02/03/2014

ESO Beta Weekend Impressions

Time for my bi-annual completely off-topic post! I've never played an Elder Scrolls game in my life, so I had little interest in the upcoming online version, even more so since pseudo-realistic graphics generally aren't my cup of tea, as they tend to look kind of samey and boring even when they are well done. However, I have to admit that my interest was piqued after the game got some (relatively) bad press recently - I haven't seen anyone call it outright bad, but terms like "nothing special" and "bland" were certainly thrown around a lot. The reason I find this intriguing is that pretty much every new major MMO release since I've been following these things was initially hailed as the next big thing by the gaming press - just to turn out not to be. So what does this mean for a game that isn't getting hyped up to eleven pre-release? When a friend sent me an invite code for this week's ESO beta weekend, I decided to find out for myself.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Elder Scrolls lore and not finding the character creation screen very informative when it came to races, I decided to make a cat person simply because I like cat people. I chose the templar class because after skimming the different descriptions that one seemed to be the only one capable of healing. It made no sense for me to choose a healer since I was going to play on my own and wasn't going to have anyone to heal, but I just like being a healer anyway, ok? When it came to customising my character's looks, I was given a lot of options involving sliders, most of which didn't seem to do much. I was however amused that butt size was one of the things I could change, and that the slider for it was called "posterior dimensions". I was also given the option to add some facial hair to my female cat person, which I thought was quite novel, though I just went with a mohawk in the end.

Many things have been written about the "tutorial level" where you wake up in a prison cell, so I'll just say that it was indeed pretty boring. There was a lot of talking going on about how I was somehow important, and other people were important, but since I had absolutely no clue what any of it was about I found it hard to care. However, even considering that I was taking my time and stumbling around cluelessly like a noob, that part of the game didn't take very long, and I soon found myself released into the overworld, waking up on a tropical island.


The only thing wrong with this picture is the "please stab me here" hole in her armour.

This is where things got interesting. I got given a quest to "investigate" several areas, and soon found myself getting distracted. Due to an extremely minimalistic UI and no mini-map, the game is very immersive. (I don't know if there's an option to change that, but at a glance I couldn't even tell other players and NPCs apart, everything just melded together visually.) I'm the kind of person who usually has her eyes pretty much glued to the mini-map - and in a way that makes me sad because I know that I miss out by not paying more attention to my surroundings, but I tend to get lost easily and the mini-map is usually my anchor. Well, ESO simply gave me no choice in the matter, and while there is a compass on top of the screen as well as regular maps to look at, I found myself flailing around a lot and running in the wrong direction quite frequently. But you know what? I didn't mind. I enjoyed gathering crafting materials wherever I found them and generally picking up everything and anything that wasn't nailed down. I could even catch butterflies to use as fishing bait! Is there anything more appropriate than a cat person catching butterflies?


I've seen other people make this comparison already but I also found it to be true that the questing reminded me a bit of Vanilla WoW. Sure, you got a quest or two, and there are markers on the map, but they are comparatively low key, stuff on the ground doesn't sparkle, and you spend a lot of time running back and forth - but you don't mind, because it feels like there are interesting things to find around every corner anyway. In one case I found myself stopping in the middle of a rescue quest involving a horrible thunderstorm to start fishing - because I hadn't done it before and there was a fishing hole right there, so why not?

Of course there are differences to Vanilla WoW questing, such as everything being fully voiced and some quests actually offering you choices. The voice acting is actually pretty well-done too... though it does feel a bit redundant when you have the whole text right there to read anyway, and I have to admit that I clicked through without waiting for the voiceover to finish whenever I had finished reading (though I tried to not interrupt people mid-sentence; that grates on me for some reason). The NPCs aren't as expressive as SWTOR's, but much better than Neverwinter's dead-eyed quest givers. The ability to make choices about the outcome on some of the missions was a pleasant surprise for me as well, since I didn't actually expect it. And it's interesting that not a single quest was about "killing ten rats" or anything like it, with a heavy focus on talking to people instead. However, clearly none of this is anything "special" in a new MMO these days... [/sarcasm]

Another thing I previously saw criticised more than once was the combat not feeling "right". I don't have much of a point of reference, but I did indeed struggle a bit early on because I felt like I wasn't getting good feedback in response to my mouse-clicks, in the sense that I couldn't tell whether it made any difference whether I mashed my buttons like crazy or clicked them more slowly. However, as time went on I felt like I got to understand the rhythm of the game better and fights started to go more smoothly... except for the interrupt mechanic, which I hardly ever got to work for some reason. I was also pleasantly surprised that the combat, while avoiding the classic hotbar model, didn't feel too "action-y" (which I personally don't like). While some enemies had attacks that could be dodged, others could simply be shut down by blocking and interrupting (whenever I got it to work), which I found vastly preferable.

The game also seemed pretty polished already, apart from the fact that it started me off with a screen that said "intro cinematic placeholder". I only really ran into two kinds of bugs, one of which caused my UI to get stuck in the "zoomed in" mode you see when you talk to an NPC or craft something, and which required me to relog to fix it.  The other was that pressing E (the default "interact with this" key) on certain lootable chests didn't actually do anything. I'd consider both of these quite minor, though the UI error happened quite frequently and forced me to relog a lot.

I stopped after I reached level five and made it off the island, not because I wasn't enjoying myself, but because I didn't want to invest too much time in a beta that's just going to get wiped anyway. I currently don't see myself buying the game at launch, simply because I already have more than enough on my plate when it comes to MMOs - however I definitely could see myself playing it at some point if I manage to find some time in my schedule for a secondary MMO (and if I can get someone else to play with me).

After five levels spent on my own I obviously have no idea how the game holds up in many areas that are very important to an MMO's longevity: social features, endgame and so on - but I would say that what I've seen in those first couple of levels was interesting enough to justify giving it a try at least (even more so since from everything I've heard, the game only opens up and becomes even more "explorable" as you go up in levels).

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