Elder Scrolls Online Beta… Was Just OK

Bethesda has finally relaxed their NDA on Elder Scrolls Online (hereby referred to as ESO) allowing beta testers to talk about the game. The following critique of ESO is based on the impressions of the game after playing the beta which may, or may not, represent the final product. I will jump right in.
Combat ESO uses a hybrid active/automated combat system. It is not completely automated where you can simply target an enemy and automatically rotate to hit them, nor is it fully active like traditional Elder Scrolls games where you must aim specifically using your pointer. In ESO, you still need to use your cursor to aim but it has a lot of forgiveness in terms of mouse location. You only need to target in the general vicinity of the enemy for the targeting to be successful. I found that the semi-active targeting system works well but has some drawbacks when fighting more than one enemy. Sometimes, I intend to target one enemy but accidentally target the other, greatly reducing my combat efficiency. Luckily, ESO offers a second way to target using the tab button which locks you onto an enemy and allows all following active target attacks to hit that enemy specifically. As an avid PC gamer, I had no issue with this combat system, and I have seen similar schemes on console games so I don't foresee any drawbacks there either. The system is good, not revolutionary, and gets the job done. Notably, the best combat mechanics of any MMO I have played was in Age of Conan which utilizes full active targeting making combat more engaging. Combat strategy in ESO is employed via the usage of a stamina bar like the other Elder Scrolls games (and many other games). Usage of a power attack, dodge, or block will use your stamina, and when you have none you can no longer use those abilities and can only use light attacks. Magic, of course, uses Magicka as its limiting factor. All combat has an inherent graphical "cool down." There is no cool down bar, but you cannot simply mash a button and expect a swing per keystroke or button press. Each weapon type has a different, inherent animation speed. For instance, a bow or two-handed sword activates much more slowly than a less cumbersome or complex dagger. Casting spells also has an animation that determines the speed of casting. Next, there are special abilities that you can hot key using the hot bar. You can have up to five abilities active at any time to your hot bar and I do not know if there is any way to increase that limit, much to the dismay of all PC gamer's. This artificial limit is presumed to have been added to provide a cheap and easy way to balance combat (like Diablo games) be it PvE or PvP. This limitation is artificial but necessary if they intend to allow PC players and console players to play together, though I am unsure if that is their intent. I can say that it is much easier to balance bosses and fights around 5 skills rather than a wide array of abilities. Several MMO's do this already most notably Guild Wars 2 but even then they allow for a full set of skills per weapon set that changes when you swap weapons along with another set of selectable class abilities. I really did not like the hot key limitations because it makes games repetitive and boring (action RPGs are a good example of this) and devolves the in-game RPG classes into a handful of uninteresting, cookie-cutter builds. Overall, I thought that combat was fine in ESO, but I honestly think that we did not see enough of the game to make an all-encompassing judgement call. I never did battle any sort of difficult boss, nor difficult anything, to really encourage me to push the mechanics to the limit. I did enjoy fighting enemies with the hybrid targeting system, but I have to admit that weapons did not feel balanced in my time playing the game. For instance, I really love using two-handed giant swords, but the fact is that in ESO they stink. The damage done by such swords is only about 20%-25% higher than a normal one-handed weapon but it seems to swing half as slowly. Thus a single dagger (never mind dual wield) kills things much more quickly than the two-handed giant sword. Dual wield is vastly superior to a two-handed weapon in terms of damage output, and the sword+shield combo is superior in both damage and defense. I also foresee the special ability limitations (5 hot keys) as a huge hindrance but overall I would say that combat was a solid 7/10 with the understanding that it can be better with more exciting and difficult engagements or it can get worse if indeed boredom sets in at higher levels and imbalances are not addressed.
