So that Elder Scrolls Online NDA was lifted, if not my Spirits

I want to say ‘finally’ but last Friday’s NDA lift for ESO was so shamefully overdue that I almost didn’t care to post about it. The game is due in April and already selling a much debated collector’s edition, so how nice to finally give the fanbase a voice two months before launch. We will try not to interpret the long hesitation. Personally, I believe Zenimax have caused this launch more harm by keeping ESO under NDA for as long as they have. Not only wasn’t the press particularly gentle once the press NDA got lifted (see RPS or Ten Ton Hammer for reference), the title would’ve benefited from the buzz created by more balanced and positive blogger reviews. After all, there are still many players excited for ESO.

I used to be one of them but alas, that enthusiasm was shaken in its foundations after participating in two of the more recent beta stress test weekends in January and February 2014. To be fair, I didn’t have the bar set very high for ESO: I expected it to feel more dated and traditional than the other upcoming AAAs this year, less polished and overall pandering to the Skyrim demography. Yet in retrospective, the Skyrim comparison is doing things far too big a favor.

My quick and dirty ESO review

While I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade, this much anticipated game has dropped on the 2014 priority list much to my chagrin. I don’t intend on buying at launch, in fact I am not sure I’m gonna buy at all for as long as there is also a monthly subscription. Subscriptions aren’t a financing issue for me but like everyone else, I draw comparisons and try to justify the expense. ESO, for me, is not in the right shape to ask for a sub. But let’s have a more detailed look, shall we?

The Good (at first glance):

The settings of ESO are very pretty. Having visited every faction’s starting zone, I liked them all equally as far as overall zone design, weather effects and light cycles go. The world feels more realistic than in many other MMOs, if that’s a criteria for anybody. I love the mature and authentic look of ESO.

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The diversity of character customization is a forte of the franchise and ESO is no exception. While some basic faces across all races feel too templatey still, you won’t be missing options inside the rugged, old, scarred or unattractive spectrum; like every ES title before it, ESO makes it hard (but not impossible) to create your staple beauty. Really big props go to armor design which doesn’t discriminate gender and keeps things in the realm of the practical.

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She looks alright.

The crafting system appears to be complex and rewarding. While I’ve only meddled with it briefly, I could see crafters getting their share of attention and I didn’t expect anything less from this MMO. I liked the crafting hubs too and many of the small details for tools and ingredients.

The Bad (or why I was so appalled):

ESO gotta have the most sloppy and inaccurate combat I have experienced since [add random console hack’n slay title here]. What was already a boring exercise of throwing lackluster magic balls as a caster, went downhill fast once I experienced the completely unresponsive dual-wielding mess of melee mode. Combat is missing feedback, aiming is off and animations are frankly awful. I don’t want to look like a WoW undead when moving around hitting stuff. There is nothing of Skyrim’s more impactful combat and precisely aimed shots to be found!

While we’re talking animations, they are mostly horrible. I made a particularly awful acquaintance out in the wild with an eagle circling my head, its flight animation as graceful as a tour bus trying to squeeze into a beetle’s parking space. It’s great that ESO has birds flying around, you just don’t want to look at them too closely.

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The wonderful cave intro.

As beautiful as the world is, as dead does it feel traveling from place to place. The NPCs do precious little which is a stark contrast to MMOs like FFXIV for example, that comes with complex scripts for NPC behavior and events. Towns feel empty and there’s no life bustling inside unless it’s created by a bunch of coincidental players. This was very disturbing for me, especially since the more dynamic mechanics in Skyrim would constantly throw you into unpredictable situations and have quests and NPCs involve you actively. This is something that GW2 managed to do while being an MMO, so ESO gets no pass from me here.

Questing is a traditional and straight-forward fetch and delivery, featuring the transparent quest window and occasional dialogue choices that franchise fans will know too well. Friends of the tunnel experience in MMOs will be glad to hear that ESO makes you play through the same dark pit for 15 minutes on every new character. As far as the NPCs and (much praised?) voice acting go, I was under-whelmed and sometimes appalled at the sound and look of some of them, their shrill voices and bland, badly written humor harassing me during several multi-step quest chains. The early “John Cleese” appearance has already been criticized by others but I reached my personal high point with this remarkable fellow here:

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(It only looks as if Eiman has to go really badly…this is his usual facial expression.)

A difficult closure

At this point, I don’t know when I will be ready to give ESO another go. My admittedly short beta testings were a painfully disappointing experience and while they might not be completely fair or balanced, they are lacking in ways that cannot be made up by playing the game longer or praying for the unlikely wonders of another two months of final polishing. My issues with the game are of no subtle nature – they are fundamental. Which makes me think that ESO just might not be the MMO for me after all. That is something I have to accept and which makes my return to the wonderfully dynamic and physical world of Skyrim all the more likely. I used to dream of adventures in ESO but that arrow to the knee was quick. Ah well!

25 comments

  1. I wasn’t intending to play this anyway, but once you mentioned the combat system being sloppy, it totally lost me. No matter which MMO I am touching, I always have a hard time when combat systems don’t provide decent feedback. WoW is really a benchmark for me. I haven’t found any other MMO so far where combat is as satisfying. It’s important. You spend so much time in combat in most MMOs that this needs to be a completely satisfying aspect of the game.

