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So...Elder Scrolls Online. Whodathunkit way back in the day when the ES series first came out in the 1990s? Although, the type of gameplay that the series offers just screams MMO. The real question, however, is can they do it right. Let's break it down...
I leveled from 1-12 as a male, Bretan mage of DaggerFall over the course of the beta weekend. I played 1-10 in Tamriel and leveled 10-12 in Cyrodiil (PVP) with about 8 runs through the three 12-15 dungeons.
I saw a few complaints about the graphics of this game in chat, but I am guessing they were mostly from people who are used to playing single player games and not MMOs, or were playing at a lower graphical setting. On ultra the game looks great, and really helped immerse me in the game world. There are a few critiques with some textures, but it wasn't enough to distract me from the overall visual aspects of this game.
There were also a few graphics bugs here and there both in the game world (e.g. some floating MOBS) and character bugs (e.g. odd non-symmetrical facial alignments); however, I am discounting them since they were few and fully expect them to be addressed come launch.
I thought sound was just sound before, but ZOS (Zenimax Online Studios - the makers of ESO) have really done their job. They have good game world music, sound effects, and all the quests (at least the ones I did through levels 1-12) were all fully voice acted! It's comical to think that SWTOR used this as one of their primary selling point for their game, while in ESO it's just another feature in their list of features. Some of the voice actors are well known actors and actresses and really help bring life into the character. Especially early on in the game with John Cleese voice acting a Don Quixote-type character. It really impressed me because he did an excellent job, and I just love Don Quixote (so I am biased here).
The beautiful sounds and voice acting follows previous Elder Scrolls games, like Skyrim, and maintains that reputation.
For the most part really clean and well done. It takes a bit getting used to with the menu bar system (e.g. the rotation needed for potions), but overall top notch. I like the fact they are trying to get away from MMO screens looking like spreadsheets, and making it look more like a game to be played. The default is no floating texts, no buffs shown, no name plates, etc. It's great. It's clean and immersive.
1st person is done very well, and I actually played my whole gameplay in that mode. The only downside is not knowing when a large charge attack is happening, since it appears in red on the ground. Easy to see in 3rd person, but who really looks at the ground in 1st person. I hope that they make it so a red outline on the edges of the screen occurs or something to help indicate charge attacks in 1st person.
As for no floating texts on damage and healing, I can live with that. Honestly, I healed all the dungeon instances I ran, and I rarely looked at party health bars in the party window. Instead I was looking at the actual player (OnMouseOver shows their health bar). This was necessary, since this game isn't click-target-based. Thus, you need to know where the person is that needs healing, because you need to aim the heal at them or the area they are in.
I won't say it's innovation, since non-click-targeting is in other ES games, and in DarkFall Online, but it is done so well here. An idea is only so good as it's implementation, and they did a great job with putting gaming back in MMOs, rather than looking at numbers and tables, etc. This leads me to the next section.
Combat is great. It is non-click-targeting and action driven. You can move/roll out of enemy attacks, and need to aim your bow/spells at enemy players. It can get kind of frustrating with lag, especially for spells with a timer. Since some spells need a "valid target" to cast and a "valid target" to exist at the end of cast. This allows enemy players through movement or lag to not get casted on. I guess it's to conserve magicka (mana) for the caster, since the spell would miss, but I think starting the cast can be done without a valid target, as long as the end cast has a valid target.
This is also an interesting subject area, because like Rift and all classless MMO games, ESO has a great level of freedom for the player. There is an archtype that the player chooses to play (i.e. mage, fighter, rogue, healer) and that defines the player to some degree, but then it doesn't in another. It's hard to explain in a short space, but I will try.
Each weapon/armor has different skill options, as well as just a base class option of skills (e.g. mage) which the player can choose to use. There are no restrictions in the type of weapons and armor that a player wears so a mage could wear heavy armor for example. And instead of a staff use a sword and shield. Hence, if you need a tank in an instance and you are all mages, one can be a tank (this actually happened and worked). Also, I played a mage, but had a spec in healing and since we needed a healer I healed the party.
