I know, I know... I said I wouldn't touch "The Elder Scrolls Online"(ESO) with something like a half-mile long pole. The journalism student in me couldn't stand passing up a shot at further supporting my claims though, so when I lazily entered Game Informer's giveaway and somehow won I knew what I had to do. Yep, sit down and play it for hours. Woe is me. Hopefully this blog can give the people who didn't get hands on time some idea of how things are coming along in the space.

Also I'm terribly sorry if the screenshots I use aren't topical to the section they head. I've been very sick for most of the last week, and chose to sleep for most of the last day of the beta. You can, however, view giant versions by clicking them.

Things Likely To Be Fixed

I don't really have any interest in paying for ESO, but I'm a fair minded person. I'm more than willing to overlook things the developers will probably fix by the time the game releases, but I will point them out as something to keep an eye out for when the game releases in roughly a month.

In one of the more glaring issues, a lot of elements simply stopped working. Many players got stuck in the unstable conversation screens, forcing a reload of the entire game's UI using a command prompt. The issue dominated chat in most areas, and without people who knew the command prompt the beta would have been unplayable. I'm a little bit worried a command prompt for reloading the entire UI was necessary, and really hope it's only there as part of the beta.

A handful of key quests simply refused to spawn bosses for most people, resulting in a bunch of people waiting around spawns. The broken quests go hand-in-hand with occasionally out of sync enemies; in most cases their death simply hadn't been properly registered, but it made for some frustrating mission moments. One particularly broken quest, "Trail through Mistral," was more of a problem. It lacked useful quest dialogue of any kind, and like the UI issues would have been impossible to navigate if people who knew it weren't present - it wouldn't have been much of an issue if the quest didn't gate access to the first large zone.

Outside of those two big bugs, there were some smaller issues. Audio volume dipping randomly, visited locations not registering on the map, and general performance issues while in town were common but in most cases small or otherwise expected from an unfinished product. The beta was widely rumored to be exactly the same build large publications were given permission to cover a few weeks ago, so I'm fairly certain most of these bugs have already been addressed.

[Reference the image above for an example of something I expect to be fixed. My character sits on the left, an NPC to the right.]

Player Characters and Crafting

The game's crafting system is by far it's biggest asset at this point. It's a hyper-streamlined take on the crafting from "Skyrim" accessible almost immediately thanks to`abundant materials. The interface is relatively easy to navigate, as well as one of the only systems to avoid large blocks of text or direction users to consult the built-in help database. I'd go as far as saying ESO's crafting system is the best I've personally seen in an MMO so far, though my experience with MMOs is limited to what I've looked into regarding some of the earlier games. Unfortunately, the system only seems to exist to draw attention away from how busted the game's economy is - I'll touch on that later though.

Player characters are hit or miss, as are the designs of what they wear. My wood-elf rogue turned out well after the random generation spit out something I thought fit the class and character. I was surprised at how much shorter she was than the tallest characters, but proportionally she looked completely fine. Proportions probably sound like an odd thing to point out, but the character creator allows some pretty strange appearances. My large character's clothes didn't look right while running around, and the thin characters the randomizing engine spat out were absurdly skinny. The Elder Scrolls has never had spot on believable proportions for its characters, but even by the series' standards ESO seems a bit off base.

The beta's armors and clothing were mostly bland. Outside of the armor of the second large area's queen NPC, no other gear stood out to me as particularly good looking. For some reason ESO fell into the standard fantasy MMO trope of female characters baring skin for no apparent reason. It's only on a couple pieces, but the decision seems odd. One set looks like what I can only describe as long underwear no one should be wearing into a fight, and the second looks like a normal set of armor with just the stomach section of the front cut out. There isn't an egregious amount of similar designs, but it's odd they'd even include it at all.

Player Versus Player(PVP)

PVP is unabashedly the ESO's favorite talking point. It's the basis for the game's flashy CG trailer, which features characters from different factions meeting on the battlefield. There's a whole section of the UI dedicated just to managing and tracking the 90 day PVP campaigns. At first glance it's a great system. There's useful information readily available, things are clearly explained, and jumping into it immediately gives impressions of a game like "Planetside 2." It wants to have big battles between lots of players across multiple points where conflict can be waged like a military campaign.

It's broken though. So broken it made enough of impression for me to pull it out of the section of things I expect to be fixed by launch. It's been a long time since I've played anything so dysfunctional, and it's especially surprising from a game already set up to handle large numbers of people - not to mention one set to launch in a month. It has all of the problems of "Planetside 2," but I've never once seen more than a fraction of the people "Planetside 2" battles play host to. From a design standpoint it seems almost impossible to get from place to place in a timely manner, and a lot of my time was spent running slowly to the closes contested area or wayshrine - even on one of the most populated PVP servers.

