The will likely be spoilers, but should I talk about something super new I'll warn ya. But consider this a pre-emptive warning! You're WARNED!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tamriel with Friends

After a year of existence–and fair-to-middling reviews–in the realm of "personal" "computers", The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has arrived on consoles. I consider myself to be a pretty big Elder Scrolls nerd (well, as big a nerd as one can be when one discovered the Elder Scrolls with Oblivion, anyway) and I was so excited I pre-ordered and pre-loaded that shit. Mind, when the game launched at midnight on June 9th, the servers were so flooded I couldn't play. In fact I couldn't play until sometime the next evening and that was super frustrating but it's fine now so let's not dredge up bad memories, hmm?

I've played a shit ton–nay, a metric fuck ton–of Oblivion and Skyrim. I am a total sucker for open world gaming, and there's not much that pleases me more than exploration. Wandering a world, discovering landmarks, descending into caves, solving mysteries...I cannot get enough. I cannot! The structure in Elder Scrolls games is loose; sure, there's a main quest line, but you don't have to actually do it. These are role-playing games in the truest sense, because you can basically do whatever the hell you want.

I made one of my characters a total "tomb raider". She lived to uncover the hidden places, to find untold treasure and learn about the past. I enforced plenty of restrictions in that playthrough:

  • she couldn't join any guilds or follow the main story at all
  • she couldn't fast travel (that is, she couldn't warp from one place to another...instead, she had to walk or hire a carriage)
  • she had to adhere to a somewhat normal schedule–this meant finding an inn or campsite and sleeping at night, as well as eating regular meals
  • for maximum nerdery, I only used the fold-out paper map that came with the game–no fancy in-game maps for this character so cool, I know
  • no magic use allowed–bows and daggers or swords only
Another character could only use magic. She was an evil outcast full of nothing but rage, a lust for power, and murderous thoughts. She helped very few people on her journeys, and when she did, she bilked them for all they were worth. Her only goal was to rise to the top of both the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood (the assassins guild), and to incessantly harass a shopkeeper who sassed her. Every night, I would sneak into the bunkhouse where the shopkeeper slept. I'd pick her pockets clean, then go rob her shop. Every night. 

For all of my playthroughs, I turn off the game's music and turn up the sound effects. The crunch of my footfalls on dirt...the different crunch of my footfalls on snow...the patter of raindrops on leaves...wind howling through a bend in a long-forgotten crypt...the conversation between two bandits somewhere further on in a cave...all of it added to the immersion, the feeling that my characters were truly inhabiting a living, breathing world.

So along comes Elder Scrolls Online and it's time to dive back into Tamriel. As I said, I was wicked excited and my nerd senses were a-tinglin'. I thought long and hard about what kind of character I would make, which of the game's three Alliances I would join. I love sneaking, busting out my bow, and eliminating threats before those threats even know I'm there, so I created a wood elf and joined the Aldmeri Dominion, which unites Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. I was ready!

Or, I thought I was. Duh fucking DUH, Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO. It's online. It's right there in the title! I got that because, like, I know how to read. What I didn't get was how much it would change the Elder Scrolls as I know it. 

Basically there are a zillion other folks running around with you–other Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. And Orcs. And Nords, and Dunmer, and Bretons, get the idea. So what does this do to your game?

Well, let's say you're tasked with entering a cave, collecting ten samples of Whatever, and killing the Head Necromancer in Charge. Cool! Standard RPG stuff. So you get in the cave, ready to sneak on through and–oh. Someone runs by you and engages the enemy you were going to quietly assassinate. Okay. That someone–you see their screen name emblazoned over their head, so let's call them MuffDiver69, because that's the kind of user name you'll see, which is great for immersion–kills the enemy, nabbing all the XP that comes with victory. Then they nab the Whatever that drops, so you need to wait for the enemy to respawn and hope that you get the goods this time.

You make your way to the boss's chamber, and five people–MuffDiver69, I_Teabagged_UR_Mom, whofarted, 420blazeit, and xxxDeAtHdEaLeR666xxx–have almost killed the Head Necromancer in Charge. You get a snippet of dialogue from the big bad so you kind of know what's going on. Now you have to wait for the Head Necromancer in Charge to respawn, and you notice that bodies don't fade. This means that there are three dead Head Necromancers in Charge on the ground as the one you need to kill reappears in front of you. 

And so on. That's the way it goes. It's an MMO.

While that makes the idea of immersion a joke and leads to a lot of oh my fucking god will you please get out of my way "I_Pooped" and let me do this thing I need to do, it also leads to stuff like this, the appeal of which cannot be denied.

I mean, you just don't get impromptu underwear dance parties with strangers in Skyrim, you know? Not to mention the background chaos: people riding horses through town, running around, shooting fireballs, being chased by their pet panthers. This encapsulates ESO pretty perfectly, which is to say your Elder Scrolls expectations need to be tempered. Your enjoyment of the game will likely be equivalent with how okay you are with this sort of thing.

So if you're totally okay with it, what of the gameplay itself? What is there to do? Holy shit, there is so much to do. The quests aren't always particularly deep–you'll frequently run into some variety of "Help me, adventurer! Will you gather ten plants/kill the bandits/find my brother?"–you know, fetch quests and the such. However, that doesn't mean they're not often interesting. For example, at the end of one minor quest, my partner and I agonized over a particular decision–whether to kill an NPC or let her go–for a good five minutes. We debated the repercussions of each option, weighed them...and ultimately the result had no bearing on anything beyond that quest. But the discussion it sparked between us made it memorable.

