, but it's largely pedestrian filler.
Things do improve some-what once you hit Morrowind's mainland, with its mushroom-infested highlands and volcanic mountain ranges. By this point you'll have a firmer understanding of how the world works, the best way to handle yourself in a fight and the myriad features beneath the hood. Combat is explained early on, and while it's largely the same format as Skyrim, there are a few additions to stop the 'click-to-attack' monotony from setting in.
Enemies can pull off charge attacks denoted by a flash of light above their heads. If you block the blow you'll enter your foe into a stun state which allows for a heavy knock-down strike. The blocking window is tiny however, even if you hit right-mouse as soon as you see the light flashes. Area-of-effect moves are also sign-posted by red ground markers, giving you a chance to dodge-step away from moves before they register.
I like the combat changes. They certainly expand the format away from simply swinging with your weapon on the spot, or spamming magic from a safe distance, which means you have to react to what your opponent is doing more prominently. This is a positive design choice. The same cannot be said for stealth, which takes something of a back-seat. Part of the problem stems from the enemies' stunted perspective.
Like previous Elder Scrolls games; crouching enters your avatar into a stealth state which allows for sneak-attacks and helps you bypass enemies. However, it's all too easy to just run past foes at a reasonable distance. I've even run right up to enemies full sprint and only after I started bashing in their skull with my axe did they notice me. The mechanic needs work.
But when you do get noticed and combat kicks off you can always fall back on your arsenal of abilities. My Dragonknight Nord's 'Ardent Flame' skill tree is full of fire-based attacks that dish out painful DPS effects, and can help interrupt power attacks. Starting ability 'Fiery Grip' is great for closing distance on threats by pulling them in with a red-hot chain, making it great for snaring ranged enemies - such as archers or mages - within melee distance.
I've been coupling this with 'Spiked Armour,' a temporary buff that dishes out light damage back to enemies with every incoming blow, as well as raising your defensive stat. The skill trees are massive to begin with, but after you level up an ability to a certain level it can be morphed into a new, more-powerful variant by spending a skill point. There's certainly a lot of offensive and defensive options to play with.
Once I had hit around level six I was feeling pretty confident in my Nord's ability to dish out pain, thanks to his selection box of brutal attacks and my ever-improving armour set.
That was, until I ventured further into the Morrowind mainland...
Help a milk-drinker out?
It's about here that The Elder Scrolls Online hits a difficulty spike, and that's commonly an MMO's way of telling you that you need to start grouping up. The server population was sparse thanks to this just being a press-only beta, and there simply weren't any willing groupers to hand. The resulting grind as I tried to solo areas became insufferable and the game's problems really started to rise to the top from here. I'll do my best to explain them.
First; I'm obliged to remind everyone that the world was under-populated due to small server-load, so it's clear that the world will feel more 'full' at release. Even then, there are whole stretches of farmland, countryside and rocky mountains to be walked without enemies to attack. In this particular regard the landscape does feel empty, and that's a shame because everything else - the music and design - rings true with the series. Again, this feels like an Elder Scrolls game.
Your other method of travel is to seek out Wayshrines on the map or buy a horse, and I guarantee you'll become addicted to exploring all of the HUD markers on your radar bar, just like you did in Skyrim. Shrine portals allow for fast travel across Tamriel at a price, and serve as respawn points when you die, but it's also possible to use a filled Soul Gem to instantly respawn on the spot. I died often as I nudged closer to level ten and it really grew tiresome.
Levelling up alone was still possible with perseverance however, and takes a familiar route to Skyrim in that your individual abilities and skills - such as two-handed proficiency and heavy armour bonuses - enter into the 'learn by doing' method. For example, the more damage you dish out with a one-handed weapon, the more one-handed skills and buffs you unlock. Actual character levelling comes with killing enemies and completing quests. It takes ages to fill that XP bar later on though.
There are some missions - such as pinching tomes from an abandoned Dwarven mine - that are simply brutal and not intended for low-level characters, yet they come early in the quest arc depending on the path you take. There's a lack of sign-posting here, but that's not a negative aspect. You just have to be smarter in your approach. If you hit a difficulty impasse, you should probably go off, level up and return later. Newcomers might not 'get' this though.
On top of these quests you also have a plethora of safe cities to visit, complete with NPC guilds that dispense quests, stores to sell your wares and crafting table. Like previous game you can cook, use alchemy, make bows and other items through woodcraft and more. Thankfully, carrying ingredients is no longer restricted by item weight, as you have 50 backpack slots to begin with. You can also buy bigger bags at some stores, and you'll be happy to know that being over-encumbered no longer reduces you to a crawl.
While the Elder Scrolls Online's countryside often felt barren the city hubs were certainly alive with NPC activity and things to do. I can only imagine that with a group of friends actively working together that a lot of my issues would have faded into irrelevance, but I can only go by what I experienced unfortunately. Now, we come to the bigger problems.
Lay of the land
In this humble critic's opinion, The Elder Scrolls Online really does feel like an extension of Skyrim and as I said at the start that's a positive step following initial fears that Zenimax Online would distance itself from the core brand in an attempt to capture Warcraft fans. That's most certainly not the case, and I for one am thankful for that, but it also makes the game too readily comparable to Skyrim.
Skyrim is still the better game, and it's a game I can play right now for a single flat fee. The question I kept on asking myself while playing The Elder Scrolls Online was, 'Do I need to pay for this game?' It all feels too familiar without offering anything new. Sure I can group and take on quests with friends, but I'm one of those players who likes the nomad style of play, where I wander the world solo and drink in the introversion at my own pace.
You might not be the same, and if you like grouping and the 'multiplayer Skyrim' elevator pitch then by all means discard most of what I've said above. I appreciate that to many series fans this game is a dream come true, and it's not a small feat either. There's a hell of a lot of content in here; from countless quests, page after page of collectible lore and parchments, right up to the sheer scale of the environment. The effort can't be discounted so readily.
But it also feels old, developed back in the old MMO gold rush days where taking a franchise into the online arena was a license to print money. We're past that now. MMOs need to distinguish themselves from the pack with new ideas and an attractive suite of features that stray from the 'me-too' mindset. If Zenimax Online has copied anyone too closely then it's Bethesda itself. I really felt I had done most of the level 1-10 stuff before, and for argument's sake I had; in Skyrim.
It also bears those traditional tattered edges we've come to expect from the Bethesda banner, and the glitches and quirks are quaint to a point, but not if I'm having to pay £8.99 a month for the pleasure. Again; this is a beta, the game is incomplete, but this is something the publisher needs to consider pre-release. Dead enemies falling into the floor, horrible lip-sync and murky textures can't be allowed to persist in a subscription-based title.
MMOs used to be approached with scepticism largely focused on visual fidelity and substance, but as Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn have recently shown, online RPGs needn't sacrifice quality for a quick buck. These are triple-a products, and that's simply not the feedback I received while playing The Elder Scrolls Online. The goal-posts moved a long time ago, and Zenimax needs to get back on target before April comes.
Luckily; MMOs are iterative, evolutionary products so it's possible Zenimax will continue to enhance The Elder Scrolls Online post-launch. The fee is still an elephant in the room, however.