Thursday, 21 June 2012

E3: The Elder Scrolls Online - Preview

When the announcement for Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) was made, the Internet seemed to give a collective shrug.  "This has been done before," the complaints went.  "I liked this when it was called World of WarCraft."  It wasn't quite fear and loathing, but it wasn't precisely a warm welcome, either.  At E3, we were treated to a longer non-interactive demo of the game, and from what I can tell, it's not going to be another mindless WoW clone.

To be fair, ESO could rightly be argued as a clone, but it would be cloning an older and more venerable MMO, Dark Age of Camelot.  And it's not surprising, since there are former members of Mythic working on the development team.  While we didn't get a good look at everything that ESO has to offer, there was quite a bit on the world itself and some details on the combat.  There was enough there to discourage further comparisons to WoW, and potentially invite comparisons to both DAoC and Guild Wars 2.

Forget those early screenshots that were released.  Forget everything that came prior to E3.  Instead, think back to your experiences with previous entries in The Elder Scrolls series, particularly Morrowind and Skyrim.  For those three or four people who haven't played those games, please do yourself the favor of obtaining those titles and playing through.  You're going to have plenty of time.  As for the rest of us, think about all of those collapsed Daedric shrines, the towers and keeps that had fallen into disrepair, the Ayleid and Dwemer ruins that begged us to go exploring and fighting and looting.  Now imagine that a good portion of those structures are not ruins, but fully functional buildings, ones that have an ongoing purpose in the game, with NPCs instead of mere roaming monsters.  There will be areas like that, of course, but they won't all have that feeling of being disused for centuries.  Some of them might well have only been recently vacated.

Visually, the engine doesn't quite look like it's been fully optimized, but it does look great.  Some folks might be expecting Skyrim-grade graphics on an MMO.  I think they're dreaming for the moment.  Any graphics engine for an MMO is going to have to balance speed versus performance.  Right now, they're getting the speed side of things handled, but even at this stage, the performance is still quite good.  How good, you may ask?  Good enough that I could easily recognize locations from previous games without going, "Where is this?"  Good enough that all of the character models they showed off from the various races look like they actually belong in the world and not just "Random Fantasy Race #7."  When they get the final polish on this thing, I'm going to be very excited.

Combat is one of those things in an MMO that many try to get just right.  Far too often, it devolves into standing around until you or the monster you've currently got targeted drops.  Zenimax is looking to have a more active combat system in ESO, but the details weren't exactly overflowing.  It's hard to say whether it will be closer to Guild Wars 2 with lots of dodging and position changes, or if it will be more like Age of Conan with various angles and attack types.

In the larger scheme of things, conflict and battle will extend to the macro scale with "realm vs. realm" combat.  Just as RvR combat was a major part of DAoC, it will play a large role in ESO.  Long time players of the series know that the Empire wasn't always the continent spanning edifice that it ultimately became.

For those whose exposure has been limited to Skyrim, the worship of Talos was a central theme in the game, since the warrior Talos would later be known to Tamriel's history as Tiber Septim, the man who forged the Empire and founded the Septim dynasty.

ESO takes place before the time of Tiber Septim, with three different alliances of varying stability and purpose.  Cyrodiil sits surrounded by neighbors who would claim it and forge an Empire in their image, and you can bet that the Cyrodiilic kingdom is going to be the site of some truly epic battles.  The engine seems to support a large number of PvP players in the same zone merrily hacking away at each other and it looks mighty good doing it.

With a projected release sometime in 2013, we can be sure there will be plenty of surprises and more information coming out.  As a drooling fan of the series, I'm excited and cautious all at the same time.

- Axel Cushing