The Elder Scrolls Online review in progress

Chris Thursten

Page 1 of 10

The Elder Scrolls Online launched last Friday. Chris' review of the game will be published following at least a week of play on the game's live servers. This 'review in progress' will document his experiences with the game as they happen. Find the first part below, check out page 2 for Saturday's update, and page 3 for the third part. The final part is available here .

Level 1-4

My time in the live version of TESO begins a few hours later than I'd hoped. The PC that I use to test games in the office has a hard drive failure before I can start playing, so I rush home to play the game there. By the time I begin, it's midday on the day of the game's launch. If there were ever going to be a time when an MMO wasn't going to work properly, it'd be now—but to TESO's credit, I experience no problems getting connected.

Having played the game a few times in earlier versions, I know what character I'm going to make. The first time I played TESO was at a preview event a year ago, when I played a Daggerfall Covenant character up to level six or seven. I'm interested in charting the same course to see how much has changed since then. It turns out that a lot has, and not all of it for the better.

I create a Redguard Dragonknight, a melee tank with access to damaging and defensive magic. Character customisation has a lot of depth—more so than most games in this genre—and the range of body types available in particular provides a lot of room to give your character a distinctive silhouette. That said, I struggle to create a face with personality. There are plenty of sliders to tweak, but only a few seem to have a really perceptible impact. Characters in TESO tend towards a kind of bland prettiness. This flaw is something it shares with a lot of other MMOs—and a lot of other Elder Scrolls games—but it's still a flaw. I settle for using the 'Eye Squint' bar to give my character an expression that could pass for a hardened middle-distance stare. The whole process takes about twenty minutes, but I'm the type of player who tends to lose a lot of time to character creation in RPGs.

TESO's tutorial section has you escape from prison in Coldharbour, a very very grey plane of Oblivion presided over by Molag Bal, the game's daedric antagonist. After collecting my weapons of choice—a sword and shield—I'm taught combat by battering a few skeletons. Fighting has been improved since the beta: weapon blows seem to be emphasised more in the audio mix, and you can no longer clip freely through any other characters. It's still weak compared to Skyrim, but it's better than it was. That said, I remain pretty unconvinced by the game's first-person mode. There's very little sense of connection, and the red shapes used to telegraph enemy attacks are much easier to see with the camera pulled back. I zoom out to an over-the-shoulder view and stay there.

In this sequence you are introduced to a nord warrior called Lyris, played by Jennifer Hale, and a mysterious prophet played by Michael Gambon. There's an early cameo by John Cleese, too, playing a quote-unquote "wacky" prisoner of Coldharbour who serves to direct you from one corridor to another. Bethesda's casting budget carpet-bombs the sequence in a way that is honestly very distracting: rather than be drawn into this world and its characters, I find myself wondering instead about how much it all must have cost. This isn't helped by very rudimentary facial animation, which traps acting talent behind a looping range of unblinking gurns. I never thought I'd say this about the game, but Oblivion had more convincing people.

It's not an inspiring start, then. There's something off about the pace—you're asked to believe that you're the key to solving a world-ending crisis but given no sense of what that really means. You're told that you're taking part in a mass slave uprising but most everybody else you see is hovering around like it's no big deal. Coldharbour itself is alien but drab. It's supposed to be Tamriel's dark mirror, but there's little to differentiate it from any other gothic fantasy dungeon.

I'm glad to get to the portal that leads to Tamriel proper. In the beta, leaving Coldharbour deposited you on one of three starting islands depending on your choice of faction. Bethesda have tweaked the system to speed up TESO's pace: now, you begin in a house in your faction's capital city with the option to go and do those beginning quests if you desire. I understand this decision on paper, but its execution causes problems.

When you wake, you're visited by the prophet who appears to tell you what to do next. It was obviously necessary to record some new dialogue to reflect the change in starting location, and whoever does the voice of the prophet for this particular conversation really, really doesn't sound like Michael Gambon. It could be him, I suppose—the difference could be down to recording the dialogue at a later time. But I'm genuinely taken aback by how different it sounds, given that I'd been listening to the character only minutes earlier. It's a small point, ultimately, but a strong first impression is important in a game this hotly anticipated. I don't feel filled with confidence by this early dip in TESO's production value.

The version of the game I'm using comes with a few additional extra pets and items, which are delivered by mail. I've also got a monkey companion for participating in the beta. My plan is to deposit all of this extra stuff in the bank in Daggerfall and then head to Stros M'Kai, the Daggerfall Covenant starting island. I remember liking the quests and characters in that area, and I want to give the personal story the chance to start as strongly as it can.

