Exploring ESO

So I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online. I think there’s a fair bit to like in there, although as someone who ate Skyrim up, to me it also lacks a lot of the same feel. In a single-player Elder Scrolls game there’s a main story — that you can basically totally ignore if you want, in favor of unstructred adventuring and exploration. There’s room for some of that in ESO, but as far as I have seen thus far (and bear in mind, I’m still early on at about level 12) not nearly as much. It favors structured questing instead, which given the brand is disappointing.

Perhaps most annoyingly, I have a favored play style in Elder Scrolls games: the stealth archer, which is a character type that I really don’t play in any other game. This is effectively an invalid play style in ESO due to the combat mechanics, which are largely a reflection of its nature as an MMO.

On the upside, there is a lot to do in the game, the world has a lot of space, and you’ll in time get to see parts of the world that have been left out since Morrowind. There’s also solid, regular support and expansion, which Bethesda/Zenimax has probably done better with than anyone else.

ESO is also a lot better than it was back in beta, which is when I played it last. For now I’m still playing, and that’s a good sign.

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100 Water Worlds Initiative, Day Seven: New Space Ahead

  • Newly Discovered Water Worlds: 20
  • Virgin Systems Fully Explored: 10

Zheng He and I are still trekking towards Scutum-Centaurus. Every jump now takes me farther from settled space. At the end of the day I was 2500 light-years out of Hilary, and over 4,000 light-years from Sol.

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It was a long day of jumping and scooping, and I’m still not yet where I want to be. But on the way I found a lot. A double Water World system, and then another big multiple-star system with no less than three Water Worlds. And later, and Earthlike.

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A few scattered other Water Worlds were found along the route. I also found my first Ammonia World on this trip; I’m not sure I have the knack for spotting them yet. This one had a set of rings and seas of liquid hydrocarbons.

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For a day of jumping 2500 light-years, I did very well: the current Water Worlds tally stands at 20. I didn’t do much additional scouting, so I didn’t fully explore any new systems, save for a few that only had a couple of bodies in them. But things are really moving now.

100 Water Worlds Initiative, Day Six: A New Trajectory

  • Newly Discovered Water Worlds: 10
  • Virgin Systems Fully Explored: 10

The day was mostly consumed by heading outward from Hilary Depot. I took, more or less, a straight shot out to Antispinward, driving just away from the inhabited bubble. Needless to say I kept my eyes open for any interesting worlds.

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Mostly, though, the region around the refueling route to Colonia is pretty thoroughly picked over. I did find a new interesting sights, but only two Water Worlds, both of them previously charted.

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I stopped for the day about halfway to my goal; I’m aiming to go further out than ever before on this run. Not all the way to the Core this time around… but I want to hit the next spiral arm in from Sol this time. That’s Scutum-Centaurus, according to my possibly-outdated charts.

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100 Water Worlds Initiative, Day Two: First Findings

  • Newly Discovered Water Worlds: 4
  • Virgin Systems Fully Explored: 4

 
Now we’re talking. New Water Worlds have been found, four in all. Two of them in one system. And I found some terraformable planets as well. The mission is actually happening now.

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The most interesting discovery was a Water Moon, in orbit around a Terraformable High Metal Content world. I’ve named the metal world Batman and its ocean moon Robin. I’m sure Universal Cartographics won’t agree.

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I have explored four completely uncharted systems so far. I’m enjoying the pace of it even though it means flying a long way between widely dispersed bodies sometimes.

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I have not set a “destination.” I am just making short hops from star to star, exploring the area as I go. As this is probably 98% unexplored space this tactic is working out well.

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It’s possible that I will come back out here someday, maybe to explore the entire sector. It’s a thought — there are other places I want to go, after all. Right now this place is all mine.

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Starting to Dig Into Elite: Dangerous

I haven’t really done much with Massively Multiplayer games in quite a while. Three years or so, really. The closure of Vanguard was a loss that subtracted from my enjoyment of the whole genre, and the lack of vision shown by then-current developers was further discouraging. While I stayed mostly in the news loop and occasionally checked in on Guild Wars 2 or EverQuest II, I never stayed for more than a matter of hours. I made a crack at getting back into WoW that lasted for maybe two weeks and maybe a dozen hours played.