This opens the door to playing with your friends and letting them play the classes they want. There is no longer any need to wait 30 mins to find a tank. Just have at least one of your friends have a heavy armor set in their inventory and perhaps a skill point or two in a "tanking" skill line and viola. So just a great system in general.
Perhaps the combat is 8.5 rather than 9. The problem is that there is no collision detection between players, npcs and other players. In other words, you can just walk rigth through other characters as if you or they or both were ghosts. Hitting mobs and rolling through them in combat feels somewhat empty in that regards, although hitting npcs (especially during a charge attack) makes them react, which is a nice touch.
Putting in collision (a la WaR) is an interesting feature, although there is always room for abuse by people who can just then swarm an important npc so no one else can access it, etc. But for combat reasons, I feel it just adds to the immersiveness which allows tanks to really hold-the-line and allow nothing through.
So far, one of the best questing systems I have played in an MMO and I've played a...lot. It helps that the quests are fully voice acted, but the quest system itself is well designed. Rarely, did I feel like I was grinding the quest mill (although that's inevitable), and it was more about helping these people with issues that mattered to them. It may not have mattered to me much as a player/character, and a few times I was like so why am I doing this besides needing xp. But it did seem that the quests that you were doing did matter to the npcs that you were helping. It wasn't kill 10 rats, then kill 10 wolves because...God, only knows. It was at least kill X because it greatly affected the npc is some manner, so it gave some weight and meaning behind the quests.
To push it that much further would be trying to incorporate meaning into the player to do these quests. However, this would come to a great expensive of both time and resources for the actual payoff, since it would require what SWTOR did and give different options to the player that mattered, and then thus different quest chains (including voice acting) for all those different choices. In ESO, it makes no difference, and the end result is the same, which either completes the quest or forwards you to the next one. There are some "red" texts which are finalized choices, but I don't think they actually affect the gameplay much, and exist to give the appearance that it mattered. And truthfully, that works perfectly fine for me.
Besides questions, there are dark anchors which work to a similar style as public quests (PQs) that existed in WaR and then in Rift. They resemble Rift a bit more, since they are essentially rifts, but here ESO does a much better job, since they are much rarer (I hope it stays that way) and keeps them unique. This then adds a freshness to the questing procedure and acts as a break for the player. It also allows them to involve themselves in a social aspect (i.e. needs many people to do them), which also gives a break from soloing.
All quests so far are soloable (at least up till level 12 where I left off). Everything expect the formal dungeons, which I will talk about next.
So there are two types of dungeons in ESO public and private (my own terms). Public ones are dungeons that are like any other place in the game world, except in a dungeon type atmosphere. There are quests there, and some additional loot. However, these are not instanced and so it can get very busy in them. In beta all of these dungeons were incredibly easy because there were way too many people in them. Post launch I feel it will be less crowded and then meeting the odd adventure in there will be great. Because it would let the player meet a stranger, who has similar goals, and possibly end up teaming with them.
Private dungeons are instanced dungeons and act similar to the dungeons in World of Warcraft. They look gorgeous and play well. The three that you can do at around level 12 are short and quick and fun. They have a perfect amount of difficulty that it makes it challenging and rewarding to complete. They are kind of short (maybe 20-30 mins), but ESO has wisely made three of them. This helps people who don't want to spend 1.5-2h doing a dungeon still allow them to do them, but for those who do can do the others.
The difficulty is at a good setting (please don't dumb it down) at this point, and our party wiped a few times which is great. It should be challenging!
All PVP is done in Cyrodiil which is a separate instanced large alliance vs alliance vs alliance (AvAvA) area. I believe ZOS said it's bigger than the starter areas for the different alliances. Regardless, it's a game unto itself and is worth at least a try.
I won't get into all the details, since there is a lot. But to summarize there are three different factions (instead of the classic two) and everything is there for the taking. There are many castles which can be claimed by the different factions and taking and defending them is a large part of this scenario.