Crafting Although you are placed in the Elder Scrolls world, the game most certainly does not feel like an Elder Scrolls game. In terms of semblance to the single player games, I can site just as many similarities in almost any MMO I have ever played as I could with ESO. Obviously, ESO uses Elder Scrolls naming conventions which serve more as a misnomer since the core mechanics of how everything works is much more MMO than Elder Scrolls, which is not a bad thing on its own. For one thing, most MMOs have more interesting crafting systems than single-player games and ESO is no exception to this rule. Crafting in ESO is more interesting than in Skyrim or Oblivion, but unlike those games, it is not nearly as powerful or advantageous. This is what I mean when I say that it is more like a run-of-the-mill MMO than single player Elder Scrolls, underneath the common vocabulary. In games like Morrowind, I had definite game changing goals (true for all Elder Scrolls games btw) when it came to enchanting, alchemy, or spell making, and I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted (more so in Morrowind than Oblivion or Skyrim). Some of my favorite crafted items were things like a set with 100% Spell Absorption, items with constant Health/Magicka regeneration, spells with both elemental damage over time and weakness at the same time, and powerful potions that let me make even better potions (cough...). Heck, even enchanting items with just plain feather (more carrying capacity) using a Petty Soul Gems was greatly helpful, as was creating more efficient spells and potions with all the ingredients you gather running around. This is not the case in ESO. In ESO, you will never be able to create such powerful gameplay changing items or spells because the options simply do not exist presumably due to game balance issues, and unfortunately, it is exactly these gameplay changing items that make crafting in Elder Scrolls so much fun. Thus crafting in ESO becomes like any other MMO, albeit better than most, but still not as good as EverQuest 2 which employed crafting as a challenging mini-game that could yield variable results based on your efforts. To craft an item in ESO you simply select the item you want, the resources to apply to the item, the "style" of the item, and an optional "perk" (this is not exactly what it was called in-game), then you click the button to automatically make the item. You can create variant qualities of the same base item by applying more resources to it. For instance, you can make an iron sword with 4 iron ingots (refined from iron ore prior) or you can use 10 iron ingots and make it much better. You can also change the look of the sword if you learn other "styles." You can also apply different perks, such as +20 health to items (not to be confused with enchantment), by learning the perk via deconstructing an item that had that perk attached prior. The number of combinations is huge, and make no mistake: it makes a difference in how powerful your character is early in the game but the changes are not so dramatic that it would change your play style as described in the paragraph prior. I am unsure of how it will play out at higher levels due to the level cap on the beta. In the 1st 17 levels, however, crafting was very helpfully, especially since availability of items was limited and drops were random. I assume as the servers age and items become more abundant, most of the crafted goods will lose their value due to ease of attainment and/or become obsolete, and I make this assumption only because it makes sense from a MMO macro-economical perspective. Nonetheless, I enjoyed gathering materials and crafting in ESO just as I have in other MMO's because I enjoy making things. Heck, my birth name literally means 'one who creates' so go figure.
Graphics Graphics are very good, possibly the best of any MMO to date, and the engine is incredibly well optimized. I ran ESO on a mid-line $500 computer with an FX6100 and a Radeon 7770, and the game ran smooth as silk on high settings. There were no hiccups, slow downs, overheating, or anything bad that I could notice. Then again, I never entered an area full of people so it remains to be seen how it will handle in a high population area. Nonetheless, the game looks and runs fantastic and I personally love the more realistic and less cartoonish artistic design, but that's just a personal preference. I should point out that you can set the graphics to ultra high which I did not try (I used the recommended settings) so the game can look even better than I experienced.
