Let’s get some caveats out of the way first. I’ve never played an MMO. Like, not at all, not even to check one out. The most social games I’ve played with random internet strangers are Call of Duty multi-players and co-ops on Fable 3. I have, however, played a bit of Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim (If you count my almost 2000 hours in Skyrim as a little bit). So I came into this game looking for my next Elder Scrolls Adventure and very worried about what I would get.
EDIT: I've noticed the majority of reviews that have come out for ESO since the embargo lifted have been made on a handful of hours or levels of play in one area. This can make a big difference in the impression you get of the game, especially considering the game has a very different feel depending on class choice and starting area choice. Play experience is also very different as you work your way up in experience and zones. My experience is based on three characters, one in each alliance - two of them leveled into the teens and the third leveled into the twenties. I've participated in a lot of solo play, single partner play, small and large group play, group dungeons, and Cyrodiil so far. I've seen a lot of odd and inccorrect statements from testers (from sites and channels I respect) that only played the game a few hours each day it was available, so it's important to pay attention to your source. The Outhousers may not be known for gaming (we focus more on RPGs when we cover games), but what we do cover, we go into deeply.
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• The world felt like Elder Scrolls
Now the play style in battle had a very different feel due to the use of various powers, but I never felt like Elder Scrolls was known for its combat style. The world itself however, felt right to me. In the handful of characters I tested I visited an island settlement in Skyrim, the Red Mountain area, an Argonian village, a khajiit settlement, Stros M’Kai, High Rock, and Summerset. All of the architecture and environments fit just right, with a good variety of critters running around unique to certain areas.
The scale of settlements is better than players of Skyrim will be used to. Cities felt more like cities, full of people (probably moreso when more players are in the game) and homes, with buildings that towered above you. Villages were more than one or two small homes. Lorebooks were scattered about. It felt like Tamriel. Watch out for the slaughterfish though.
• The world felt open
I was expecting a lack of openness that would break immersion for me. I got the opposite. You can venture off wherever with only the enemies you encounter to hold you back. I’d much rather see this method of being fenced in than just invisible walls. That being said, I didn’t have time to level up enough to explore all of Tamriel and looking at the maps listed there are definitely some big areas of the continent not available yet that will come as the months go on. But my biggest concern was how the exploration felt and I was satisfied with what I got.
• Gear & Crafting
There is a large variety of equipment available. Each race has it's own look for armors and weapons, plus there is no shortage of unique pieces. Crafting is full of options as well, with different types of crafting (woodworking, smithing, clothing, alchemy, etc.) and seems to offer a much deeper experience than what's been in previous Elder Scrolls games.
There is decent story behind the game. It's not all about PvP or even PvE and, from what I've seen so far, they've done a decent job at fitting this game into the history of the Elder Scrolls games. Even for those players that have complained about pre-orders getting to play any race in any faction - you see all races in all the areas anyhow, just like any other Elder Scrolls game.
I'm not sure if MMOs have typically not been fully voiced in the past since this is my first, but I cannot imagine playing the game any other way. It goes a long way in aiding immersion and bringing the Elder Scrolls world to life - especially when familiar voices pop up.
• If you expect this to be your next single-player Elder Scrolls experience, you’re going to have a bad time
Although we heard you would be able to play this game solo if you desired, after my experience, I can see why Paul Sage hesitated when I asked him this at E3, carefully considering his phrasing. Sure, you can try to play alone, but there is a good possibility you will stall out at certain areas and bosses. The “anchors” can’t really be tackled alone; there are certain areas where enemies (even though they show the same level or lower than you) are much more powerful than you expect and they demolish you. It did take a bit of fun and exploration out of the game for me at certain points. Fortunately, even just teaming up with one friend can make a huge difference or trying to level up elsewhere and coming back if all else fails. The good news is that you can avoid the PvP portion and just partner up with a friend or three to adventure around most of Tamriel. Getting past my love of solo Elder Scrolls and hooking up with others really took the game to another level of enjoyment for me.
• The Imperial Edition
Although this isn’t from gameplay, it was recently announced and I held my tongue on my thoughts on it when I wrote up the press release. I can't see writing up a piece just about this issue, so I decided to give it a spot here.
It seems a bit like Zenimax is going to nickel and dime us to death. With a $60 game (more if you buy the special edition), $15 a month sub fee, and a cash shop (yes, they are only selling things like name changes and such and not in game items). But the rub is this: If you are buying the game and paying a sub fee, then fist of all, everything should be included in the game, they should not be selling special editions because that equals cash shop sells essentially. Offering in-game extras to people that spend even more money can hardly be seen any other way. Second of all, I have the same view on the cash shop - If I’m paying $15 a month for service, then all services should be included. Hopefully this is the end of charging us more for what we’ve already bought.
• Typical Game Mechanics
Yes, you’ll still see all the things you get from any MMO, or really Elder Scrolls game with the fetch quests, though they do seem to tie them together with decent stories. That doesn’t bother me as much as two other things that I feel are probably done for the sake of multi-player gameplay.