Like I said, it's a game unto itself and in Cyrodiil you can gather, quest, and even do dungeons, but they are public. So you can do a great job clearing a dungeon, only to have the enemy from another alliance come kill you and your party and then kill the boss and take the loot. So great. Reminds me of Ultima Online and EQII (pvp server). However, public dungeons are easy, and are not like instanced dungeons with elite mobs. It would be nice to see at least some public dungeons with instanced-dungeon-difficulty and loot (i.e. random world bosses spawning in there a la Aion).
The mass PVP battles were epic and fun. It's a great feeling to use a siege weapon to break down a castle wall or pour boiling oil onto enemy players as they try to storm your alliance's castle.
It was beta but lag in Cyrodiil was just terrible. I am hoping it was just stress testing the server, and that it will be addressed come launch. Lag did not affect the score I gave PVP, if it exists come launch it would, since at times it was unplayable. However, when it was lag free it was very enjoyable.
I only crafted a bit in this game just to test it out. I only scratched the surface, but from what I saw it seemed quite indepth and interesting. At first glance it looked like the very boring WoW-ish crafting system, but it's not. It has some twists and aspects that makes it refreshing. Although, I didn't fully test it out, so I am still unsure. However, it seems to have some aspects that were taken out of EQII crafting with quality of items, etc. I really like the idea that you can add more of a material to create higher level gear. That was a very smart design. I believe the devs have said that crafted gear will be considered top gear. I hope that I am remembering that correctly.
Of the gear that I crafted from level 1-10 the gear was better than quested gear received. However, it's much better, since you can make the gear have qualities added to them, which is beyond just enchantments, and something I won't get into.
I just hope that top level crafters are a rarity, which in turn would make uber gear rare. I just hope they don't generic-it all down to the boring philosophy that "we are all winners." Inequality creates competition and pushes people to be better. Seeing a great crafter make a great weapon pushes other crafters to also attain that level. If everyone eventually becomes this, it just belittles the overall profession and rarity of the items to the point of it being normal and generic gear. But that is purely my $0.02.
OVERALL GAMEPLAY: 8.5/10
I went into beta not knowing much about ESO. To be honest, I haven't really been following it that much. I watched a few YouTube videos about it, like Shoddycast, but it really didn't grab my attention. I got invited to the previous beta, but I didn't even bother claiming my code to test it. For this beta, I am glad I did. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the game.
It's kind of hard to categorize this game, since it takes aspects from many different game genres so it's more of a hybrid. There are aspects of ES (i.e. Skyrim), MMO, theme-park-yet-sandbox. I think it's all a hard balance to maintain. MMO players are a demanding bunch, so to juggle all these features can be a difficult task. So far, I believe they are succeeding.
I really appreciate the relatively slower paced leveling system. I don't think MMOs should design their game to be able to be max level in a week or even two weeks. They put years into making a game world, only to be blown past it in a week? It never made sense to me. This trend is actually a nail in the coffin for MMOs, since once it's "end game," there better be more. I mean if devs really love their world, then the player base should love just being in it, end game be damned. Reaching end game shouldn't be the primary goal, but just a goal and the focus should be playing the game. Single player games succeed because it's a great game to play through, not because of the end game (well it's over by then). I hope ZOS keeps a slower paced leveling system. The game is meant to be played and the world to be enjoyed.
I hope this game does well, it seems like a lot of hard work went into making it. I just hope that the company stays true to their fans. $60 initial purchase and $15/m, I think is the dollar cap that should be implemented. I really do not like how the industry is trying to exploit their playerbase with micro-transactions, especially DLCs. I forsee a large backlash from the community if ZOS tries to charge what they already are, and then tries to take further advantage of their playerbase. I just hope they do not get greedy and instead keep with these price points, and give everything the players deserve for their $15/m; rather than try to do some future DLC idea. I feel that would be terrible and would only hurt the game, and the ES brand, which stands for great quality, value, and gameplay for their players.
Baseline for the numbering system that I used.
WOW-baseline WOTLK expansion: