Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Previews & New Screenshots of The Elder Scrolls Online

Below are new screenshots accompanied by excerpts from various previews from other websites. Gaze at the glory that is Bethesda's newest title and first MMO The Elder Scrolls Online. No release date is set yet but 2013 will see the larger than life scope that Elder Scrolls fans know and love. The game will be set a millennium before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and around 800 years before The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with the Daedric Prince Molag Bal appearing as the main antagonist as he attempts to conquer all of Tamriel.

Skills, Classes, & Progression

Though you choose one of four classes at character creation in The Elder Scrolls Online, that choice has only slightly more impact than selecting Spellsword or Conjurer in Skyrim. The way it works is that you have access to (eventually) dozens of skill lines, of which your class choice determines three. Weapon styles (one-hand and shield, dual wield, bow, destruction staff, etc.) offer their own skill lines, as do skill lines for light/medium/heavy armor, mages/fighters guilds, races, alliances, PvP, and more. Your rank in a skill line determines which active and passive skills you can unlock with the points you earn for leveling up, exploring, and fighting in PvP.

Skill lines are also how players can gain the benefits and drawbacks of being a werewolf or vampire, though Zenimax Online went into no specifics about those other than that they must be earned through questlines just as they are in mainline Elder Scrolls games.

You can learn as many skills as you find points for - and there's no theoretical limit on skill points, as you continue to earn them past level cap - but only five (plus a powerful ultimate skill) can be equipped at a time and can be freely swapped outside of combat. Passive skills take up no slots, but only apply to skills in their own line, so collecting tons of passives doesn't represent the kind of absolute power growth that can unbalance level-cap PvP.

Finally, each level you gain allows you to boost either health, magicka, or stamina. Some kind of limited respeccing will be available, though Zenimax Online is still working out the details. My experience with the system was extremely positive; it let me experiment with different combat styles and roles without undue cost, while still forcing me to make choices about how I developed my hero. [GameInformer]

Game director Matt Firor said that the design of Elder Scrolls Online is predicated on four distinct pillars. "These are important to us, as gameplay developers, because whenever we come up with a new system, we make sure it fits one of these four pillars of the game."

World immersion: "When you sit down and play the game, you feel like you're in an Elder Scrolls game. It feels like a living world. It feels like a familiar place you want to explore."

Combat: "We want to make sure we have strategic, reactive mouse-driven combat." (See sidebar above).

Unique progression: "As you level, you can make unique decisions about your character. What abilities you want to learn, what weapons you use. As you use things, you get better with them."

Modern social experience: "With friends systems, megaservers, we put a lot of effort into making sure it's a modern socially connected game." [Polygon]

Each NPC you encounter is fully voiced, which brings life to what would otherwise be unread quest text. Like other Elder Scrolls titles, your conversations with the denizens of Tamriel involve making dialogue choices that blend clues about quest objectives with bits of lore and flavor. Sometimes these choices have a noticeable impact on the story and your interactions with others.

For example, I was given the choice whether to save an evil woman who had been poisoned or to let her die. I chose to save her with some antidote, while Scott thought she should pay the ultimate penalty for her crimes. When we completed the quest, we compared the responses we got from the NPC who poisoned her. Scott was welcomed with open arms, while I was basically called a soft-hearted idiot! [Massively]

The combat feels very much like what you'd find in an Elder Scrolls game; the bad news (particularly for melee-oriented players) there is that means it's subject to the series' signature stiff animations. But here's the thing – I felt as though I was actually hitting stuff. Playing with a sword and shield, I reveled in the familiarity of using my left mouse button to both block and bash for spell interrupts, and immediately found myself holding down the right mouse button for power attacks and merely clicking it for lighter ones.