    1. I agree, combat is way too important. and this really isn’t just me either, there aren’t many ESO reviews right now that aren’t criticizing the combat in some way. it’s also clearly not just the ‘lag’. :D I liked WoW’s feel of combat and also GW2’s or even LOTROs, classic as that last one might be.

    2. Almost any Korean/Japan MMO has decent combat as well. Also GW2 has one of the best combats also. It’s not wow’s privilege any more :). But I agree with you that combat is very important. Is the reason I dropped so many titles..hell is the reason I don’t play lotro which I find that it has the most immersive virtual world and music…

  2. Because I never had any intention of buying ESO I haven’t been following the reportage at all closely. Even so, it’s hard to avoid noticing how wildly it differs. I’ve seen several bloggers, while they were still under NDA, dropping very heavy hints about how much they were enjoying ESO and now the wraps are off only this morning I read J3w3l praising the three faction PvP to the skies. Conversely I’ve read a couple of out-and-out pans even harsher than yours.

    I am now close to the point of deciding that I am not interested in MMOs that don’t use standard MMO hotbar combat. If that means I won’t be playing many new MMOs then that’s fine. GW2 is as far as I’m willing to go in compromising. I don’t mind using my mouse to move about a bit while I fight but I absolutely do not intend to use my mouse to do the actual fighting. That is not what it’s for. It’s for directing a pointer on the screen. Using the mouse buttons for combat is like using your feet to open doors – yes, you can do it but why on earth would you want to?

    Consequently the actual quality of the implementation doesn’t make much difference. It could be the best non-hotbar combat ever created with the most incredibly responsive and convincing animations and chances are I still wouldn’t enjoy it. That said, there are a lot of people that take these things very seriously so if it’s as bad as you say that could be damaging to ESO’s prospects.

    As for the NDA being down “only” two months before launch. when did it become the norm for NDAs to drop earlier than that? I still think of NDAs as something that last until about a week before launch, if they indeed ever drop at all. As far as I recall from the EQ2 beta in 2004 it was never dropped, not even after launch, for example and I don’t think that was by any means the only beta I did that had NDAs that are technically still in force to this day.

    1. Completely agree on the action combat route, although for different reasons.

      I use my mouse to actually move in every MMO as well as for camera movements of course. I absolutely hate having attacks associated with it. It doesn’t feel natural to me as apposed to having my left hand handle all attacks.

      This is also why i can’t play FPS’s, but that’s another story!

    2. @Bhagpuss
      For me, there’s a difference between action combat and poor action combat. GW2 and TERA are both great at this and WS takes it a step further, so I’m very interested to hear how you like it, if you ever give that one a shot! ;)

      As for the NDA drop, it’s a fair point. I think in this particular case many felt it was overdue since the game has been in beta since….forever. and then both Carbine (which has dropped press NDA sooner at least) and SoE have approached this so differently that comparisons are just bound to be made.

  3. I just find it odd how divisive this title really is. Folks seem to either love it or hate it. The only thing that annoys me right now is the negative reviews that come down to that the reviewer somehow feels cheated for them not creating exactly the game they wanted to play. I am fine with people not liking the game, since really not every game is going to be right for everyone. The problem is… Elder Scrolls is a thing that gamers feel ownership over. They have built their ideal MMO-ized version of Elder Scrolls in their heads. When they play the real thing, it could never possibly live up to their expectations.

    Maybe I have the benefit of getting to watch this title evolve over the last year, so I am pretty damned happy with the end result. Had I been locked out of the testing process to date, maybe I would have decided it didn’t meet my expectations also. As far as combat goes… oddly enough I like it. I finally got a good definition of what “floaty combat” means the other day… and I guess I prefer floaty combat. There are few things I hate more than waiting to cast another ability for the animation from the previous one to complete. I like being able to interrupt the animation to cast the next one. So games like this feel good to me, but I can see how that would not feel great to someone else. Their combat reaction is greatly effected by the lag of the undue stress put on their servers during the cattle call beta weekends. In less packed testing there is not the disconnect from swing and reaction.

    1. “I like being able to interrupt the animation to cast the next one”

      I’m not sure we have the same idea of floaty combat because being able to interrupt a cast/move isn’t part of the issue I’m having with ESO. many other MMOs will allow you to interrupt moves, so this isn’t really a criteria for me pro or against active or hotbar combat. ESO combat has a poor aim, poor timing, poor animations and no tangible ”ooomph’. :D that’s my problem.

      And yeah, this title was bound to split fans especially due to franchise baggage. but that’s something devs gotta deal with the same way Peter Jackson had to deal with LOTR-fan scrutiny when making the films. I guess what surprises me the most about ESO right now is that it doesn’t really emulate Skyrim – not for me anyway. Skyrim is more than just “a pretty open world to ride around in”. but hey, I can always play other games and I’m happy that you and others enjoyed the beta! :)

  4. My experience was not very different. I found the game to be full of interesting ideas, but after playing for hours and hours, both I and my wife noticed that was one very important thing: we were not having any fun. The game drags you from point to point, basically telling you what to do at all times, but you never get to actually enjoy being there.