Daggerfall is very busy, and I experience periodic freezing as I run around. I get 60fps indoors on max settings using a mid-range system, but outside it seems to hover around 30fps with the occasional hard pause. It's playable, but distracting. In the bank, the single banker NPC is surrounded by dozens of players. In the corner, an argonian called 'Shitt in pants' is playing a drum slightly out of time. This is definitely an MMO.

I drop off my monkey and run to the marketplace to sell some of the starting equipment I no longer need. Along the way I attract the attention of a quest-starting dog, who I decide to follow. He leads me to a quest that I remember taking place much later in the Daggerfall Covenant arc, but that has obviously been brought forward to account for the change in the starting experience. The dog leads me to a body, which leads to a battle with some assassins, a murder plot, and an attempt on the life of the king of Daggerfall. Before my first two hours are up I've become the hero of the city, and all I did was follow a dog.

I've got mixed feelings about this change in structure. On one hand, NPCs trusting fresh-off-the-boat strangers with vital tasks is a quirk of the genre, and I appreciate having had the freedom to encounter the quest on my own terms. On the other, the game has done nothing to establish the themes or relationships that are needed to give these events context—context that would be provided by the starting questlines that I already appear to have skipped.

In terms of minute-to-minute combat, however, things fare a little better than they did in the beta. I've specialised in earth magic, which allows me to interrupt enemy special attacks with a knockout blow. I use this in conjunction with a series of armour-reducing sword moves to build up steady damage on an opponent who can't get any hits in themselves. It's not wildly different to any other kind of MMO combat rotation, but I like that I've been able to come up with it myself.

I do, however, encounter a problem when I die during the assassination attempt on the king. I choose to respawn on the spot and this throws the AI for a loop. Enemy assassins no longer respond at all as I chop them down, unopposed, before making my way upstairs to kill their leader.

After completing the quest I head to the Fighter's Guild to sign up. I'm too low level to do their quests, but I do want to grab their skill tree for later. Then, I head to the docks. I already feel like I've broken TESO's narrative arc by getting ahead of myself, so I want to get back on track— but the way the story loops back on itself to get you to the starting island is… confusing.

You're asked to get on board a ship that will take you to Stros M'Kai, where the person who rescued you—Captain Kaleen—is recruiting a new crew. Except Kaleen's ship is in Daggerfall, and the NPC who explains all of this to you intimates that you're already in Stros M'Kai before you've even left. In older versions of the game, Kaleen was stranded in Stros M'Kai when her crew mutinied. TESO still tries to establish that this has happened, but the nuts and bolts of the plot make absolutely no sense—why would she allow the ship to go to Daggerfall? How did it even get there with no crew? Why would they rescue you, drop you off half a world away, and then sail back the way they came?

Scripted narrative isn't important to MMOs, necessarily, but worldbuilding is. TESO's scrappy quest structure has thrown off my sense of place, and I'm having to work hard to pull it back. I hope the next couple of hours fare better.

Level 4-8

This sense of disconnect sticks with me long into the Stros M'Kai storyline. It's clear that this is where the game was supposed to begin, and the fact that I've already been to Daggerfall, rescued the king and so on reduces the significance of the characters I'm meeting and the alliances that I'm forming. I do like the way these early quests allow you to pick which characters continue to travel with you, and the way TESO uses phasing to include those characters in the world is clever. But feeling like I've done the game out of order holds me back from really forming an attachment.

I've realised that trying to play TESO for the narrative and world just isn't going to work. This isn't an MMO where the presence of other players enhances your immersion. Given that everybody is working through the same linear series of quests, you see other people everywhere—and normally, they're doing the exact same things you are. Other players add to atmosphere when they provide a sense that the world is a living place, that it would continue about its business without you. In TESO, they reinforce the notion that you've all signed up for the same ride.

With this in mind I've decided to adjust my attitude and play TESO as I would a less story-centric MMO. This feels like a waste of the setting, but the game is better when you put levelling and combat ahead of immersion. Because you get most of your experience from completing quests, however, there's not actually all that much fighting—at least, not at the point I've reached. After I leave Stros M'Kai, for example, I arrive in the orc island of Betnikh. Two separate questlines involve running from point to point on the map talking to NPCs and watching short cutscenes play out. One involves a short dungeon run later on, but the other is entirely about walking and watching along with crowds of other players doing the same thing. I like the way these quests are used to provide context for the conflict you're engaged in, but they are not mechanically interesting or particularly fun to work your way through.

