The Elder Scrolls Online Isn't Like Those MMOs You're Used To

I'll admit that I, too, thought The Elder Scrolls Online looked a hell of a lot like World of Warcraft and any other generic MMO when the first few promotional materials and screenshots were released. I was expecting the game to end up feeling a lot like WoW too.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I jumped into the starter zone (Stros M'Kai, pictured above) and the first thing I notice is... a lack of HUD. And that's a good thing!

If you've ever played pretty much any MMO you know that your screen is typically cluttered with skills and hotkeys and... it's information overload. But ESO opts for a cleaner interface, only popping up the necessary information as situations call for it — like entering combat (where your 5 hotkeys will appear on the bottom of the screen).

If you walked into the walled off area at PAX where I was playing ESO, you might not even have guessed it was an MMO at all. And that's a good thing, too.

The best advantage to the bare minimum UI approach is that I'm more free to explore my surroundings. You might not think that a few simple buttons and indicators on a screen should inhibit that experience, but it totally does. Instead of paying attention to numbers and what have you, I'm noticing little campfires where a group of people are huddled around, looking like hell.

So I go over to them.

A man cries out as I approach and click on him. He's concerned about his mangled leg, but more so about his lady. She's been taken captive by a band of pirates. He asks if I'd consider rescuing her.

My primary goal in this two-hour playthrough of the game was to explore as many sidequests as possible. The main storyline starts you off rescued by a ship leader. She says she needs help with a heist, and wants you to gather some useful hands. So you basically set out on a Mass Effect-like mission to gather followers. When you meet a new companion, you'll need to help them out with a favour first, just like in Mass Effect.

Sounds fun enough, and it was. But we were promised that we'll have more than just the typical fetch missions to carry out, and my personal mission was to find out if that was true. After all this is a huge world I'm meant to explore, and I want to be sure that there are compelling reasons to explore it.

And, so far, there are. Most role-playing game sidequests that ask you to gather items and materials for generic reasons are aimed at making you feel like you're in some way helping the people who made the request. They wave their arms in puppet-like motion and off you go to do a good deed. There's some sob story about a sick son or a poor child or something. But really you're just hankering for some more experience points or that sweet-looking staff the NPC said they'd give you in return.

In ESO, sidequests you accept feel like stories you're jumping in the middle of. The disabled husband had just had his camp raided by those pirates that kidnapped his wife. And when I return with her, he plans on healing up before plotting his revenge. His story existed before I met him, and it will continue to carry out afterwards. NPCs have lives of their own. They have interests of their own and personalities of their own. They don't feel too much like generic NPCs (though some tropes are certainly still there). You're jumping in midway, helping them out with one task, and wave goodbye, knowing that it won't be the end of their story. Whether or not they'll reappear later in the game, having progressed about their journeys, is something I can't tell you for sure yet. I haven't played long enough. For all I know, these could just be cases of smarter storyline writing.

But the idea that I'm interacting with people who are actual people is something that excites me.

Combat also excites me. I come from a long and shameful background of World of Warcraft. And I come from a background of inhabiting avatars who are sorcerers and other magic-wielding classes. So I'm not quite used to feeling active in battle. As a mage I typically hang back at a safe distance, sending my summoned companion out to distract enemies while I cast spells at them. Spells that take time to cast, and take time before I am allowed to use them again. But in ESO I'm in the front of the line, dodging attacks and casting binding spells while running in evasive circles. This is by no means revolutionary. Other MMOs have played with this idea, like Guild Wars 2 for example. But it feels natural in this world. It feels like Skyrim. And of course, spells do take time to cast and they do have short cool down periods. But I'm more a part of the action in ESO than I am in a game like WoW.

Having a limited HUD helps you stay in the action, too. Instead of cycling between a dozen or so spells and buffs and attacks, the limited selection of five hotkeys keeps you focused on prioritising just a handful of abilities at a time. This one will boil down to personal choice, though, as the more spells I get the more excited I am to use them all together. Either way, ESO will force you to prioritise your set of skills before entering a battle.

You have a ton of flexibility with how you level your character and his/her abilities. Typically if you're a mage, you're stuck to levelling mage abilities. Flames and ice and healing are what you can advance. But even as a mage I could stick my skill points in my weapon or armour trees. I play magic characters cause I like magic, so I still levelled my spells, but if you feel like making a tougher mage-like character in your game, you'll be free to do so.

Speaking of character customisation, and because I'm a nut for the visual kind of customisation, I have to tell you how robust the character creator is. You can control chin size and cheek depth just like lots of other games let you do. But you can even control small details like gut size! Drink a lot of beer? Toss that cursor to the right. Have small feet? You know what to do.

