I prattle on an on about the “new new NEW” quite a bit. The luster of a novel idea is like a shiny new toy to my brain. So it is with online gaming; the revolutionary in me says: unless it shakes a paradigm, it’s not worth my time.
But these are more guidelines than actual rules.
In my opinion, Elder Scrolls Online falls into a special category of online gaming experience. In this category live many other illustrious titles, like Star Wars Galaxies, The Old Republic, and LOTR Online. What do all these have in common? Their much loved universes are established. People write fan fiction about them, dress up in their costumes, and attend their conventions. When these universes make the jump to the web, they don’t need to succeed in changing the course of the medium. Leave that to other titles with nothing else to go on. All they have to do is not screw our favorite fantasy universe up.
With Elder scrolls, the lexicon is already there. We already know of Tamriel, its 9 provinces with their races and tragic histories. We love it already, and we want to go on loving it. Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t need to be revolutionary. It just needs to be Elder Scrolls… Online.
That said, the jump from RPG Skyrim to MMO ESO might seem a simple extension of the brand, but a word of caution: the graveyard of the gaming world is littered with the headstones half-hearted sequels and whole-hearted flops. To me, if ESO is to be successful, it has to capture the best of Tamreil, while making the MMO format work for it. This review will cover a few aspects of what I love best of the Elder Scroll series, and take an early look of how ESO measures up.
“You must have a good story, otherwise it’s just masturbation!”
Once again, George Costansa puts into words what escapes even the more sliver-tongued among us.
The wonderment of Elder Scrolls starts with an epic story-arch. One great advantage of the single player open-world RPG format is you truly are the center of the universe. Every storyline, the great story-arch, it’s all directed towards making your character the prettiest girl at the ball; the hero of the story. But what happens when there are thousands of pretty girls? What happens to that epic story-arch when you’re faced with an ongoing adventure? With a community of players?
*Attention! Spoiler Alert!*
Let’s start from the beginning. And right off the bat, ESO is true to its inherited form. It begins… you guessed it, in prison! But your head isn’t on the chopping block. Nope, you’re already dead!
You’re trapped in Coldharbour, and souless, as it were. Molag Bal, lord of Coldharbour, is a Daedric prince whose goal is to invade Tamriel and merge it with his Oblivion plane (sound familiar?). A typical escape introductory sequence ends in taking you to your factions home province by ship. And thus commences a series of quests and leveling aimed at saving the world and retaining your soul.
The quest culminates upon reaching level 50(the ceiling is 300) and an epic boss confrontation. The feel is true to ES form. You feel like a champion saving the entire world, and still the world to explore.
Basically, they kept it simple. They kept it safe. And I’m glad. The format feels like an epic Elder Scrolls storyline. Confront the evil with your very (special) essence and skills… win the day, save the world. Who could ask for anything more? I suppose you could very well ask for more. The MMO format has such storyline potential. ESO multi-player involvement for the main story line is limited to the fact that some quests can’t be gone alone. While I think they could have done more with this, I’m just glad they didn’t do less. Or worse, tried something that would tarnish TES legacy.
Is It Immersive?
Nobody does it better. I don’t know of an open-world (Red Dead Redemption comes close) that convinces me more than TES universe. I could tuck myself away in a tavern corner and read “The Lusty Argonian Maid”, listen to a minstrel, and ease drop on an orc’s conversation for hours, and be tickled pink.
One look at ESO, and you get excited. The engine looks very Skyrimy, as does much of the décor. The myriad of readable books there, as are the colorful ambient sounds and voices. But ESO has truly done something unique that has a potential to be very special. For the first time, all 9 provinces will be explorable. This has proven to be one of the largest online explorable maps I have ever seen. And it also gives the design team to explore the relationships, good and bad, between all the provinces, their races and histories. They’ve done a pretty good job of replicating the lands we’ve already seen in other games to give it an authentic feel.
I’m not sure how I feel about Cyrodiil being a conquerable PvP zone, as the lore of this place has always been one of oppressive central control. Also, I want some uniformity between the province experience.
Some quest-lines do feel a little cheap and tedious. Chalk it up to MMOs though. Such things are unavoidable if you want a depth of leveling. And then there are those pesky chat-boxes. I wasn’t one to rush through the dialogue in Skyrim or Oblivion. I liked listening to the NPCs talk. Interacting with players doesn’t carry the same style and “lose yourself” moments when people are texting each other about who is attending the next Magic the Gathering convention in game.
Final word: for an MMO, is ESO about as immersive as it could have been? Probably not. As immersive as it needed to be? That’s a big fat YES. Frankly, I’m amazed at the scale and detail of what they’ve done.
Mr. Stormcloak Builds His Dream House
This was a question that was bouncing around the blog-osphere for sometime before the release, and still has people wondering. One of the best-loved aspects of the Elder Scrolls series has been its multiple home ownership opportunities. The simple “decoration packs” design made furnishing easy, and beautiful, but the most amazing aspect is being able to place items, arrange them anyway you like, and leave them always saved.
So does ESO allow player housing? The answer is an unequivocal: not yet. But there is a buzz, and the creators are asking questions about what players want next. My vote is for player housing, as it’s an essential part of the rich Elder Scrolls experience. But how should it manifest itself?
I believe player-built housing is the wrong way to go. While it works for other games, I think it will screw with the incredible immersive experience that is ESO. Skyrim and Oblivion were beautiful games with well designed cities and settlements. Allowing players to throw up their nasty shanty towns around these great epicenters would be a travesty.
Instead, I recommend an “apartment style” housing system, where the designers give us floor plans within those great city buildings, and we just buy the keys and decorate. It’s not a great leap from what they’ve already done in the RPGs. How often did you find yourself picking the lock to some poor unsuspecting khajiit’s house in Cyrodiil? I mean, there were lots of them. And the server supporting that was as big as your Xbox 360, or now 8 year old PC. How many super servers are supporting ESO?
Perhaps a unique feature would be to allow a guild to buy adjoining properties and combine them in a pre-designed “remodel”. Or just give us a sliding scale to choose from: Mansion to hovel. Moving furniture around would be a definite plus, but as long as we can display our of suits armor and swords in the way that speaks to the epic-ness of our adventuring, I’ll be a happy man.
It be a shame if Player-housing doesn’t come to pass for ESO, as it would be a great opportunity to explore that component of ES in a new and exciting way.
But there’s always the next incarnation of our most beloved RPG.