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.