Gameplay So this is the most important part of my ESO beta preview and I want to preface it by stating that: 1) I am not grading the game on bugs since it is still in beta; 2) I did not try any PvP in this game nor do I care for PvP in general on any MMORPG. My personal opinion on MMORPG PvP is that it's inherently imbalanced due to the type of players within an MMORPG. Unlike PvP-centric games like Starcraft, League of Legends, or Call of Duty where players are expected to PvP as part of the game, MMORPGs have a huge population of PvE players who simply stink at PvP and cannot compete against organized PvP players nor players that live, breath, and sleep the specific game they PvP in. MMORPG PvP generally devolves into some form of trolling 90% of the time. Thus I simply ignore all PvP in MMOs because I don't want to waste my time. There are other games out there specific to that style of gameplay that attract competitive PvP players and I would rather play them than troll on weaklings or get trolled on by organized guilds or overpowered servers (usually due to player migration), all of which offer no competitive satisfaction at all. To me, a MMORPG is all about a huge open-world with limitless stories, lore, exploration, and the added bonus of cooperating with friends and having an in-game economy (although none have done it well yet).
First the things that I like 1 - Great graphics engine - I don't know why so many other large companies have so much trouble making efficient engines like Bethesda. I also love the art style. Two thumbs up. 2 - I generally enjoyed combat despite small grievances here and there. Sneaking around and backstabbing on my Mage with a bow was great fun. 3 - Character itemization options. My mage wears heavy armor! 4 - Good crafting system.
Despite the positives above, I give ESO average marks and here is why: 1 - Uninteresting characters up to 20 hours into the game that cannot compare to Guild Wars 2, The Old Republic, or single-player Elder Scrolls games. 2 - Very boring storytelling and progression. They need to add a lot more flair to the main story line. 3 - First couple of hours of exploration (assuming you are a new player) are dull and linear. Plenty of MMOs out there do a better job. 4 - Treasure hunts were not nearly as interesting as advertised, or maybe it was just the ones I did. 5 - 5 hot key limit is a huge thumbs down. 6 - $59 + $15 a month is probably no longer reasonable considering it doesn't bring anything new to the genre.
Early in the game, ESO is no Skyrim in terms of opening story, nor is it Morrowind in terms of open-world freedom. It is a bland in-between similar to Oblivion at the start, but even that game had a more engaging starting story and more "gripping" escape (and I say that sarcastically because Oblivion is my least favorite Elder Scrolls game). What is an RPG if not for story, character development, and lore? For an RPG, these are the main catalysts to better gameplay, not a side thought thrown in to appease the twitch gamer, and that is precisely what ESO is missing at this point in time. It's not a bad game, not by a long stretch. In fact, I would say it is probably right there under Guild Wars 2, Rift, Neverwinter, and The Old Republic as the 5th best modern MMO I have played, but the problem is that MMOs have become so generic and repetitive that even being ranked #1 does not mean very much anymore because it means that you are still 90% similar to everyone else on the list. You need to bring something special to the market to stand out, and the only exception to this rule is World of Warcraft due to its legacy and timing into the field (and due to the poor design of EQ2 at launch). For instance, Guild Wars 2 offered no subscriptions at all from launch and has surprisingly good storytelling, as well as other unexpected features like great jumping puzzles and good PvP (I lump World vs. World in here as PvP). The Old Republic offered great storytelling, fun instances, and its currently free to play. Rift is also free and has the best character development system I have seen to date. Neverwinter is free and offers a massive amount of user made content which is interesting, although the rest of the game is lacking. Everquest 2 is also free and has the best crafting system of any MMO I have ever played. Age of Conan still has the best combat system of any MMO, and is also free to play. Even EVE Online (which is a festering troll pit of people with 20 accounts each) has something unique in its economy simulation, albeit the rest of the game is very boring. What does ESO bring to the table that is unique aside from better graphics? This is a hard question to answer and even harder to bypass when you take into account that it requires a monthly fee on top of the $59 purchase. I would love to be playing ESO on release, but I definitely do not recommend paying the full price for the game plus monthly fees on top. I would wait until ESO is free to play and just play one of the many great alternative MMO's available to you. The wildcard here, however, is consoles. This is by far the best MMO to ever hit consoles and that has its own implications. If you are a console only gamer, then ESO is definitely a big two thumbs up. Get it and enjoy your first true, full-featured MMO... not that Final Fantasy Online was horrible, but it just isn't very good in comparison. Elder Scrolls Online Beta

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