The Elder Scrolls Online review in progress
One common piece of feedback that I saw after posting yesterday's review in progress update was the idea that the game gets substantially better after the tutorial islands. This appears to have been on the money: or, at least, I've had a little bit more fun with TESO today than I did yesterday.
I begin by completing a few more miscellaneous quests around Daggerfall. None take more than a few minutes, but they serve to introduce me to a new guild (the Undaunted) and subsequently the first group dungeon, which I'll be able to access when I hit level 12. After that I head out of the city gates in pursuit of the first Fighter's Guild quest marker. After a little bit more questing I'm given a further objective, well out towards Aldcroft—a ten minute run across Glenumbra proper.
It takes me about three hours to complete that journey. A short distance out from the city I run into a village in the midst of a cultist attack, so I stop to complete the quest line there. This introduces me to the sisters of the wyrd, who are part of a much longer questline that culminates in a battle with elementals near a massive sacred tree to the north. Along the way I run into a mansion under siege by bandits, which I rescue, and a haunted estate, which I successfully de-ghost.
I like that you can discover these smaller stories simply by picking a direction and running off. This isn't an MMO in the WoW mould, where all of your quests are picked up from town and then ground out one by one. I find myself committing to a single line until I've seen it through and then running until I find the next one. It's a scattershot approach to questing, but given how little time it took for TESO's linear questlines to trip over themselves it's a welcome change for the better.
The introduction of choice is welcome. Several quest lines end in some kind of moral decision, and this is reflected in the state of the world after you leave the area—even if, thanks to phasing, only you can see these changes. Towards the end of the haunted estate storyline, for example, I made a choice that felt right even though, on paper, it looked like the ruthless approach: having the situation turn out in everybody's favour was subsequently satisfying.
I'm still struggling to really care about any of the characters—their blank stares and inconsistent voice acting put paid to that notion—but it's not a totally lifeless experience. There are some real rough edges, particularly voice lines that are silent for no particular reason, but I found myself quite charmed by a bug that causes a certain breed of elemental in Glenumbra to speak in German for no particular reason. At first I thought that the developers had committed time to coming up with an alternative language for the spirit world; but no, it's German. Elementals are German! Who knew.
As questing systems go, it's less elegant than Guild Wars 2's event system but a little more directed. That said, I miss the organic feel of events and the way they prevented the world from ever becoming static. In TESO there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to return to areas that you've already completed: your job as a player is to clean up the world, returning everything to a state of placid normalcy. That's not a particularly inspiring objective, but getting there is at least fairly entertaining.
If that sounds like chilly praise then it's because I'm still taking a while to fully warm to TESO. I'm enjoying it more, but I'm yet to get to the point where it comes alive or makes a strong statement about its own identity. It still feels very safe, and very slow.
The rate of leveling has really slowed down, too. It takes about the same amount of time to get from 8-10 as it did to get to level 8 in the first place. I'm never not doing quests or fighting monsters, so I'm not sure how to speed up my rate of advancement—if you can think of something I might have missed, let me know in the comments.
A side effect of this slow leveling is that my playstyle hasn't changed much since yesterday. I've shifted some skillpoints around, and picked up some damage-over-time attacks from the Dragonknight's Ardent Flame skill tree. I've also picked up a defensive shield block that allows me to reflect magic damage. I can see the way that late-game builds will require a balance stamina and magicka consumption in the selection of abilities, but I don't really have enough powers yet that this is a meaningful choice.
I'm also using pretty much the same gear as I was on Stros M'Kai, as I'm yet to find anything better. I take a break from questing to return to Daggerfall and experiment with crafting, which allows me to fill out the two remaining gaps in my armour—shoulders and helmet. The crafting system is very involved, and I like the way you can salvage junk gear for materials that you'd otherwise have to go mining for. I'm not a fan of roaming the wilderness looking for resource nodes, so having an alternative is welcome.
Eventually arriving back on the Fighter's Guild questline, I'm directed to kill a daedra in the basement of a ruined tower. This quest is tuned to my level but is vastly more difficult than I can handle. It's a boss encounter, of a sort—the daedra transforms into a serpent monster below a certain health threshold, and summons healing orbs to herself that can be destroyed on the way. I ask in zone chat to find out if anybody else is on the same quest line, but don't get a response. It's interesting that the game doesn't flag this quest as group content in any way: as it is, I've resolved to keep checking zone chat and, if I don't get a response, to go back when I'm a higher level.
I hit level 10 shortly after arriving in Aldcroft, which is a sizable town in its own right. I'm now able to teleport to Cyrodiil, the game's Realm vs. Realm area. I spent my teenage years playing Dark Age of Camelot, the game that pioneered this kind of three-way factional PvP. Given how many ex-Mythic developers worked on TESO—including Matt Firor, the game's director—I have high hopes for this mode.
I just wish I could get into it. I've been writing this update while sat in the Cyrodiil loading screen: about twenty minutes, now, and counting. Something's not right. Time to quit and try again.