When large groups did amass, the game devolved into nonsense. I originally expected archery to be a problem because of how arrows track to their targets and what advantage might be afforded to ranged players over their rather prevalent melee counterparts. Instead, what I found was a complete inability to even fire arrows in heavy combat as the game almost completely locked up. When my weapon did fire I was limited to letting the modest lock-on system do all the work as I blindly fired in the general direction of enemies who lurched around unpredictably. Even though my 50mbps internet connection is now provided by Comcast, the lag I experienced is still absurd.

Gameplay and Story

Mechanically I came away from the beta nuetral; it didn't turn me off to the game, but as I theorized in my previous ESO blog it doesn't feel like "The Elder Scrolls." The biggest hole is in exploration, there's just not a lot there. The first substantial zone I encountered covered what I estimated to be about the distance between the two parallel mountain ranges the city of Whiterun sits between in "Skyrim." Despite being fairly large, and varied in terrain, there's not much reason to go anywhere unless a quest sends you there. Exploration nets only resources for crafting, and the entire space housed only about 10 mapped locations with little of note in the surrounding area.

The quests felt like a guided tour more than anything. They were excuses to send me to a new place, and throw me against an hour long world-building runaround. Their accompanying writing was hit or miss. I enjoyed some well written moments from main questlines, but was unimpressed by the overarching narrative tying everything together. Those familiar with the story of "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning" will find ESO's narrative surprisingly similar, but most likely stringy in the context of an MMO.

Combat also doesn't feel like an "Elder Scrolls" game, which may be a good thing for those who loathe the series' combat. Personally, I didn't have any problem with the systems in "Oblivion" or "Skyrim," and didn't have much of an issue with the beta's systems either. ESO is certainly more streamlined than its single-player brethren, but at the same time it lacks the responsiveness of "Skyrims" quick-slots. It's MMO meat-and-potatoes, minus an auto-attack function to ward off carpal tunnel.

Only two of these characters are part of the quest, and none of them are mine.

Where the gameplay falls apart is in how it handles player interaction, and as with PVP it handles how players affect the world rather poorly at the moment. In a game mobbed by the droves of people they likely expect at launch, many of the quests were utterly broken thanks to a lack of instancing. When I happened upon a quest at the same time as a large number of other players, it never failed to devolve into a frantic fight for spawning mobs. One quest in particular, which tasked players with saving villagers from the bandits attacking their settlement, devolved into an hour and a half long log jam of players. In other cases, the marauding bands of players made quests as simple as standing in one spot watching. Problems also arose when no one was around, with the quests balanced towards multiple people completing them alone was often extremely difficult.

The lack of instancing frustratingly spilled over into things like resource points and chests. It wasn't uncommon to spot a resource iron ore only to watch someone else rush in and take it, causing it to disappear for everyone nearby. Even more frustrating were the chests, which can be stolen by other players who run up and jam on the interact button. When players fail a lock pick, they're given a cool-down. Having a chest stolen by a cherry-picking jerk was easily as frustrating as any of the game's bugs and I really don't see a reason for the approach as the chests provide items of only slightly higher value.

The only instanced areas I found were part of a pair of quests, and seemed specifically balanced for groups despite giving no indication of the need for other players in the quest description. Despite being two levels higher than recommended at the time I attempted them, I was systematically annihilated by a final group of enemies or boss after handling the rather easy minions before them. A similar lack of necessary quest information plagued a good portion of the rest of the game.

Player interactions aren't the only problems with gameplay. The economy of the game is horribly balanced, and the developers' promise of being able to fast-travel at will was at best an insultingly veiled PR stunt. Loot sells to vendors for a pittance, a whole haul of what I felt comfortable selling rarely covered the price of using the fast-travel once. Also helping gum up the fast-travel is a relatively slow movement speed, with the different between running and sprinting in first-person view all but nonexistent. Players who choose to make use of fast travel to circumvent that slow movement would likely find themselves penniless. The methods used to slow players down seem surprisingly similar those used in free-to-play MMOs, which is more than annoying to see a game as pricey as ESO.

Overall, I came away from the ESO beta moderately surprised at some elements, and completely confused by even more. It feels like a game designed from a years-old MMO template. I got the impression ESO has put itself in a hole similar to the one my character is hiding in above, and as a result of more than just its price. There's interesting ideas in the game, and no reason the basic concept couldn't work, but it feels like they've still got a long way to go. I hope they get things running smoothly though, because there's no reality in which another strong MMO is a bad thing.

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