Elsweyr Non-Review Thoughts

I returned to Elder Scrolls Online a little over a month ago. A couple of weeks later, I bought the recent Elsweyr expansion, wrapped up (pretty much) the area I was in, and then moved over to the new zone, Northern Elsweyr. It is, overall, pretty terrific, assuming one likes the core ESO gameplay, which the ‘Chapter’ (i.e. expansion) does not change.

There’s a main story questline, a good number of side quests, dailies to kill dragons and world bosses, plus a good-sized zone with all the usual stuff: skyshards, lorebooks, delves and public dungeons (a new raid (i.e. ‘Trial’) and world events. In the case of Northern Elsweyr these latter are dragon attacks rather than the Dolmen/Daedric Anchor things of the older content. As with Dolmens, however, the dragon attacks don’t really scale to the number of players, so they can go down like chumps if the number of players is very high. I’ve seen various people report this but have not personally seen a dragon be defeated all that quickly. From what I have experienced it usually takes somewhere between five and fifteen minutes, unless you fall in with the actual zerg for it. Even then, though, they hit HARD, easily one-shotting brittle PCs like my Sorcerer while not telegraphing all of their attacks in the usual red-on-the-ground way.

There’s also new gear sets along with the content, but that’s something I have explored in only the most cursory way, since I am still progressing and all my gear will end up replaced sooner rather than later. I may do something in the future on that. Elsweyr also brings back two fan favorite characters from the original release, with John Cleese returning as Cadwell and Alfred Molina coming back as Abnur Tharn.

It’s all very solid stuff. I do wish there were more folks running the public dungeons, which are tough to solo at least with most builds (and definitely with my build.) They are huge and contain multiple bosses, some of whom have real boss mechanics. But even then I haven’t had to wait around for too long for people to follow. I am shooting for (and am pretty close to) full map completion for Northern Elsweyr.

Sticking with ESO’s current expansion model, there will be two DLCs (which are not included in the expansion’s price, although unlike the Chapter they are included with ESO Plus, the monthly subscription deal. Scalebreaker, with an August release date, will contain a couple of additional dungeons, while Dragonhold, currently shooting for November, will bring in another Elseweyr zone, and bring back Sai Sahan from the original ESO main storyline. At the rate I’m currently progressing I’ll probably be at the gear cap by the time Scalebreaker comes out.

Back to ESO

This place started almost twelve years ago as a place to talk about MMORPGs. But as I drifted away from the genre I also drifted away from the blog and sought new avenues (primarily social media and my YouTube channel) to share my experiences with other types of games. While I made some efforts to write here about wargames and tabletop games, blogging about them never really caught fire for me.

The massively multiplayer space as we once knew it is stretched beyond recognition. Now almost everything is online and multiplayer, and where stuff’s not really massive, it often pretends to be. The state of what we might then call massive online ‘virtual world games’ has been dire for several years, with any number of shaky launches and disappointments and not a few embarrassing closures.

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Those folks already entrenched and happy in an older and well-established title like WoW or EVE or EQ2 (for example) had little reason to notice this deterioration in the larger space — although in all three examples there has been noticeable turmoil. But for those of us who never stayed attached to a single game, the prospects have grown thin indeed. That’s probably one reason that the MMORPG blogging community, prone to game-hopping and once quite robust, has largely evaporated or moved on to blogging about other things. But most of us are still here, lurking and waiting.

I spent a good chunk of May playing World of Warcraft, for the first time in a long while. This was in the current retail game, not the WoW Classic beta, and I had fun, but it certainly wasn’t social. Maybe three weeks in I felt the familiar drift. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days off and then stepped back into Elder Scrolls Online. Which, if it isn’t perfect, is maybe the best we’ve got right now.