I am enjoying the game's skill system, though. On Betnikh I unlocked my first Ultimate ability, which allows me to encase myself in lava to reduce incoming damage to a fixed amount while burning enemies around me. I've also 'morphed' several of my sword and shield abilities, which involves levelling them up through use and then picking one of two potential upgrade paths. I now gain armour while taunting and can reduce all incoming damage with a particular blow. I'm heading towards a tanking role, slowly but surely, and while I might be doing the same thing as every other player on the map I feel distinct from them in the way that I approach combat.

After several hours of questing on Stros M'Kai and Betnikh I'm now back in Daggerfall. The main questline is about to pick up a notch—the prophet has been in touch again, this time sounding much more like Michael Gambon—and I'm going to give crafting a go while I'm in the city.

I had not expected to be as disheartened as I was by TESO's opening: having played it before, I felt like I'd set my expectations right. In part, dealing with that disappointment was a case of adjusting my attitude towards the game. I have a lot of patience for MMO genre conventions in the right circumstances. But I wouldn't expect another player to be that generous. If I'd logged into TESO today expecting a sense of immersion on par with other Elder Scrolls games, or a degree of coherence on par with other narrative-heavy MMOs, I suspect I'd be sorely disappointed.

Level 8-10

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.

"No one ever considers the wants and desires of a ghost" moans the Ayleid spirit I'm talking to, down at the bottom of a dusty ruin.

This is a singularly incorrect statement. Since my last update I've spent over ten hours running quests in Glenumbra and close to half of them have been on behalf of ghosts, spirits, or visions. I spend so much time running about at the behest of transparent people that the next time I see a plastic bag in real life I'm going to assume that it wants me to free it from its boundless torment. That's what I do in The Elder Scrolls Online, now: I ride my horse, talk to transparent blue people, and return their lost knick-knacks to whatever shrine or crypt they've been taken from so that said transparent blue person can moooooove ooooooon.

Most MMOs of this type are repetitive in terms of structure—collect ten of these, kill this guy—but provide variety in terms of subject matter, location, and tone. The Elder Scrolls Online is starting to feel like a fantasy novel stuck on repeat. The first time I sought out a vision of the past to learn a secret that would solve a problem in the present, I thought it was different and interesting. The fourth time it happened I realised that vision quests are no big deal in Tamriel. A mage journeying into history in search of secrets is no more dramatic or unprecedented than tech support Googling an error message for you.

A tremendous amount of effort has clearly been expended giving all of The Elder Scrolls Online's NPCs voices and dialogue trees, and on investing what would be fetch quests with a bit of life and detail. The game wants to tell you a story, and that's fine. The problem is that it's the same story, again and again and again. I've started fast-forwarding through conversations, and that just isn't how I'd normally play an RPG. I've burned out on running errands for ghosts.

Storytelling in an MMO is no longer so novel that it gets a free pass just for turning up. I think it's reasonable to expect much more from a game with this much backmatter supporting it. From its script to its voice acting—particularly its extensive reuse of the same actors—The Elder Scrolls Online's attempts to keep you involved stumble badly. I understand that for most MMO players storytelling is the icing, not the cake, and for that reason I'm going to spend the rest of this update talking about game systems. But terrible icing is still terrible icing, and it has a bearing on the overall quality of the cake. I am very close to just skipping the story bits entirely, which I suppose is a bit like scraping the icing off the...

Let's move on.

I've experimented a little more with crafting, using it to keep my gear up to date when questing doesn't provide items I particularly want to use. It's a good system: ingredients are fairly easy to come by, but you're encouraged to burn through lots in pursuit of the equipment you really want. Once you've made a pair of pants, for example, you can then use extra ingredients to gamble on upgrading those pants to the next quality level. If you fail, you lose the original item—so there's an incentive to build up a reserve of spare materials before you start, and successfully-improved gear feels more valuable to you as a result. I also like the way enchanting involves learning key words that function a bit like Skyrim's dragon language: eventually, you can gauge what results you'll get from combining certain runes without needing to have translated most of them in advance. This time it genuinely is an involved fantasy language, and not just a bug that makes elementals speak German .

At level twelve I completed the first group dungeon, Spindleclutch. It's a spider cave with three boss battles, culminating in a fight with a spider daedra. As the designated tank I spent most of my time running between monsters making sure I'd tagged them all with my taunting stab attack, but beyond that cooperative play doesn't feel as demanding or precise as I'd like. This is an early dungeon, and so there's a chance that it's been tuned for players who simply want to roll over every combat encounter—but it'd be nice to have a sense of whether my group was playing well or badly beyond "all of the monsters died."

