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Earlier today I decided to bite the bullet and watch the latest TESO teaser trailer. I went in expecting a video designed to lure me in with tidbits about the games "many and varied" ways to acquire gear; low and behold, that's what I got. Behind all of the gimmicky nonsense and developer nonspeak there lies a reality that many probably don't want to admit: The Elder Scrolls Online is more of the same, again.
At the start of the video Matt Firor - a veteran MMO developer (which is as much a problem as it is a boon) - makes a startlingly ignorant and highly amusing comment to the effect of, "The Elder Scrolls Online is designed to bring fans of The Elder Scrolls together with fans of the MMORPG genre." In one breathe, Matt Firor goes from being an educated, respected and knowledgable MMO developer to a man who knows very little about the franchise he's working with. You see, there may be SOME TES fans out there that have never played an MMO, and there may be SOME MMO fans out there that have never played TES... but they are few and far between. There is a HUGE amount of cross over between the two communities, so suggesting that they are diametrically opposed and are in need of some cupid-style matchmaking is baffling at best. In reality, Firor knows this to be the case... and it's probably true that this is just poor marketing speech that wasn't really thought through before it was scripted, but still... If you're going to make bold claims about your target audience, try to make them abstract enough that they can't lead to your mocking dismissal.
The game looks "alright", in the sense that every MMO since WoW has looked "alright". The graphics are, as we have come to expect, a compomise between the system-breaking attempts at photo-realism present in Skyrim, and the system-friendly cartoonisms of World of Warcraft. To be expect, for sure, but I would very much like it if a major MMO developer would define their own art direction, as opposed to simply upscaling slightly on what Blizzard is offering. The video CLEARLY display the SAME harsh lines and uninspiring colour pallette (if a little larger) as WoW has displayed for the last 8 years, and no amount of throwing watered down Skyrim textures into the mix is likely to hide this. It seems to me that the art department's remit was simply "make Skyrim look like WoW... or the other way round...". They've done a great job at that, but it's not really inspired me to any degree. At all.
The lore and history of The Elder Scrolls is perhaps unrivalled in it volume (and, perhaps, it quality). Between Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim there is a wealth of great lore pieces that could be used to great effect in TESO, so I'm thoroughly glad to see them going all out in that direction. The problem I have here comes down to something I'll discuss a little more later on: MMO compromises. It's become a trend in the genre to retcon and compromise on lore in order to make certain situations in game more... "believable"? World of Warcraft is famous for its habit of taking worthwhile storylines from the RTS games and novels of old, and watering them down so that they can fit the key characters and plot points into the dungeon and raid equation. The Elder Scrolls Online has both dungeons and raids, so my worry is quite reasonable: when, where and how arre ZeniMax Online going to compromise on the lore of TES in order to make it fit an MMO environment? There will be those who'll say it won't happen, just like there were those who said it wouldn't happen to LotRo, WAR, AoC and SWTOR; in all cases... they were wrong, and it did happen. We can only presume it's going to happen in TESO as well. FOR SHAME.
At this point, I just get his horrible feeling that TESO is a typical MMO - ala WoW - with some "Skyrim" gimmicks thrown in for good measure. The combat system, for example, hasn't really been outlined or demonstrated in great details, but from the video footage I saw today... it really does look like a standard "lock and cast" system with directional attacks, similar in nature to Guild Wars 2. Simply having sneaking does not an Elder Scrolls combat system make, yet it feels like that's really all ZMO have to do to make it feel like a TES game. Throw in some directional attacks and shiled blocking, and it doesn't really matter what else they do with the combat, right? Wrong. Even from the little footage displayed, it's clear at this point that the combat system we're getting in TESO is not a combat system deeply rooted in the TES tradition of a more "FPS" style RPG ruleset. Again, FOR SHAME.
Despite ZMO's claims that TESO is "different" from all other MMOs, they peddled the same elements that all other MMOs peddle when trying to be different - crafting, raiding, dungeons, questing, PvP. They all sounded eerily familiar, yet the developers seemed to be trying to make them sound wildly different. Questing, for example, is ultimately the same affair in TESO that it is in WoW; the only difference is that Blizzard organises quest givers into neat little packages, where TESO wants you to run around like a headless chicken. PvP is, again, exactly the same as in Guild Wars 2, or the more open zonal PvP in World of Warcraft. It all just sounds very, very, very samey to me.
Matt Firor again made a cracking comment: "The game opens up at level 50." This single statement implies that yet again we will be thrown onto an endgame gear treadmill, and expected to raid constantly to progress. Why can't the game open up at... say... level 1?????!!!!! Is that too obvious, or unreasonable, or what? In neither Oblivion nor Skyrim did I feel compelled to level. Levels were just this thing that happened as I moved through the game world, yet my experience was not hampered by ever having to be a particular level to get particular things done. In TESO, the opposite is true: you will have to level to move forward, and once you hit cap... the game will let you do all of the things you want to do. The same applies to armour: in Skyrim I crafted armour when I wanted to, but there was never any overt need to do so. In TESO, gear is important... and the video seems to imply that in order to get anywhere, or compete against other players, you'll have to get that gear.
Also, I DON'T CARE ONE JOT ABOUT "MEGASERVER" OR THE TECH BEHIND IT. If the game places me in a community I like, that is numerous and vibrant, I will be happy. If it does not, I will complain. Outside of that, I couldn't give a flying rats wings what the system that places me is called or how it works. It's not part of the game. It's a peripheral service. Like most consumers, I don't take my car to get repaired on the provision that the mechanic explains in detail how he's going to repair it. I just take it there broken, pick it up fixed, and that's enough for me.
So yeah... TESO looks lame. SWTOR lame. If they charge a sub fee for it, it'll sink like a brick tied to several other bricks. If they don't charge a sub fee for it, it'll sink just before it makes land off the island of prosperity (sort of like what Guild Wars 2 is doing). Either way, the game looks utterly and totally rubbish in almost all regards.
As I said at the start... Matt Firor is a veteran MMO developer (famed for DAOC I believe). In this instance, that's like saying you got the guy who invented the bicycle to build a car... because he's an expert in wheels. Matt Firor comes across as an ignorant developer, entrenched in a development philosophy that should have died out years ago.