ESO happens to be the only MMORPG right now that is growing (EDIT: Possibly also Final Fantasy XIV). After a shaky launch to tepid reviews, it did some things to address structural issues and has been relentlessly pounding new content ever since. At this point there is a crazy amount of stuff to do even without the shiny new Elswyr expansion, which I don’t have… although I did pony up for the sub, because the game is frankly hard to play beyond the first zone or so without it, due to the difficulty of managing an inventory with an enormous number of crafting materials, unless you just vendor everything.

ESO also has a number of incentives to sign in every day, from the daily login rewards to the daily crafting writs to the need to bump your riding skills every twenty hours. Some days that’s sign in and fart around on that stuff for fifteen minutes, and other times it’s like “well, I’m in, I might as well do some questing” and only sign out three hours later. Plus random daily PUG dungeons, except in ESO the PUGs actually talk to each other. It’s crazy.

Anyway. I’m, into the week three Death Zone. So check in on me in about a fortnight.

Elder Scrolls Online Beta Hopes

Zenimax is having another beta event for the Elder Scrolls Online this weekend. I can tell you that I have a code and that I’ll be participating. But there is an NDA, so I can’t say anything more about what’s going on.

I can, however, mention that, as of this moment, I don’t intend to buy ESO — which I went on record about a little while ago. But as I mentioned at the time, I haven’t seen the game yet, and doing so stands the best chance of getting me to change my mind. If it does I will be very pleased. I can also talk about exactly what I will be looking for in ESO.

TESOAs someone who has been playing Oblivion and Syrim recently, I’m curious to find out how much ESO feels like an Elder Scrolls game. I’ve heard folks say that it does, but from the video I’ve seen the graphics style is different and the animation flows differently, which I see as potentially jarring. Will the world and its NPCs be as interactable as they are in Skyrim? Do I get thrown in jail for stealing from the shopkeepers or murdering the guards? Can I even murder the civilians or do they have NPC Immunity? It the world riddled with zoning and instancing? Does it feel as rich and deep as the Tamriel of the single-player games? As big and expansive despite far more players in it?

How well will it run? I can tell you that EverQuest Next Landmark (which is not under NDA) runs like crap on my laptop… but that’s an Alpha, completely unoptimzed. ESO should be much closer to a releasable state, you’d think. How buggy is it, two months from release?

Does balance feel terribly off? This is one of the major long-term concerns I have for ESO. I worry that with a (relatively) open build system there will be a very small handful of optimal builds and playing any other way is a quick route to getting constantly owned. Truthfully, I have pretty low hopes for ESO’s PvP.

How much does ESO’s “epic story” dominate the game? Becuase when I am playing an Elder Scrolls game, their main plotline tends to run about #4 on my list of things I want to do. Can I do it at whatever level, or do I have to wade through three or ten hours of linear crap before I can become the interpid wanderer and explorer that I want to be? How much autonomy from the rails do I get?

Is it worth $15 a month? With so many free options, that will be hard to justify. But not impossible, and there’s always the hope that I’ll really like it. I’ll be sure to let you know what answers I find, as soon as I can.

The Next Best Hope

The latest piece of Elder Scrolls Online promotional fluff is the eight-plus minute trailer embedded below. It’s pulling in raves, largely from folks I would consider outside the hardcore demographic. Which in itself is fine.

Although this trailer is indisputably well-made, as a fan of both Elder Scrolls games and MMORPGs it doesn’t get me excited about ESO. For one, it reminds me of the Warhammer Online and SWTOR cinematic trailers. Which were also well-done and also utterly unrepresentative of the actual game. This one even follows the same narrative arc as those two. It doesn’t highlight any of the things that makes the Elder Scrolls single-player games special. It doesn’t even use the iconic Elder Scrolls theme, a baffling omission. That alone would have stoked me up to buy it.