It's fun, but I was dismayed to learn that I couldn't play Elder Scrolls Online as I usually play Skyrim – specifically, as a stealthy archer who whips out either daggers or swords in close quarters. I could use the bow (although the arrow's trajectory looked more like I was tossing it than firing it), I could sneak by pressing Control (although stealth bonuses, I'm told, won't unlock until I've leveled medium armor a ways), but I still found myself frustrated when I couldn't whip out my sword when my quarry finally reached me. For that, I was told, I'd have to wait until level 15 when weapon swapping unlocks. [IGN]

TESO appears to be aiming for reasonable goals at launch: only the Fighters and Mages Guilds will be present, with the possibility of Thieves or Assassins to come later. Fighters receive contracts to destroy Daedra and the aforementioned Dark Anchors, which then earns reputation to trade for new abilities. Mages, meanwhile, search for books to research Necromancy, of which Molag Bal is the patron demon. Housing won't be due at launch either, though the company did remark that mounts are being planned. [Shack News]

The UI is among the most minimalistic I’ve seen in an MMO. The only persistent on-screen items are a crosshair, a minimap, and a small quest tracker. Health, stamina and magicka bars along with the hotbar appear during combat or when you’re wounded, but otherwise the focus is on the world. There are no damage numbers or debuff indicators for enemies beyond what is visibly happening to them. At present, the game could do with better feedback – I can get behind the idea of toning down typical MMO on-hit fireworks, but they need to be replaced with something and at the moment it’s not quite there.

Dialogue takes place in a zoomed-in first person similar to Skyrim, with a slightly expanded dialogue menu that more closely resembles Morrowind. It’s all fully voiced, but facial animation is a bit rough at the moment. [PCGamer]

ZeniMax has chosen to focus on a more or less traditional quest system, but they have largely managed to make what's on offer more interesting than the stereotypical "kill ten rats". Just the fact that all NPCs are voiced makes everything more vivid. The game provides a context for what you are doing and thus draws you into the experience.

A early memorable side quest saw me stumbling across an orc who was torn between following his dream of being a blacksmith, and giving in to his family's wishes to be a warrior. I helped him kill a monster that threatened the village, and convinced him that he was not warrior material (even if I had the opportunity to recommend the opposite). [GameReactor]

In the first thirty minutes or so before I gained any skills, combat felt a little boring, and I had a "this is it?" style reaction. But once I gained projectile based skills, defensive abilities and more, combat ramped up a bit and became more dynamic, like the Elder Scrolls franchise is known for. Zenimax confirmed that the game wouldn't ship with native controller support, but it "shouldn't be too hard" to get the game mapped out with third party software, like XPadder or Joy2Key.

Spells are bound to your selection of hotkeys like a typical MMO, and work just like Skyrim in real time. You can sneak around like the classic Bethesda games, sprint, and upon leveling up, you're able to choose between a health, magica or stamina upgrade. The locales look true to form for the series. As lead developer Matt Firor stated, there are going to be some fundamental differences compared to, say, Skyrim, but in the world of Elder Scrolls Online, "when you're in Windhelmd you feel like you're in Windhelm." [Destructoid]

Elder Scrolls Online is actually a big step back from Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, and co in this respect. But, given that many MMOs nail their worlds down with railroad spikes the size of whaling harpoons, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could swipe individual objects off tables, shelves, and things of the like. There was plenty of worthless junk, too, which is an aspect of TES’ world-building that I think a lot of people gloss over. Typical game worlds stuff every nook and cranny with so much treasure that even their impoverished beggars should be buried under magnificent golden statues carved in their own images. Occasionally, it’s nice to find something that means nothing. Hey, a cup. Hm, some bread. I can take these, but I won’t because eh. Someone else probably needs them more than I do, anyway.  [RockPaperShotgun]

Character customisation is the most interesting element, being more ability than class based. You do have to pick a class, like Sorcerer or Templar, but that just locks in three of your skill lines - important ones, yes, but still just three of many. Sorcerers, for example, are blessed with Daedric Summoning, Storm Calling and Dark Magic to develop. Everyone, however, can sneak like a rogue, use any armour or weapons, and earn esoteric skill lines like Vampire.

All characters are split into three factions but share a personal story. In Elder Scrolls tradition, you start out as a prisoner. Raising the stakes a little, this time it's as a prisoner of Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of domination, who also acts as the main game's villain - scheming to give heroes quick soulectomies and ultimately pull the whole of Tamriel into his miserable but at least correctly spelled domain of Coldharbour. This is where the key personal story quests happen, with more general ones restricted to your faction's third of the map. [Eurogamer]


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