There's also a lot of humor, and most of the billions of NPCs have personalities. Even throwaway moments are well-written, and that can go a long, long way in a game like this.

Many of the standard Elder Scrolls hallmarks are here–crafting, cooking, enchanting, alchemy–and they're all as in-depth than you could hope for, if not more so. There are so many skills, abilities, and perks that it's quite intimidating at first–how can you possibly unlock them all? Then you remember that the game is essentially endless, that if you're in, you're in for the long haul. You can join guilds, team up with others, or play nearly all of the game solo. Or, as solo as you can be in a massively multiplayer experience. There's also the PvP realm that pits the various Alliances against one another. I haven't checked that out yet, and frankly I'm not in any rush to.

I've got too many necromancers to kill, unless of course Missed_Da_Toilet gets there first, or I get distracted by an underwear dance party. Tamriel. It's a living, breathing world!


John LaTour said...

I bought this game a couple of months ago on PC, once they announced that the subscription fee was going away. Unfortunately, I haven't played it since. Didn't care for "phasing". Gets old fast when the rest of your group can't help fight an enemy standing in front of you if they don't happen to be immediately in sync story-wise. Unsure if they've made changes since...

Sounds like a non-issue if you're soloing or playing in lock-step with someone though, so I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it. (Makes me wonder if it would have made a difference if one of you had killed that NPC and the other didn't.)

I went back to Rift, but plan on making it back to Tamriel. Eventually. Meanwhile, pass the salty omlettes. :^P

Stacie Ponder said...

From what I understand, there have been a lot of changes since the game launched on PC. I don't know what that means specifically, so I guess it's not really a very helpful thing for me to say, ha!

I have a character in one Alliance I use to play with people, and another I'm playing solo. The one I'm playing solo is *much* better in terms of story and connecting with the game. Even if I'm in a group and my teammates and I are doing the same quest at the same time, it's like you're NOT doing it at the same time. I can turn in a quest while my teammate is halfway across the map doing something else. You share XP but not loot drops. It's all very strange–you're kind of sort of together, but not really–and when playing that character I basically have to not care, if you know what I mean. It's more for screwing around, not for getting super into the story. Such a weird game. Or I'm weird...I'm not really an MMO type, after all.

John LaTour said...

I hear you. I've played over 100 hours of Rift and couldn't tell you one thing about the story because I play in a group. Groups have no time to read. Groups need to finish the next quest. (Certain members of groups need to go to bed early because they're old and need to go to work in the morning.*)

Which isn't a bad thing, but this is an Elder Scrolls game. Those offline roots are hard to shake, so that and the phasing can't help but make it feel more solo-focused.

*Definitely not me. Totally someone else.

CashBailey said...

You have to admire the guts it takes for people to still be putting out MMOs. They are extremely expensive and time-consuming to make and you're throwing it out into a market that really belongs to one game. Even the last STAR WARS one died a pretty quick death.

I played AGE OF CONAN for a while and really liked it. Then I went to GUILD WARS 2, which I still play occasionally.

If I remember rightly Curt Schilling's $50 million fiasco KINGDOMS OF AMALUR was originally intended as an MMO. Then at some point it was decided to just release as a third-person hack-and-slash. Nobody cared.

Stacie Ponder said...

No kidding! An MMO is a GD commitment. Developers need to keep it engaging for players, and players need to...well, keep playing. When I browse the Crown Store (where you can spend real-life dough for fake-life items), I think "Holy crap, who is paying like $10 for a horse?" when I SHOULD think, "Thank Jebus there are people who pay $10 for a horse!" because they're the ones who keep the game alive.

I actually liked Amalur, although it definitely felt like a solo MMO. I thought it was a tad interesting, pretty to look at, and the amount of content was staggering (especially since i think I spent $20 on it). But even for all that content, it was so shallow! ESO has that same issue (see: the quest we agonized over that ultimately meant nothing), but it's well-written so the flaws aren't as apparent. And the Elder Scrolls lore is so friggin' in depth that the "move to an area, do fetch quests, move to new area" doesn't feel *quite* as shallow to me.

CashBailey said...

Stacie, has THE WITCHER series sucked you in yet?

I think THE WITCHER 3 may be the game of the decade for me. It's staggeringly vast, brilliantly written and absolutely gorgeous, especially on a decent (though far from top-of-the-line) PC like mine.

I'd be keen to hear your thoughts if you';d played any of these games yet.

Stacie Ponder said...

I played Witcher II (on Xbox 360) and liked it so much more than I was anticipating! I thought the story was terrific and intriguing, surprisingly so. I was hesitant because I'm honestly not terribly interested in playing the "grizzled straight white dude" much anymore, especially when it comes to RPGs. While I have loved plenty of games with that kind of protagonist (Halo, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Red Dead Redemption, etc etc.), they're just not my go-to right away. But I'm definitely glad I picked up Witcher II.

While the depiction of women in the series is pretty iffy, I'm looking forward to playing III eventually. I *know* it's going to be fantastic (and I can't wait to play as Ciri)...I'm probably going to wait for a price drop or GOTY edition since I know there are a few major expansions on the horizon. It'll put me way behind the curve, unfortunately, but I've got ESO, Fallout 4 (in November OH GOD I CAN'T WAIT), and a fairly large backlog to tide me over in the meantime.