    So no, I won’t be playing ESO, possibly even if it goes F2P.

    1. That’s a very good point and kinda sums up my own experiences. I am usually willing to give new MMOs more time though, I don’t expect them to show me the big guns right away. Only in this case the flaws were way too disturbing for me to grind further.

  5. I pretty much agree. Combat sealed it for me – I can’t imagine buying or spending any more time playing an MMO whose combat I dislike as much as ESO. And the dialogue and voice-acting was just one more nail in the coffin on MMO stories for me – just awful. Not as bad as GW2 (but then nothing is), but more than bad enough to infuriate me.

    1. Poor GW2, always getting so much flac for the voice acting! :D hehe tell you what, I am not overly bothered with good/bad speakers in MMOs, I’m not big on quest-centricity which also means I never cared for SWTOR’s supposedly awesome voice acting. what I find funny in ESO’s case mostly is how vastly opinions diverge on this matter.

  6. I had no particular interest in this game since I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game and the semi-realistic art style doesn’t appeal to me at all, but I have to admit that the more I see people panning the game, the more curious I get about it! :P For once, an MMO that doesn’t claim to reinvent the wheel! Sounds like fun to me.

    1. I was kinda okay with it not re-inventing any wheels. I’m just not okay with a gameplay that feels more dated to me than vanilla WoW. ;) but I am all for people trying their own luck with ESO – given you have had such a run with SWTOR thus far, maybe ESO really is for you hehe! :D it seems to have a similar focus on traditional questing and voice acting, at least.

  7. What really annoyed me was that “camera is glued to the mouse” deal. I know there are games like that, but in an MMO, it just feels awful to me. :(

    Another thing that I really didn’t like was hearing those familiar voices with seemingly new characters. Yes, getting all those famous people to voice your characters is great, but it did not make me feel like I’m in a new unfamiliar world (I played a bit of Skyrim, but not that much).

    Nothing really pulled me into the game to justify the monthly fee. I wouldn’t call it a bad game, mind you. I haven’t even tried it out enough for that. But I do agree on some of your points (combat and animations) plus the camera movement and all that together means I’ll pass.

    1. Camera movement can be a big issue, in fact it’s something to get used to in WS as well (where the camera follows your character movement too). I am used to a free camera the way it works in WoW or GW2, so adapting to WS took me a while. it really is something you can ‘learn’ though – or at least I don’t notice it anymore. :)

      I hear you on the familiar voices. I prefer unknown actors myself as far as fantasy games (and movies) go. I remember hearing the voice of Cate Blanchett in one of GW2’s intros and while I like her, it completely took me out of the scene. In TESO you can hear Dumbledore ever so often and yeah….lol.

  8. The combat pretty much made this a no buy for me as well for pretty much every reason already given. I couldn’t imagine spending the majority of my time in game dealing with that mess.

    1. I honestly wonder what they intend to do about it because this is a very popular concern right now. It doesn’t seem easily fixable.

  9. Given that I have headache issues when playing Skyrim, I wasn’t planning on buying this MMO anyway. Still, it sounds even worse, combat-wise, than Age of Conan. The lag in AoC drives me bananas, and this doesn’t sound any better.

    1. I don’t wanna keep anyone from trying ESO for themselves with this post, but if Skyrim already gives you headaches I think it’s safe to say you wanna pass . :P

  10. I’m quite sure that the mouse / attack control scheme is designed so that it can easily be replicated on a console controller. This is a console MMO, so everything has to be designed from the ground-up so it can be replicated on a console.

    Also, I’m fine with that, I like playing games on my PC, but I also like playing games on consoles. I’ve pre-ordered the PS4 (I’ve also played the beta on PC, it was a bit clunky but interesting enough that I’ll give a console MMO a try).

    1. This is a good point and you may very well be right! Alas, I don’t play MMOs on console and don’t intend to. It will be interesting to see in the future what else the multi-platform development (which supposedly was very seperate in certain areas?) may have caused for ESO in the long run.

  11. Nice and true review here, unlike other blogs or gaming sites that try to build hype for a game that I wouldn’t play even if it was F2P. The combat is horrible and the characters are mediocre at best…we don’t live in 2000. We have seen many MMOs so far.

    When I have GW2 as a comparison, which I think ESO is trying to “copy” the most(action combat with tab target, WvW area for pvp, skills tied to weapons, weapon switch, healing skill, ultimate skill, e.t.c.), I can’t stop but think that ESO is not even half good as GW2.

    I even think that GW2 is more “TES” game than ESO because of the “sandboxy” scalable open world in contrast with the themepark linear “wow” questing ESO. There is no area that ESO do something better than others…almost all MMOs have 1 feature that they shine, but everything ESo does, others do it better.

    -Questing dialogues are better on Swtor
    -Virtual world is better on GW2
    -Character models/animations/combat are better in GW2/Tera/Swtor/Wow/FFXIV and possible any game out there except TSW/Lotro which gets the award of cluckiness.

    Anyway, at the end what bothers me the most is that some people will blame the subscription model at the end…

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