until I took a Dark Anchor to the knee

I said before that I was done with Guild Wars 2 for a while. I’ve been playing some Dirt Rally with the XBox controller, and have found it a good time. Still thinking about whether to sell off the wheel or hang onto it.

I gave Rift another try, and didn’t last long in the tutorial before deciding it just felt too clunky and I wasn’t enamored with the idea of dealing with its skill system. I also gave Lord of the Rings Online a brief try with my spouse, and just wasn’t into it. I seem to measure every MMO against the extremely smooth and slick GW2 experience, and most of them come up short.

I wound up going for Elder Scrolls Online instead. Everything I’d read promised an experience similar to the single-player Elder Scrolls games: extremely solo-friendly, very strong in world-building and story, the right blend of action and not being too twitchy, interesting crafting and many ways to play. And it’s true. If anything the characters and plots are more interesting in ESO than I remember from Oblivion (I never played Skyrim for some reason).

Molag Bal is watching.

I started three different characters on the first day, thinking I was going to stick with a staff-wielding orcish Dragon Knight whose direct approach to combat (and everything else) is the opposite of most of my prior characters. But then as I understood the systems a little better, I started a fourth, a bow-wielding Bosmer Nightblade, and I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

ESO’s combat system is a little unusual, and made to be console-friendly without being too dumbed down. The skill bar only has 5 skills plus an “ultimate”, but weapon(s) (including magical staves, which are primarily ranged) can do light and heavy attacks, blocks, interrupts, etc. Like GW2, enemy area attacks project red danger zone indicators onto the ground — but these can move, change size and shape, and spawn new zones, keeping you more on your toes.

The skill system is pretty open-ended; you can choose skills from a set of three class skill trees, or from weapons, armor, your race, the Fighters or Mages’ guilds, and so on. Not all skills are combat-related; some affect dialog, finding crafting materials, picking pockets and so on. Any class can use any weapon style, can freely train in Stamina, Magica and/or Health, and can set themselves up as a damage dealer, tank, healer / support character, etc. as they see fit. (Staves come in “destruction” and “restoration” varieties with different skill sets available on them.)

Overall the gameplay feels exciting without necessarily being as dangerous as many MMOs. Level scaling is in effect in most of the world, so you can just follow storylines and know you won’t be way over your head. This is also kind of a downside since you can’t really challenge yourself that much. But mostly it suits the way I want to play.

Downsides?

  • The brief combat tutorial didn’t quite make it clear to me how the game signals which attacks can be blocked, which can be interrupted, and which require a dodge. Sometimes the game will prompt you with text popups, sometimes not. As a highly mobile ranged attacker, I often find stepping outside visible danger zones is more effective than blocking anyway.
  • Kiting doesn’t work very well in some areas. I’m used to some enemies in GW2 giving up the chase and running back to home territory, healing rapidly; in ESO sometimes they just disappear instead. Sometimes their territory is significantly smaller than max bow range. There was one quest step where I had to resummon a particular daedra four times before my movement didn’t just make him vanish.
  • Sometimes, the single-player aspect of much of the gameplay collides with the fact that it’s an MMO. Usually this works well and people see their own versions of events, NPCs present or absent as it should be for your storyline. Once in a while there are snags.
  • Inventory space is limited, and like every Elder Scrolls game, you will want to pick up and carry a ton of stuff. In ESO this is mainly about crafting items. There’s blacksmithing, woodworking, clothing/leatherworking, cooking, alchemy, enchanting, and furnishings; each has different raw materials, style materials, trait materials, other enhancements, and the goods themselves which you probably want to save to break down into raw materials (which can also teach you how they’re made, increasing your skill). It’s very easy to fill your backpack and/or bank with this stuff. The crafting bag that ESO+ subscribers get may be its biggest perk, and indeed that makes me think crafting/items were intentionally meant to sell subscriptions. I’m considering it (you can pause and unpause the subscription if you go through periods of not playing, like I have with GW2).
  • There are an absolute ton of quests, which is great. But the map system has some disconnects that make managing them difficult. You can’t zoom directly from a local map to the world level, and the name of your current region isn’t shown anywhere [I found it, it’s over in a corner; this does help a bit]. The list of locations doesn’t include city names but region names. Even major cities and points of interest aren’t labeled on the world map. So if you want to teleport to Vulkhel Guard, you have to know what region it’s in (it took a while before I remembered this) or at least start from where it is on the world map (I forget) or poke around randomly until you find it. To add to this, often quests will fast-travel you by cart, boat or portal to some other part of the world — taking you away from other quests in the area you also wanted to finish. And the quest journal doesn’t really keep a history of what you’ve done in the quest so far, just what your next step is. I guess taking copious notes might help, but mostly you just have to embrace the chaos.

ESO is fully voice acted, and oh boy is it voice acted. Malcolm McDowell and Lynda Carter are Daedric princes Molag Bal and Azura. Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy are royalty. John Cleese is a knight. Tara Strong is a few voices. And I’m sure people more familiar with Hollywood would recognize a lot more names.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, my previous job was as one of the main developers of HeroEngine (particularly the world-building tools, and several graphical elements). Zenimax, the development studio behind ESO, was one of our licensees. Apparently when it first was announced that ESO was going to use HeroEngine there were some gamers whining that it was going to be (A) just like Star Wars: The Old Republic and (B) horribly broken.

To that I respond: (A) the point of a game development platform is that the developers can concentrate on game content, which means all of the mechanics, all of the story, all of the sound, the GUI, nearly all of the art (they might use a few standard textures for grass or tree bark or something if they choose). (B) When BioWare Austin licensed HeroEngine, it wasn’t even ready for beta yet, we told them as much, they acknowledged it and were desperate to have it anyway because they wanted to get to market quickly; so they bought a source code license to our unfinished product, forked it and bolted on a bunch of other stuff in a half-assed rushed way, and never fully accepted any updates from us as we completed it and made drastic improvements. And that became their game, which was slowly patched into something more functional over the years.

And also (C) Zenimax started extremely small. They were using HeroEngine as a prototyping and area construction tool — which it was extremely suited for — while growing their staff and developing their own totally custom engine which used many of the same features and third-party libraries, but was entirely under their control. And they had the budget to make it really shine and work extremely smoothly. (HeroEngine always had a shoestring budget, and let’s also remember it was begun in the early 2000s several generations of hardware ago.)

However, playing ESO I recognize a few influences from HeroEngine and the sample content we had created for it. The triangular face/body shape controls in character creation. The way grass seems to work (they’re probably still using a variant of my shader). The strange way that characters jumping sometimes “hover” in a knees-up position until they find valid ground to land on (something we improved on later, as I recall). But there’s also no doubt that what’s in the game now is very polished and well tuned overall.

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