First steps in PvP
I get into Cyrodiil on my second attempt, after Alt-F4ing out of the game client. It's night time when I arrive, and there aren't any other players around—but I can see from zone chat that the Daggerfall Convent is taking a beating, well, everywhere. I have clearly managed to locate the underdog faction on this particular campaign, which is heartening.
A note on campaigns: given that TESO uses a single 'megaserver' for its entire playerbase in a given region, it's necessary to divide players up for PvP. You select a campaign to join that then runs for 90 days, at the end of which the population is reshuffled once again. There seems to be plenty of options to guest on other people's campaigns, but I'm concerned that this time-based system will prevent realm-wide allegiances from forming. Some of my fondest gaming memories came from the bonds—and rivalries—that formed over the course of years in Dark Age of Camelot. I've got doubts about TESO's ability to replicate that.
After getting my bearings I complete a short series of tutorials that establish the basics of buying and using siege weapons, capturing Elder Scrolls—a faction-wide effort—and doing PvP quests. The latter catch my eye. There are a range of quests available for solo players and groups. Some are simple—kill 20 players—but I'm drawn to scouting quests, missions that send you into enemy territory to produce a report on a particular objective. I pick up one of these and prepare to head off across Cyrodiil into Aldmerri Dominion territory.
Cyrodiil's landscape and ruins are similar to Oblivion, but my knowledge of that game doesn't really help me navigate here. It's massive, and attempting to travel as the crow flies reveals pathways, shortcuts and treacherous drops that I'm sure players will become familiar with in time. There are regular quests and monsters in the area, too, so it's possible to level here if you wish—I wonder if there's an XP bonus for doing so, as there was in DAoC.
While riding past an Ayelid ruin (oh yes—I have a horse now. It's a horse, and does horse things) I spot an Aldmerri Dominion mage running in the opposite direction. She doesn't seem to have seen me, even though I rode right past her. I dismount, crouch, and start to follow her. She does a circuit of the ruin and then stops to fight an elemental. Just as she's beginning to cast her first spell, I jump her from behind. The fight that follows lasts about twenty seconds, but I'm victorious. My first kill!
I eventually reach my scouting target and fill out the report. On the way I've picked up a couple of quests that are all pointing me towards the same village, but an attempt to swim a river in my way ends in tragedy as I'm abruptly eaten by slaughterfish. It seems like the developers really, really want players to fight over the bridge nearby: the river might as well be lava, for the amount of damage those fish do. I respawn all the way back in Covenant territory and decide to join in the defense of a nearby fortress.
I'm invited to a 20-something strong group and we ride out to relieve the defenders, slipping in by a postern door. Trebuchets are thundering down from the battlements and the Dominion can't get close. It's exciting to look at, but I haven't contributed much yet. After a few minutes we're able to push out beyond the walls and force the Dominion back to the lumber yard connected to the castle, which we take after a brief skirmish with its NPC defenders. My chief contribution is casting an AoE damage buff spell that sets my allies' weapons on fire. It seems to be helping?
Back on the offensive, we ride cross-country to bring the fight to the Dominion. There's a definite thrill to riding with a group, feeling like an army on the move. We sack a farm and do a circuit of the enemy castle, arriving at a mine. We take it, but meet resistance immediately after. Then, the Ebonheart Pact show up. We're forced back to our siege lines, and then the Dominion defenders come pouring out of the gate just as the Pact charges in from the flank. I try to run. I die.
I respawn, teleport to the frontline, and run back out. I have some luck picking off Dominion stragglers with a single other player, but then I notice a sea of yellow flooding over the hill. The Dominion is riding hard for the smaller fort we're using to stage our invasion. I try to run. I die. Again.
Back at the fort, the siege begins. I'm a little bit useless—leaving the walls means death, and I don't have a ranged weapon on me. I buy a trebuchet from the quartermaster but can't find a place for it on the walls, our defenses are so thick. I opt instead to run between groups of archers and mages, making sure that everybody's weapons are properly on fire. I'm helping! Eventually, I complete my 'kill 20 players' quest.
We repel the Dominion assault, but it's at the expense of our momentum. If we leave the fort, we'll lose it, and so the Covenant's hope of conquest in the south stalls. I take this opportunity to charge manfully out of the gates, where I am almost immediately killed. I think that's my cue to return to Daggerfall.
Those two hours of PvP were encouraging. Even though I never felt like I was quite in the driving seat, I feel like I've got a lot to learn about fighting other players and how the metagame fits together. Most importantly, this part of TESO has a distinct identity, despite having a direct equivalent in Guild Wars 2's World vs. World system. It's similar, but the landscape, quests and ready access to siege weapons give it its own flavour. This is something I've been looking for since I started playing: a confident statement that this is what the game was about. I'll have to play more PvP to say for sure that this really is the case, but it's heartening nonetheless.