Well I played through four beta rounds of Elder Scrolls Online, the newest big time Massive Multiplayer Online Game coming out. Its meant to be set in the same world as Elder Scrolls games such as Skyrim, Oblivion, and Morrowind, all award winning, very fun games.
Having played through these beta rounds with different characters and races, I have a basic handle on the game and how it plays. I did not get a character past level 15, nor did I play any PVP so I can't say what the high level content is like or what killing other player characters is like.
My basic analysis is that this game will start out charging people to play and within 6 months will start to retool so that it becomes free to play. They should get a huge initial surge of interest just based on how incredibly good Skyrim is, but it will tail off rapidly as people play the game.
Perhaps its because I've played MMOGs since Ultima Online back in 1997 (and beta tested it), or perhaps its because I have been an Elder Scrolls game since the first one Arena way back in 1994, but I am deeply disappointed with ESO.
There were several key components of what made up an Elder Scrolls game and set it apart from other fantasy games, and none of those are really present in the online version. The flexibility in character creation is very limited, the flexibility with magic is nonexistent, and the freedom and open world to explore is functional but meaningless.
There are aspects I enjoyed and admire in ESO. They have moved away from the dumbing down and overly simplistic aspects of some games like World of Warcraft. The graphics are simply jaw dropping, and they did retain a lot of the surface aspects of Elder Scrolls such as the curious and quirky racial differences.
The game could have been magnificent but they missed the mark on so many levels its just frustrating and disappointing. In order for this game to be a big hit and succeed as a pay platform, it had to be better than WoW, the present king of the hill. And they aren't. In fact, I don't see this one doing even as well as Star Wars: The Old Republic.
So here's my analysis of the game, now that the agreement to keep the details secret has been lifted. A lot of this is going to be inside baseball, but if you're still reading you probably are a player so it shouldn't matter.
- It doesn't feel like Elder Scrolls to me, and this is a killer in its self. Yes, it has some of the trappings, but it is missing a lot of the very basic concepts and feel of the single player games. This isn't a consequence of being changed to a multiplayer version, its a loss of the basic weave of the games and universe. I get that they can't make things as flexible, but they abandoned flexibility almost entirely. I get that they don't want to set it at the current era of the games, but setting this game thousands of years in the past separates you from any feel of the single player games. This game isn't being produced by Bethesda, who are brilliant, but by Zenimax, who aren't as brilliant and don't quite have that feeling right.
- The interface is horrible. I understand why they were trying to make it unique and uncluttered, but the real reason is because a console controller has 1/20th the buttons a computer keyboard has, and they want it to come out for console easily and smoothly as well as PC. You can feel the frustration and limitation almost immediately and its such an integral part of the game I cannot see any change in this whatsoever. Having only 6 hot buttons for all your dozens of skills is incredibly frustrating and pointlessly limited. If you can pause the game and choose abilities, this can work, but when everything is happening in real time, you just cannot do it. Its just terrible.
- The character design choices are just awful. They abandoned even the principle of basic archetypes and came up with their own sort of mixed confusing ones that do not feel intuitive or have any sort of hook that helps people get into the game right away. Dragon Knight? Templar? Nightblade? Sorcerer is sort of familiar, at least. But these classes attempt to encompass every character build ever by the use of talents and the results are not very attractive. You can make a wizard, a thief and a warrior type easily, but other build concepts work less well (druid, priest, ranger, etc). I do not know what they were thinking with this. I guess I see why they don't want people making their own character class because the myth of class balance dominates game designers and PVP (which is going to be their main pull for the game, I suspect), but the direction they went was ridiculous.
- Starting your character as The Chosen One who is unique and must save the world unlike all others works great for single player games, even if its a bit overused. But in a MMOG? Where there are 1500 other Chosen Ones in the game at the same time with you? Grouping up with 3 other chosen ones? It just is ridiculous. I suppose this was their attempt to make it feel more like Elder Scrolls games that always start this way, but that's like building your game world out of felt to make a game feel like billiards.
- Talent points are the computer game way of letting players customize their character, and it can be a good system. WoW has all but abandoned the concept as being too much work and too hard to balance, but it is something players like and welcome. But they only work if you can tell what is coming up next, not just what you can choose immediately. If you cannot see further down the road, you have no clue what to build toward, because talent systems are like a tree. In ESO, you can "morph" skills to do something different, but have no idea what's coming next, so you have a hard time choosing what to "morph" of your many skills. Eventually people will get it all documented online anyway, so why not just show what it is up front?