The MMO genre moved back, not forward, as big money remained involved and risks ceased to be taken. Those heavily invested in extant titles presumably stayed happy, of course, but I was never that even with WoW, which I played regularly for something like a year. My lack of enthusiasm for MMOs in general is really the reason for the paucity of posts on this blog for the last couple of years. Trying to write here about other stuff never felt quite right and I never achieved a rhythm for it.

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But it’s not like I’d sworn off the genre or anything. And thankfully there were interesting-looking things in the pipeline: Shroud of the Avatar and Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen but more so Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. I said at the time that the last sounded like the game that fit me best. I still think I’m right. Moreover, I am not only playing Elite: Dangerous, I am excited enough about it to write stuff.

I’m not going to say that Elite: Dangerous is the game for you. It’s certainly got problems and deficiencies and things it desperately needs and goofiness here and there and weird tangents taken by the development team that don’t interest anybody. Its multiplayer is still kind of rudimentary, but that’s… maybe not as much a problem as one might suppose.

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I was for a long while a big booster of EVE Online, respecting its achievements even while only playing it intermittently. The biggest issue was that there was a whole end of the game that was only open to people in big nullsec alliances, and I get to be a tiny cog in a very big machine every day. There’s no romance in doing that in a game. Plus, a dependence on interaction with the community when that community is filled with pustulent fuckholes is really not a selling point.

What drew me to EVE in the first place was not empire-building, which I think there are better platforms for (see any 4X game,) but the dream of Traveller, of taking a spaceship out into the black and writing my own destiny with it, of seeing sights never seen before and sometimes getting into trouble. It took comparing the two games to get me to realize that Elite: Dangerous the MMO Spaceflight Sim was what I wanted, where EVE the MMORPG wasn’t.

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The difference is significant; Elite: Dangerous isn’t an RPG in the video game sense, because it lacks clear, mechanical character progression. I love RPGs both on the tabletop and (when well-done) on the PC, but I find the absence of progression absolutely liberating. No longer was I years behind other players and with the best and most interesting gameplay locked behind a pseudo-social wall manned by misanthropes. In Elite: Dangerous even the uttermost end of the galaxy is within reach; if not today, then someday soon. Which is not a meaningful knock on EVE, by the way. It’s just the reason, I now think, why it never took ahold of me like I felt it should.

Like I said, Elite: Dangerous has its issues, and its stupid title is only one of them. It’s not as deep as it could be in a lot of places. But it’s the biggest canvas of all, and if I am only a tiny, tiny speck on that canvas then I’m not all that much smaller than anybody else. And this speck is out there doing what it wants to do — voyaging far from Sol, seeing things no one has ever seen before.

Elite: Dangerous Rigging and Starting Out

I mentioned in the last post how important immersion is for me as a player of video games. It’s why I spent as much time as I did in EVE Online and why I loved Vanguard so much despite its many problems. So when I start talking about Elite: Dangerous it’s worth starting to break down why it works so well in this capacity. Also I want to yammer a bit about approaching the game.

To start, though, I should probably talk about my setup, because that can make a huge difference to a game like this. I am not playing in VR, nor with head-tracking, a fancy projector setup or a cool custom cockpit. All that stuff would be awesome, to be sure. But I am playing using Voice Attack along with one of the HCS Voice Packs, and I have a HOTAS. This last is the relatively affordable Thrustmaster T-Flight X model rather than any of the Saitek rigs or the crazy-expensive Warthog. While I would like more buttons and maybe some switches, the T-Flight X is quite decent and has served me well so far. I also just have the one monitor, which is a 31.5″ 1080p television. And my rig itself is nothing special, an $800 off-the-shelf Asus running Windows 10 (as I recall, you need at least Windows 8 to run Voice Attack.) Elite: Dangerous runs on it with no performance issues.

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Not counting the PC all this cost maybe $125, including the game itself and the Horizons expansion pass. If you wait for a sale through Steam you can get both for something like $30, although to be honest I would recommend that a newbie grab the base game first and feel it out for a bit before dropping the extra dough on the expansion. Horizons does add a great deal to the game, even three-fifths finished as it is, but some of that (in the form of improved missions, more ships and the passenger stuff) is available to everybody anyway.

Probably the single biggest addition to immersion is the HOTAS. The game is playable with the mouse and keyboard, is improved by the addition of a flight stick but is better still after adding a throttle. There is a significant learning curve to the HOTAS controls, mind, and you may also be fussing with your bindings for a while. But the conceit of Elite: Dangerous, that you are a pilot flying a spaceship, is immeasurably enhanced by the addition of actual flight controls. Skilled FPS folks might say that they get better performance using the keyboard and mouse, and they may be right. But the experience is vastly superior with the HOTAS.