Unfortunately, the dungeon quest bugged out for my group. We could still fight all the bosses, but if there's an additional section that follows the daedra battle we didn't get to see it. I've also been stymied by bugged quests in my solo play: in one instance, an important boss NPC refused to spawn, forcing me to leave the entire quest line where it was and come back the next day to try again. These bugs are getting stepped on fairly quickly, and they're preferable to the connection issues that traditional dog MMO launches, but it's not a great experience when it does happen.

My character has become substantially more interesting to play as she's grown in power. Having more skill points to throw around—at this point, the most compelling reason to complete the main story quests—means being able to tinker with builds, and I've found one I like. I use my magicka pool to provide both offensive and defensive buffs to my allies, and then I stack slows, snares and attack debuffs on enemies to keep their focus on my while I whittle them down. A few of the bosses I've encountered solo have been satisfying fights because I've needed to carefully time the use of my regen abilities, potions and so on to make sure I can stay on my feet for as long as I need to. That's not an RPG experience I particularly associate with The Elder Scrolls but it is an experience I enjoy, so I'm glad that it has started to become a more substantial part of the game.

These close fights are the exception, though. The majority are very easy, and purported improvements to the AI of regular mobs don't change that much. They will sometimes spill oil on the ground for somebody else to ignite, yes, but that's about the extent of it. It's a nice idea, but you're still just avoiding a red circle on the ground. Other examples—such as werewolves regaining health by eating their dead companions—are similarly underwhelming. The consequences of them succeeding in this new behaviour are never so dangerous that you feel particularly compelled to stop them from doing it: you just keep hitting them, and kill them a little bit slower.

At level 15 I unlocked a second weapon set, meaning that I can now switch from sword and shield to a longbow in combat. This will be a pretty substantial bonus in PvP, but I need to level up my bow skill before I can make the most of it. Simply having the option to mix up my playstyle makes PvE more interesting: I wish it'd been made available sooner.

Having played more than sixteen hours on this character I've only just left Glenumbra, the first zone I entered after escaping the starter islands. That's a fairly extraordinary span of time to spend in a single location, especially one defined entirely by grey cliffs, green fields, and swampland. I am very, very ready for a change of scenery. The next stop is Stormhaven, which appears to be a land of grey cliffs, green fields, and... damn. The next ghost I see is getting left by the side of the road.

Returning to PvP

Spending most of a day in Cyrodiil is a good way to win back some faith in The Elder Scrolls Online. I initially transferred to the PvP zone to hand in some quests, but found myself getting drawn into a morning-long campaign against the Aldmerri Dominion.

Massive PvP is by the far the game's best feature, if you ask me. There's a confidence to the design at both ends of the scale. Cyrodiil is smartly laid out, and fortresses are satisfying both to take and to defend. Likewise, it's great that many key PvP abilities - AoE shields, movement speed buffs, protection against stuns and snares - are placed in universal skill lines that everybody has the opportunity to invest points in. Lots of different types of characters appear to be viable, and although I haven't played to a high enough level to sniff out balance problems I haven't encountered anything that felt overpowered in the amount of time that I've invested so far.

The morning started with a rush to defend Roebeck, a Covenant fortress in the south. The Dominion were inside the walls but had failed to crack the central keep. My new bow came in handy, but I found that the journey from level 10 to 15 had made me a much more versatile melee combatant, too. I use AoE armour and damage buffs as well as a shield-charge stun, a snare, and a fire damage-over-time that heals me after its duration expires. This gives my warrior a lot of staying power in the front line, and thanks to those buffs she's useful to everybody around her, too. When lots of players are engaging in the same space, it can be hard to see exactly who you're hitting or how much damage you're doing—but there's no missing the sight of a dozen weapons igniting all at once, or a dozen players being surrounded by floating stone armour.

After saving Roebeck and retaking its surrounding resource camps we pushed south, to Faregyl, a Dominion fortress. After taking the mine, lumber camp and farm without meeting much resistance, our group leader steered us around to the north side of the fortress to begin the siege properly. This was a smart move: previous invasion attempts that I've been part of have been undone by the fact that an invading army, approaching with friendly territory at their back, often circles a fortress before attacking it—effectively presenting the rear of their siege line to enemy reinforcements. By fully circling around Faregyl before laying down trebuchets, our position was much more secure from the beginning.

The ease with which players can buy and set up siege weapons belies their sense of impact. TESO's truncated draw distance often means that it struggles to convey a sense of scope, particularly in the PvE areas that I've explored. The sight of a player-built siege line is the first thing that has really made me want to stop, switch off the UI, and take pictures. There's a real sense of weight to every firebomb or boulder that you send flinging at the enemy's defenses, and finding yourself in the firing line of a ballista or burning oil trap is intimidating. Watching players count down the healthbars of wall sections and keep doors in group chat gives me flashbacks to Dark Age of Camelot in the best possible way; waiting for a door to hit 0% health with a full group of other players does a powerful job of building anticipation for the fight to come. At their best, these battles are dynamic, player-driven, and engaging: the opposite of the somnambulant questing that drove me spare earlier in the week.