- The tradeskills system is pretty good, and you can make decent items. You don't even have to destroy things to make others in a ridiculous cannibalizing sytem, although you can if you want. The problem is that the same points that go into expanding and specializing your trade skill abilities... are the ones you use to get better at fighting. And you only get so many points: one a level, plus a scattering of some for quests and some from finding items in the world. If you are faced with a choice of "be better at weaving" and "be better at surviving in the world" which is the obvious choice for an adventurer? The simple answer is to give characters points only for trades, but that's not in the works and I doubt it will happen. There were other minor annoying aspects but the basic system is broken as it stands.
- They tried to make combat exciting by designing it to be as dynamic as possible. The problem is, they way they came up with fixing this means that every enemy has special maneuvers that you have to use buttons to try to counter or move out of (fast, instantly even, or you get hit). This is okay for special enemies and bosses, but when a damned rat has some special squeak AE template, its gone too far. Its tiring just to fight monsters and focus so you don't get in the Bad Stuff. To make matters matters worse, the Good Stuff looks the same on the ground as Bad Stuff, so a heal freaks out the whole group.
- Oh, and to address concerns that combat didn't seem "weighty" enough, like your enemies weren't solid, ESO designers came up with the brilliant solution of giving NPCs "collision." What this means in game terms is that they can block you off, you cannot walk through them. While this seems realistic, it was abandoned by game designers ten years ago for a very simple reason: that way characters don't get jammed into locations by NPCs and blocked off, unable to move, leave a room, or maneuver. This is a constant annoyance in Elder Scrolls games to begin with, but at least in those you aren't paying to play every minute and can use a console command to slip out. Just a bad idea they will reverse in time.
- Its very difficult to identify who is friend and foe. Its even hard to follow your friends because you have no minimap and they could be anyone on the screen. If you aren't looking, or they're behind you and you go one direction and they go another... they're just gone. The area is cluttered enough you cannot see easily where they are. This is a real problem. I understand not wanting the "radar" minimap thing showing where people are like you have as satellite feed, but this went too far. Without some kind of voice over internet system to talk, you can easily split up and lose each other.
- After playing 4 beta tests now, several of the same bugs that were in the first beta are in the third, and that does NOT bode well for release next month. This game should be almost perfect by this point - or close enough you barely notice its a beta. Locking up talking to a banker is completely unacceptable. NPCs who will not spawn so you can finish a quest is completely unacceptable. The same quests bugged after months of beta testing is unacceptable.
- You cannot solo in some builds. Whether this is poor choice of skills or just a design flaw isn't sure, but a healer has no chance of soloing, and that's just a stupid, old design flaw games left behind 10 years ago. People cannot always rely on having friends around or getting a group, and may not want to always have a group. There has to be a way to play the game without support people around you at all times. They tried to address this by giving healers the ability to swap to combat build with a swap of staves but because the talent and skill points make so much difference, focusing on healing makes you incompetent as a fighter.
- One of the most annoying aspects, however, is the reverse of the solo problem. In a Massive Multiplayer Online Game, the whole concept is grouping up with people and helping each other out. And joining a class-based in-game guild is supposed to be about working together with fellow members of that class. When I join the Fighters Guild that's meant to be an effort you all work together in for the same goals and to help each other. So what does ESO do? Launch you in class guild quests that you have to do solo. You cannot take a group member along with you, its all by yourself. You get no help from your guild, you're all alone. To make matters worse, some of these quests are incredibly difficult for the target class to solo. Mages guild quest? Very hard for a mage to do. I'm fine with that kind of thing... after a while, when you're really powerful. But for the first quest you get??
- Then there are little, annoying things that wouldn't amount to enough to kill the game on their own, but pile on like Nelson showing up and laughing at you. For one example, lockpicking is very annoying. Instead of being based on your character's skill at picking locks, its a minigame that tests the player's skill at playing the little game. Again, this is a role playing game, in theory, so I'm playing a character with abilities and skills which I personally lack. This is simply ridiculous.
Overall? Very pretty, they worked hard at it, it can be enjoyable enough when the game works, and there were a lot of moments I had fun with the NPCs and their antics, but... not good enough to pay for. And unless they fix some very basic flaws and bugs not good enough to play for free. So very disappointing. I had hoped for so much more and got so much less.
Incidentally, I expect the game will do fairly well on console as a sort of fantasy alternative to the various modern and WW2 combat games. From what I've seen the PVP group abilities to beseige castles and so on look pretty engaging and well done, so I think it likely that while the actual game will be not very popular, the "lets get together and kill each other on my X-Box" part will keep players in it.