March 11, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions: Combat & Skills

One of the things that impresses me most about the new breed of MMORPGs is action-based, real-time combat that feels intuitive. This hasn't always been the norm, with most MMOs before Guild Wars 2 or Tera feeling less like legit video games and more like button sequence memorization exercises. As such, there was some doubt about whether combat and skills in The Elder Scrolls Online would capture the smooth spontaneity of Skyrim, or recoil back into the MMO status quo. Happily, I can report that ESO gives Skyrim fans nothing to worry about.

We'll start with the basic controls:

  • WASD: Movement. Double-tap to perform a dodge roll.
  • LEFT CLICK: Standard weapon attack.
  • RIGHT CLICK: Hold to block attacks, at the cost of Stamina. If an enemy is winding up a special move, usually telegraphed by a particular animation or visible area-of-effect marker, Left click while blocking to interrupt and stagger them.
  • SPACE: Jump.
  • SHIFT: Hold to sprint (consumes Stamina).
  • CTRL: Toggles stealth (movement slowly drains Stamina), useful for performing powerful opening attacks.
There is also the numerical hotbar (1-5) for slotting in a handful of custom skills, swappable at any time, out of combat.

ESO only has four basic classes to begin with -- Templar, Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, and Nightblade --with three skill lines to develop within each. This might sound like a sparse selection in the beginning, but keep in mind that while your class is the most important factor determining your character's potential, it's not the only one. You can also invest in skill lines for various weapon types, each with their own trees of signature abilities, and these transcend class. For example, a Dragon Knight could invest in sword & shield skills for a defensive build, or wield a two-hander and go full offensive. My Nightblade was all about archery and keeping a distance, but someone else could just as well wield daggers and play as a traditional, close-quarters "rogue."

In addition, you can opt to spend skill points in armor training, passive racial buffs, and crafting skills.

Like in previous Elder Scrolls games, you develop skills through repeated use, which will in turn boost your experience bar and allow you to level up. Leveling up grants you skill points, used to purchase more skills or enchance existing skills to a new tier which tacks on added bonuses. One of my favourite skills as a Dragon Knight was Spiked Armor, which would decrease incoming damage as well as reflect some of the pain back at enemies. After leveling it sufficiently, it branched off into two optional paths and I chose the perk of sending out an AoE shower of spikes upon activation. Most class and weapon skills have these kinds of branches within them, adding a lot of customization to the game while simulating the idea of "talent trees" that most MMOs make you pick in a linear fashion.

Skill points can also be earned by tagging "sky shards" littered throughout the landscape, adding a tangible benefit to exploring the map. Combined with the skill points you get through leveling, ESO gives new players a good amount of choice in skill development right from the beginning of the game, and it feels very rewarding.

Gear and crafting resources seemed to be doled out really miserly, at least in the beta. Weapons and armour barely drop from enemies at all, and quest rewards give you exactly one item, with no choice at all as to what you'll get. So, if you didn't end up liking the initial weapon type you picked up in the tutorial, or if you were a sorcerer and all the quests gave you heavy armour, you were basically out of luck. And unless you really make a point of wasting your limited beta time running around collecting resources, odds are you'll not be crafting more than one or two items to supplement your equipment. Thankfully, the early game is geared to be pretty easy, so this wasn't a huge issue.

The ground work for a great MMO has certainly been laid, but it remains to be seen if The Elder Scrolls Online will break any new ground for the genre and hold players' attention for long. In a lot of ways, it has the charm and attention to detail that people expect from the Elder Scrolls universe, with some deep mechanics that can take time to settle into. And as an MMORPG, it does what it does well. But, I'm not sure this game is doing anything earth-shattering, or which can't be found elsewhere.

In the end, I think it will be interesting to see how this game develops, but the $60 price tag for the standard digital edition is a lot to ask, considering this is also a subscription-based game. You've likely already played a superior Elder Scrolls, and probably superior MMOs as well. Based on the beta, I can only recommend this if you really, really need to play an Elder Scrolls game online, even if it's basically more of the same.

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