I do have a few concerns. The only crashes I've experienced have happened during PvP battles, and even though I'm playing on a fast enterprise internet connection I've encountered hard freezes that can often mean a totally unavoidable death. Death is a bit of a drag, too: more often than not it means respawning at least two-three minutes away from the frontline, running through a couple of doors, and riding all the way back to the battle. It's possible to place forward camps, but they don't seem to last very long in my experience. While the game has been balanced around the idea of cutting enemies off from their reinforcements, it's not very much fun to find yourself back on your horse trying to get back to where the action is. It's possible to expend a Grand Soul Gem to revive other players, but only organised groups seem to make very much use of this. A more generous—if risky—player revive system might help to mitigate this issue.

Likewise, much in PvP is determined by which side can bring the larger zerg to bear. This is how DAoC worked, a lot of the time. It's how Planetside 2 and Guild Wars 2 work, as well—but that doesn't make it any less an issue. TESO exacerbates the problem, I think, by having a single PvP zone. Even though it's huge, there's no chance that an enemy faction might be elsewhere while you're trying to cap their territory. In Planetside 2, one faction might be bogged down in a totally different continent. In Guild Wars 2, an enemy server might be fighting in their Borderlands while you go for the Eternal Battlegrounds. In TESO, everybody is a teleport and a short horse ride away from the front line at any given time. Combine this will zone-wide chat for everybody and it's very hard to plan strategically around your opponent's actions.

After we took Faregyl, our window of time had run out. Not only did the Dominion return in force, but the Ebonheart Pact hit us back at Roebeck. The attention of the entire zone shifted to the battlezone we'd created with our aggression, and that was the end of it. It was our turn to be on the losing end.

Given that the system works this way, I suspect that certain fortresses—and the space between them—are going to become very familiar to dedicated PvPers. Assuming an equal population for every faction, the points where they naturally meet, such as in the gap between Roebeck and Faregyl, will be the points that get fought over the most often. This may change as more organised PvP organisations make themselves known, but at the moment the war effort is pretty much directed by whoever the most active voices are in zone chat at any given time.

I'm not doubting The Elder Scrolls Online's capacity to mature into an excellent PvP MMO—it's already most of the way there. But having played a lot of these games, I am a bit worried about Cyrodiil's overall structure. I loved taking Faregyl the first time, but I worry that I'd burn out on doing it over and over again. I'd love to be proven wrong about that, though.

And then, back to questing

PvP nets you a surprising amount of new gear, but it's a slow way to level compared to PvE—so back to Stormhaven I go. Little has changed about the experience, and I still have all of the concerns that I've expressed in earlier parts of this review-in-progress. Something I have noticed, however, is that the feel of combat substantially improves when you're facing multiple tough enemies at once—something that game up to this point never really challenges you with.

Against one enemy, an incoming power attack isn't a big deal. You just fold the block—counter combo into whatever your rotation otherwise was and keep on rolling around the landscape. Against multiple enemies, positioning becomes much more important. In Stormhaven I'm fighting groups of cultists that include healers, tanks and DPS, and unpicking these combat challenges is much more satisfying than anything the game has previously offered. Catching an incoming power attack on your shield, and using it as an opportunity to temporarily disable that enemy so that you can focus on their squishier friends is legitimately novel, and feels cool to pull off. It still bothers me that I'm having these fights on behalf of people I don't care about in a brown field ensconced in fog, but it's an improvement, and it's making the thought of the leveling curve ahead less daunting.

Now, on to you

This will be the last review-in-progress update I write before focusing on the final review and assigning the game a score. I'll be playing more of this character and rolling alts before I do that, but I'd also like to solicit thoughts from the community. I know that not everybody has agreed with my criticism of PvE. My experience with that part of the game has not been particularly enjoyable, but I respect that this hasn't been the case for everybody. Very few commenters have gone into any detail about what they have specifically enjoyed, however: it's all well and good to flame each other and come up with conspiracy theories (although I'd prefer if you didn't), but providing your own impressions as a counterpoint to mine would be genuinely useful to the review process. This is a massively multiplayer game and different people will get different things out of it. Factoring that into a final review can only be a strength.

I reserve the right to disagree, of course, but if you've encountered a quest that you've really enjoyed, discovered something that you think other people would like, or have a cool story to tell, then let me know. If there's a better game lurking under the one that I've bounced off, then I'd like to discover it.

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