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I also preferentially play in a dark room. And when I’m making trade runs I have the game’s music off and my own tunes in the background. I installed the lightweight mp3 player AIMP3 for this. It handles playlists so I have put together a few containing suitable music; Blue Öyster Cult, Hawkwind, Tangerine Dream, Ozric Tentacles and Amon Düül II have featured prominently. Last night was Yes.

My in-game activities have been mostly non-combat ones. I did do some early bounty hunting, but of late have been trading and running missions. My eventual goal is exploration; the rig that I’m shooting for will cost another 4 million credits or so, but I’m earning pretty well right now. A single mission can net me over 100k, and I found a single-hop trade run carting medical supplied to an Outbreak system that was pulling in about 70k per round trip. But that did dry up after a few days.

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As a starting player some will have you believe that bounty hunting is the way to go. And indeed you can make a good amount of money at it even in the starter ship. But you need to find good places to hunt in (look for resource extraction sites in systems with ringed planets,) you run the risk of getting in over your head and relying on the authorities for help, and there’s a fair bit of waiting around for hostiles in the low-intensity areas that are suitable for newbie bounty hunters. Right out of the gate, though, you can add to this income with some low-volume cargo runs and running your Discovery Scanner in every system you visit. And I strongly recommend doing some travel, just to see the sights.

I should caution that Elite: Dangerous can be grindy. It’s not the grindiest thing I’ve played by a long shot; you can do a lot with 200K, and unlike in EVE Online you’re never all that far behind anybody else except in credits. But comparing ED to EVE is a something that really warrants a whole series of posts, and here I am just trying to get back into the routine of having something for the blog once a week. If nothing else Elite: Dangerous has rekindled my interest in online games again.

Elite: Dangerous Noob Thoughts

Immersion and strategic challenge are probably the two things that get me into a video game. Some games provide one or the other; not many provide both. Right now Elite: Dangerous is pushing both pedals clear to the floor.

Steam says I’ve played for 72 hours but that’s not actually true; Steam’s logging the time based on how long the launcher has been open. But I’m probably pushing 30 or 40 and am enjoying it enough that I’ll almost certainly pick up the “season pass” expansion.

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Elite: Dangerous is in some sense the ultimate sandbox. It has all the hallmarks of sandbox gaming, in that it is almost entirely undirected. You set your own goals and do what you want within the confines of its universe. But the key is that its universe is so unconfining — the entirety of the Milky Way galaxy, a hundred billion stars or more, all out there waiting to be explored. No other game has anything close to this kind of scope. And it’s visually pretty stunning.

To be sure, there are holes in it. Balance is an ongoing problem as it is in any game of this kind. The multiplayer tools are rudimentary; planetary landing and other features are locked behind the Horizons paywall. Right now you don’t even have an avatar (that’s coming soon, though.) There’s a cash shop, but importantly it resides outside the game and offers only ship cosmetics, paint jobs, cockpit decorations and the like. The development cycle is slow but steady.

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Elite: Dangerous offers several modes of play, including the full-on MMO Open, solo and a closed group mode. The notion that this is an ideal arrangement is growing on me; if you’re getting griefed you can just laugh it off and hop over to solo for a while. If you want to run with people of like persuasion you can hop into one of the dedicated private groups. Regardless, everything is happening in the same universe.

In terms of the mechanics that the player interacts with immediately, it’s not as deep as EVE Online… but it adds the huge additional dimension of actually flying your ship instead of picking selections from a menu. In EVE you are the captain, giving orders; in ED you are a pilot. Too, a massive background simulation is running behind ED that the players can interact with and affect; in EVE one never really has the sense that there’s anybody but players impacting the universe.

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Elite: Dangerous is one of the most immersive things I’ve played. There’s a joy in warming up your HOTAS and actually having to take off and land your ship, or in navigating to a new destination in deep space, or in hopping to a new system and finding something you didn’t expect.

The learning curve is pretty high, with the additional complication that some of the learning is in the actual flying of your ship. In that sense it is somewhat twitch-based, but not to a degree that it bothers me. And I’m pretty far from the best pilot in the galaxy.