When the game was announced, our resident MMO expert Mike Fahey listed out some things he wanted to see out of ESO. From what I played, Bethesda already got some of those requests in. But there's still plenty more to explore in the game. I didn't get a chance to play with public dungeons, for instance. In fact, my only interaction with another player was a short few tag-teamed battles. Then he tried to shoot at me and ran off when he realised we couldn't play PvP. (It was actually kind of upsetting, I wanted to journey with him!) I can't tell you anything about potential factions, either. I ended my demo still very early into the game.

I tend to stay away from MMOs because I know it's in my personality to explore every facet until I look up and realise it's been three years and I haven't paid my electrical bill and how has my laptop been running this long without juice. But ESO feels like something I want to get involved in. It's a Skyrim MMO in (as far as I can tell) every sense of the meaning. I just need a few more days with it to be sure.


    What I need to know is how good the solo experience is before I start coughing up money.

      i agree i like mmo but it need a good solo play for me to be interested

    Is it better or worse than TOR? Because that game was great. For an MMO.

      Except for the WoW-clone endgame progression system which was kind of stale and out of date.

        except for the wow-clone everything except for the textures.

          It's easy to spot dicks on the internet.

    Yeah, scared this is going to suffer from MMO-itis, like the other MMOs. The more it resembles Skyrim (in tone, atmosphere, lack of wankers spamming "Give me gold plz"), the happier I'll be. Looking very nice so far though!

    It sounds like they've made some progress going with the more modern Guild Wars 2/The Secret World/etc controls but I'm not entirely sold. That beats a World of Warcraft/SWToR situation for sure but Tina's comments don't really scream TES to me. I really wish they'd just put up a video of an in-game tutorial with a commentary outlining exactly how the action on screen is being controlled by the player.

    I'd also like to know how it handles questing with level based zoning. The quests sound like they have potential but I'd love to know how it plays out in the big picture once you factor in levels and xp. Maybe it's just the way I play but in MMOs I tend to out-level the story. I get stuck choosing between intentionally dragging my feet and abandoning the current storyline because I've grown too high level for the zone. SWToR's main quest really helped hold the universe together for me in that respect.

    Hope it's better than Gw2, cause that was pretty good..

    Hope it's better that Gw2, cause that was pretty shit.

    Hope it's better that Gw2, cause that was pretty good shit.

    It's starting to sound good. I'm still cautious about it, but I'm bored with WoW and a new kind of take on MMO's could be good. Especially with the Elders Scrolls lore.

    According to a preview I read it has a monthly sub. I'm not against monthly subs but too many ppl are now to let this game succeed.

      That attitude could change between now and the games release though. Marketplace driven subscription free games are becoming popular but I think soon we'll see two or three big name games in a row with the bad exploitative type marketplaces which may create a backlash against the concept and leave players demanding subscriptions.
      It'll only take a few games that are technically free to play but in practical terms require $30 a month of store credit to play properly and people will start to sour on the idea. I played the new D&D MMO on the weekend and loved it, but the first thing that sprang to mind was 'I'm going to spend a lot of money if I decide to play this game'. Personally I'm hoping over the next few years we move to multiple payment options.
      One of the few good management ideas they had after DCUO flopped on launch was to make it so you could play for free and experience all the launch content and content included in the core Game Updates. From there you could pay for the 'DLC' expansion packs and items individually from the marketplace (spending $10 upgrades your free account, giving you some bonuses), or alternatively you could get a sort of all included subscriber pack for a monthly fee that comes with access to almost everything and some monthly cash to spend on marketplace items that aren't included with the subscription (mostly novelty stuff, but there's things like name/power/movement mode change tokens too).
      It's not perfect but it means I can just pay the monthly fee and not worry about spending too much time playing one weekend and using up a months worth of marketplace consumables.

        You just described SWTOR's current Model. They went from exclusive Sub to a Hybrid. The options are there, but payment methods and options will never fully compensate for compromised design choices, and bland gameplay.

        People will pay a sub, if your product is good, and in turn want to play it enough where the sub is the best value. IMO The big reason free to play /w micro transactions is popular is because Gamers, being the savy intellegent folk they are dont want to be stuck paying a monthly fee for something they are not using almost every day of a given month.

        Developers just need to invest in thier product and make a great game for thier stakeholders, not a great payment method as a crutch for thier failings in order to make sales figures to appease primary shareholders.

    I call bullshit. Every new MMO now is a WoW clone, and I really don't need another game that feels like a job. Just because the HUD doesn't appear until combat doesn't mean it won't look, play, and bore you like every other MMO that makes you grind content to upgrade your characters in a glorified spreadsheet.

    Last edited 31/03/13 2:33 am

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