I haven’t played in the ESO beta, and folks who have are more than welcome to correct me on these points. But what I see is a very conventional game lacking much of the interactibility and dynamic world that made Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim so interesting. The game itself could prove me wrong about this, but unless I get a beta invite I’m very unlikely to drop the $60 it will take to find out. I do expect ESO to sell lots of copies. I doubt its staying power and ability to retain subs beyond the three-month point. I think that MMO players, those most likely to be willing to commit to a subscription, will find ESO uncompelling. Then again, SWTOR seems to have done very well with a modestly big retail splash followed by an agile shift to microtransactions. It’s safe to say that everyone expects ESO to follow the same pattern. Perhaps I will try it then. Meanwhile I hope it does very well, but along with that there’s a hope that it’s a better and more interesting game than I think it is.

A Last Enfeebled Gasp

A couple of days ago Carbine announced that WildStar would be launching with a “hybrid” business model… by which they meant the old subscription model with a PLEX-like option. I share Wilhelm’s notion that it’s not a great idea, because based on what I have seen so far WildStar will boast a working economy in the same sense that World of Warcraft does. Which is to say not at all. But I didn’t feel the need to comment on it simply because I have no interest in WildStar, which as far as I can tell will be bringing nothing new to the genre, and in fact is arriving several years later than the rest of the WoW clones. I could be wrong about that, but nothing I have seen changes my mind. Chalk it up to NCSoft’s long history of backing winners.

Yesterday Zenimax announced that The Elder Scrolls Online will be a subscription game. They didn’t say there would be a $60 charge on top of that, but it’s probably a reasonable assumption. I am sort of interested in TESO, except for the fact that it’s not being developed by Bethesda, the studio responsible for the rest of the hallowed Elder Scrolls series. And the fact that Zenimax seems determined to leave out all the stuff that makes the Elder Scrolls series special, leaving the pedestrian combat and broken magic systems and first-person view pasted over linear themepark content. And the graphics aren’t up to even the shaky Elder Scrolls standard. Aside from that, it might be interesting. I’d have given it a shot if it were, as probably most people expected, free to play, or at least to dabble in. Which is all I personally ask before spending money.

Both announcements seem like they should be surprising. After all, we all know subs are dead for all but the niche-iest games, right? Well, yes. But we should not be shocked that these two unambitious and even cowardly games decide to use the most conservative extant business model. They are, after all, designing games that would have felt right at home released in 2004 alongside WoW, so why not copy WoW’s money model as well?

At any rate, since Zenimax has decided to go with the old model rather than the new model, or instead of heaven forfend trying something new, it looks like I will wait for the inevitable f2p conversion. Which will happen. TESO at least has a big name footprint in the common imaginations of gamers, so it will draw some attention but will wither sooner rather than later. It’s apt to be the newest Sims Online. WildStar, on the other hand, is owned by NCSoft and therefore will simply close. Six months for each?

Elder Scrolls Online: It’s Official

The big news of the day is that The Elder Scrolls Online is officially, openly, a real project. The MMO blogosphere is torn, with many gasping in ecstasy at the very idea, and others clawing at their hair because it’s such a bad idea. My opinion is that we know very, very little right now, and forming an opinion would be premature. Extremely.

On the one hand, it’s an exciting idea. The Elder Scrolls series seems to me a natural fit to an MMO. Of course, translating the features that made a game like Skyrim such a titanic hit will not be a simple task. What works in a single-player RPG doesn’t necessarily work in an MMO. There’s the question of scale, for one — Skyrim is big enough for one player to wander around in and think it’s huge, but if there were hundreds, much less thousands or people crawling around in every dungeon it’d seem like a lavish fantasy shoebox. There are obviously other issues as well, but that’ll keep for later discussion. In the main, the trick will be to capture those elements that make the Elder Scrolls games special without being able to rely on the crutches of single-player games.

But on the other hand, it seems that in some corners people are leaping to imagine that the in-development title will necessarily suffer from the limitations of MMOs. This at a time when we know “there will be an Elder Scrolls Online” and just about nothing more, and despite the fact that the single-player games in the series have avoided some of those common traps.

From where I’m sitting, it’s too soon to tell. But what is certain and sure is that starting today there will be a lot of eyes on this project.