One MMO to rule them all, one MMO to find them, one MMO to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. That’s the dream, at least. I await the day when one fantastic MMO will give us the toxic, life-consuming relationship we once shared with World of Warcraft. I still have a deep, unhealthy love for WoW, but I’d love to see another company pull off a hyper successful massive multiplayer experience. I don’t mean the, “Oh yeah I know a few blokes who play Guild Wars 2” kind of fan base. I want a full out, “everyone and their grandmothers are playing this game and society is at risk of rapid decay because people cannot walk away from their computers” type of mass obsession. Bethesda is the latest to step up to the daunting MMO plate, and has tossed us The Elder Scrolls Online, a multiplayer experience set in the Elder Scrolls world.
As with every game there’s things it did well and things that make me wonder if it was ever a good idea to make a single player series into a $15/month multiplayer game. I could harp about any one feature for hours, but seeing as it’s only in beta, I’ll reserve my full nerd-splosion for some time after the full release. For now, here’s some good signs coming out of beta.
-Every attack and skill feels fantastic to use, looks stunning, and I could go on and on about how visceral the stabby stabby action of my daggers felt. I can tell all of my attacks apart by their visuals, since they all do something uniquely different and don’t follow the usual tradition of making the same actions glow different colors and saying, “Ooo look, you did something different” (i.e. “red glowing sword attack” versus “white glowing sword attack”).
-While in most games you can watch an ogre wind up a hammer smash and do not one dribbling thing about it (GW2 being a notable exclusion), ESO implements the very simple yet somehow often overlooked concept of basic dodging. I have a feeling the lack of dodge implementation in games like WoW and friends stems from design limitations and the strange idea that players don’t want to bother with moving around or paying attention during any fight that isn’t against a boss. It took years of advanced technology and a designer with balls to make it so that hammer won’t hit me if I walk a meter away from it, and sarcasm aside, I’m happy that ESO wants to make this combat style the new trend.
-The interface screen is pretty prominent, falling more along the lines of a start menu in a single-player game than the pop up windows common to most MMOs. Popup windows are pretty great, though. They let me rearrange my items and change gear while running across the country. Upon typing those words, I realize that realism may have been the goal here in ESO. So, for instance, if you want to do important stuff, you’re going to have to stop and do it and not act like you have five arms that can both shoot arrows and fumble about your bags at the same time.
-There’s only seven ability slots: one for an item use, another for an ultimate ability, and five for moves that are neither of the former. At first, I was outraged that I couldn’t cast every skill I’ve ever slightly known and unleash seven action bars of attacks in a button mashing fury. Then I thought about Pokémon, and how having only four moves kept me from hoarding ones I wouldn’t use, while making me use my brain to specialize my skill set. I also remembered how lame it feels to look at the 20 other rogues in a room, and know we all were just differently dressed clones with the same 200 abilities. Because ESO forced me to be selective, I no longer have the same 60 skills spread across 5 ability bars that Joe has and Joe #3 has and Joe #500003 has. I will probably miss button spamming a 20×20 grid of skills – half of which are needless for 90% of battles yet I get to keep them hovering about my screen in case I stop 1-2-3 spamming long enough to remember what diversity feels like. I was one of those people that didn’t enjoy limitations being slapped on my skill hoarding ass, but I’m beginning to realize that’s not normal and it in fact leads to generic characters and zero-impact progression choices.
-NO CLASS PIGEONHOLING. Wear any armor you want. Yield any weapon you want. No more forcing people who like to creep around invisible to only hold daggers and stab things (I think I’ve mentioned stabbing enough times now to creepily let you know I love doing that… in games). If I get tired of sticking an axe up skeleton bums, I equip a staff and starting chucking lightning at their heads instead. If I want to be a rogue that casts the occasional healing spell, I’m not considered as dumb as a sack of potatoes with a couple of daggers taped on. ESO rewards individualism by not reinforcing class stereotypes that make you feel like there’s only one right way to play your character. A game that doesn’t make class bending a noob move has done something right.
-So much personalization means I won’t be confined to a role and ranked against every other knife holding ninny on a one-dimensional damage board. My skill choices will make me valuable instead of just my loot level or with what speed I jam my fingers onto my keyboard.
-Beautiful and stylized similarly to the Elder Scrolls series. Just look at screenshots and try not to drool on your now in-hand wallet.
Other Cool Things
-High quality and often used voice acting for NPC’s used to be a fantasy for players who dared to want more cinematography out of big title games. ESO came along like an elder genie and granted yet another gamer wish, and my ears thank them.
-Stories are interesting, characters make you care about them, and you have to make important decisions that will change the course of your quests and the world. This broadens replay value and also does an amazing thing that disappointingly few MMO’s do, and that’s making you feel something. Some of my favorite moments in WoW were when the quests or dungeons could evoke a feeling of pity, loss, triumph, or even just childlike whimsy. ESO isn’t afraid of that kind of story-driven gaming, and keeps rolling with the emotion punches. Bethesda earns my hearty applause for actually making me stared wide eyed at my screen and contemplate the moral dilemma of saving either my friend’s daughter or her husband.
-The musical score was impressive. I almost expected no less from Bethesda than to play the most heroic score of my life as I saved a town from destruction.
A Few Words of Cautious Optimism
The MMO industry isn’t kind today, so it’s hard to measure the upcoming success of Bethesda’s title while it’s in beta and rapidly improving. Not everyone wants the same thing out of their MMO, and while ESO might not be your cup of tea, it’s making some successful moves. The PVP and dungeon related content has yet to be fully explored, but beta shows Bethesda bringing some of the best qualities of the Elder Scrolls series into a multiplayer platform, and I’m looking forward to further exploring The Elder Scrolls Online as it develops.