Few videogames get dragons right. Most treat them like your common wrym—dumb firebreathers with clipped wings. But dragons should be more than just big and scary (and fiery). They're majestic, intelligent, flying creatures that inspire both awe and dread as they soar overhead. That's how I felt the first time I properly fought a dragon in Skyrim, and though Bethesda's beloved RPG could've done dragons so much better, it's pretty much become the benchmark. After playing around 30 minutes of The Elder Scrolls Online's new dragon-focused expansion, Elsweyr, I'm not quite sure its take on dragons meets that standard.
During the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, I got the chance to be one of the first to play ESO's upcoming June expansion. Elsweyr isn't just a standalone update, though. It ties into ESO's Season of the Dragon, which will feature a total of four premium updates (including Elsweyr) that'll tell a sprawling tale about how dragons have mysteriously invaded the Khajiit homeland.
With an entire friggin' year dedicated to them, I'd expect ESO would have some mighty fine dragons. After all, this ain't Season of the Guar or Season of the Cliff Racer (*shudders*). But my first taste of ESO's dragons was pretty underwhelming. Fortunately, I enjoyed just about everything else about Elsweyr—especially its new necromancer class.
Here be… dragons?
Before I was able to play Elsweyr for myself, creative director Rich Lambert warned us that Elsweyr was still a work in progress—and that became immediately obvious. Art assets like statues or certain decorations were blacked out as they were still being modelled, and none of the voice over work had been completed, either. Instead of the top-quality VO I've come to expect from ESO, I was listening to what reminded me of Sam, Microsoft's text-to-speech robot. A good chunk of sound effects were also missing. I hope that this early phase of development also accounts for how underwhelming the dragons are, but I can't be sure.
Elsweyr is immediately available to level-one players, so if you've never played before you can jump in and right away get to dragon fighting. Since it had been awhile, I opted to play through the new tutorial for fresh players jumping straight into Elsweyr before playing a max-level necromancer.
It's mostly the stuff you'd expect from Elder Scrolls Online by now, including a friendly duel where my instructor broke down the necessity of heavy attacks and blocking. Along the way, robo-voiced Khajiit explained a little bit of my new character's backstory (surprise: I was attacked by a dragon and some people rescued and nursed me back to health). After I completed the combat portion of the tutorial, I popped open my menu to take care of some notifications and then this happened (be sure to enable audio so you can laugh at the robot voices).
That wasn't exactly what I'd imagined my first encounter with a dragon would be like. In fact, I didn't even notice it had flown by at first until after I had reviewed the footage. ESO is an MMO that works because of its writing, immersive audio, and evocative worldbuilding, and with all of those things in various states of incompletion, it's hard to take what's happening seriously. I mean, a dragon just flew overhead and I barely even noticed. That's not a great sign.
Sadly, my opinion of ESO's dragons didn't get much better as the tutorial continued. After spelunking through the ruins of a temple and getting to try out some basic necromancer abilities, I had to ascend a tower and blow a horn that would knock this particular dragon out of the sky so that any Khajiit in the area could safely retreat. Again, it wasn't the most thrilling moment.
With the dragon incapacitated and civilians retreating, it was my job to deal the killing blow. I stormed the building where the dragon crash landed and I got my first taste of direct combat with one… and like everything else it was pretty janky.
To give this dragon a bit of a break, this is a tutorial battle intended for players who might only have just learned which end of a sword to hold onto. Talking with Lambert after my demo, he mentioned that Elsweyr will introduce a new type of world event where a dragon spawns in an area and players must rally to chase it across the map and do battle. It's these fights that'll truly test your mettle, as dragons fought here are supposed to be highly intelligent and deadly.
Like I said, it's obvious that Elsweyr is still a work in progress and I don't want to be unfair since Zenimax Online Studios has a good reputation for quality expansions. But I'm also not convinced that these dragons are ever going to live up to their cousins found in Skyrim. I hope that changes for the final release.
Poking dead bodies
Even if Elsweyr's dragons end up being goofy wimps, I think the expansion will get along just fine without them. After completing the tutorial I was able to create a max-level necromancer and try out all its different abilities while exploring a small slice of Elsweyr. Without a proper introduction to the story and in such a brief demo, it was hard to get a sense of the culture or lore of Elsweyr and its people, but I had a hell of a time raising skeletal mages or encasing my body in bone armor and bludgeoning my foes to death.
Like dragons, lots of games try to take a shot at necromancers. And though my necromancer's attire didn't evoke that feeling of being a creepy, corpse-summoning badass, my spells and abilities sure did.
One of the cool twists with the necromancer is that they can empower their spells using corpses of their summoned creatures or freshly slain enemies. For example, casting Blast Bones summons a flaming skeleton that rushes a targeted foe and—surprise, surprise—blows up, leaving behind a corpse. I can then cast Shocking Siphon, which creates a damaging link between that dead skelebomber and me, damaging all enemies between us. Or, if me or my teammates have taken some damage, I could cast Life Amid Death to consume that corpse and heal us. Keep in mind, these abilities don't require a corpse, but they're significantly more powerful if players make clever use of what I'm branding the "corpse economy"—something that'll undoubtedly be necessary in ESO's most challenging dungeons.
The necromancer's ultimate abilities are also pretty wicked. Bone Goliath turned me into a hulking skeletal monster, making both my light and heavy attacks heal me while I tore into groups of enemies in reckless rage. If I'd rather not jump into the middle of a fight, I could summon a Frozen Colossus to do all that for me, or I can be a nice person and pick the Reanimate ultimate ability, which lets me revive up to three party members. Like all of ESO's classes, there's an excellent degree of freedom in each of the 18 abilities I can mix or match to create my perfect necromancer kit (not to mention all the other active skills I can learn outside of my class).
But the best thing about being a necromancer is that I'm also committing to a life of crime. Back in 2015, ESO added a crime system that gave players the freedom to steal and murder certain innocents just like they could in proper Elder Scrolls RPGs. And any new necromancers will have to be careful about where they cast their spells because locals and city guards certainly won't appreciate a mad wizard summoning skeleton bombs in the middle of a city square.
It's a cool touch that I've never really seen from other necromancer classes and one of the many reasons I'm excited to check out Elsweyr when it launches in June. The dragons invading its dusty deserts and arid steppes may or may not be a whiff, but I'm not sure I'll care all that much as long as there's corpses to explode.