1. Access to goods — You can walk past racks of weapons, but cannot pick anything up. You kill fully equipped enemies and can’t pick anything up. You save up hundreds or thousands of gold, but can’t buy and use certain equipment because you aren’t a high enough level. As I said, I realize it’s about game balance, but it’s also very immersion breaking. Breaking immersion is never something that I care for in my Elder Scrolls world. The more you get used to it, the less it bothers you.
2. Phasing — Let’s talk two types of phasing. The first is phasing through people. Again, I’m sure it’s done to keep things like blocking players in spots with so many players running around, but it sucks when you are in melee and the enemy moves forward and phases through you and you end up missing your attacks because of this. It is unfortunate another method could not be found because it would also be interesting in the giant PvP battles to actually have bodies colliding (something you see in every war movie as the two sides of battle charge).
The second type of phasing is having items vanish on you. Loot may be divided up between players when you kill something based on who contributes to a kill, but locked chests are not - it's first come first serve. What's worse than that is losing out to someone that's not even there. You could be walking along and decide to mine some iron or pick a flower and it vanishes because someone picked it that you cannot see because they are in another "instance" of the game.
I found that most enemies respawn too quickly. We had monsters respawn literally beside us because we didn't advance quickly enough. It was also a bit immersion breaking to wipe out an entire bandit camp and thave have it completely repopulated by the time you turn around to leave. Some areas seem to get cleaned up as you do a successful mission, but then some just don't. Even though you fixed something or helped turn a tide, the same enemies keep spawning in that area.
The biggest oddity for me was the spawn/roam zone of enemies. Many players have lamented about how sneaking uses stamina and I'll tell you why it doesn't matter. First, it doesn't use much and only while you move. Second, you hardly ever need it. You can literally walk upright, twenty feet away from a lookout and they will not spot you. Many players weave their way through mobs, staying between detection areas. The worst issue with it is that if you back away while fighting (mage, archer, etc) the enemy can reset and simply stop attacking, regains full health and runs back to their "home" spot. Sometimes that can save your life, but often it makes you have to re-fight something again and again if you aren't careful.
• Potions seem pretty worthless
If you are adventuring alone, look forward to only getting to use one potion in battle if things get sticky. Another decision probably made due to game balance with multiple players in battle against each other, but you get one quick slot to put a potion in and it has a cool down to re-use. In a huge battle of PvP you might get to use it more than once or twice, but in most non PvP fights with enemies, potions will only see use once, if needed, and not supply much benefit. If you can heal or have a healer to partner up with, this becomes a non-issue, but can be annoying when you are alone.
Some of these issues could change by launch since Zenimax is still polishing things as they run the beta testing. I could see balancing occuring with potions and enemy zoning, though I doubt you'll see any major changes to game mechanics around since conception like players phasing through each other.
EDIT: Changes have indeed been made as Zenimax listens to player feedback. Check out more on the major changes to ESO here.
I had avoided PvP, not feeling powerful enough, until I ran into some high level players and they dragged me into Cyrodiil to check things out. I was a bit out of my league, but with a huge group of experienced players I lived much longer than I should have through several battles. Using siege weapons to break down walls, storming in to fight the other team and capture the flag. I can only imagine what it will be like with a hundred players on each side of the battle and there should be more on that coming soon. (UPDATE: PvP Impressions now up)
Although running into those areas that are too tough for you alone can be a drag, taking them on with a team is a really fun experience and worth the trade-off. Even on tougher areas that aren’t official PvE, teaming up, even unofficially when you see another player working through it is nice to be able to do. Having other players makes up for the useless NPC’s you see in most games.
• It’s fun
I went into this thinking I was going to pass on the game with the various costs adding up and never having played MMOs before, but ESO really won me over. Day one was rough, but once I found a play style I enjoyed and met some people to partner up with occasionally, the game was as enjoyable as Skyrim was for me, if in a slightly different way.
There are so many options in the game, it's almost overwhelming at first, but once you start to wrap your head around it it's an amazing thing. You could end up with several of what appear to be similar characters (multiple archers, wizards, etc.) that all have completely different power sets and classes behind the gear they are wielding.
For those worried that ESO is making the "holy trinity" obsolete (or trying to) I can assure you they aren't. For major group dungeons it's like night and day playing with just a group of warriors and then a well mixed group.
• Did I mention: It Feels Like Elder Scrolls?
I've now been throughout all the provinces of Tamriel and it feels awesome. Maybe you aren't a fan of MMOs, but I don't see how anyone could play this game and not feel like they are in Tamriel. Like I said before, the world just feels right and in some ways even superior.
There is definitely a learning curve for players coming from Elder Scrolls games that have never played MMOs. There are players out there that will build up much faster, already know the best tips and tricks, and will be maxed out in all three campaigns before a newb (like me) is half way through the first. Focusing on your own game and ignoring the “competition” aspect that can pop up can make a big difference in enjoyment.
Most of all however, Zenimax has succeeded in making Elder Scrolls into an MMO. The people you've seen posting about the game failing or going F2P in a few months are in for a shock. There is a reason the "bad" section in this article was mostly nitpicking - because there wasn't anything I experienced that turned me off of the game. That's saying something considering I came into this game a naysayer, because I left as an ESO player.